Digging Through The Crates In Dubai's Only Independent Record Store
Shadi Megallaa loves vinyl. So much, in fact, he decided to make it his life’s work.
Do what you love, and you'll never work another day in your life, they say.
Now, as owner of the Flip Side in Alserkal Avenue, Dubai’s only independent record store, Megallaa greets you with look of man for whom this is more of a vocation than a job.
But it took some time to reach this nirvana. A very long time.
As the world celebrates the 11th edition of Record Store Day on Saturday April 13, Megallaa has plenty to say about the good and, later, the bad, of the vinyl industry.
“Record Store Day lets a lot of people know that we exist,” he says.
“And just to be able to celebrate the [vinyl] culture itself, and get everyone together and have lots of our DJ friends play, it’s like a birthday party, you get to celebrate a person. You get to see them every week, but it’s not a celebration every week. This gives us the time to ask the staff here to relax and enjoy it. And people come in and out all day.”
The love affair with records started over two decades ago.
In 1997, the young Egyptian packed his bags, and turntable, and moved from Abu Dhabi, where he had lived all his life, to the Midwest of the United States to start studies at the University of Kansas.
Already an aspiring DJ, he’d practice for hours, between classes, eventually getting some gigs playing house parties.
At that point, his was still a typical Middle Eastern boy’s story of culture clashes.
From Kansas, he returned to study at the American University of Sharjah and a stint working at his father’s architectural firm. Then Switzerland where he worked as a DJ in Neuchatel, Geneva and Zurich. Back to Dubai and another shot at the family business. Finally, in a move that would ultimately change his life, New York City.
“In 2005 I moved to New York to study sound engineering at SAE Institute,” he says. “I ended up staying for two years and worked at a record shop called Halcyon. I’d always bought records but working at a record shop was pretty mind-blowing. The pay wasn’t great, but I loved it.”
But, inevitably, it was time head back home. As he set up his set up his own record label, Ark to Ashes, it was his parents that made the biggest call of his life.
“Over lunch one day, they said ‘you’re miserable, if this is what you love, have you thought about maybe opening a record shop?’” Megallaa
For two years, he threw himself into doing just that, not the easiest of tasks to do for a first-time business owner in Dubai. It would prove a steep learning curve.
“It was incredible. The music aspect of it was the easier part. Which record to bring, finding distributers. That part was a joy,” he says. “It’s opening day onwards, you’re a business owner and instantly you have to put on another hat. Retail is a completely different beast, and that first day was very, very tough. Getting phone calls, getting asked questions about things I hadn’t even thought of. Do we do that? Do we provide that service? The opening is great, a celebration. It’s answering those calls, that’s when it became real fast.”
Two years on, the Flip Side remains the only record store of its kind in Dubai.
A wiser, savvier Megallaa, now 40, is far more in tune with the record industry and is now aware of a darker side to Record Store Day.
Not surprisingly it’s come about because of the commercialisation of what was meant to be a celebration of the underdog. Since its inception in 2008, big labels have increasingly put out special Record Store Day releases; “gimmicky” Megallaa calls them.
It might seem harmless, but, counterintuitively, this can be harmful to the vinyl industry.
“The pressing plants get completely fully booked because of the huge demand by the big labels like Universal, Sony and Virgin,” says Megallaa. “They all want to capitalise on this day which makes sense, they are businesses and they want to try and make their money. But they do tons and tons of releases, so if you’re an independent label, like Ark to Ashes, it’s very hard, one or two month before Record Store Day, to even get a slot at the pressing plant to release your record.”
The very people that kept vinyl alive through the CD and digital dark days, end up being the ones that get punished.
“When [the big labels] turned their back on records, lots of independent record shops couldn’t survive, it was these independent labels doing small runs of vinyl that kept the industry alive. They kept the pressing plants alive. So it feels a bit unfair,” he adds.
Now that the tide has turned and vinyl is, in many underground circles, back in fashion, Megallaa is hopeful that at least more pressing plants will emerge.
As the jazz beats of Thelonious Monk play in the background, he says that all types of music lovers, of all ages and all tastes, walk through the doors of The Flip Side.
This has consistently driven him to up his game, and fine-tune his musical palette. Among records on sale are rare Arabic records.
“You’d be surprised, a lot of time the people that want Arabic music, only want Arabic music,” says Megallaa. “Some real music lovers will come and buy a Jimi Hendrix record and an Um Kulthum record, but there are people that come just for Arabic music, so we need to make sure that anyone who comes in here can find something.”
Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and The Doors. John Coltrane and Monk, Umm Kulthum and Abdelhalim Hafez. Blues. Punk. Hip-hop. And of course dance music. All side by side.
Megallaa is aware that it record-buying remains a niche market in Dubai.
“My way of marketing is really not marketing, because you want to attract the right people. Luckily we’ve been blessed to have many publications covering us, and thank God, that really helps us a lot.”
Ultimately, great tunes remain their own best marketing. The magical moments, says the record store owner, is watching people fall in love with music, and vinyl, like he did as kid growing up in Abu Dhabi.
“Honestly, I always say that our sound system is our most important employee and just hearing people’s random conversations, it’s amazing to see friendships form in front of your eyes,” Megallaa says. “You’re witnessing people become friends, which these days is very rare. A record shop is a place where people come together and relate to each other even though they don’t know each other.
“That’s probably the best part of the whole job.”
But it's not really a job, is it Shadi?