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Zulu Records still the home of great music

For the first few days the shop was open, it didn’t even have a name -- and that’s about as punk rock as you can get.

Fans jam the aisles of Zulu Records for a special live performance.

There was a time when buying music was so much more than just a transaction, more than shazaming a catchy tune, downloading it on iTunes and throwing it into a playlist on a phone or mp3 player.

It was once a deeply personal experience, involving helpful advice from a music expert at a record store, combing through bins of colorful albums whose covers hinted at what was inside, tracking down the recording you had been seeking -- and maybe discovering one or two random albums to take home with you.

While nostalgic for those over the age of 30 and novel for those younger, shopping at a record store can be a very enjoyable endeavor, and Zulu Records West 4th offers one of the best in the business.

Founded by Grant McDonagh nearly 30 years ago, Zulu has evolved into both a supplier and community centre for music lovers trying to discover a new band, reconnecting with their favorite artists, picking up tickets to local concerts or, on rare occasions, joining other fans to experience an intimate in-store musical performance.

“I’m not a musician, but I’ve always appreciated music, so I just started frequenting record stores when I was a kid,” said McDonagh, recalling his roots. “Then I found some strange record stores, specialized ones like Quintessence and eventually I got a job there.”

Quintessence eventually folded in the early 1980s and Zulu emerged from its ashes with McDonagh at the helm, continuing to promote the punk sound which had characterized Vancouver’s music scene at the time.

“We were the alternative. We introduced a lot of great records to this city and we were the store that had the first significant records of so many bands in the ’80s and '90s,” added McDonagh, speaking of Zulu’s early successes.

He also credited the businesses durability on its distinctive difference from mainstream, commercial record stores.

The name Zulu itself was inspired by an attempt at being the antithesis of the A&A Records and A&B Sound brands that once dominated the landscape.

“Those names were quite dull and we wanted to be the exact opposite, so we picked something from the end of the alphabet. For the first few days we were open, we didn’t even have a name,” he added. That’s about as punk rock as you can get.

“The best part of the job, other than listening to music, is sharing your knowledge of music and listening to others opinions and definitions of what makes music good. Music is great conduit for bringing people together, whether it be a concert, going to a record store or at a party,” noted McDonagh.

All of the above reasons were brought together simultaneously during recent celebrations of Record Store Day. It's an annual event every April 17, celebrating the role and value of independent record shops around the world, and Zulu participated. This year’s guests included Yukon Blonde and several hundred audience members crammed into the shop. More festivities will also be planned later this year to mark Zulu’s 30th anniversary, and McDonagh is also working on finalizing plans for an exciting but currently top-secret event later this summer, with more details hopefully coming in the next few weeks.

While operating in an industry that has been rocked by massive changes in the last decade and that has seen many other vendors unable to cope with competition from the online stores, Zulu has been able to leverage its role as a community centre, a resurgence in the popularity of vinyl records and its unabashed passion for the styles and sensibilities of decades gone by to create a unique atmosphere that keeps its customers coming back.

“There are people who have thousands of records and people that have a few, but it’s not about the quantity, it’s about the quality,” said McDonagh.

“What makes a record good is your belief in it. It’s the passion and the love of music that keeps music going. There’s always tons of good local bands and tons of great music out there, and whenever you’re supporting one of those bands or your local record store, you really are giving back to your community.”

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