If you’re someone that’s into records, especially soul records, you’ve probably heard of Carolina Soul. The Durham, NC based vinyl retailer has developed a cult following around its semi-weekly eBay auctions. Email blasts with subject lines like, “1,140+ Stellar Soul LPs” or “1,100+ Stupendous Jazz LPs,” lead to multi-day bidding wars over often extremely rare releases that founder Jason Perlmutter and co. have scoured the far corners of the country to find. And while some of their items will go for mind-boggling sums, it’s not necessarily the price tag or rarity that’s so impressive — it’s the breadth of quality music that Carolina Soul consistently unearths and offers.
Perlmutter has always seemed to know what’s up. The Carolina Funk compilation he released with Jazzman and Now-Again back in 2006 was a revelation. Tracks like Sundia’s “Stand Up and Be a Man,” or the Soul Impossibles’ “Interpretation: Soul Power No. 1” are some of the best you’ll ever hear. And his original carolinasoul.org website is easily the definitive resource for information on North and South Carolina soul music and related genres. In addition to their eBay business, Carolina Soul have opened a successful brick and mortar store in downtown Durham that’s frequented by the likes of Peanut Butter Wolf and Marc Maron. The whole operation employs upwards of 20 people.
We caught up with Perlmutter, Max Brzezinski, (Marketing Director), and Zack Richardson (Sr. Operations Manager) to chat about, among other things, the state of vinyl, the difference between rare and valuable, and the aphrodisiacal benefits of exotic cocktails. Before you dive into our lengthy conversation, crank up the mix they compiled especially for Aquarium Drunkard. Further proof that Carolina Soul is not messing around and that ultimately, they are in it for the right reason — their love of music.
Full interview and playlist after the jump…
Aquarium Drunkard: Jason, how did you get into records:
Jason: I’ve been into records since college. I wasn’t one of those people who was into records before college. I got into records at WXYC while I was attending UNC. I don’t know specifically how that happened. But they were around and I gravitated towards it. And the idea of going out to find records at thrift stores or old record stores and places like that.
AD: Was soul music and the related genres something that you were into already or was that an interest that developed as you started finding all these records?
Jason: That was definitely something I was into already. I don’t know where that came from, because I liked and continue to like all kinds of music. But it was something that in particular I wanted to find and collect. And that was what I was specifically looking for, for the most part, when I first started buying records.
AD: How did the whole Carolina Soul website come together?
Jason: The original Carolina Soul website started — I don’t think about it much these days so I’ll have to dust off some cobwebs in my head. I believe we started as a discography of soul 45s on North and South Carolina labels, as well as local artists who made soul records on national or non-Carolina labels as well. And so, it was an effort to simply create a reference material of that body of work. And that’s a long time ago now. I want to say that was 2005. Somewhere around there. Maybe a little bit later. But, I think that I was compiling the Carolina Funk collection in 2006. So, I think it was ’05. For a long time, it was something that I continued to add releases to, and we still do find out about releases from time to time that are obscure that should be added to it. I haven’t updated the site in a little while.
Yeah, it was a way to share what I had learned about, while searching for old records from North and South Carolina artists by networking with those artists, by interviewing them, by reaching out to them and talking to them and collecting that music. And a way to share that with the public, hopefully to hear from other artists that I hadn’t tracked down. A way to connect with collectors in far flung places as well, because I was just one person and couldn’t have known everything, so other people told me about records and filled in mysterious gaps in label discographies and things of that nature.
AD: Was the Carolina Funk compilation a natural progression out that whole project?
Jason: For sure, and to be honest it was something that I always wanted to do since knowing about the Texas Funk and Midwest Funk compilations which preceded it in the series from Jazzman Records. I just knew that there was a lot of awesome music from North and South Carolina in that vein and knew that I could put that together if someone would let me. And Jazzman Records — Gerald Short — he was into it. It was a natural fit. I had spent so much time learning about that stuff and was so into it and so we did it.
AD: It took me going all the way to Japan to find an affordable copy of that compilation on vinyl.
Jason: It became out of print on vinyl. I think there were only 1000 copies and it’s not cheap at this point I don’t believe. It might still be in print on CD, I’m not sure.
AD: It is. I bought a copy for a friend last year. So, at what point did you transition into selling?
Jason: That did happen all along in modest ways. Going back to something like ’03 or maybe ‘04. I would have a duplicate or maybe a few copies of a rare North Carolina record or perhaps some other random thing that I found in my scouring. And so, as many collectors do, it was a way to get other records. Either things for trade or for sale so that other records could be purchased if a direct trade wasn’t possible. But that picked up over the years, and by the time Carolina Funk came out, I’m sure I was doing a bit more of it. That came out in ’07 on Jazzman and then on Now Again in ’08. I think it was in ’09 or ’10 that I left my job that I had in Chemistry. So, that was in part because I knew — to some extent — how to sell records. So, I thought that I could do it.
AD: What’s the operation like these days?
Jason: We have about 20 people who work here besides myself. And that involves the store manager, Jack Bonney, and a few other folks who primarily work on a part time basis in the store. And then our online operation employs the balance of that work force. We’ve grown a lot. And have grown every year in pretty dramatic ways since we started in late 2010. I guess the official start was regularly listing records on eBay and/or hiring the first employee here. There was a team of two in late 2010. And that has grown each year.
AD: What are some of your most interesting buying stories?
Zack: How NSFW do you want to go?
Jason: I know you have some, Zack, that don’t even involve the records.
Zack: Yea the records — it’s funny. The records are often the highlight. When you’re knee deep in trash and you find something really cool. But I would say my favorite stories are more along the lines of, Oh, I went to take a look at a collection in the country and I met a monkey. I met this dude’s monkey. A little capuchin in a coat. Kind of along the lines of that one that was left at the mall a few years ago and was internet famous.
Jason: It wasn’t the same one, was it?
Zack: No, it wasn’t the same one. There’s those kinds of things. There are moments when you fear for your personal safety. Which are thankfully few and far between.
AD: In what regard are you fearing for your personal safety?
Zack: Oh, you know, someone will pull a gun on you, or something like that. But then, they’re more often along the lines of, okay, I’m talking to someone really cool that I genuinely would never have run into outside of this strange set of circumstances. They know they have cool records. I know they have cool records. And we can work something out where they’re happy, I’m happy, and you make a human connection with someone and you also get a lot of really cool shit that you can pass on to other people. I always like that. I always like that kind of stuff. That I am surprised about how many of those situations there have been.
One time up in the Bronx a couple years ago I was hanging out with this dude. Really nice guy. And he kind of ended up being a very helpful figure and would put us in touch with people that he knew had collections and sort of act as a middle man type. I was up there hanging out with him a few years ago and he asked me if I wanted something to drink and I was like, “Sure.” So, he gives me this spiced rum beverage that’s full of cloves and cinnamon sticks and I’m midway through drinking it when he’s like “there’s turtle penis in that.” (Everyone laughs.)
“It’s an aphrodisiac.” “Well, thank you.” It was pretty good actually.
AD: You guys just sold a United Sounds record for $7k and the last time it sold for around the same amount. What is the story on that group and why is that record in particular worth so much?
Jason: That record…
AD: It seems like it holds a pretty close place in a lot of people’s hearts.
Jason: It hasn’t been known about in the scheme of the rare soul scene, it hasn’t been known about widely as long as other records. But perhaps it’s the better part of ten years now that people have known about it. It’s a record that when you heard it for the first time you were like, “Oh, shit.” This is the sound that people who collect rare soul records of all nationalities — the collectors from all the different parts of the world are all going to love this record. At it wasn’t known for the most part. There’s never really unknown records out there because if you ask everybody, at least on the collector scene, someone would have known it. It might have been a collector who wasn’t talking on the internet or wasn’t going to events in the pre-internet era. Not to mention the way unknown sounds when we’re talking about people who made them knew about and people in their communities knew about them all along. In the way that unknown refers to a record that wasn’t widely known, or barely known, in a collector’s scene, this was one of those. And it had a sound that was really suited for lots of different people’s taste. And where collecting and DJing was at the time, people first started hearing about it.
So, that’s part of the answer. And then an influential soul DJ in England, Mark Dobson aka Butch, who has a lot of followers overseas, got a copy and started playing it, I believe as a cover up. And so, it built its reputation through his efforts as well.
There’s other things about it, too. It’s on a label that coincidentally had put out several sought-after soul records. The Black Exotics was considered a funk holy grail for a while, and there’s other cool things on that label, too. All those things are on that label by sheer virtue of the musicians happening to go to the same recording studio and getting on the same label.
Zack: It’s not a soul label. It’s all sorts of stuff.
Jason: Probably mostly country and gospel.
Zack: Country and gospel and garage rock. Whatever somebody had money to record.
Jason: So those are some factors in it. And people couldn’t find it. So, supply and demand as well.
AD: There are plenty of “rare” records that you can get for twenty bucks or less, as far as there aren’t a lot of them but nobody cares even though they’re great. What determines value?
Jason: Who wants to take a crack at this one?
Zack: That’s a complex answer.
Max: I think part of it has to do with genres straying from what’s familiar. You have the bedrock of something like Motown which then forms a slight variation off of that which then forms the Northern Soul sound. And then you have genres further subdividing from what is popular and what is known. So, I think there are a lot of ways to become valuable — for a scene to become valuable — one of them is definitely performing some sort of noticeable variation on something that people already love. That’s one way to do it. You’re right, it’s not just pure scarcity.
Zack: There are tons of extremely rare records out there that are probably worth more as raw materials than they are as finished product in this day and age. You know, it’s not just scarcity. It’s got to come from a combination of rarity and quality as interpreted in a specific cultural context.
Max: Some of these scenes are only a few hundred people deep and if the most influential people play it and it sounds okay to good it will become popular.
Zack: Yea, absolutely.
Max: I think we balked at answering it right way because there are a lot of ways to swipe it up. Some have to do with institutional power and some have to do with just the way it sounds and the way currently hot genres relate to things that are now mainstream or passé.
Zack: And also, to be frank, you’ve got to look at the resources that are available within the community that’s trying to buy it. A lot of these records really pop up once they are discovered by a certain set. And that is a set of people that is at the very least comfortable with the idea of spending significant money on records.
Max: So, they tend to be a little older and have more means generally.
Zack: Northern Soul prices, for example, seem to really be going up consistently and some of that has to do with the fact that the buyer base is a financial place where they can afford to spend that sort of money. Or they’re spending money on other things where spending money on records doesn’t really seem like much in comparison. That’s not everyone by any stretch of the imagination. But without that to sort of boost it up — just look at what’s happened with doo wop, which 20 years ago, 30 years ago was probably was where northern soul is right now in terms of relative price. You look at some of these doo wop records and the sums that they used to go for when viewed in the dollars of the time were certainly comparable to what the most expensive records now might sell for. The people who wanted those records are either dead or are at a place in their lives where they are getting rid of things, or aren’t really able to buy records anymore, so the prices on that sort of stuff has fallen dramatically.
I can’t imagine that the same sort of thing isn’t going to happen for this sound. Maybe not to quite the same extent because 60s and 70s music has done more to establish itself as the basis of what sounds contemporary than stuff from the 50s. Stuff from the 50s, to me at least, sounds old. Whereas a really kind of fresh late 60s track — there’s no dissonance in listening to that. To me at least. It still sounds like, “Yeah, that’s a really good record. Not, yeah, that’s a really old record.” But then you look at something like 78s — those certainly don’t sound contemporary and yet the pricing of 78s can put a lot of soul records to shame without really breaking a sweat.
Max: Doo Wop is caught in a weird position, because like Zack said, its fan base is dying, but also the remnants of it still live on in Top 40. So, it doesn’t have the appeal of 78s as being alien or historically different either.
AD: What about the current state of record culture? It seems like now it’s as much about rare chest beating as it is the music itself. Would you agree with that?
Max: I think the culture has many parts. We live in a chest beating culture in general, so some of that’s going to manifest in record collecting. Old school digging had its own forms of chest beating. But now everything is on the internet so people can beat their chest on their Instagram.
Zack: It’s funny because at least within the world of soul 45s, particularly overseas, there’s always been a real kind of devotion to obscurantism. And to this idea of secret, or privileged information. Jason was talking about a record being played as a cover up. That’s common practice and it’s also something that happened in the early hip/hop days. People would always destroy — you can always tell when you’re going through a hip/hop collection because the labels have been blasted. People did that because they didn’t want anyone else to know what they were playing. Your sounds became part of your identity and something that was special and unique to you. This cabalistic, privileged, secret information that could only be truly appreciated by a small inner circle and then presented in digestible forms to the masses, to the dancers, to the people that would go to your club. The looky-loos who come up and look over the crate and want to see what’s in there. You’ve got your screen up to prevent that from happening. I don’t think that [rare-ism] is something new exactly. It’s an old impulse that is being channeled in contemporary ways.
This is a time when all you have to do is hear about a track and you can find it 99.9% of the time within 2 clicks. I think about when I was coming up on music and I had to read old Trouser press or All Music reviews and then going to Borders to special order a CD in the late 90s or something goofy like that when you’re living in the suburbs. And you don’t have to do that anymore. The information is out there. It’s more out there than ever. What is difficult can be to get the actual object. So, people have transitioned from “Oh, I know this,” to “Oh, I have this.”
Max: There’s an irony involved, I guess, in the fact that everything is now available. You’d think that if, for instance, Numero comps a record and puts it on CD and streaming — everybody’s about streaming — that would drive down the value because everybody had access to it, but it actually adds aura to the original because there are so many copies surrounding it now. We often see someone reissue a record and the value of the actual vinyl go up for us.
AD: What about the obsession with how much a record is worth? Max, it’s similar to the chest beating situation in that we are a culture obsessed with wealth. But even now Discogs has a column dedicated to the highest selling records of that month. What’s that about?
Max: Right. Well Americans love lists, too. So, it’s the same impulse.
Zack: I think within music and within the world of collecting, there’s a correlation between cost and quality that’s often mistaken for a causative factor. A lot of really good things are really expensive. But something is not good because it’s expensive and it’s not expensive because it’s good. And the reverse of that is true as well. Some of my favorite records are pricey. Most of my favorite records are not.
Max: I think informally that’s how we judge what a good ear is. That somebody is not just buying the top 100 most expensive soul records on Popsike and then playing them all out. But somebody that is integrating them and understands how all the music relates —maybe not indifferently to price–but in a way, that is not guided by price.
AD: On your auctions, I’m not the person that can afford to go spend a lot of money…
Zack: Neither are we! That’s the thing. I look at what some of those records go for. I’m not buying that United Sounds. Some of my favorite records are dollar bin records that should have been dollar bin records. They weren’t scoops. They weren’t finds. They were things that aren’t very expensive but are really good.
Max: They made millions of Rumours but it’s still a great record.
AD: Right, which I saw at an estate sale last weekend for $35.
Zack: I think we’ve sold it for $35.
Jason: We probably have. And it has gone up. I suppose that people that have been in the record game long enough remember it as a dollar record. But it’s a $10-20 record now. And occasionally $35.
AD: What is your take on the whole vinyl resurgence? Obviously, you guys have been around it longer so it’s not a new thing. But it’s crazy to see how many things are being reissued and $1 records that are being reissued and you wonder “Why the hell is this being reissued you can get a mint condition copy for a dollar?”
Zack: Disagree – we need more Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits.
Max: On 180 gram.
Zack: I think like any of these things, it’s a mixed bag. On a nuts and bolts level it’s a great thing that there are more people buying records. That there are more people interested in records. That there are records being pressed. I’ve heard the old, “Oh, these are coming back,” enough times that I’m no longer really hearing it. Instead, I’m hearing, “Oh, these are valuable.” [Laughs.]
Jason: As long as we’ve been buying collections, that has been an oft repeated refrain. But for the last seven years people have been saying that this whole time, and occasionally they’re still saying that. But, yea, the awareness of records as valuable has certainly increased in that time. Which is a good thing, too. You don’t want people to throw away their records. It’s good that people aren’t just haphazardly getting rid of them.
Zack: Yeah, you know you think about how much amazing stuff has just been flat out junked over the years. That is a sad thing to think of so much of this getting destroyed. And yea a lot of those were dollar copies of Rumors but a lot of those were probably really cool things, too. Not that Rumors isn’t cool. Great album. Saw Fleetwood Mac with my parents last year. It was sick. But I think where you run into a danger zone with this stuff is that a lot of the drivers of this process have no real vested in the long-term health of the medium or don’t really care about music. That’s going to be your biggest road block there, is do you think the folks who are turning out endless, novelty shaped 45s of the easily available tracks for Record Store Day two times a year now are really looking at this in a measured, healthy way? Because I don’t. I think it’s a got to get in while the getting’s good kind of approach. While that works for a little while, it’s not a risk, I think you’re putting yourself in the situation inevitably where you’re going to burn folks out on things. And they’re going to start asking themselves why am I spending $35 on this dollar record or why am I spending $20 on this brand-new picture disc 45 that sounds like shit?
AD: Or why am I paying $15 for this record that’s scuffed like crazy?
Zack: That’s annihilated. Yea. And I do think you turn people off that way. They buy a bad turntable and this record that is supposed — that they’ve been sold as a truly authentic listening experience where you’re really going to hear the music for the first time–instead sounds like this crackily, tinny piece of shit. And it’s like, “Why did I do this? Why did I spend my money on this when I can just get Spotify?”
And, so, I do think that — my mom was telling me that she saw records for sale in Bed, Bath and Beyond. (laughs)
Zack: On a certain level, that’s cool. It’s penetrated people’s consciousness to this point to have records as end caps at Bed, Bath and Beyond. But if you think those records are going to be there two, three years from now, you’re fooling yourself.
Jason: I kind of want to get in the car right now and see what they’ve got over there. (laughs.)
Zack: Ideally, this would be — the “vinyl revival” would be something that was driven and maintained by people who are actually interested in music as well as making money off of music. But the music industry has rarely been as interested in the former than it has been the latter. So, you’re prone to these boom / bust cycles. Personally, my hopes are that when this finally deflates or the bubble pops, you’re going to have enough people that got into it for reasons of curiosity that ended up legitimately really enjoying it. And you have a steady enough and sizeable enough population of people who like records to keep them an active and going concern for years to come. words / j steele
Aquarium Drunkard Presents: Carolina Soul (A Mixtape)
1) The New Expression — Devil Eyes  (Jewel LP)
2) Fantastic Shadows — Time for Peace (Du-Vern LP)
3) The Light of Saba — Words of Wisdom (Total Sounds LP)
4) Peter Ivers — Audience of One [instrumental] (K2B2 CD)
5) Blu Lake — Winter Wood (Blu Lake 45)
6) Gospel Clouds — If Loving God is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Right (Su-Ann LP)
7) Straughter Brothers — Jesus Is My All & All (Holy Cross LP)
8) Pervis Lee — Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (Leeway LP)
9) Soul Patrol — People Get Ready (Golden Hedge LP)
10) Hamilton Movement — She’s Gone (Look-Out 45)
11) Lee Fields — Tyra’s Song (A&T 45)
12) The Presidents — Which Way (DeLuxe 45)
13) Class-Set — My Style (Mod-Art 45)
14) United Sounds — It’s All Over (Baby) (United 45)
15) Mighty Chevelles — Tropical With The Moonlight (Flaming Arrow LP)
16) Sister Nancy — I Am A Geddion (Techniques LP)
17) Shinehead — Billy Jean (Hawkeye 12″)
18) Santo and Johnny — Sea Dream (Pausa LP)
19) Gabor Szabo — Ferris Wheel (Isle of Skye LP)
20) Little Beaver — Do Right Man (Black Cat LP)
21) Sunday — Where-Did He Come From (Chess 45)
22) Blue Gene Tyranny — World’s Greatest Piano Player  (Antarctica LP)
23) Deloris Early — Deloris is Back with Jerome and his Band (Big Vick 45)
Related: Aquarium Drunkard Mixtape Archives