In a time before social networks, back when “Facebook” was an actual book, and “Google” just described a really big ass number, if you were a punk kid, living in some tiny town in the middle of nowhere, and you wanted to know what was going on with other punk kids in the rest of America, “zines” were your life line. I’m not talking about some $40 “zine” you buy at the New York Book Fair, or the “zine” that comes with the deluxe presale package of a Frank Ocean album, but a zine that was printed out on some late night, backroom, copy machine stealth mission—hand stapled, and folded by a pack of passionate college kids, and somehow, through some vast underground network of punks, weirdos, and cool older brothers, landed in your boring little town, and ended up in your hot little hands, to show you the world.
Whether it was something coming out of some kid’s garage in the next town over, or the New York Times of zines, Maximumrocknroll, the most critical parts of these pirate publications were the “scene reports”. Dispatches from the front lines of far-flung punk communities, complete with new bands for you to seek out, clubs for you to dream of playing and record stores you wish you could shop at. That is where Ryan Lowe first heard of Extreme Noise Records. “There was plenty of talk about the Minneapolis scene, and especially the DIY scene in the mid '90s. Maximumrocknroll always had ads for a place called Extreme Noise, and people would always talk about it, and I’d just think, ‘Wow. There’s a store, that’s JUST punk?! WHAT?!” He was living in Jackson, Michigan, at the time, a town with few options, fewer jobs and one giant prison, and it was those scene reports, in those zines, talking about that city, with that record store, Extreme Noise Records, that was enough to make him pack his bags and move to Minneapolis.
“It’s not a great model for any business… not really being much of a business,” Lowe says with a laugh. And yet, Extreme Noise Records, where Lowe has been volunteering since he came to town, has defied the odds and stayed in business for over 20 years. While many of the most respected legacy record stores across America have either folded or been forced to convert half their floor space into a gift shop hawking incense and posters to stay in the black, Extreme Noise has stayed relevant, and profitable, by skipping profit all together. Since it was first opened in 1994 by about a dozen people chipping in their own start-up money, Extreme Noise has been a volunteer-run, punk rock, co-op, completely non-profit record shop in the heart of the Twin Cities. It’s not the first of its kind, by any means, but as far as i can tell, it’s the last one still standing in America.
Many cities have seen stores like this pop up, driven by a passionate group of idealists, who are fueled by a beautiful punk ethos; they are, at best, comets, burning brightly for a short while, only to fizzle out in due time. Extreme Noise was itself inspired by legendary DIY spots like the Epicenter Zone in San Francisco, and New York’s Revelation Records, but it has outlived them all. They don’t do mail order, they don’t run auctions of their rarities on eBay, and they don’t sell incense. If they have it, and you want it, you gotta come into the store and get it. And if it is punk, or doom, or grindcore, or noise and it is good, they have it.
But this longevity isn’t just due to good taste, or passion, or a solid punk ethos—a lot of this survival has to do with Minneapolis itself. This town is fertile ground for record stores. I can think of at least 10 great shops within a bike ride of my apartment, but still, I can also think of a few that have recently closed down or are about to close in the coming months. Even here, it is hard enough to keep a small record shop afloat, as rents rise and sales fall. But try keeping the doors open, the lights on and your work-force showing up, when not a single person is taking home a paycheck. Phrases like “re-examination of the financial structure” and “disciplined budget” are not terms you generally associate with a punk rock co-op, but they stick out like sore thumbs when you read the history of Extreme Noise on their website. “Through discipline, and paying close attention to finances, the store is still around,” explained Lowe proudly, “And I predict we’ll probably have a better year this year, than last year.”
There are lots of great record stores in this town, and in America, and in this day and age, every single one of them is a survival story, but what Extreme Noise has meant for a single community, and what that community has done for Extreme Noise, is really something special. When landlord problems got the best of them at their first location, the entire scene came together, found a new location for the shop, volunteered to renovate it and helped them move. When something breaks, or maintenance is needed, someone always pops up to fix it for free, or on the cheap. “We just replaced all our old lighting with LED, and the guy cut us a deal, because… punks,” Lowe says with a proud smile.
And if it is savvy business and a network of punk rock plumbers and electricians that have helped keep the lights on, it is the volunteers themselves that have kept it relevant. “We’ve got a 16-year-old volunteer now,” said Lowe, “And volunteers that are… well… old enough to be parents of the 16-year-old!” And all of those volunteers, whether they are 16 years old, or have been helping around the shop for 16 years like Ryan Lowe, decide what ends up in the record bins. New blood means new music, and avoiding the slow death of stagnant taste that has killed so many independent record stores across the country.
It seems impossible that Extreme Noise is still in business. But when you go there, and flip through the bins, see what’s in the stock, talk to the people that run it and when they break it all down for you, it seems downright magical. A great record store is a place you read about, and hope to visit one day, to shop at. Extreme Noise is a place you read about, and like Ryan Lowe, decide to move to be near.
Up next, we travel to the best record store in Tennessee.