The advertisements are meant to fool you.
"The Last Real Record Store."
That's what Zia Record Exchange proclaims itself on TV commercials and banners, as if there were still some fiery independent spirit fueling the company like there was before founder Brad Singer died.
After Singer's sudden death in 1998, a dedicated cadre of upper management struggled and mostly succeeded in pulling Zia out of its rudderless turmoil. A veteran record retailer in the Valley, Jim Kelly, was hired as general manager of the chain after half a year of tumult, and he managed to return Zia's standard of independence and community-mindedness -- at least until recently. Kelly and almost all of the managers who worked with him to restore Zia's focus are now history, along with Impact Music (the company's one-stop wholesale distribution arm), and a Tucson Zia shop, the largest store in the chain.
Also lost to history is Zia's dedication to the constituency that was its lifeblood -- the fanatical record buyers who depended on the store to stock their collections with obscurities and imports.
Zia was once an eclectic, idiosyncratic record emporium where diggers could find the albums they wanted plus gems they didn't know they needed. Now it takes a rummage through piles of Top 200 CDs to find even the commonest of indie releases. On a recent trip to Zia's Tempe location on University, near Arizona State, the store had a dozen copies of Disturbed's latest metallicrap, but not one of Desaparecidos' incredible Read Music/Speak Spanish. In the rap section, I found a pile of Bow Wow's new teeny-rap disc but nary a copy of anything by Canadian wunderkind Buck 65.
Zia is the last real record store like Circle K is the last real grocery store.
After Brad Singer's death, control of Zia was eventually in the hands of his ex-wife, Sandra, who hired Jim Kelly, who had worked at Wherehouse Entertainment for 12 years, as general manager of the chain. Kelly describes Zia as "a plane flying on autopilot towards a hill" when he arrived.
His vision was exactly what Zia needed. "I think being the best independent record store means making sure everyone can find what they wanted," he says, looking back. "I wanted it to be a place where a dad could walk in with his kid and he could find the Coltrane record he was looking for and the kid could find Operation Ivy."
"Jim Kelly was the last hope, the last one there that really understood what Brad was doing," says a former employee. Of the half-dozen former and current employees interviewed, all but Kelly requested anonymity because of lingering ties to the company.
Sandra Singer sold the Zia chain and Impact distribution to a group of Scottsdale CPAs and investors around 2000. It seemed like a foolproof investment, a record chain that did 15 million in sales a year ("End of a Record Run," May 21, 1998) at a bargain price. Another former employee familiar with the details of the sale explains, "They thought they'd bought this absolute golden goose that should be laying golden eggs making them millions of dollars in a very short period of time. And it never did. It did okay; it broke even and even made a few bucks. But it never produced this huge egg."
The investors were oblivious to Zia's place in the music community, oblivious to the fact that Zia Records was so much more than a retailer to the bands that sold records on consignment through the chain, to the obsessive music heads who depended on Zia to acquire the most obscure elements of their collections. All they saw was a disappointing return on their investment; the golden egg was conspicuously absent. So heads began to roll.
Barry Barton, chief financial officer of Zia since 1990, reportedly got a shocker when he saw his position advertised in the classifieds in January of 2002. Kelly recalls, "One Sunday morning I get a call from Barry, he's flippin' the fuck out -- I would be, too -- that his job is in the newspaper. It was truly fucked up."
I'm told that Barton, who declined to comment, had never been informed that the owners were seeking to replace him. Barton had stuck with the company through its boom, through Singer's death, through the subsequent troubles that Jim Kelly had solved. Barton was fired in July of 2002, then rehired later that year. In January 2003, the owners hired Larry Rudnick to run the financial side of Zia. Barton was fired again in August. "[Rudnick] had been hired as the financial person," says a source close to the company. "But he wanted to be both, he wanted to [manage the] operational as well as financial."
Jim Kelly was fired on May 5, 2003. He now lives in New Jersey and works for Warner/Elektra/Atlantic in New York as a consultant on independent retailers. Rudnick now runs the chain as vice president and general manager, and another veteran Wherehouse manager named Brian Faber is Zia's director of retail operations.
"We have reduced staff considerably," Rudnick tells me. "And we paid severance to everybody; they're entitled to it and we think it's the right thing. I think [the owners] just wanted to change directions somewhat."
Kelly speaks candidly about Zia's troubles and the owners' misplaced expectations of the chain. "Brad Singer owned Zia and was very content for it to be seven really cool record stores," he says. "Whenever you get involved with any kind of outside investment situation where people want to make money from their investments, there's a philosophical problem right there. You want to carry three million dollars in inventory? Well, do you want to have that much money out in inventory? Not if you want to make money, but if you want to have the coolest record stores in town, you probably do."
Rudnick tells me that Zia had a very profitable Christmas season, so the company's new streamlining philosophy is having the desired results. Unless you're looking for perhaps the first Operation Ivy CD, as Kelly and his daughter were shortly before his move to New Jersey. "I called [the] Thunderbird [Zia]. They didn't have it. If I had called when I was running the chain and they didn't have it, I would have flipped the fuck out," Kelly says. "If you don't have that, you're not a record store, y'know? None of the Zia stores had it. Not one."
In October of last year, Zia installed a computerized point-of-sale and inventory management system that automatically orders the product on Zia's shelves rather than letting the stores' buyers use their discretion and musical intuition to stock the shelves with what's known as "deep catalogue," especially imports and independent releases.
Rudnick explains, "We had a lot of people spending a lot of time managing inventory, and now the rebuying is mostly automatic based on sales projections that his system does. [The former system] was something that just didn't work real well."
Jim Kelly and Barry Barton were not the only execs with their heads on the chopping block; nearly the entire administrative staff has been let go in the last year, as well as much of Impact's warehouse staff. Every source interviewed for this story confirms that spirits are at an all-time low among the remaining employees.
"Morale sucks. They hate it," a former employee says. "They're paid too low, they're not getting listened to. We always thought [the clerks are] the ones that come back to us and feed us what the community wants, what the customers want, they're hands-on with that. Those are the kids you should be paying a few extra bucks, they're the ones you should make sure are happy, they're gonna sell your records. And you want to hire people that know about music. You used to be able to go in a Zia store and have everybody that worked in there be music heads. Now it's like you're getting paid $5.50 an hour to put the new Linkin Park up in the L' section."
Another former employee adds, "One of the reasons the morale is shitty is that there's been so many firings in a short period of time, everybody's scared for their job thinking they're gonna be next. The employees that were let go in the last year, to Brad those were lifetime employees."
A year ago, Zia's independent spirit was thriving; employees like Jim Kelly and Barry Barton kept Brad Singer's vision from being co-opted for financial gain. Today, there is little hope amongst former and current employees that Zia will ever regain its former vision of being the best record store, period.
What the current owners, admittedly "nice guys" in Jim Kelly's estimation, didn't realize was that Zia was never set up to be a huge profit-generating machine. Brad Singer's vision, his dream, was to be an integral part of the local music community, to make a contribution to the scene that he had been a part of for his entire life.
Singer's vision does still exist and thrive. His community-minded, music-loving, customer-oriented approach to record retailing is alive and well in the younger generation of independent record stores in the Valley. It thrives in record stores like Stinkweeds Records, Eastside Records, and Hoodlums Music, which were all founded by former employees of Zia and Brad Singer. It's a shame, though, that as Singer rests in peace, his empire suffers a slow and painful metamorphosis into irrelevance and apathy for the community it was built to support.
Last Monday's SuicideGirls burlesque show suffered a last-minute venue change, from the Mason Jar to the Big Fish Pub (more on that soon), but the event drew an immense crowd anyway. The show attracted all types, from sleazy punk-rock lesbians to meathead Fabio types, with about a two-to-one boy-girl ratio. Unfortunately, the Big Fish Pub isn't the best place to see an overcrowded show. Once the girls finally took the stage, after 11 p.m., they were barely visible unless you were standing against the stage in the under-21/over-18 fenced-off section. The visibility problem combined with the overpopulation and resulting high temperature caused many attendees, myself included, to bail out shortly after the girls got started. Altogether it was a disappointment, and the issues that plagued it could have been avoided given a more appropriate venue; even the Mason Jar would've been an improvement.
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