A Durham resident and longtime DJ at WXDU, Stephen Conrad began collecting vinyls before it was cool. Now, he’s ready to share them — or, at least, the ones from his extensive home collection he can bear to part with.
As an individual vendor at this year’s WXDU Fall Record Fair, Conrad, alongside other local collectors and representatives from Carolina Soul and Bull City Records, will display for sale some of his best finds — records your Barnes and Noble does not carry. The fair will be held Saturday, Oct. 19, at the Rubenstein Arts Center from 11 a.m to 4 p.m.
In a world where Spotify’s algorithmic curation threatens to limit the environment of musical exploration to our earbud-attached phones and laptops, the Fall Record Fair encourages communal exploration of music you can touch. Visitors to the fair can browse and purchase from hundreds of records (and, perhaps, some cassettes and CDs) provided by local vendors. In addition, a screen printing station will allow visitors to make their own WXDU T-shirts.
Conrad, who organized the fair himself while a student at Duke, has witnessed both vinyl’s resurgent popularity and the changing faces of the WXDU record fair. He traces the event’s origin to 2005, where it began with the initiative of the radio station librarian. Soon after, the record fair became a yearly WXDU tradition. In past years, the fair was held at the Duke Coffeehouse, with vendors’ tables set up inside the venue and beneath a tent in the parking lot, but the location had its challenges.
“It would always rain,” Conrad recalled. “In 2010, one of the years I was [running the record fair], the Nasher had an exhibit called ‘The Record,’ about vinyl in arts and whatnot. And so we kind of talked the Nasher into letting us have the record fair there. That was pretty high profile.”
In the late 2000s, as digital technology dulled interest in the once-dominant CD, the “vinyl revival” offered an appealingly nostalgic alternative to MP3 players. By the 2010s, vinyl sales started to grow rapidly — and they’ve continued to ever since.
“When we started the fair in 2005, it was not quite the audience it is now,” Conrad said. “It was a little more niche in a way, and it was a little more contained. But now there’s way more record fairs.”
It remains to be seen how long records will continue to enjoy their renewed popularity. While some have suggested the cassette will succeed the record as the next musical fad to move from hipster to mainstream, records are still going strong: In 2019, vinyls will likely outsell CDs for the first time since 1986. Streaming still dominates the industry, but more and more people are investing in a different kind of interaction with music.
“It might sound cliche at this point,” Conrad said. “But I think people really do want to connect with a physical format.”
After a one-year hiatus, the WXDU Record Fair returned in 2018 to its current home in the Rubenstein Arts Center. Watson Goh, the WXDU promotions director and organizer of this year’s fair, recalled the success of last year’s event.
“It was packed,” Goh said. “It reached a state where it was a constantly moving line of people.”
Goh expects to have 40 percent more vendors than last year, and he is enthusiastic about what this growth means for Duke and the radio station.
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“I think that more people coming into support this scene really shows that Duke is a community,” Goh said. “You get to learn so much from different people, come off the beaten track, try something new.”
Exploration is an important part of the WXDU philosophy. The station aims not only to entertain but to inform and educate the local community on and off Duke campus. DJs feature a broad range of musical genres — many of which are not common in mainstream tastes and may initially sound off-putting to some ears. But WXDU encourages its listeners to learn to be comfortable with the music, even if it does not come naturally.
“The whole point of WXDU,” Goh said. “Is just to be uncomfortable with the music and learn to be comfortable eventually.”
For those looking to broaden their musical tastes, contribute to the Durham arts scene or find a hidden gem record, this Saturday’s record fair offers the perfect start.
“These are the kind of things that make up the university as a community,” Goh said in his final pitch to students. “Come enjoy it, come feel the vibes.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Stephen Conrad was a former Duke student. The Chronicle regrets the error.