Plenty has changed about the world since the last time this series - which is dedicated to the world’s best vinyl emporiums - found itself in Italy. Now back in the land of Leonardo da Vinci and linguine, it’s nice to see that a few things remain the same, just as they were decades ago.
Flexi Dischi is one example. The record store sits in the town of Lugo, a small settlement of around 30,000 inhabitants, in the northern province of Ravenna. This is the birthplace of Italy’s top World War I fighter pilot, Francesco Baracca, but that’s a whole other article.
Inside stock centres on a number of core pillars — “Black music, jazz, funk, house, Italo”, shelves lined with second hand and box-fresh wax, buyers focusing on “niche stuff that maybe a normal listener can't easily find.” A testament to the staff, it has been this way since before house music was widely recognised as a genre, let alone the coronavirus outbreak.
“It was May 1984 when my father, Lorenzo Guerra — a DJ and former-resident at Baccara club from 1977 to 1980 — decided to invest in his passion for music by opening a record shop, mainly focused on disco. A place dedicated to the listening and trading of music,” explains Simone Guerra, who now runs the store. “So Flexi Dischi was born, a small shop right in the middle of Romagna region — 40 square meters dedicated to the listening of new dance records.
“Five years later Flexi moved to a new location, where you can still find us, with two large listening areas. Lorenzo’s decision to invest in Black music, Afro, Italo-disco, house and dance made the store a meeting point for both fans and local DJs,” he continues. “The shop became something more than a simple store. It was the place where DJs, listeners and friends met to share their passion, and it influenced many of their musical careers. Flexi never lost its strong bonds with local nightclubs, radio stations and music-oriented events, enforcing its interest in vinyl and in musical culture.”
Suffice to say, running a record store anywhere isn’t easy — rising overheads tied to real estate and pressing plants, the rise of digital music, and decline of middle and working class spending power all contribute to a real challenge. We ask how Flexi Dischi has managed to thrive for so long when, in addition to those issues, the immediate area is home to such a small population.
“The scene of music lovers has always been strong. In general among musicians, DJs, insiders, and people working in the field. The entire area has always been very prosperous for clubs, radio, record stores, tourism, concerts, labels, event agencies,” Guerra replies. “Over the years, of course, everything has changed, for better or worse I could not tell you. People always looked for entertainment as an end in itself, with less musical research, less involvement of the territory… This is the way to kill culture from below.
“Naturally this has affected a lot of the life in store. Before we were almost exclusively aimed at DJs. I still remember Fridays and Saturdays in the listening room where new stuff arrived for the weekend ready for the club,” he continues, before explaining how that modus has evolved. “Now we also turned to the second-hand catalogue. So, music for collectors, listening music and independent labels.”
The problems facing record store owners and staff have been significantly exacerbated by the pandemic. A merry-go-round of policy changes impacted local travel, opening times, imports, and even whether in-store listening headphones can still be safely used. Labour shortages from isolation and illness have caused bottlenecks on the industrial side of things, made worse by more and more artists and labels capitalising on 2020’s music sales boom by reissuing reissues, often of reissues. But Guerra is quick to point out that ‘difficult’ is just business as usual when selling vinyl.
“Here in our house we say ‘we kept it together’, or rather we hold on and survive,” says Guerra. “We were already doing it before, after the golden era of the 1990's came the great crisis of record stores in the 2000’s, in which many have closed near us, with the ‘super vinyl bubble' that seems to never end, with the lobby of the big majors that clog the market and sell the records to large distributors — Amazon, above all.”
In 2016 Flexi Cuts was born as the store’s label offshoot, releasing work from the likes of DJ Rou, DJ Rocca, Club Soda and Guerra himself (under the Relative alias). It’s a small but well-formed back catalogue worth diving into, and gives an idea as to the type of tracks that have helped shape this Italian institution. For Guerra, though, pin-pointing specific genres that dominate the country’s dancefloors now — or during pandemic times, home playlists — isn’t easy. Meanwhile, recognising what has been lost is.
“Certainly some genres, especially if they are ‘made in Italy’, have a strong impact on the market, and not only in terms of music. But, honestly, the word Italo has been stolen a little, or rather we have sold it to the highest bidder, using less and less of what we know, or knew to do well, and always trying to put the word ‘underground’ on everything,” Guerra replies when we ask what style of music is prominent in the region. “Some scenes, movements, artists are still healthy and quality, but they must first be found in this ocean of mediocre music we swim in everyday… The DJ, selector, listener and record dealer’s job is more complex than it once was.”
“Running a label is not easy, both now and yesterday and tomorrow. Having said that, I realised that despite the forced stop, I have more and more desire to propose, produce and search for new music,” he says of the pandemic’s impact. “I am trying to establish a sincere relationship with the artists I collaborate with, to propose quality 360° output. Regardless of the specific genre and format, I try to invest in the future.
“We are currently fresh off the release of Velvet Series Part 2, which had been in the queue for about a year, and is a collaboration between many emerging and established artists. Between September and the end of the year we have three other important releases I really care about. My first album, which is a collection of my work so far; an experimental-trip hop album, the result of a really interesting collaboration I hope will find a response in the market. And another album by an emerging Italian band that offers a really interesting and cool sound... Flexi Cuts is dedicated to electronic music on a wide spectrum, not only house, not only techno.”