How did we get from vinyl to streaming? Owner of iconic Hamilton record store looks back

Record store owner Mark Furukawa has lived through it all: the rise of digital streaming, the end of CDs, the resurgence of vinyl, and now a pandemic that stopped live music for almost two years.

The owner of 30-year-old Dr. Disc has lived through big changes in Hamilton's music scene

Mark Furukawa at his music store Dr. Disc, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Record store owner Mark Furukawa has lived through it all: the rise of digital streaming, the near-end of CDs, the resurgence of vinyl, and now a pandemic that stopped live music for almost two years.

In that time, he's seen demographic changes in Hamilton that have changed the music scene as well. He says it's gone from a largely blues and rock music scene to a more eclectic and electronic scene that fuses genres together — both because of changing demographics and the globalizing influence of the Internet.

"When I got here, 30 years ago, it was very working class, the steel companies were the big thing. And it was more blue collar than anything else here," he said. 

"The demographic is shifting quite a bit now to a younger, more affluent population. And when you get that, our tastes for arts, culture, food — they change in lockstep."

This month marks the 30th anniversary of his store, Dr. Disc, located at 20 Wilson Street in the city's Beasley neighbourhood. When the store first opened in 1991, music stores were booming and Furukawa says there were six other stores within a mile of Dr. Disc.

Today, all of the other stores have closed, including former behemoths like HMV, which ended its retail operations in Canada in 2017. The move to digital music made CDs less relevant, and it's only been the resurgence of interest in vinyl that has saved Dr. Disc.

"People have a real emotional resonance to physical objects," said Furukawa who now devotes 85 percent of his store's space to vinyl. 

"I think that's a big part of the reason why we've managed to get past the convenience factor of the digital age of music and come out the other end surviving."

Mark Furukawa stands in his music store Dr. Disc. Today, around 85 percent of store space is devoted to vinyl records, he said. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Digital platforms changed live music

The ability to discover music online has changed the entire music industry. It has meant that many young people are less connected to the local Hamilton live music scene than in the 1970s or 1980s, according to Eric Alper, a publicist with the Waterdown, Ont.-based record label True North Records.

"They're growing up loving artists who they've never seen perform live," he said. "And so to see [artists] like Olivia Rodrigo or Billie Eilish, the first time that they see them is going to be in a massive arena with 30,000 other people."

He said that even before the pandemic, young people were choosing to go to fewer live music events — they have other entertainment options at their fingertips — and rising rents in Hamilton have put pressure on music venues. And then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down venues for more than a year. (Some, like The Casbah, have returned to indoor live shows this month.)

Alper says some music fans are still cautious about going to see live performances, and the growth of live streams as an option will probably stay even when audiences are more comfortable with returning to in-person events.

"That's going to be part of the marketing plan, the ability to do Zoom calls and interviews with the media, do acoustic concerts on Instagram or Tiktok or Facebook... the ability to stay in one place and reach as many people is still going be a viable opportunity for artists long after the pandemic."

New wave of music blends genres, styles

Alper said there's a few reasons why Hamilton is seeing a mixing of genres in new music. One is that there is more immigration into the city, another is the ability to find new genres online no matter where you live, he said.

Tim Potocic, co-owner of Hamilton-based Sonic Unyon Records, said that the most popular bands in Hamilton still tend to be rock bands. But a more recent electronic scene has emerged with artists such as Jesse Lanza and Jeremy Greenspan, he said.

"Rock is still well and alive at Hamilton, but the other scenes that were completely underground are not underground anymore," Potocic said.

For Furukawa at Dr. Disc, the old Hamilton was more like Harrison Kennedy, the Black Canadian R&B and blues singer-songwriter who played with acts such as Marvin Gaye and Chairmen of the Board in the 1970s and went on to build a following around the world. 

Furukawa said the best representation of the new wave of Hamilton artists are more like LTtheMonk, a hip-hop artist who blends electronic beats and a more jazzy style. He's from London, U.K., has Jamaican and Irish ancestry and brings a mix of influences to his work.

"He's the perfect epitome of a new artist. So he's an immigrant here, he's younger, he's versatile, and absorbs music, like a sponge, and takes it all in," Furukawa said.

"He's kind of a modern folk artist, in a way. He's telling his story, but using modern music to do it," he added. "That's the new face of Hamilton."