Think globally, wax locally

A few area record stores offer a decent selection of CDs by up-and-coming local acts

The local music rack inside the Beat on J Street.

The local music rack inside the Beat on J Street.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Where does music come from? Is there an incubator for generic rock bands hidden deep within the San Antonio corporate headquarters of the radio and concert-promotion leviathan Clear Channel, or in the basement of Viacom-owned MTV’s building in Manhattan? Do these incubators routinely spit out “baby bands” for mass consumption—“Blink 182 minus Sum 41 equals something 141; should we go with ‘Slink,’ ‘Bum’ or something less obvious? Get marketing to run that data through call-out research immediately!” And what of that Coors “I love shots of Gena Lee and twins” band, or those lads in the Pepsi Blue commercial?

Having spent way too much time lurking about record stores, I think I know the answer, and it’s not nearly as sinister as you might think.

If your neighborhood record store is at all on the ball, it probably has a local music rack. Its location may not be the most prime piece of real estate in the store, and often you’ll find it tucked away in a dusty back corner. But it’s a place where local bands can get their CDs displayed for sale within the larger context of everything the music business has to offer, and therein lies its value.

The conventional wisdom, whatever that is, may indicate that major record companies scour places like Sacramento when looking for the next Cinderella story. But the reality is slightly less glamorous. Making music is hard work, recording is expensive, and bands generally don’t get signed because some record-company functionary, who just happened to be driving by a practice space in a rented Lexus, heard next year’s Disturbed blasting out of an open door.

So, a band has to manufacture its records or get someone else to put them out. After that, it needs to find distribution to get its music into stores. Usually, unless someone in the band is related to somebody, getting one of the five majors—Bertelsmann, EMI, Sony, Universal or Warner—to pick up distribution for a record is about as easy as winning the lottery. Smaller distributors, too, can be next to impossible to enlist.

The alternative is something called consignment. This means a band walks into a record store with a few CDs and tries to talk the store’s buyer into putting the band’s CDs in the store’s consignment rack. There, they will either gather dust or sell. If they sell, and people start talking about them, the band may find itself talking to a bigger record label about its future.

But the record business, as you may have heard, is not going gangbusters as it was four or five years ago. Records are not selling in the numbers they once did, big labels are in trouble, big retail chains are in trouble, and everyone is pointing the finger. The problem is peer-to-peer computer networks that enable digital files. No, it’s the consolidation of radio into three or four corporations that all share the same tiny playlist filled with fast-food acts. No, it’s overpriced CDs competing in a horrible economy. No, it’s the lack of places to see bands for a decent ticket price. No, it’s simply that all new music sucks.

Not everyone believes the latter. I certainly don’t. Anyway, I wanted to see if the dream was still alive, if you could walk into a local record store and find new music by local bands that aren’t signed.

The answer is yes, you can.

Unfortunately, the first place I walked into, Pug’z, was a washout. The store, at 3200 Folsom Boulevard, isn’t in a huge space, and the man behind the back counter indicated that the store had tried racking local music but had stopped because it wasn’t selling in a volume to justify the shelf space. “You can find it,” he said. “It’s just mixed in with all the other stuff.”

According to industry experts, fliers are a nifty way to let fans know about upcoming “gigs.”

Photo by Larry Dalton

Next stop was The Beat, at 1700 J Street. Of the six or seven stores I checked, it had the most extensive selection—all of it crammed into an end rack positioned toward the front of the store. If there was a problem, it was that there were leader cards for so many acts that there was barely space for one copy of each title.

Still, if I was an out-of-town A&R scout looking to draw a bead on the local music scene, this is probably where I’d start. First, by looking at whose sections were empty: The Amazing Sweethearts, ¡Búcho!, P. Chill, the Creeps, Die Trying, ENT, the Lookyloos, Singe and the Willknots all were sold out.

What was left in the racks were CDs by more than 150 acts, from professional-grade packaging to the obviously homemade, from Shortie to Shorty Pimpish. Most of the discs were of fairly recent vintage—not a whole lot older than two years. This may not be helpful for the cultural anthropologist hoping to put together a definitive list of Sacramento indie CDs from the past 10 years, but record stores are not charities, right?

The Beat does separate its hip-hop indies from the rest; of the latter, I found both German import jazz Spiritual Standards discs by Markus Burger (now a local resident) and German saxophonist Jan von Klewitz, racked between Nat Brown and Larisa Bryski. And if you’re looking for local acts whose labels have better distribution, they’re mixed in with all the other pop stuff, away from the consignment rack. Thus, such major-label acts as Cake, Deftones and Papa Roach and such indies as California Oranges, Deathray, Golden Shoulders, Holiday Flyer, Magnolia Thunderfinger, 7Seconds and the Skirts are to be found outside the context of the indie consignment rack. And, though those acts weren’t in the rack, a few out-of-towners, such as JND (from San Luis Obispo) and Rich McCulley (from San Francisco by way of Fresno) were. Guess they play here often enough to justify it.

The only other curiosity was the indie rack’s under stock, which carries soon-to-be-obsolete cassettes by local acts, many of whom aren’t represented in the CD rack above. If you’re looking for the recorded output of Dr. BLT, a.k.a. frequent opinion-page letter writer Bruce L. Thiessen, here’s where you’ll find it.

Because there are a few record stores in Sacramento’s northern suburbs, it was worth a check to see if any of them carry local indies. The first stop, Virgin Megastore at 1715 Arden Way, wasn’t one of them. “Um, we carry local bands mixed in with our other stock,” a friendly clerk offered, citing the Used (a band from Utah that records for Warner/Reprise) as an example.

Up the street, Dimple Records, at 2433 Arden Way, was much better. “Local music rack? It’s back in that corner, under that hanging Grateful Dead rug,” the counter clerk said. And it was.

Although the selection wasn’t as extensive as the Beat’s, with just more than 60 acts represented, it had a lot of copies by certain acts, such as Red Top Road, Shortie and Tenfold. Much of it was hip-hop (with Addict Merchants mis-filed under their album title, Matters of Fact), and there were some interesting choices: Who is “Yogi, a.k.a. Captain A-Hole,” anyway, and what does he sound like? Like the Beat, Dimple was out of Willknots CDs. But it did have the new Page 29 disc, along with a few that the Beat didn’t have—such as 98 Rock star Paul Marshall’s No Talent Ass Clown.

A few miles away, at 2514 Watt Avenue, Tower Records also had a well-appointed indie rack in the back, next to the door to the classical room. What Tower offers, which the others do not, is a listening station on its local-music rack, with music by Long Drive Home, World of Lies, the Allen Welch Project, Currency!Nostra, EMB, Michael Doughton, Ben Luco & the Funky Divine, Many Verses of Philosophy, Jacovia, Good4Nuthin and the hip-hop soundtrack to Wild Girls on Film, whatever that is. Also, if you ever wanted to find out what David Houston’s 1960s band Public Nuisance sounded like, it’s on the listening station. Curiously, none of Houston’s current CDs were available anywhere, although True Love Coffeehouse probably sells them (along with a few other local CDs).

The rest of the Tower rack contained lots of CDs, with less than 50 acts to choose from. It contained a few titles carried by Bayside Distribution, which Tower owns; these weren’t spotted at Dimple or the Beat. And, like the Beat, Tower puts local acts with better distribution—majors, plus indie labels like Blackliner (the Skirts, Magnolia Thunderfinger), Doppler (Deathray, Golden Shoulders) and Dig! Music (Jackie Greene, Sal Valentino, Mick Martin)—in with its main stock.

Tower’s Broadway location (2500 16th Street) got rid of its local music rack a while back. But it should be noted that the store, according to store buyer Sam Joseph, has sold well over 100 copies of Jackie Greene’s Dig! Music release, Gone Wanderin’. In case you were wondering, those are pretty impressive numbers for an indie title out of one store. It indicates that there still may be plenty of life in the music business, despite what you’re hearing elsewhere.

Most national success stories start locally, so if you’re interested in what this town has to offer, check out the local rack at one of these stores. You never know what you’ll find, right?