Indie Record Shops: An Appreciation And Reflection
By Mick Polich - 06/21/2008 - 09:32 AM EDT
Indie record shops – like FM radio, we hardly knew ye…
Oh, we did for a brief time in history, but time and tide, culture and tastes, threw the indie shop out the car window of pop business culture, like a squeezed hamburger wrapper onto the ever-fading two-lane blacktop of life.
So, what’s going on, and why did it matter? Pretty simple – at the click of a mouse, we’ve access to the biggest music library in the world – just an amazing time to a worldwide library of new and old music, hard-to-find, and easily accessible stuff all over the world.
Pretty darn scary from the ‘instant gratification’ mode……
Well, the ol’ back story for me starts in the mid-1970’s: it’s a beautiful Midwestern spring day as I drive the old man's 1969 GMC pickup into Des Moines to spend some jing that I earned selling artwork I created. The goal is some new music on vinyl and tape, and my only obstacle in getting the purchases home to the safety of my room is getting past the ‘guards’ – my stepmom and my dad. But the process to that point is pure heaven….
I’ve got a lot of people to thank in those early years that owned and worked the indie record shops in various parts of the country that helped not only my exposure to new music, but my musicianship as well: Vick Mickunas, Ned Rood, Mike Enloe, Scott, and T-Bone from Peeples, Steve and Margie White from Music Circuit (thanks for employing me for a brief period, folks!), Jon Smith at Co-op Tapes and Records (who, in the shared grief of losing a Beatle the morning after John Lennon's death, shared a bottle of peach schnapps with me, in-store, toasting Lennon as “Plastic Ono Band – Live Peace In Toronto” blasted from the overhead store speakers. I had just been fired from my first music store job, trying to get gigs in a jazz/rock sextet, and was trying to open a small amp repair shop in town. Thank you for that moment, buddy!), Steve Louis and John Vincent at Sour Records in Westerville, Ohio (who also helped this ol’ homesick Iowa boy adjust to his first move away from home with a cool little uptown shop), Dingleberry Records in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and countless others from back in the heyday of good ol’ ‘hippie capitalism’.
Back in the 1970’s, there were a load of different indie record shops in Des Moines: Co –op Tapes And Records (at least three stores in town), Music Factory, Music Circuit, then soon to follow into the 1980’s, Archives, then the 2000’s, with Zzz Records and Homers on the west side. The common thread was that, here were places you could walk into and passionately discuss your favorite subject (music) with a PERSON who had similar feelings. This PERSON could help influence your purchasing decisions by steering you towards maybe some new, or old, tuneage that could hip you up and expand your universe. The ‘Net might have a bigger warehouse/distribution system, but you ain’t gonna get that warm, fuzzy feeling of human interaction thru on-line purchasing. The human element thru cyberspace? Indeed, lads and lassies, a very tough sell.
Throwing that debate aside (because it could take ANOTHER column), what are the surviving indie record/CD shops doing out there to help keep the doors open?
Nate Niceswanger, owner/operator of Zzz Records in Des Moines, Ia., has stated the vinyl record resurgence has kept Zzz going over the past few years. There are more and more new releases on vinyl (and I can testify to this phenom, due to being awarded Lost Highway Record vinyl copies of new releases thru my street team promo work with that label.). Of course, it’s no secret that CD sales have plummeted due to downloading, and the mark up on current CD releases is not great for a store owner to make a buck on. Zzz has focused on their used section of CD’s with a ‘nice price’ range of $4.99 to $6.99. Naturally, it doesn’t take somebody with an accounting degree to figure that, one, you gotta move alotta of CD’s to gain a margin, and two, the customer who sells the CD’s to the store will get anywhere from $1.00 to $3.00 per copy – just bid’ness, folks….
Years ago, there was a laundromat in Des Moines that had a bar – said ‘mat just happened to be located in the same shopping complex as the music store I was working at the time, so I spent some time with suds… and SUDS! An indie record shop with a bar? It’s just so crazy that it…might…NOT…work.
Risky (DRAM laws) - plus one too many, and you’re arguing over the effects of punk rock and the Reagan years. Oh well, a novel approach for about half a minute…..
Have downloading stations along with vinyl and CD bins? Well, that’s moot, because any doofus can go on-line and get anything that they want ( I can count on one hand my friends who DON’T have a computer and Internet service).
To have a surviving shop, you need to know your market area, your inventory, and your customers. Shake It Records in Cincinnati has an in – store concert area (which borrows old - school: Ernest Tubbs Record Shop in Nashville has been doing that feat for years). All shops seem to have a healthy internet sales market, which is a given to increasing and keeping your sales. But why bother with all this? Well, some people, again, just like to walk into a place and talk face-to-face to a knowledgeable person who’s passionate about music like themselves, and can steer said customer in a sales direction that going to help all parties. Lemme tell ya, peeps – it ain’t healthy to sit hour after hour at a computer without human interaction. You either get so paranoid of actually having some human interaction (god forbid, CONFRONTATION even!), or you start plotting some crazy-ass ideas in your head, thus rendering your own demise, and perhaps others! Just get up and get out there every once in awhile….
I think of all the friends that I’ve made along the way thru indie record shops – at times, we would literally have a party in one shop during business hours (yep, the 1980’s and ‘90’s – hey, young, stupid, and looking for chemicals…….). I wouldn’t trade any of those times, ever, ever.
Back in June of 2006, Mike Enloe shut the doors on the Des Moines location of Peeples Music forever – the churning tide of the music business had finally caught up to the store. Thru the on-line blog, old customers had some fond memories of store employees and events (my favorite line from close buddy and former Peeples employee Ned Rood – as cited from another ex – customer: “I think the band Poison and a thousand poodles in a fiery plane crash would be brilliant.” Yep, the cogs were always churning upstairs with that boy – a typical Ned witticism throw out on a daily basis at the store…). Some entrees were thoughtful insights, some were angry, some downright bizarre (blaming rap and J-Lo for the death of a business – come on, people, HUH??). I also have a profound personal memory that typically foretold our coming-of-age, and passing into adulthood. Back in the early ‘ 90’s, I had left my Peeples purchase back at the store, and called Ned to see if I could retrieve the package. Sure, said the Roodster, come pick me up, and we’ll head back to the store. After getting the CD’s, I drove Ned back to his duplex not far from the store. Ned turned to me in the car and said, “You know, this isn’t going to last forever.”, meaning the store, our lives in the DSM music scene, our youth, and all that went with it at the time. Yes, I know – blatantly obvious as a statement, but the prophecy came true soon after that. The Drake Diner was shocked out of it’s neighborhood serenity by the senseless and brutal murders, during business hours, of two employees. This was a place that we all hung out at before and after gigs, and in between our day jobs and nightlife. In 1993, the first devastating floods of the Midwest corralled our lives to sandbagging levees, distributing water to shut-ins, and watching various areas of our state and midsection of the USA destroyed by Mother Nature (again, it happens as I write).
Seemingly, yes, we were all mortal – no defiant Guns ‘N Roses song could whip us into invincible shape as more events happened. I got married in 1993, and moved away from my home state in 1994. Ned was married around the same time – my wife Mary and I went to the wedding in Iowa City, which was a total blast – the boy seemed destined for some happiness with the birth of his daughters and settlement into a nice home in a little hip area of town.
But such is life in it’s dark waterways and valleys – Ned had some personal demons, and while I don’t know the entire story, the collapse of his marriage followed in short order. It seemed as we hit our 40’s, times changed – my fellow Iowa musicians were now the ‘old guard’ – gigging whenever they could, riding out good marriages and bad divorces, raising kids while working the same music store job that they had for 20 years (yeah, very hip, very cool when you were a young buck, but the glean had worn off the rose…), some quitting music entirely, some found God, some found drugs…
December 2006: I received an e-mail from an old friend and music student, Todd Porter, the Tipster, that had a phone number to an Iowa City hospital that Ned was recovering in. Ruptured appendix? Yikes – that could KILL a person. Information also came in from a few sources after that – all told, seemed the ‘lifestyle’ might have caught up with the ‘Rood boy’. Well, I called from our Atlanta home – we were gearing up for another UPS transfer to Dallas, Texas, and I wanted to get ahold of Ned before the gears started cranking on the moving truck. We talked for a good hour, it seemed – I could tell Ned was still sedated from the operation, and while there were flashes of the old Ned – his wit, his charm, his hucksterism – well, frankly, things weren’t the same. But damn, for both of us, it was great to connect. And if he wasn’t working that day in 1975 when I walked into the first Peeples Music location on Ingersoll Avenue, well, we probably would have caught up eventually, but that day seemed to spark the gunpowder. Older, maybe wiser, but both still passionate about the music, baby.
You can’t make the past alive – at one point, I did hanker for those old times, and a bit of sentimentality creeps into me from time to time: at this point in my life, if the good Lord continues to let me have even a part-time career in music, I will go forth and continue to forge it out myself. But really, now is now, and the only constant is change. What started as a dissertation on indie record shops has turned into reflection, and well it should, because this is another piece of life in passing that has greatly affected myself and others. So, as in taking time to open a book and read, or smell the flowers, see if you can take the time to find a cool little indie record shop on-line, and help ‘em out with a purchase or two. You know, they could be within driving distance –guaranteed it’s worth the trip!
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