New Moon Rising: The Return of Eclipse Records
Thursday 22 March @ 12:19:16
by STEVE McPHERSON
A week in Austin, Texas, at the South by Southwest Music Conference has driven home to me, once again, the importance of physical space when it comes to music. Hundreds of bands played over the course of four days, and thousands of fans and industry types milled around Sixth Street, finding new bands by happenstance and chance. We might trade mp3s over the internet, we might network with venues, bands and record labels through MySpace, but when it comes to the thrill of discovery, there needs to be a real world location that can allow for accidents. A place where people meet-- a place where disparate elements come into contact with each other over and over again-- is a space that's beautiful. There's a reason why gorgeously rendered computer graphics can't have the warmth and vitality of an honest-to-god place. A computer model has to be programmed by someone; it's filled with intentionality, when often our most powerful experiences are the result of accident. When it comes to music, a good venue--or a good record store--bears the marks of the thousands who've come through its doors. They're aggregates of all that influence, and while Joe Furth brings the spirit of the former Eclipse Records on Grand Avenue to its new location on University and Prior Avenues, in most ways it's a tabula rasa. What history will it accrue? What will you take away from it, and what will you leave behind?
Certain record stores across the United States are legendary: Amoeba Records in San Francisco springs immediately to mind, but in my time as a music fan, I've made destinations out of many more: Third Street Jazz and Rock in Philly (R.I.P.), Other Music in New York City, Sonic Boom Records in Seattle, Atomic Records in Milwaukee, Reckless Records in Chicago. These were the places that taught me about music as much as any school. I found rare imports there, listened to new music on listening stations or picked up recommendations from employees. Other Music sponsors shows at venues in New York, and Sonic Boom Records has regular in-store concerts where you can see bands outside the confines of a dank nightclub. I've dragged people along with me to these stores, and it's hard not to crack a smile of recognition when I see someone wearing an Amoeba or Atomic Records T-shirt. Could Eclipse Records one day inspire such devotion?
"It'd be amazing for us," says co-owner Jason Brazil, "with all the effort and all the love that we're putting in [and] that we both have for the independent record store, to be able to create something that would be that magical, for lack of a better word, and actually be that destination place." I'm standing at the counter of Eclipse's capacious new location with Furth and Brazil. The store's only been open since Dec. 22, 2006, and it's still a work in progress. A modest selection of CDs rests on racks in front of larger bins that hold vinyl. Dozens of rock posters-- some glossy ones for national bands, others for local bands and shows-- deck the walls, and the sloping ceiling leads back to a giant and as yet unformed space that will hold a 140-capacity, all-ages venue and an arcade. The space has a lot of potential to become a destination for fans not just of music, but of old school coin op video games as well. Building that cred isn't an overnight thing, though. Of course, they've already got a modest sum of goodwill capital to work with; in the four years that Eclipse was open on Grand Avenue, it became known not just as a record store but as a great all-ages venue, and the venue is a cornerstone for this Eclipse Records version 2.0.
"I always had this thing in the back of my mind," says Furth, "that if I re-opened, I wanted to do it on a grander scale instead of downsizing it or not having the live music or not having the arcade. There's some things about the place that people still talked about years later. It was open for four years; three years later we're open again, and people are still talking about us. It meant that much to them, and a lot of times you don't think about it because you're busy running it. But when you close and you have time to step back you're like, 'Wow, that place did have an impact on the city, did have an impact on the community.'"
"You hear it now," adds Brazil. "Even this past Saturday, there was a kid who played in the old store and he came in and you could just see it in his face. It was almost like it was a love affair. He was kind of over-the-top as far as that went, but we get that a lot."
All-ages venues seem to engender a specific kind of devotion; these are the places for kids who don't have careers, who don't drink. For kids who want to play music, venues like the former Eclipse and the now defunct Foxfire were their lives. Furth and Brazil want to bring that back as an integral part of the new location, but they've learned some lessons. Last time, Eclipse ran afoul of zoning regulations; the old location was in an area that was zoned for residential and commercial, and noise was a problem. This time around, they're in a dedicated commercial zone. And, having dealt with city officials like Jay Benanav and Jane Prince before, Furth already has some important contacts in place.
"You try not to repeat the same mistakes," says Furth. "As far as dealing with the City, a lot of people within the City said, 'Oh, Joe: you're doing such a good thing. If you could just have a different location.' And now I have a different location. I think a lot of these people, too, also realize how significant it was in the whole cliché of 'you don't know what you have 'til it's gone' type thing. There was a void after the last store closed of where do these teen bands go? Eclipse Records was an outlet for them."
"Foxfire disappeared," continues Brazil, "and now there's Twin Cities Underground, but [at the time] there was no outlet for that. Especially one that had the support of the parents involved. Parents knew what they were getting when their kids came to Eclipse Records, and that's going to happen again. This is why we have so much support from the parents and the teens. It's a safe place to come and you don't have to worry about Little Johnny or Susie if they get dropped off." For now, the opening of Eclipse as a venue is still a ways off, but when it does open, look for all-ages shows on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays to start.
With Furth's original partners returning to school, he was prepared to go it alone when it came to re-opening, but after working with Brazil on some of the business planning aspects, he brought him into the fold as a full partner.
"I've known Joe for about ten years now," Brazil says. "We worked together at Gluek's downtown. He was actually the best man at my wedding. He's got strengths that I don't have and I have strengths that he doesn't." He pauses for a moment before laughing and adding, "I'm perfect and he's not."
"I was kind of trying to help him find some investors," he continues, "and help him get it going, because I knew how much he loved it and I knew that it would be great for me to be involved, but I wasn't really looking to be involved. I more just wanted him to get it up and running, because it was his thing. And as it got rolling we sat down and he said, 'Well, why don't you get into it with me?' Of course, I had to sit down with the wife, get that all out of the way (laughs). That's how it started going. It was four or five months of us making plans and getting this place, because he'd seen this place before."
"In the years that it was closed, I would make what I would call 'runs,'" says Furth, "mostly in the summertime, where I would look, drive around, see which places I could potentially see the store in. Contact a few people, and things would fall through. I wasn't overly eager. As more time went by, it had to be right. This used to be a place called Abigail Uniforms. They sold and manufactured uniforms here. From all the problems that the last place had, I didn't want to [go through] that again. So it was more about finding the ideal place. Well, what is that? I don't know until I get there. Until you go into an empty space like this and you get the vision."
Once completed, the arcade (which was formerly relegated to the basement) will hold 30 to 40 games, including pinball and classic arcade games. Throw in coffee and a space for showing art, and you've got more than just another record store.
"That's one of the main reasons that a lot of places are closing down: They don't have a lot to offer in the way of outlets other than the music that they're selling," says Brazil. "Here, we bring people in because they want to play video games. Guys would come in with a tie, loosen the tie and play Frogger for a couple of hours. They come in and sometimes they'll buy an album. That diversity is something that can promote and drive the record store environment."
And while the venue portion of Eclipse Records was beloved more in spite of its size and acoustic qualities than because of them, Furth and Brazil are building this one to suit a wide variety of possible shows.
"We're building from scratch," says Furth, "whereas before, well, the room was already built and the sound was what it was-- it was very … unique. Was it the best-sounding venue? No. Bands really liked playing there and people liked going to shows there-- it centered around what kind of shows you do have. No matter what venue you have around town, if you don't have strong shows to back it up ..." He trails off and the implication is clear: It's not just the space, it's what you do with it.
The venue, the arcade, the coffee shop--they're all integral to the plan for the store, but it is first and foremost a record store, right? So in an age where CD sales are steadily declining in the face of not just illegal downloading, but legal purchasing from online retailers, how does the small record store navigate through the music industry?
"It's something where you have to be aware of it, but you don't try to compete with it," says Brazil. "iTunes is a giant store-- the stores that have to worry about them are also giant stores. We're more of a destination shop. I mean, you can find anything on the internet, but by offering product that's of a diverse nature, you're going to want to come here. iTunes is almost too big for us. Until we're a giant entity," he laughs.
"Even the first time around in the store," Furth adds, "people would ask if I worried about people downloading things. No, I actually don't. I'm offering an experience, and if somebody's going to say I no longer want to go to a record store, I'm just going to download, well, what actually can I do? There's nothing that I can do. And I don't want to take the focus away from what I am doing keeping this experience going. I need to cater to my customers."
So far, the customers have been a mix of new and old, many of them devoted, but the store opened right in the retail lull that follows the Christmas season, so Furth and Brazil are optimistic that they've seen the worst.
"We're battling through the first couple of months here," says Furth, "but more battling than struggling."
"Even opening in the lull," Brazil adds, "we get to see things at their worst, which is without everything. What is that environment? And it's not so bad. It's actually been quite rewarding, money-wise-- financially-- as far as people coming in. If this is our worst, next year can only get better."
And that's the kernel of the problem that all record stores are facing nowadays: How big is that margin, and what do you have to do to survive within that margin? You can't carry a ton of product because the storage costs are too much, plus, given the digital music trend, you might not ever sell it. Some teenagers today might never have even bought a CD, but while digital music might sound the death knell of the compact disc, there's a certain irreducible quality to vinyl-- which Eclipse Records has more than its share of-- which can't be duplicated with an mp3, and Brazil, for one, has seen a new generation embracing the LP.
"No matter what, no matter how far technology can go," he says, "the backlash is always just as big. That's why when I talk about these kids coming in-- 12-, 13-year-old kids-- talking about vinyl, there it is! It's right there. They've got their iPod right there, but I'm like, 'I love you and your iPod and your love of vinyl.'"
When I interviewed Aaron Gonecke, who cuts dub plates and vinyl for local hip-hop label Rhymesayers, he pointed to the durability of the medium as a medium. "The weird thing to me," he said, "is that everyone's like, 'Vinyl's coming back!' or 'It's going away again.' But no, it's pretty much stayed [the same] for the last however many years. I mean, 18-something was when the first flat record [was invented]. One of the guys at IBM in like 1962, when they came out with tape, he said, 'I give vinyl ten years to be gone.' And we had reel-to-reels, we had 8-tracks, we had cassettes; they're all gone now. In 1984, the guy that ran Sony said, 'I give vinyl five years to be off the market,' and CDs might die before vinyl dies. It's been around well over a hundred years; it's kind of hard to see it just going bye-bye tomorrow."
And there's the rub: When you look at music strictly as a commodity, as a product, the future looks bleak, but music isn't just something to be bought and sold. In theory, record stores exist to sell recordings, but in practice, they've become more than just a conduit for goods. As spaces for interaction, for exploration and discovery, the best ones become legends and destinations, and Joe Furth has his eyes on the prize.
"I've always wanted to own a record store, I guess," he says. "Some kids want to be doctors, I wanted to be a record store owner." ||