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For the Love of Listening 

Tracy Wilson’s Courtesy Desk distribution pairs curation and community, providing a new route for hard-to-find music.

click to enlarge news34_tracy.jpg

Scott Elmquist

Tracy Wilson is the betting type.

“I suspect that people who gamble and win have a similar reward system,” she says of predicting which records will sell via her Courtesy Desk record distribution business. “It’s a gamble to spend hundreds of dollars bringing in copies of a record from overseas that I have no idea for sure if people will like.”

But when she hits it big and her supply of an album sells out, everyone wins, from the artist to the record label to the listener. Wilson wins, too, though her greatest reward isn’t financial: “It’s just really nice to know my ears are working,” she says. “It can be easy to fall out of faith with yourself and your taste.”

Wilson opened Courtesy Desk in January, focusing on records that would otherwise be difficult to find stateside. It’s far from her first foray in the music industry, however. 

Recording artist. Label owner. Deejay. Fan. Buyer. Collector. Record store clerk. There’s hardly a stretch of the pathway from music-making and selling to listening, sharing and playing and booking shows that Tracy Wilson hasn’t traveled during her 30-year career, and she has the uncanny ability to pinpoint where her considerable skill set is needed most. 

Therein lies the second meaning of Courtesy Desk. Wilson spent nearly a third of those 30 years at Caroline Distribution, where she sold sometimes-reluctant big-box stores on independent, alternative music that proved wildly popular. She’s since moved into distributing spirits, but rising vinyl shipping costs prompted her to offer her assistance. 

“I saw a lot of my community of collector friends struggling to find some of these records,” she says, “or passing on buying records they were really interested in overseas, just because that shipping was so much.” 

Consumers aren’t the only ones feeling the postal pain.

“I saw so many artists, especially during the pandemic, struggling [and] missing sales because people from around the world could no longer easily afford to buy their records. So I thought, ‘OK, I guess I’m going to jump in and see what I could do.’”

At a time when the vinyl supply chain is experiencing an escalating stress test – Billboard estimates pressing plants would need twice their capacity to meet demand – Wilson has built an inspiring organic pathway for platters to find their future homes.

The Turntable Report

It started with an ending. In late 2019, months before the pandemic forced musicians everywhere to hit the brakes, Wilson and her husband Kenny Close, who together founded the Richmond-based indie rock band Positive No in 2011, decided to put that project in park. “My body is tired,” Wilson notes, “and the kind of physical performance style that I do is really hard and was getting harder.”

Positive No wasn’t just an outlet for Wilson’s singing and songwriting, which she honed in the 1990s fronting the influential rock band Dahlia Seed. It was also a way to support other groups. “When we fell in love with a band, we could ask to play with them or bring them to town,” she remembers. “If our band wasn’t playing, we could at least set them up with a show through one of our friends who books. The logical expansion [was] turning my personal playlist into something a little bit more filled out.”

With that mission in mind and a clearer schedule (“I’m somebody who doesn’t really enjoy downtime,” she says), Turntable Report, Wilson’s every-other-week music newsletter, was born. The first issue went live on Jan. 28, 2020, pairing select new releases, reissues and singles with descriptions drawing on decades of omnivorous listening. Wilson’s writing is thoughtful and immersive – the kind of colorful contextualization you’d find behind the counter at your favorite vinyl shop. 

Wilson first held that position in 1988 at Flipside Records in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, a half-hour or so from her hometown of Saddle River. Growing up near New York provided access to plenty of record stores and Wilson hasn’t stopped paying forward the counsel she received from helpful storeowners and clerks, who nurtured her interest in underground music.

You’ll often hear under-appreciated artists described as “slept-on,” but Wilson is quite literally sifting through new tunes while most of the Western Hemisphere is snoozing. Her daily listening routine starts at 5 a.m.

“It is not without a lot of notepads,” Close says. “Tracy always seems to have a couple different things next to her when this is happening, whether it be a computer, a phone, a turntable. We have a ton of [portable turntables], so they’re kind of all over the house.”

“If she’s recommending three or four things, they have been listened to and vetted, and she’s really taken the time to get to know them,” Close adds.

“We all wish that someone, when we send them our record,” Wilson explains, “they don’t have to like it, but at least maybe [they’ll] spend a little bit of time with it and experience it in a genuine and meaningful way, and if they like it, share that to help spread the word. That not only helps the artist and the label out, but it also builds a community. And especially during the pandemic, we need that community support more than ever.”

Where Wilson goes, a sense of community is quick to follow and multiple metrics have made her ongoing impact visible. Turntable Report signups eventually reached 15 to 20 daily, and Wilson’s seen her recommendations ascend the charts at WRIR, the independent Richmond radio station where she created the “Cause and Effect” show, and where she still appears regularly as a guest to share favorites lists. She also created the Record CollectHER Instagram account to profile and celebrate women and nonbinary vinyl lovers.

Wilson’s following showed up right away upon Courtesy Desk’s launch.

“Almost everything was selling out immediately,” she notes. “From there, I started trying to track down anything I was writing about in Turntable Report that I didn’t think would be easily accessible. … I really do want to help labels I love, and artists I love, so I started to carry some domestic items just to round out my store.”

One label whose sounds she’s amplified is Richmond’s own Feel It Records. The imprint’s founder, Sam Richardson, met Wilson while they were both at the short-lived Independent Label Collective distributor. Richardson recognizes the devotion required when selling hard-to-find releases. 

“It’s a lot more work than going through a distributor [where] everything’s loaded into a [business-to-business]-style website,” Richardson explains. “She’s doing a deeper dig. It’s not always easy dealing with small labels, either. Some people aren’t as good at shipping records or invoicing, or promptly replying to questions, so not only is there curation, there’s patience and thought [in] what she’s doing.” 

The next step for Courtesy Desk also hits close to home. Wilson is planning to bring a selection of records, primarily aligning with the Turntable Report to Courtesy Desk pipeline, to Blue Bones Vintage on North Laurel Street. She’ll offer a few in-person touches too, including a Japanese-style obi strip describing what shoppers will encounter when the needle drops. 

“I really want to carry that transition and customer experience of reading about a record,” Wilson says, “so maybe you don’t recognize it, but when you read a description, it will excite somebody [so they] take a chance.” 

Given Wilson’s gift for curation, it’s as close to a sure bet as you’ll find.

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