No pop stars allowed

Fulcrum Records hopes to deliver indie rock and hip-hop goods to Chico

SERVICE WITH A SMILE <br>Owner and sole employee Rene Stephens sits in her small new store space Fulcrum Records, located next to the Pageant Theatre in back of a new coffee shop, Café Flo, currently under construction.

Owner and sole employee Rene Stephens sits in her small new store space Fulcrum Records, located next to the Pageant Theatre in back of a new coffee shop, Café Flo, currently under construction.

Photo By Tom Angel

Fulcrum Records
365 East Sixth Street (next to Pageant)

Maybe you’ve seen him lately, someplace downtown.

There is a slight bounce to his step as he treads in rhythm to the beats rattling between fat headphones clamped on his skull. He’s dressed like every other urban-grade hipster in today’s fashion market—complete with skullcap, hip-hop-sanctioned jacket or boots. A walking stereotype perpetuated by mass market advertising which worships at the altar of youth culture, simultaneously slipping a hand in our back pockets. And he is among the hordes of Chico’s young DJ generation—foremost enamored by music (usually vinyl) and always on the lookout, like a crackhead, for ways to get more.

Today he is headed toward a new stop on his daily travels, Fulcrum Records, tucked away in the back hallway of a future coffeeshop/restaurant (soon to open) called Café Flo, inside the building that houses the Pageant Theatre. Having just opened three months ago, the tiny backroom music shop specializes in indie rock, hip-hop and electronica/house/turntable (the masturbatory solo guitar of the new millennium). In other words, just what the DJ ordered.

Fulcrum Records was started by recent Chico State grad Rene Stephens, a chin-studded 26-year-old woman prone to wide grins that show off her perfect teeth. Dressed like a cross between a pro snowboarder and a hip-hop DJ, Stephens welcomes curious customers—many of whom appear to be her friends—into the cramped store space she rents for $300 a month from Mary and Kate Gardner, who will run Café Flo. Stephens’ stock currently consists of a few racks of select CDs (Stephens’ personal favorites) and several crates of hip-hop and indie-rock vinyl.

“I can vouch for everything here,” she says, standing beside the Technics turntable decks behind her counter. “Most are my favorites: from Ani DiFranco and riot grrrl bands to Sonic Youth, Björk … also new stuff that people tell me about.”

Stephens purchased, built or designed everything in the store—from her photography on the wall to the front desk and interior sound system.

“This is where I spend all day listening to music and researching,” she says contentedly—like a teenager in the comfortable confines of her bedroom.

Stephens is originally from Grass Valley and moved here in 1997 to attend Chico State University where she pursued several degrees resulting in a bachelor of arts in graphic design, another in sculpture and a minor in women’s studies. She fell in love with the community and wanted to stick around after graduation, so she hit up her father—a veteran businessman and former engineer/numbers theorist for IBM—for a $10,000 loan to help kick-start her own music store.

During high school, Stephens had once worked a summer job as a production assistant for a family friend’s classic rock radio station, The Eagle, in Sacramento—where she first fell in love with collecting music.

“I would have loved to start my own live-music venue in Chico, but that was way too expensive,” she explains. “Instead, I looked around at other local music stores and realized that there was still a niche missing.”

Stephens says the “bread-n-butter” of her business so far has been special orders—or individual requests for CDs or vinyl. She wants to meet the needs of music fans (such as herself) who have previously had to journey to nearby cities to find certain underground music not normally stocked by local stores.

“If people get orders to me by Saturday, I can usually get it in by Wednesday or Thursday,” she explains. “I’d like to get more stock out there, but not only do I not have much room, I don’t know yet what is going to sell.”

Lynn Brown, manager of Tower Records—the undisputed champion of local sales concerning music—wishes her the best of luck.

“It’s a tough time right now to be in this business,” says Brown. “Sales are down for two main reasons: People are burning CDs, and there’s just not a lot of great new music being put out.”

For years, the major labels have gouged consumers with high CD prices on new releases ($18 to $20)—but with the advent of home burners, the trend began shifting. Brown says that last year the number of blank CDs (considerably cheaper at around 50 cents or less each—or closer to the actual value of said item) outsold all pre-recorded albums—a telling nationwide statistic.

And this is why Stephens likes to deal with only independent artists. She will not carry any major, partly because she cannot buy in bulk, but also because she wants to provide a legitimate alternative to corporate prices. Her system uses color codes for prices that already include tax (plus, most indie CDs can be sold cheaper).

She also hopes to be an outlet for local artists—as evidenced by a few local CDs and artwork like AyeJay Morano’s novelty Gangsta Rap Coloring Book. Stephens has an e-mail list of 500 people so far who have visited her store, and she hopes to provide a sort of community music board for various DJs and musicians looking to connect with each other, trade, and host local parties.

Evidently, Stephens takes a casual approach to running a one-woman business, usually showing up to work around noon. She then spends about 90 percent of her day online looking at music label sites and researching—and keeps a notebook filled with suggestions from customers. Whether her store will survive the coming months remains to be seen—but there are plenty of individuals who want to support her.

Stephens was recently a guest on the KZFR show Sonic View, hosted by Pat Collentine and Susan Larsen, where she played some of her favorite tunes and spoke briefly about the local music scene—which she loves but also notes that she finds some of the public to be apathetic in their support.

True to form, Stephens had to be prompted by one of the hosts to give the address and plug her new store—"I totally forgot … I’m not a morning person" she said later—demonstrating her less-than-aggressive business demeanor; which probably suits her young clientele just fine. After all, these are kids who have likely experienced enough sales pitches already to last a lifetime.