San Diego Record Stores – “M-Theory” in Mission Hills

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(From 'peyri' via Flikr)

(From 'peyri' via Flikr)

There are too many Targets, Best Buys, and Wal-Marts in San Diego County. But to be more specific: 20 Targets, 10 Best Buys, and 18 Wal-Marts in San Diego County. Like I said, too many. In the next few months, I will showcase the record stores that are striving to compete with major chains and make San Diego a thriving music community by talking to the owners, workers, and customers that fully endorse these stores. This week I will start with what happens to be my favorite record store in San Diego, M-Theory Records.

Founded in 2002 by Heather Johnson and Eric Howarth, M-Theory Records had two stores at one time but has been narrowed down to one solid store based in the Mission Hills neighborhood. The second store of the two was opened in 2005 and is the only one still standing, after the lease was up on the original store in South Park. M-Theory Records carries CDs, Vinyl, and DVDs in most all genres, but has a particular passion for indie rock, hip hop, jazz, soul, funk, metal/punk, blues, garage, psych, folk, world, & electronic. What else is there?

Heather and Eric were originally from the Bay Area. Moving here as musicians, they came to the conclusion that a record store was definitely needed in the area they lived in. So they opened one, along with a record label, Hi-Speed Soul (Nada Surf Song), and a huge leg of support for the local music scene in San Diego. Since then, they have grown to one of the most recognizable in SD.

I asked Heather why they feel their store and shopping experience is unique; “We try and emphasize on customer service along with fair pricing. What it comes down to is that we enjoy the job,” she said.

With absolutely stellar reviews all over the web and a 4 and a half star rating on Yelp, M-Theory has gained a huge local and national following with bands coming in for in-stores (which is pretty much unheard of anymore), releasing exclusive records, special add ons, and even starting their own label (Lady Dottie and the Diamonds, Nada Surf, and Swervedriver). I asked shopper Daye Salani why he shops at M-Theory, to which he hastily replied, “Worst question ever! M-Theory is your one-stop source for any and all indie releases. Vinyl is their specialty. Heather and Eric know their shit!”

Even with the support of the community, one of the biggest reasons Indie stores can’t stay open is that they can’t compete with the major chains I mentioned earlier. When asked about how they compete with the Targets of the city, Heather gave an interesting answer:

“You can’t. Not literally anyway. But we still strive to be competitive in pricing by going to those stores and looking at their prices. We also offer specials that labels give us like adding special EP’s to your purchase from that same band.” Heather and Eric are always looking for ways to try and beat those major chains and one of the biggest ways to do that is to sell vinyl. And sell A LOT of it.

“M-Theory has always carried vinyl and we were one of the first when we opened. It’s really what sets us apart from those stores,” Johnson said.

She also mentioned that since they opened the store, vinyl sales have gone up every year and in 2008 there was a 60/40 split in favor of vinyl sales at their store. But with everything good thing comes a, not necessarily bad thing, but a fork in the road.

Another way they have tried to compete with big corporations is by opening a 24/7 digital store via their website. But with the growth of vinyl comes the backlash in digital form.

“People complain about the older stuff being converted into mp3 form because of the sound transition,” she said. But even with the minor complaint, M-Theory Records continues to add more and more records into their digital collection, which Heather hopes to one day match what is in the store.

“We see it as our way to compete with the iTunes and Amazons of the dot com world. But we also know that labels still believe in the physical product,” said Johnson.

Their online store is relatively new but you can still find stuff in there that you cannot find on iTunes, especially in the vinyl section.

“You have to be engrossed in the whole industry to survive, whether it be in-store, online, cds, or vinyl.”

As more labels, bands, stores, etc are going digital with their product, M-Theory has also moved down that path. Twitter has become an overnight phenomenon and M-Theory is no stranger to the service. You can follow the store at ( and Heather at ( Both would be beneficial to you in this interesting time for our economy, because not only do the store and Heather tweet about new releases every Tuesday and in-stores with bands, but they also post about sales and when surpluses of product arrive at the store so you can be there first for the taking.

With album sales dropping at least six percent every year and illegal downloading only on the rise, music labels are having a harder and harder time signing artists, but most of all, supporting those artists. The relationship between record labels and record stores has dropped to an all time low. But on the other side of the spectrum, the store to customer relationship is only on the rise, especially at indie stores like M-Theory.

So what are record labels doing wrong? I asked Heather to give some advice to any record labels out there looking to somehow dig themselves out the hole that they have dug themselves into.

“Make the call. Call stores and call them frequently,” she said.

With little staffing at the labels there really isn’t anyone to assemble promo packets, no one to make calls to stores, no one to follow up on sales, and no one to put together newsletters.

“It has gotten to the point where I am calling labels to get a promo sent to us, when it should be the other way around. Get interns and start putting together a newsletter. Encourage your artists to reach out and support the stores that are supporting them.”

Target, Wal-Mart, and Best Buy each have hundreds of employees working everyday. You can go in to one and say, “I know nothing about Death Cab For Cutie but I would like the best record and couple bands that sound just like them.” You will walk out with Death Cab’s newest record, Narrow Stairs, The Postal Service, and mayyyyyybe The Fray.

Same situation at M-Theory and you will get, Transatlanticism, a Neutral Milk Hotel record, Wilco b-sides, and Stars best LP (Heart). Local record stores need our help just as much as we need theirs. So continue to support my favorite record store in San Diego, M-Theory Records.

M-Theory Records
915 W Washington St.
Mission Hills

Mon-Sat: 10am-8pm
Sun: 11am-7pm

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