(With every issue of Ghettoblaster, we would include a City Profile where our writers would attempt to get an in-depth look at a city across the country. This one here was one I was tasked with. I moved to Phoenix back in 2010 and so only living in the city for two years, at the time of this writing, I hadn’t built much of a network yet. With the few friends that I had met, along with cold-calling and sheer dumb luck, I was able to lock down those that knew the city from a grassroots level.)
When I first told a friend I was moving to Phoenix, AZ his response was, “Are you going to own your own meth lab?” The jokes on him though, because Phoenix is actually a city filled with culture and diversity. It’s a vast land that’s as every bit as dynamic as the rest of the United States’ most frequented cities. At the time of this writing, a newspaper sits in front of me with a story headline that reads “Arizona retail sales jump for 20th month.” So while the country as a whole still struggles to find its footing, just like shit – growth does happen.
The general consensus most believe is that CDs and records are things of the past, and while business may have slowed down, it’s never stopped for some stores. “When people saw Tower Records close that was a blow to the entire music community. That affected everyone who worked in retail music because of the P.R. that was put out there,” Mary Papenhausen, Zia Records’ Publicity & Marketing manager tells me. “Once Tower closed, it was like saying all the record stores were closing. But for years there have been a lot of independent retailers across the country, open since the 80s, that are still doing the same kind of thing.” The Zia Record Exchange opened its doors in 1980 by founder Brad Singer. His vision? Simple, “To bring music to people, have a good environment to bring people together and find their music. At the start, a lot of the music was his own record collection.” After visiting a store you’ll get more than just a music buying experience. Aside from CDs, there are a variety of gifts that will catch your eye in the store’s laid-back atmosphere. DVDs, vinyl, video games, books, and magazines are the other main items that round out what’s available for purchase. You receive more than just the average “record store” experience.
While around the country you find stores that have been able to thrive, the fact that Zia Records has prospered and grown to include 8 locations is astounding. “While it is a chain store, it’s without the chain store atmosphere,” Mary is quick to point out. “The beauty of being an independent store with 8 locations is that we’re able to be flexible,” she goes on. “We’re able to move with the times and give people what they want, almost immediately.” As for the local scene itself, a complaint that I’ve heard often is simply the lack thereof. Being born and raised in Arizona, Mary disputes this. “Because Phoenix is so spread out, people tend to stay in their own little corner, but there’s always something to do. Phoenix is one of those ‘if you build it they will come’ places. You have to make it happen. But we also try to be a host to that and make things happen. We’ve created a place for artists to come. We carry a lot of local bands. It’s a place where local artists have consigned their stuff. Zia has been doing that since the 80s.” With 8 stores, 4 in Phoenix, 2 in Tucson and 2 in Vegas, and a staff of about 150 total, she is vocal of what keeps the store going. While new product is always a factor, Mary credits, “…used business across the board. With DVDs and music, used is our strong suit. The used business we have is incredibly strong and that becomes a big factor in the community. You become that place where people try out new music.” Many businesses like the Zia Record Exchange are part of Local First Arizona, a coalition of locally owned businesses based around the theory that if you shop from businesses that are locally owned you give more back to your local community. Mary does throw around a few terms like “community partners” and it becomes obvious the store has served – and become a part of – its community.
PHOENIX NEW TIMES
Fresh. Occasionally having a fresh perspective is what’s needed to infuse new life into an industry riddled with aging dinosaurs who have been writing about art and music for the past three to five decades. Enter one Melissa Fossum, a young writer who, in her own words, is “a fourth generation Arizonian. I’ve lived in Phoenix my whole life.” Fossum has been writing about music since 2010, starting in college for Examiner.com with a focus on local music. After graduating she was picked up by the alt-weekly, Phoenix New Times, one of the few local papers that have survived the internet explosion of ‘00s. It caters to the local community while adding national headline stories. Fossum, like many, sees print journalism having a life in 10 years in Phoenix. For one thing, she says, “I think it’s a pretty stubborn medium. I know so many people love just picking up a paper. When the baby boomers aren’t around anymore, maybe print will die out. There are still a lot of people that don’t like doing their reading on a cell phone. I definitely feel that with my generation, people aren’t as interested in picking up a paper, but there is something nice about picking one up in the morning and reading it.” Writing about the different bands from across Phoenix’s vast metro-area can prove a bit challenging. “Maybe it’s my own fault because of where I live. I’m so far out there, sometimes it’s hard to find different bands,” Fossum says.
“The internet has really helped that a lot though. Friends will recommend musicians and I can check them out on Spotify. It also feels like more people are getting on different bills. For a while when Crescent Ballroom opened up I thought there were just the same bands that played there over and over. It’s kind of on me for going to the same venue time after time though. I can’t fault them for that.” Spotify, Soundcloud, the internet in general, has made the music by local bands that much more accessible to even the casual listener, but it has its drawbacks too. “It’s easier to be sent a zip file or to listen to something on Spotify, but on the flip side, there’s something to be said about holding a piece of art in your hands. It’s similar to print. People are worried that others will stop buying CDs and records. Even if you pay for an iTunes download, you can’t physically hold that in your hands. But as a writer, digital is easier because you have that immediate accessibility.” Accessibility to music in Phoenix is rarely a problem though as live performances come in a variety of forms. A few months earlier a craft beer event was held in north Phoenix with Reel Big Fish, before that a group of Punk and Ska bands of the 90s performed at the Chandler BBQ Festival. “There’s even Tour De Fat where a bunch of bands play as well,” she tells me. “It’s a festival sponsored by New Belgium Brewing Co. that goes across the Southeast, Midwest and then Southwest.” Specialty beer, tricked out bicycles and more beer. What else could you possibly need?
John Dixon is a wealth of information…which is something that he tells me he’s been called before. As a native to the valley area, he feels a passionate urge to educate, and his show is used just for that purpose. While the music he mainly focuses on is firmly planted in the 50s and 60s, his set might be more off the wall on any given night. Sometimes Ol’ Johnny D will take certain factors into consideration, like the death of an artist. Dixon says, “Joe South recently died and I pulled out his music and did a half hour set focused entirely on him. There are also some local groups like Calexico that I’ve followed over the years. For me, the most exciting thing is to have all my music in order, on shelves.” John admits that his radio show is kind of off the wall, like when he finds local music when traveling to feature. “We went to Maui and I picked up some records there, so I knew I was going to do a set on that.”
This is just one of the few liberties he’s been able to do with his stint over the last year for KWSS. John Dixon is a staple of his locale. Born and raised in the Phoenix area, his interest in being a DJ began in the 7th grade, playing records during lunch and recess as the other kids chatted and ate. His teachers saw a strong interest early on and were able to nurture it as best they could. From there, he spent a part of the 80s living abroad and worked at a station in England. While most radio DJs are comfortable remaining faceless, John Dixon has been invited to perform live to open for other DJs and artists. “ZTrip has been a great supporter. I’ve opened up sets for him. I don’t do any of that scratching, not just because I can’t, but I can’t see myself abusing my records that way. I’ll play a record the way I normally would from beginning to end and do my little spiel about it in between. It’s a bit nerve-wracking because these kids are at the lip of the stage where I’m standing and my hand is shaking. Some of them do appreciate it, which is great.” My conversation with John goes to Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum, or the MIM, where he’s signed on as a consultant. The Museum houses instruments from all over the world and people are brought in to play them or show how they’re made. It also has a 300-seat auditorium. I digress, but it’s worth looking into. As mentioned earlier, Dixon’s wealth of knowledge, and also his collection of music, have made him a sought-after commodity from time to time. Record labels, like the amazing Numero out of Chicago, have contacted him looking for masters or to track down musicians. John has about every record ever made from square dance to Central High School’s 1965 glee club records (all out of AZ). That’s been part of his mission in life, cataloging all this music. “For me, it’s the history of Arizona music,” he says. “I have a perspective on music from Arizona that other people don’t have. It’s just because I grew up here, I left here and could see it from afar and then came back. When I did return, I was working for a music promoter that was gobbled up by Clear Channel so I’ve always been able to work with music one way or another. What I’m doing now with my show is bringing an Arizonan perspective. That’s the angle I’m able to bring.”
(Phoenix Illustration: Benjamin Simonson)