End of a Record Run

The sudden demise of Zia founder Brad Singer shakes the local music community he helped to build

On Saturday, April 18, Brad Singer was in Tucson. The owner of the Zia Record Exchange chain had driven down for the annual Tucson music awards club crawl, universally known as the TAMMIES. Although he was a bit run-down from a persistent cold, Singer knew that he needed to be at the TAMMIES. He not only owned three successful stores in Tucson, but his record label, Epiphany Records, had just released a TAMMIES compilation CD to coincide with the awards show, and the event was a perfect chance to promote the album.

But on this night, Singer was in one of those morose moods that he would slip into from time to time. He felt fatigued and bored. He worried that his rampant generosity wasn't fully appreciated, that many people used him, that he didn't know who his real friends were. As the night went on and Singer downed more drinks, he told a friend that all he wanted in life was someone who truly loved him for him, not for the wealth he had to offer. His friend hugged him for several minutes, and they wished each other well. Somehow she sensed that she wasn't just saying good night, she was saying goodbye.

Less than three weeks later, on May 6, 400 people crammed into Sinai Mortuary to pay their final respects to Brad Singer. One person after another got up to relay amusing personal anecdotes or to describe how Brad had changed their lives by believing in them. One bearded, longhaired, extremely corpulent Zia employee named Tom brought people to tears, unabashedly describing himself as "a freak" and saying that Singer's unswerving faith made him feel "like a human being" for the first time.

It was an outpouring of emotion that probably would have shocked the often insecure Singer, but the funeral service offered a testament to what a wide swath the 45-year-old entrepreneur had cut through the Valley music scene. When most of us die, outside of our family and a close circle of friends, relatively few people are directly affected. But Singer was a point of intersection for an entire music community.

Seeing the Who's Who of local music that filled the mortuary, it was hard to think of any key Arizona music figures who had not crossed paths with Singer--either by working at one of the eight Zia locations in the state, or by recording for his beloved label, or by borrowing money from Singer for a recording project, or accepting funds from him to keep a radio show on the air, or possibly just by engaging him in a musical debate at Long Wong's. His death by a mysterious viral infection has left a palpable void in the community, and has thrown into question the future direction of the companies he created.

For now, everyone at the company is carrying on as though nothing has changed, and his mother, Lynn Singer, who has ultimate say in business matters, says that "business as usual" is her approach. While Zia and Impact, Singer's distribution company, are solid, stable entities, much speculation surrounds Epiphany, which was such a personal project for Singer (there were only three paid staffers at the label when Singer died) that it's hard to imagine it surviving. The recording future of the four bands signed to Epiphany--Beat Angels, the Piersons, Yoko Love, and the Revenants--is in limbo.

Singer's funeral was by far the biggest and most traumatic service for a local music figure since the 1993 death of ex-Gin Blossoms guitarist Doug Hopkins. As on that occasion, much of the crowd followed the mournful gathering by going off to Long Wong's--Singer's favorite bar--to tie one on and get rowdy in memory of their lost friend. The strangest thing about it was that Singer himself wasn't there to buy a round.

When Orson Welles died in 1985, film critics were at a loss to explain how the director of Citizen Kane could have achieved so much by the time he hit his mid-20s, yet spent the last four decades of his life spinning his wheels on one unfinished, ill-conceived project after another. The most common theory was that success had come too fast for Welles, that he'd run out of challenges too soon.

Some would say that, on a more modest scale, Brad Singer came to suffer from a touch of Welles Syndrome, simply because he reached his goals so early. By the time he was 30, Singer had established an ever-growing chain of thriving record stores, a company that now takes in $15 million a year. Faster than he could have predicted, Zia Enterprises became an Arizona institution, a business with sufficient momentum that it did not require constant attention from him.

"Brad was tired," says his close friend Julie Hurm-Tessitore, an account executive at KDKB-FM 93.3. "Zia wasn't a joy to him anymore. It had become the monster that ran on autopilot."

As a result, in recent years, Singer sought out other challenges: opening his own distribution company, Impact Music, sinking his money into a biweekly pop-culture magazine called The Planet, and launching Epiphany Records, the record label that he dreamed would put Tempe on the map the way Sub Pop had done for Seattle. He even talked of one day buying his own radio station. For Singer, every ambition connected back to his lifelong love of music.

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