The History and Evolution of the Austin Record Convention
Owner and organizer Nathan Hanners details the past and present of the well-preserved Austin tradition
The Austin Record Convention (ARC), a unifying event for music fans all over the world, is returning to Palmer Events Center on September 30 and October 1. Held twice a year for over 40 years, ARC takes the crown as the largest record convention in the U.S. For a weekend, dealers, collectors and enthusiasts from all over the world congregate and explore millions of vinyl, posters, shirts, buttons and other music memorabilia. Carrying a wide array of items that range from new to old and rare to popular, there is something for everyone.
Austin’s first record convention
The story begins in the late 1970s when vinyl aficionado Doug Hanners managed a store called Discount Records on The Drag. Through his work, Doug cultivated a network of record connoisseurs and banded them together for swaps, special deals and conversation. In 1981, the Austin Record Convention was born, first taking place at Zilker Clubhouse. It was an immediate hit, with more attendance than Doug anticipated. Just a few months later he returned to Palmer Auditorium, a larger venue that would host them for 15 more years.
For a few years, ARC moved around to different locations while the city renovated the old Palmer Auditorium into the Long Center. In the mid-2010s, a homecoming took place as the Hanners’ reopened shop for good at the new Palmer Events Center.
A family affair
Doug’s son Nathan Hanners was just around 5 years old during that inaugural year. Nathan attended ARC all his life, goofing around with his friends as a kid and later being put to work as a teenager and young adult. Eventually, in 2018, Nathan started to take over the family business. While his parents continue to work as vendors, he now holds the title of Owner and Organizer and runs operations with his childhood friends.
Nathan’s unique upbringing afforded him the opportunity to see up close how people’s listening habits have evolved over the years. “From the late eighties, once CDs hit the market, we saw a pivot at where people started selling CDs and DVDs more and a little bit less vinyl. When streaming music came, it really seemed like maybe the future would look entirely different. Interestingly, the 2010s was the time of what we now call the ‘vinyl resurgence’ and we started growing again.”
A recent boom in popularity
In fact, in 2023 ARC witnessed their largest show to date. The rise of digital music seems to leave people longing for tactile forms of listening.
The popularity boom for records marked another interesting evolution for ARC over the years, shifting it from a hardcore hobbyist’s symposium to an experience for everyone, including entry-level enjoyers. The clientele ranges from young people with minimal knowledge of analog listening to longtime vinyl fanatics who have been attending since the eighties.
Nathan postulates the reasons behind ARC’s huge success are Austin’s reputation as a music town, its growth and his father’s impressive network of dealers.
“My dad is, although he’s mostly retired now, a professional record collector,” Nathan explains. “That’s been his only career. Doing that your whole life you just meet a lot of people. He would drive all over the country finding old pawn shops, thrift stores and record stores that went out of business but someone had never emptied them out. He’d find whoever owned it, go through everything and buy stuff. He was just totally obsessed with vinyl and knew so many people from doing that.”
Another huge draw to the ARC is the social element. Crowds come not for a transactional experience, but instead an opportunity to be connected to other passionate people with shared interests.
“The show is like a giant, weird family reunion,” Nathan explains. “We do it for the vendors and the customers because we love seeing people get excited about what they find at the show and, and discover new music. Sure a lot of this stuff you could find online. But it’s a whole different thing when you discover music at a vendor’s table in a community-centric way. There’s a human component of people sharing cultural artifacts together, talking about the bands that mean a lot to them and introducing each other to new things.”
As time progresses and the gathering continues to flourish, Nathan is introducing a number of user-friendly ideas while also carefully maintaining the authenticity that people love. One modern development is a “text-to-search” service that helps attendees find specific things they’re looking for. Using the system, visitors can be directed to the booths that hold the exact item they’re hoping to find. They’ve also grown their social media presence with hashtags that encourage users to share their finds and a hilarious Instagram page that reflects the creativity and quirkiness of the convention.
A connection to old authentic Austin
But much remains sacred and untouched for the nostalgics. Today the entrance fee is still five dollars, the same as it was in the eighties. Nathan avoids corporate sponsors or any significant technological changes. He wants to enhance what they’ve already created, and never to dilute the original experience.
“I think everyone’s always looking for, you know, pieces of old authentic Austin,” Nathan explains. “People still look for threads that connect the past to the present. For a lot of people, the ARC is like a yearly ritual and a special local tradition.”
Visit the fall 2023 Austin Record Convention this weekend.