Big Things in Store

Struggling musicians. By definition they haven't reached the pinnacle of success they would like to reach A that maybe you'd like them to reach. It's a plain fact. Whatever money they make from their live gigs doesn't exactly put them on the A list for a visit from Robin Leach.

While they're paying their dues, they must also pay their bills. And being, um, artists, many career opportunities are closed to them by simple discrimination. Most banks aren't looking for branch managers who have tattoos covering their once-virgin skin, earrings dangling, hair down to there, or rather individual ways of dressing (to put it nicely) that would be obfuscated by a corporate uniform.

Further, most musicians play late at night.
One obvious solution: seek employment at record stores or in related facets of the music-selling bidness. Work it from both sides at the same time.

Jessicka knows. The singer for Jack Off Jill (a red-hot band she calls a "monstrosity") has been paying the stage-props bill for the past eight months by slinging slabs at the three outlets of Broward-based CD Exchange. "Our band fliers have a lot of profanity on them," she notes casually. "But since I work here, I can put them up in all three stores."

Maybe that's why her bandmates love her like a mother. "I was poor at the time I took the job, and in our band we practice five nights a week. That rules out waitressing. Whoever has money supports the others, buys them dinner." Before CD Exchange, Jessicka tested the retail waters at a shop called Square Circle, which used to be in Sawgrass Mills. "It was pretty bad there. These people would come in and ask me if I knew a particular song. They'd say, 'I don't know the artist or the real lyrics.' Then they'd try to sing it for me. I'm not lazy, but I really don't know the songs off the Power 96 playlist."

Jessicka isn't the only local rocker who can be found at the CD Exchanges in North Miami, Lauderdale Lakes, and Fort Lauderdale. Look A there's Jeordie White from the hard-thrashing Amboog-a-lard. And that's free-lance bassist Patrick Joyce. And isn't that singer Sean LeClair from Sister Venus? "It's an easy job and you listen to music all the time, but a lot of the music that stores sell is mainstream," says LeClair, who previously worked for Vibrations and a Q Records outlet, both of which have since closed. (He says there's no connection between his stints at the markets and their misfortune.)

Versatile singer-songwriter Mary Karlzen, who has lately been enjoying national attention for her two eclectic CD releases, has found employment at record stores since she was a teenager. First was a Musicland in her native Chicago when she was fourteen. After high school and a move to Florida, Karlzen briefly worked at Peaches before moving to Spec's, where she's labored off-and-on since 1984. "It's great because it expands your musical horizons 100 percent," she says. "I'd dig through the bins and listen to just about every kind of music."

Before becoming a DJ at WSHE-FM (103.5), Glenn Richards could count on the Peaches in South Miami for a gig. "They always let me come back, and they were flexible with the scheduling," says Richards. That was only one benefit. Imagine hanging out in a record store where the employees consisted of such notable Miami music stars as singer Raul Malo of the Mavericks, bassist Juan Diaz of Nuclear Valdez, drummer David Hanono of the Voice in Fashion, jazz trumpeter Matt Pierson, and Brevard Sullivan (rock guitarist and son of jazz legend Ira Sullivan).

One of Richards's flexible bosses at that Peaches was Alex Jimenez. Since leaving the retailer in 1986, Jimenez has gone on to become a sales manager at Bassin Distributors, one of the largest such companies in the nation. "We had some great times there," Jimenez says of the Peaches years. "One time I was in the back and Juan (Diaz) told me to come out front to meet his friend. I was busy, but I went out there and I saw this guy with suntan lotion all over his nose, and he was wearing a sun visor and a pair of shorts. Juan said, 'I'd like you to meet Eric Clapton.' Clapton had spent the weekend in the Keys, and he came into the record store for directions to the airport. Of all places, he had picked the one where he would most likely be recognized. Anyway, that same day a local rep named Jim Page came into the store on business. From that point it was a running joke that we had Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page in the store on the same day."

While Diaz was at Peaches from 1986 to 1989, the store was supportive of Nuclear Valdez's progress. After cutting two albums for Epic Records, the Nukes have been on a songwriting hiatus while negotiating for a new label deal. Diaz currently works at the Yesterday & Today music mart on Bird Road, while his band occasionally performs, unannounced, around town. "We're not really playing the old stuff," he says. "Most of the music is new because we're trying to see how it comes across. Another reason we don't announce them is that the shows are about 30 minutes long and we don't want our fans coming out and being disappointed."

For many, the retail experience serves as a launching pad. Bassist Malcolm Tent, formerly of the local punk-noise band Broken Talent, started at Leslie Wimmer's Open Books and Records in North Miami during the mid-Eighties. Tent went on to open his own rock shop in Connecticut (Trash American Style) and form his own label (T.P.O.S.). "When I was at Open, I was a spud manager. Just one of the potatoes in the bin," Tent explains. Now he boasts that his label is home to the Bunny Brains and is releasing a Broken Talent compilation of previously unreleased material in October.

Drummer Lee Levin took the retail rocketship to success. After working for more than two years at a Q, he moved to the Spec's across the street from the University of Miami, drawn by that store's extensive classical-music department. He spent another couple of years there, meanwhile earning two degrees (jazz and music industry) from UM. After visiting New York with K.R.U. (a Miami band that also starred Nil Lara), Levin landed an internship at Polygram, becoming an assistant to the director of marketing at the label's classical subsidiary, London Records. Currently Levin is working in the studio on new albums by Julio Iglesias.

Matt Pierson, the UM jazz student and trumpeter, blasted off from Peaches, where he'd ascended from sales clerk to buyer to manager. (He admits he originally applied in order to get his jazz tapes at an employee discount.) But Pierson didn't stop there. After Peaches he moved to New York and worked at Tower Records (for minimum wage) while waiting to hear about an opening at the Big Apple's Blue Note Records. After three years there, he was at Warner Bros. where, for the past two years, he's been the director of A&R for jazz and progressive music, as well as a staff producer. "I made a few connections while I was at Peaches because I reported the top jazz records to Billboard for their jazz chart," Pierson explains. "I learned how records were promoted and I got to know the promo people. I was in constant contact with them."

Jose Tillan, Forget the Name's bassist, worked at a Tracks emporium. "I didn't have to cut my hair," he says, a grin forming behind his curly locks. "You'd hang out there. It's not really a regular job because you're with all your friends in other bands."

When Forget the Name played Washington Square on New Year's Eve, a band called Voidville shared the bill, making its live debut. Voidville's singer, Diane Ward, is a buyer for the Spec's at Sawgrass Mills. With twelve years of retail experience, Ward has no complaints about the company's flexibility regarding her schedule -- with Voidville catching on, she's now at Spec's only part-time. But even before the shift change, she found her day job helpful to her artistic pursuits -- she would sometimes rehearse in the store's conference room.

The new guitarist for Young Turk, Tony Moyers, has experience at a store in Tampa, where he spent two years while he was in the band Love Junkies, and at Peaches. "I did shipping and receiving and was in contact with the local reps," he recalls. "When you're in a band, all you see is the music you make. In a store you get to see how music is handled after it gets recorded. There's a lot of bad music out there. We have to get back to making music for music's sake."

Indeed, this artist-seller relationship isn't as positive for some as for others. Another musician/clerk who reported to Billboard, Luis Diaz, is the drummer for Paradise Alley and a freelance sound engineer. Three years ago, Diaz spent six months working at BPM Records, a twelve-inch specialty store. "When I reported the rap chart, I saw how talent is definitely not the only thing that can make a hit," he asserts. "It's hush-hush in the industry, but there's a lot of persuasion with point of sales" -- that is, reporting a track as a hot item, even if it isn't, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Vinny Pereira, bassist for Excessive, spent nine months at Bassin. "I got to see that side of the industry," he says, "and if anyone starting in the business saw what I saw, they'd probably change their mind. It's dog-eat-dog."

Rhett O'Neil, vocalist for Young Turk, handled shipping and receiving for six months at H L Distributors. "It was easy," he says. "I needed the gig. And it was there. You do get to see how two-faced record companies are. One minute you're it, and the next minute they don't even know your name."

Another musician with a dim view of this business of music selling is Jim Wall, the drummer for Natural Causes. Wall worked at a Spec's last year. For one entire month. Although he wanted to be around music, Wall says now it wasn't worth it. In fact, he spits the name Spec's like it was a mouthful of sour milk. "I was hassled for wearing a peace-sign T-shirt. And when I missed some meeting, they fired me. It was also disappointing because I saw the kind of music that people were buying. Every once in a while, someone would come in and buy a Coltrane album, but most of the people were buying Latin or contemporary music. Frustrating."

Five years ago Arlan Feiles, the singer and pianist for Natural Causes, was an intern for Arista's publishing company in Los Angeles. Although he says working in the company's tape room was a great experience, he also saw the reality -- and sometimes the destiny -- of many struggling bands. "I got a sense of what was going on, and how A&R people listen to tapes. They hear the first two measures of the first song, then they skip to the first two measures of the next song. If they don't like it -- it's trashed."

In other words, it never gets a chance to work in a record store.

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