A decade ago, the online indie music
retailer built a better mousetrap. It’s still working, too.




Matt Wishnow was
apologizing for the mess. They’re moving office soon, he explained. Since
Insound moved into their downtown Manhattan
offices in the late ‘90s, their inventory has expanded. Considerably. And now,
as the company prepared for its 10th anniversary, enormous boxes were
spilling over with silkscreened t-shirts, and posters and vinyl records covered
every wall and surface. “We basically went from a CD store that sold a little
bit of vinyl to a vinyl and merchandise store that sells a little bit of CDs,”
he joked. “Obviously our inventory storage needs changed.”


Insound’s new
home is the old No. 2 Pencil Factory building on Greenpoint Avenue. “It’s an industrial
warehouse space, so we can actually have a warehouse that’s separate from our
office,” Wishnow announced excitedly.


Despite the
mess, his office looked exactly like what you’d expect for a longtime indie
rock superfan and the owner of an incredibly successful online music retailer. A
tiny black charcoal barbeque occupied the corner, a dog bed was on the floor, a
futon along one wall, and a beat-up vinyl copy of Neil Diamond’s Greatest Hits was propped up on his desk.


Talking to Wishnow,
it seemed like a lot of Insound’s success has been more about hard work than
with anticipating trends in tastes. Because they were willing to do the legwork
early on, they managed to corner a market and stay there.


Right out of
college in 1996, Wishnow was working as an ad copywriter at Electra. Finding an
Indie rock kindred spirit in Arie Sass, who worked in Electra’s finance department
at the time, the pair, along with Wishnow’s roommate Christian Anthony, started
looking for a niche that needed an internet startup. “Indie stuff was not well
distributed in the mid-‘90s. That was the impetus for the idea. Arie and I were
mail order kids. We’d fill out mail-order forms, we’d wrap our money tinfoil,
we’d send it in and get our seven-inches or our T-shirts and CDs.”


Most of America
didn’t have record stores that stocked independent releases, so there was a
definite need for a place to buy them online. The three friends divvied up the
work, Matt taking on marketing, Arie taking on technology and buying, and
Christian helming business and finance. In the summer of 1998, Insound was


It wasn’t all
smooth sailing stocking their store, as independent distribution in 1999
basically didn’t exist. The Insound team started dealing directly with labels,
and eventually to bands directly – something that is common practice for them
now. They built up a warehouse-style inventory of products that hadn’t
previously been available all in one place, and in doing so set a precedent for
independent music retail.


The Insound of
today is a one-stop shop for independent music fans. Wishnow excitedly showed
me a new shelving unit designed specifically for vinyl records that assembles
easily as well as the latest T-shirt and poster designs they recently commissioned.
Insound works with some of the best silkscreen artists in the business, like
Jason Munn, to create beautiful and unique poster and T-shirt art. They couple
digital downloads of a record with the purchase of a vinyl piece or, in some
cases, any other piece of band merch.


As the CD dies its
timely death, Insound’s collection of alternative music products becomes more
and more relevant. Especially when it comes to vinyl. Said Wishnow of his
customers, “Being an avid music fan for me means not just having a big
collection of digital music on my computer and my iPod, it means having music
physically in my life.”


That is why he
believes as record labels fail, Insound continues to grow. Maintaining its
integrity even after selling out to the Alternative Distributor Alliance,
Insound has continued to provide what the rest of the industry has failed to. People
are still captivated by music they can hold in their hands, wear, and explore
in real life. “The market sort of pointed us in the right direction and said,
‘We don’t need another digital music store.'”


At the 2009
South by Southwest Festival in Austin,
Insound celebrated its anniversary with an incredible party that included
performances by, among others, The Hold Steady and a reunited American Analog
Set. It was a physical representation of the respect that the industry and the
artists have for Insound.


“The SXSW event
was very special for us.” Wishnow said. “On the one hand, 10 years is not a
long time. In internet years it is; I’ve seen a lot of companies come and go,
so there is a certain sense of perspective that you get. But it’s really nice
to have a continuous 10 years to look back and see how everything has changed.”




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