BY JOHN C. TRIPP
Running a tight operation in the music industry, where customers come first, is almost antithetical to its culture of hipterism and indifference. But in these hard times of declining sales it´s a survival tactic. This new rule of order applies in particular to small, indie stores where price will never be a selling point. As the field of players gets ever narrower it´s clear that few shops get this simple notion. But there are those that do, including New York´s Other Music, San Francisco´s Amoeba, and Chicago´s Dusty Groove. All have managed to stay unique, while passionately serving a specialized clientele. The megastores simply can´t match them for service and niche selection.
To say that Dusty Groove runs a tight ship is a wild understatement—the defense department could take lessons in order from these guys. At Dusty Groove things run smoothly in a seemingly effortless way: from its neatly organized retail shop (which includes a driveup window for mail order customers) to its well-maintained website to its happy-to-help staff. With sales now topping $3 million a year, its clear that something is being done right. Not bad for a shop that started out selling a few records a month on the web. It´s a passion for music and the vision of its co-founder, Rick Wojcik that keeps Dusty Groove going strong. Mundovibes caught up with Wojcik just as the shop was gearing up for another day of shipping music across the globe to hungry collectors and DJs.
MundoVibes: You’ve got a lot going on here. How did this all begin?
Rick Wojcik: As you can see before this store is even open, ‘cause we’re not even open until noon, they’re running around like mad downstairs getting orders out to New York and all points. And that’s still our biggest business. It’s probably just 10% of the store business because we started as a website exclusively. We started in 1996 as a website exclusively and with no great hopes. It was just a hobby, just a whim. Myself and another guy, being record collectors—not even collectors—we were DJs and we had kind of a sick habit of finding too much and we would find, ‘oh, hey here’s some cheap records. Maybe we should buy a couple more of these.’ I had started selling a lot myself just to kind of support my habit. If I found two I’d sell one and keep one, which is a very common thing that a lot of people do. I think it was very different in the pre-eBay days and who know’s, if eBay had been fully formed then we might have just sold that way. But at another level, we just really like the music. If we bought and sold and had enough of a connection to know that like ‘well, New York has these records but there’s lot you can’t buy in New York’, you know? ‘San Francisco’s great for these records but there’s a lot of stuff you can’t buy there.’ And London or Paris. So, we knew that possibly there would be a way to interconnect all of these scenes and going on line seemed to be a way to just do it. As I said, we didn’t really have any great hopes but it kind of took off right away.
MundoVibes: You definitely tapped into a need.
RW: Yeah, and it was a need that we had and still have ourselves. I mean, the thing that gets a lot of us into work every day is just a voracious appetite for music and the fact that you read about a record that was released in Japan by a group that was getting press in publications that were floating around here but to try to make the larger sized record industry bring that music over to Chicago is impossible. It’s like you just got sick of going into Tower, going to the import section, looking at something, trying to find something at their computer. You know, that’s a lot of what we do, although most of what we do, since we come out of that situation of selling old music, it’s still based on older music and I think that’s still the market that we service the best. It’s like, well people have heard about somebody, and even a name like Caetano Veloso or Fela Kuti, who’s like huge. You may as well be talking about the Who. But if you go into a mainstream record store you still not going to find a very good selection. And the simple fact that, for example, Universal Brazil has 25 Caetano Veloso CDs in print and Universal US carries five, four of which are greatest hits. That’s probably an overstatement, but that’s often the way a lot of globally conscious artists are represented in the U.S. market, including many U.S. artists themselves. You know, maybe jazz or soul artists that, you know, the American mainstream record stores will say, ‘well, we’ll get a couple of greatest hits in, that should cover all of our bases’ when it’s like ‘hey, funny, this guy put out like 30 records.’
MV: And there are fans that want this music.
RW: Yeah. Our general logic is if ‘well, if we’re so crazy about it, there has to be a couple of other people. And in some cases we’ll only sell two copies of the CD, and in some cases we’ll sell two-hundred—it just depends. But even those two copies are worth it.
MV: You carry an eclectic kind of mix. Would you somehow define what your style is?
RW: Jazz and soul music, that’s still our strongest category and strongest motivation. And if we do branch out. Iif we’re carrying African music, well we’re carrying African music inspired by James Brown or the post-Fela Kuti generation. We’re not carrying a lot of ethnographic African music. We might carry some African jazz players or African fusion. Likewise, Brazilian music, it’s like we really got into that because of our love funk and there’s alot of just crazy funk records from Brazil. There’s also a tremendously strong jazz tradition that intersects with bossa nova. When we first started our interest was not to represent the huge artists of the ‘70s but through ourselves exploring music and realizing what’s out there. But we also do a tremendous disservice to a large range of Brazilian and other pop artists that we’re just not going to stock because we don’t have any way to get our ears around their sound and link it up with the rest of our inventory. It often can happen that somebody’s buying a regular jazz record and you could play them a Brazilian record from the ‘70s and really get them into it because there’s a lot of similar elements. And that’s still the way we see a lot of the dispersed stuff we stock. There’s ways to trace it musically but we’re not going to illustrate on the site and say ‘hey, if you like this you should buy this.’
MV: Which Amazon does.
RW: Yeah, and which works and doesn’t. You know one of our guiding policies here, although it probably never comes out is that we don’t make recommendations and we do n’t tell people what they should buy. I know people who are always like ‘dude, hook me up’ or ‘dude, you’ve got to tell me about this’. ‘Cause every time we do it, it’s thrown back in our face.
It’s like ‘Oh, I really like James Brown. What else should I get?’
‘Well, have you heard the Meters?’
‘No, that sounds great’. And then ‘this sucks’.
James Brown and the Meters are this close in the funk pantheon, but people are people and they have very complicated relations to their music.
MV: What is the team here? Is it like a family?
RW: Well, it’s just been a growing bunch of people. I ended up starting the company with somebody else who had more of a technical expertise on webstuff and his musical interest was hip hop. A lot of the people who work here are not die-hard fanatics for the music we sell. They’re just really, really great people to work with and that’s what we look for more than anything. I come from some record retailing myself. A lot of us come from college radio and I think one of the things we really wanted to get away from is that ‘here is what is good. We are going to tell you what is good.’ We get a tremendous number of applicants that are like ‘I’ve got a big record collection and I’m totally great’. But it’s really clear from looking at their resumes and talking to them that they don’t want to be customer service oriented. And we’ve really grown as a company by listening. I know this sounds really stupid, but I work here sixty hours a week, I’ve got a baby at home. I don’t even have time to go to shows and 200 new records I’ve never heard pass through my hands a day. But at the same time I really have to be connected to the world outside by listening to the customers because they’re the ones bringing in the new ideas, the new tastes. At many record stores you’ll ask somebody if they’ve heard of something and they’re like ‘uh, sure, we don’t have that.’ They don’t even stop to ask ‘why is this guy asking?’ And we do a lot of that. We have an online suggestion box that is a treasure trove whe re people are like ‘hey, you don’t have this.’ And we’ll try and track it down. Our customers are just really great people with great ears that we’ve really come to respect. That’s been one of the driving forces over and above our own knowledge. The employees certainly have some feedback. Some people here are really into the music we sell and some people do a lot of clubwork. But, in the course of a given day we’re just busy unpacking boxes. That’s more of what it’s about.
Rick Wojcik at Dusty Groove´s Chicago home.
MV: Have you ever considered being an actual imprint and reissuing music?
RW: I think it would just hurt us. We get asked that question all of the time and we get opportunities all of the time. The one thing that would be very difficult is you become invested in 2,000 copies of the exact same order. And, while there are records we have sold upwards of five or six-hundred, even a thousand copies over the years, it’s having an attention to diversity that really not only keeps us going from a creative standpoint but also financially it helps u s protect ourselves. I wouldn’t want to be in a position where we have to shew a CD to every customer and say ‘you have to have this.’ No matter how good or bad a record is that you have, when you have made it you have to really focus on it being the most important thing in the world. Or one of the most important things, next to the other records you’ve made. And that’s the kind of energy we just don’t have but some people are very, very good at. There’s a lot of Chicago labels like Drag City or Thrill Jockey that have that ability to say, ‘here is a corner of the world that is very important and you need to know how important it is’. And knowing those people as friends, I’m not that same person. I’m a very different kind of person and the company is structured very differently. That’s just the way it is and that’s the biggest thing more than anything. Even if we’ve found something that is the greatest record in the world, five minutes later we think another record is the greatest. And that’s the joy of working here and that’s the way we grow. And our customers are people who want the greatest record in the world today and tomorrow—they’re going through that. Even if you’re a big indie label you still only have like 200 records tops maybe. And that’s such a small amount compared to the 10,000 that we offer on a daily basis.
MV: That certainly makes sense.
RW: We certainly spend a lot of time steering artists towards other labels, anwering questions for labels. If a label puts out a good title that we think we can make a lot of sales on, we’re obviously going to say ‘yes, go ahead with that project. We’ll guarantee that we’ll buy 100 copies right up front. It is hitting a level of a lot of free consultancy work that I suppose benefits us in the long run. There are some people who want us to hold their hand and say ‘I have an opportunity to license any title I want from the Atlantic catalogue. Which five do you think I should start with?’ And it’s like, ‘dude, if you’re smart enough to get this deal but not smart enough to pick five records, you know? Don’t ask me to do your work for you.
MV: You’re definitely not a like DJ store, although you do service DJs.
RW: Well, the biggest reason for that is that our biggest business is still mail order and it’s really difficult to satisfy a guy in New York if he gets two pieces of vinyl and they’ve got fingerprints and a CD that looks like it’s been played. We really try to have the merchandise as neat and orderly as possible as we can. There are a lot of Chicago customers that will come up with a pile of 50 hip hop singles and say where can I listen to these. I’ll be honest: I don’t know how those stores make money and since so many dance music stores do close I think that answers the question. Somebody like the Beat Parlor, which was a great institution and I’m very sorry to see it go. It was a great local hangout and it was around for many years and they had their ups and downs but you could go and break the shrinkwrap. And if you bought a record there, you knew you we re getting it with fingerprints all over it. But you were shopping there—you probably already listened to half of the stuff. But for us, we just can’t do that.
MV: You’ve got to be able to guarantee the quality if you’re sending something to Japan.
RW: Well, and if people are treating you as a lending library. There’s been a real confusion in the record business in the last ten years that record stores have pushed their “bill of rights” to the customer at a level where many people expect to break open anything they want and listen to it, which was something that Blockbuster music started in the mid-nineties and where are they now? There’s still a couple of places that feel like they’ve got to break open records. Listening stations obviously service that need, but listening stations are so tied up with advertising dollars that all of the corrupt relations of the music industry make it impossible to treat them as a good source for anything other than hype. But also, return policies are something that a lot of record retailers have changed dramatically, again with part of this climate because competition was very, very tough in the mid-nineties. If I’ve got a CD and if we’re selling it for thirteen dollars we paid like ten-fifty for it. If somebody takes it home, they break it open, they bring it back, it’s got some fingerprints—I can’t sell it for thirteen dollars again. We don’t sell used CDs so we’re out not only ten-fifty but we’re really out thirteen ninety-nine because that customer’s come back and may want the credit against something else. At some level any cultural business is based on curiousity and the customers have got to satisfy their curiosity. So, like the movie business it’s like, you go to see a lot of movies and a lot of them suck. That’s just the way movies are but people don’t want their money back in the end. I’m saying all of this to say for us we’re really on a tight budget, the DJ business is a great one, a lot of DJs shop here and a lot of DJs respect that it’s a oneway transaction that th ey dig through the crates, they find stuff, you know? The best DJs in the world have apartments and houses full of thousands of records that they will never use, they will never play more than once and they know that. But I think that there’s a different kind of cheapskate DJ mode where it’s like ‘I should treat this place like a library.’ It’s like records are guitar strings to DJs but if you buy some guitar strings at guitar center for ten bucks and you don’t like the way they sound, the person won’t take those strings back because you snipped and twisted them. It is a crossroads and it is something that in this sort of fantasy of the DJ culture, the real understanding of what it takes for retail, which is the street level grassroots connection the DJs have to this music. Everybody can talk about God-like DJs soaring above the clouds with 50,000 people dancing like one, but feeding that whole culture is record retailing and it’s a shame that the DJ store goes boom and bust all the time. Gramaphone (Chicago) is a tremendous institution that has managed to ride alot of things out but they’ve done it by some very strict policies, they service a lot of customers under the table.
MV: What are your relations with the bigger industry? You don’t work with, say, WEA.
RW: We do. We work with everybody as big as WEA and Universal, right down to many companies where it’s just small, one artists labels. In fact, we’ll do equal sales. For example, Universal music in the last couple of weeks put out a record by Dorothy Ashby called ‘Afro Harping’, which is a soul-jazz record from 1968 but which sold like 100 copies. It’s probably sitting at Tower because nobody knows where to file it. But we’ll deal with a singer from New York who sends us the CD-R and doesn’t even have any artwork. We’ll say ‘this sounds great, we’ll pay you for 25 copies’ and we’ll sell out every copy of her CD too. It really just depends, our job here is to focus on overlooked music and sometimes that music can be overlooked even at the big companies. And, in fact, I would say often it’s the case that there’s a lot more of it overlooked at the big companies over the years, especially on a global basis now that somebody like WEA or EMI or Universal have huge global catalogues that they don’t even realize they’ve begun to handle. And it may be the case that WEA in Germany might reissue a soul record that WEA in America doesn’t even know they own. And that’s a lot of our job too is saying ‘we know there’s plenty of American listeners who would still care about this record, so lets try and bring it over.
MV: And you don’t find there to be barriers in terms of importing these records?
DG: There are, yeah. There always are but there’s always sources. Our customers are all shopping on Amazon France and Amazon Germany and Amazon Japan, and it’s that kind of a market. Amazon offers great prices and great shipping and if Amazon says they can get it, they’re usually telling the truth. So, I can go to Amazon France and get a whole host of titles. A very brief example is last year Universal France, who have had this series going for a couple of years called ‘Jazz in Paris’. They’re very good European recordings by, in many cases American artists that recorded in Paris in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Initially they were exporting these titles to America and we had no problem getting them. Then they put export restrictions on them because they were shopping the titles over here. Verve took the twelve most obvious and they didn’t do a very good job but they held the rights for a while. Our customers meanwhile were saying ‘I can go to Amazon France and get these but I would rather order from you’. And it’s just a case where if we can’t get them from Universal, there’s always a one-stop type distributor that will take those things and bring them in or ship them. And that’s often the case with many of these things—they’ll always travel around the globe anyway.
MV: As long as there’s a market.
DG: Well, it’s a very ridiculous thing that Universal, the biggest record company in the wor ld, has a product in France that they won’t bring or make available somehow just through some channels of distribution be able to get to their American customers. Universal, being a tremendous international record company—all it does it make the people who run their little fiefdoms at a local level feel very threatened. If they’re like ‘Jessie Herst (SPELLING), I know nothing about this music, I don’t even know who this guy is. I’m busy pushing Diane Kroll. This stuff sucks—American customers would never care about it’. And, meanwhile, we’re selling dozens of copies of these CDs. And the longshot is that the CDs have ended up coming in to America through Ryko, who comes through WEA. So, it’s like why is WEA distributing Universal product over here? And it’s only because there’s a guy at Universal who’s afraid that it’s going to reflect poorly on him. That is the biggest barrier to the circulation of international music because quite frankly, we’ve got it all there: the data bases are there, the companies are there. Honestly, the major labels, yeah they’re big bad guys sometimes but they can do tremendous things and they have so much in their catalogues right now, and ultimately it’s a very little expenditure for them to make 1,000 copies and put it out, and they do. And they’re doing this here and they’re doing it there and a lot of this stuff keeps running into drawbacks that, whether it’s price and packaging or even knowing what section to put the music in.
MV: You seem to have your own system of categorization at Dusty Groove.
DG: That’s been a big help to us. Somebody like Fela Kuti, we used to put all of his records in the soul section. And when they were doing all of those reissues people used to come in and there was this period of about four years ago where there was an interest in ‘70s African funk and it was getting lost in the other section so we made this ‘global grooves’ name up. It should go in the African Funk but then theres occasional crossover things.
MV: It does help by not getting too specific.
DG: Yeah. Another example is French music. We only sell a handful of French singers, like Serge Gainsbourg but we have this French section, which we should probably call something else like ‘European Singers With Weird Accents’ because it would actually really help sell the things in there better.
MV: Where is Dusty Groove headed now? What do you invision for the future?
DG: At some level we’re trying to expand into new areas. We’ve brought in comic books and graphic novels because a lot of us here have an interest and we’ve opened this sort of sister site. We trying to find it on the same energy that we did with Dusty Groove. The real difference is, if we had started it in the same context as we had Dusty Groove it would been doing fine, because the sales are small. When we started Dusty Groove we’d get like 10 sales a month when we first put it up, but it was a hobby. But we have a lot more money invested in the site, the programming and the products. I think it’ll really take off at some point but the main thing is—as you asked about the record labels—we don’t want anything to get in the way of doing what we do here. So, we trying to both set it up also but keep on doing what we’re doing and not kill the goose laying the golden eggs. And, in addition to that, DVDs are something a lot of customers are asking for. I don’t that we’ll become a mega store, but I think that there are enough criss-crosses of interest and shared communities that we could probably expand with.
Interview conducted by John C. Tripp, late spring 2003