by Dewayne Bingham, Assistant Features Editor –
Locally owned music businesses have been some of the hardest hit by the financial crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even in a vibrant, tight knit community like Chattanooga’s music scene, concert venues and independent artists alike have struggled to keep the lights on and the dream alive.
An unfortunate sign of the times was the closing of Songbirds, formerly the country’s largest museum of vintage guitars and a concert venue nestled in the Chattanooga Choo Choo that showcased local bands and performers from around the country. Songbirds closed its doors on Aug. 15, leaving a void for the artists who benefited from their support and locals seeking immersive musical experiences.
Amid the dismay and uncertainty, Chattanoogans were given a spark of hope and excitement upon the opening of Yellow Racket Records on Monday, Aug. 24, just two miles southeast of the Chattanooga Choo Choo, at 2311 E. Main Street.
In the first week of business at their new retail location, Yellow Racket sold 778 vinyl records—an impressive feat considering only a small number of customers were allowed to shop at once due to social distancing guidelines put in place to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Yellow Racket owner and local musician Ben VanderHart shared that he was ecstatic to see the community’s reception to his new business in a time that’s been difficult for so many.
“I think that’s just a testament to how badly people have been wanting this here,” he said.
VanderHart signed the lease for the Yellow Racket retail location in March, but his plans to open shop in April and gradually integrate online shopping into his business model changed after the world was turned upside down by COVID-19.
“As time went on, we realized we couldn’t afford to sit on our hands,” he said. “When the shutdown happened, there were all these indie record stores across the country that suddenly had to figure out how to get all their stock online.
“The silver lining for us was that, because we hadn’t opened yet, because we hadn’t built our system, we were able to flip our priorities and focus on the webstore first,” he continued.
After reaching out to Yellow Racket’s current manager Abe Houck—another local musician with years of experience performing live and working in coffee and record shops—the two were able to create a viable e-commerce system and began selling records on their website on June 28. Within two months, VanderHart said that they sold over a thousand records.
Despite early success, VanderHart shared that marketing a new business during the pandemic posed unique challenges. One of those unexpected challenges was gaining traction online, even though everyone was at home, glued to their devices.
“There’s a big opportunity for physical marketing these days because digital marketing is so oversaturated and we’re getting very good at ignoring stuff online,” he said. “I think as we become more attuned to behaving that way online we’re actually more likely to tune into marketing in a physical space.
“We’re physical animals and that’s why people listen to vinyl,” he continued. “We’re still in tune with the physical world around us … that’s why things will never go completely digital.”
Originally from Davenport, Iowa, VanderHart moved to Chattanooga over a decade ago to attend Covenant College. In 2017, he founded his own record label—also called Yellow Racket Records—to release and promote his own music and the music of other local musicians.
“Even though I was very passionate about music and wanted to have a go at it as my career, [my wife and I] decided that we wanted to stay in Chattanooga,” he said. “Then the question for me became, how do we help invest in the city of Chattanooga and the music scene here to make it look more like what I want it to be?”
He noted that while the city offered artists a great deal of resources when it came to recording and live performance venues, what it lacked was “music business infrastructure,” like record labels, artist management, publishing and distribution.
“Working inside the music industry for a little while now, I’ve really come to realize that there’s a bit of a pay-to-play system in place,” VanderHart said. “As in many industries, whoever has the most money wins … What I’d like to see happen more in Chattanooga is for us as a community to become more invested in music discovery and promoting visual artists, musical artists, all kinds of performers, and just have an awareness that most of the stuff we listen to is fed to us by a system that benefits the already wealthy, the already endowed.”
In addition to VanderHart and his band Telemonster, Yellow Racket represents Chattanooga artists El Rocko, Joel Harris, Summer Dregs, and Brazilian singer-songwriter MOMO, who is based in Portugal.
VanderHart shared that even while he was getting the Yellow Racket label off the ground, opening a record shop was always in the back of his mind—not just for the retail aspect, but because they present great opportunities to promote independent artists and their music.
“If I find an album that I love, what better way to support the artist and also express my love than by curating a collection,” he said. “Records are a great thing to spend money on because it’s really one of the primary ways that artists are getting paid these days. You feel good about it every time you buy a record.
“I always had this vision that I wanted to open a record store,” he continued. “There are lots of other great labels that have done that in the past, so there was a road map for it … the important thing is figuring out how we can invest in this neighborhood and this community in a way that benefits everybody.
“To me, there’s so much potential at a record store just because of the magnetism that they have,” he concluded. “There’s the desire for artists to come in, play a small set, maybe promote a full-ticketed show that they’re playing the next night … maybe they’re just promoting their new record, or they want to meet fans and sign records. Those are the incredible things that happen at a record shop that don’t happen at other places.”
In addition to setting up a lounge area and stage for live performances in the Yellow Racket retail location, VanderHart and Houck plan to install a full coffee bar with drinks from local roasters at Goodman Coffee, and a tattoo booth run by fellow vinyl enthusiast and Main Line Ink artist Danny Siviter.
“People want an experience and that’s why we listen to records,” VanderHart said. “Listening formats have developed over time based on convenience and portability … but we are still physical, tactile creatures, and so I don’t think analogue’s ever going away. If you take convenience out of the equation, then it really becomes about experience. For us that includes tattoos, coffee, records, performances, listening parties, all that stuff.”
It’s safe to say that Yellow Racket Records is already making a name for itself within a community of small, local businesses seeking an example of prosperity in difficult times. Even more encouraging is the vision of its staff to share in the success and strengthen Chattanooga’s music industry moving forward.
Manager Abe Houck expressed hope for Yellow Racket’s future, stating, “If we can make it work in a time like this, we can make it last.”