America’s Last Great CD Dealer Doesn’t Care If You Think CDs Are Dead

John Bastone is worried. John Bastone thinks CDs might be on the way out. While this might not sound like a terribly radical opinion, John Bastone isn’t just any old music business pundit. The 54-year-old former record store owner continues to work with CDs every week, hundreds of them, paying good money to buy up collections, then sell them online or at record fairs. While many have been declaring CDs dead since the Napster/iTunes double-punch around the turn of the century — and surely Bastone is buying fewer than he once did — it is only in the past few months that he has started to wonder if the format might really be almost over for good.

At least, that’s what he’ll tell you on some days, if you happen to catch him loading CD-filled crates into his minivan on one of his regular routes around any number of record fairs, homes, and local college campuses in the New York tri-state area. Other days, he might just give you his email address and ask if you’re interested in selling your collection. But even at his gloomiest, he’s not ready to declare the CD dead. That can be somebody else’s hot take.

Bastone started his first record store, the Record Room in New Rochelle, with a college friend in 1987, when he was 28. “The week after we opened was when the White Album first came out on CD,” during the era when Beatles CDs were only available as pricy Japanese imports, he says. He has been watching the secondary market with a professional eye on a daily basis for the better part of three decades, and as a music fan for far longer. In his estimation, he’s in touch with nearly everybody slinging CDs within a 200-300 mile radius of his White Plains base, 40 miles north of Manhattan.

“From 1995 to the early 2000s, I did really well,” he recalls. “CDs were very easy to sell, whether I was selling them online or on the road at record shows. If I had my car full of CDs and people saw me pumping gas, they would try to stop me and try to buy CDs from me. I could basically sell CDs on any street corner anywhere.” For a decade, from the mid-’90s through just after turn of the century, Bastone co-owned Exile on Main Street in Mount Kisco, NY. In 1997, Bastone’s wife quit her job in the insurance industry to take over the online sales operation from their home. The two put their son through college on used CDs, with their daughter still in school. It was at Exile, too, that one of Bastone’s store managers, Kimya Dawson, befriended one of their regular teenage customers, Adam Green, and began making up songs in the store on slow afternoons, forming the Moldy Peaches. The CD collapse wasn’t the only market force that killed Exile on Main Street. When the store opened, it was the only record store in town, but then a Sam Goody opened around the corner and, after that, a Borders arrived across the street.

But John Bastone is a record man and always has been. “At four years old, my mother told me I had to make the choice between records and toys, and I never bought another toy. My brothers and sisters, who were older than me, they were into the British Invasion. I discovered the bottom end of the FM dial. At six years old, without any of their help, I bought the Blues Magoos’ Psychedelic Lollipop.” The next year he graduated to Iron Butterfly and, by the age of eight, had moved on to King Crimson. He continues to absorb new music at prodigious rate. No matter the fluctuations in the market for music-filled discs in the 21st century, Bastone isn’t going anywhere, except to get more CDs or LPs. Listening to his latest pick-ups at his disc-filled house in White Plains, he pops CDs in and out of his computer, burning eclectic genre-busting mixes of his favorites to listen to while traveling.

In Bastone’s estimation, his online business — spread between Amazon and eBay and elsewhere – currently has some 17,000 titles available on CD. While fretting about recent market drops, he professes a faith in his regular customers who keep the CDs sales afloat. “I think the market has hit bottom,” he says, “but the people who are actually still buying CDs have already drawn their lines in the sand. It’s not like anybody just got their first iPods for Christmas or is just learning about streaming or downloading. It’s not like guys my age are still finding out they can get this stuff online. Those who have made the decision that they like CDs or records or cassettes have already made that decision. Those who have continued to buy, I believe, will continue to buy.”

Which isn’t to say the market hasn’t gotten weird. In 2015, Bastone says, “the CDs you can actually sell are the ones that are mostly a little more obscure or on smaller labels or in genres that they don’t print hundreds of thousands or millions of copies, like blues and jazz and heavy metal and classical. Those are easier to sell right now than the popular things.”

“I’ve seen a trend where, on occasion, an indie group will put out something, just like a download, and will do a limited run from their website for, like, 1,000 CDs. And then if that group breaks next year, all of a sudden, that CD can be valuable,” sometimes running up to $50 or so. Once, Bastone remembers, he was able to sell a self-released promo CD by a novelty metal mash-up project from Hollywood (with a made-up backstory and copyright issues) called Rock Sugar for over $100. Bob Dylan CDs, though, as he was forced to point out to an old friend trying to unload a collection, go for a penny apiece. There are just too many of them.

John Bastone can appreciate the market in a deeper way, too. “It’s a giant world out there with billions of people,” he says, growing cosmic for a second. “If 1% of them still want CDs, that’s a lot of people, if 3% of them still want records. Some people still want reel-to-reel or eight-tracks! I don’t know why one thing has to be the be-all end-all and everything else has to be dead.” As he is fond of pointing out, it only takes two people anywhere in the world to start a bidding war. More and more, he notes, people are catching on to the market. He sees them at record shows, looking up prices on their phones. There’s a difference, he knows, between price checkers and record flippers. And, over the past six months of 2015, especially, the newly self-aware CD market has been going through its darkest period yet, with too many people starting eBay accounts and declaring themselves dealers.

John Bastone is a dealer. His product has always been diversified, which is what saved his business. “By 2008 and 2009, it had gotten so bad that I was basically just selling off older inventory,” he remembers. “I was being very careful with anything new I bought. I had so much inventory to sell off that I thought I’d keep doing that just to put some of the money back in my pocket. I thought I’d only be able to do it for a finite period of time. I’d been selling at a local college for over 20 years, every week. I was going to stop going there. But I’d started bringing dollar records because I knew some kids liked to use those to put them up on their walls because they were cheaper to buy than posters, and I got a really good response. So then I started bringing $2 records. Then I started bringing $3 records, then $5 records. Now, I bring good records.” For years, Bastone has run regional record shows, currently operating the New Haven Record Riot and the Cromwell Record Riot in Connecticut, and lately he’s even had a waiting list for dealer tables.

“If we were having this conversation ten years ago, when you could get Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours anywhere for $1 or $2 on LP, and told me I’d be selling Rumours for $15 on a daily basis, I would tell you that you were out of your fucking mind. And that’s happening. I’m not going to bet that I’m going to be selling [Nirvana’s] Nevermind on CD for $10 in 20 years, but…” Bastone trails off.

Though CDs continue to dominate his online business, if only because of the enormous back stock, at the numerous record shows he hits, Bastone’s business is back to 75% vinyl. He still brings CDs, too. He observes with fond irony that, in the old days, “if a father and son came to a record show together, the father was looking for records and the son was looking for CDs. Now, if a father and son come to a record show together, it’s the son looking for records and father looking for CDs.”

At those same record shows, he says, “there’s only a very small percentage looking at CDs. They’re going to be very hard to sell and the people who are looking at them think they have you over a barrel as far as price goes, because they’re the only guy that’s looking for CDs.” But John Bastone knows that they’re not.

John Bastone can be found at your local New York tri-state area record show or contacted via RecordRiots.com.