Don't get me wrong: I have no intention of claiming that chain music stores of the oversized variety are entirely bad. For folks living in the suburbs, for instance, the sudden appearance of outlets with mammoth inventories moments from their homes is nothing but good news. But a recent visit to the heavily hyped Virgin Megastore at the new Denver Pavilions project (mentioned in this space two weeks ago) didn't exactly leave me wowed. Sure, the outfit stocks a wide variety of albums, including deep catalogues of acts major and comparatively minor--but most of the prices are sky-high (I saw plenty of single discs going for $17.99), and local music is conspicuous by its absence. Westword contributor Thomas Peake was told by a Virgin employee that the Megastore will be taking CDs on consignment after the first of the year. Until then, Westword Music Awards Showcase compilations pretty much have the category to themselves.
That's certainly not the case at Wax Trax, a Denver institution that just celebrated its twentieth anniversary under current ownership. With four interrelated stores on the 600 block of East 13th Avenue in Capitol Hill and another branch located at 1143 13th Street in Boulder, the operation is sizable, but it continues to make room for recordings by area performers. Moreover, Wax Trax is one of the region's foremost employers of musicians--a lucky thing, since a lot of them couldn't get jobs anywhere else. According to head import/indie buyer Dave Kerr, a onetime member of Foreskin 500 who's worked at Wax Trax for seven years, the list of present employees with band ties is typically lengthy: "We've got several different DJs, someone from Blue Ontario, someone from Koala, Lonesome Dan Kase, Frank Hauser Jr., who's been concentrating on his own stuff ever since Slim Cessna's Auto Club broke up, Sundog, who's a jungle artist, and probably some others that I'm not thinking of right now. And over the years, there's been millions."
As that comment implies, Wax Trax has a rich history. The store was started in 1975 by Denver dweller Jim Nash and his English partner, Mike Smythe, who quickly cultivated a clientele dominated by punk and new-wave fans who weren't being adequately served by other vendors. But by 1977, the twosome had grown frustrated with what they saw as the limitations of the Denver scene and decided to shift the enterprise to Chicago. To help finance the scheme, they sold the Denver store to Dave Stidman and Duane Davis, two Jefferson County social workers who were among their most loyal customers. "We had never done anything in the music business before," Stidman remembers, "but we had a lot of similar tastes in music to Jim and Mike, and the idea of running this thing was kind of a dream come true."
On November 7, 1978, when the Stidman-Davis era began, Nash and Smythe were still moving out of the original store, at the intersection of 13th Avenue and Washington Street. "They were taking all of their records to Chicago with them," Stidman says, "so all we had in the place were about twenty new records, a bunch of used records I'd picked up at garage sales and flea markets and a few posters to put up on the wall--and some of them, like ones for Jimi Hendrix and Talking Heads, are still up there today. We had a little gray box instead of a cash register, but we didn't have any money to put into it, so when the first couple of customers came into the store wanting to trade records, we had to take money out of the pop machine to use for change."
Despite this rough start, the sale of the Denver Wax Trax wound up having positive results for everyone involved. In Chicago, Nash and Smythe used their new store to launch the Wax Trax record label, an imprint that was extremely important in the development of industrial music. (Nash has since died, but his daughter is still overseeing Chicago's Wax Trax legacy.) Meanwhile, Stidman and Davis--assisted by first employee Steve Knudson, a member of the popular Denver group the Young Weasels who's now an executive with Tommy Boy Records--turned the Denver business into a mini-conglomerate. Taking advantage of cheap rent, they added an oldies store in 1980, started Across the Trax, a video-specialty shop, the following year, and opened a used annex in 1986. (The Boulder Wax Trax came to life in the late Eighties, moving to its present site several years later.) Along the way, Wax Trax became known as the most musically hip album-seller in Colorado--a place where consumers could find the newest, coolest sounds first.
This reputation hasn't prevented Wax Trax from being impacted by the Megastore and its ilk. "A lot of people just go to the chains out of habit," Kerr notes. "It's frustrating." Wax Trax has attempted to survive by maintaining a reasonable pricing policy and offering incentives for regular customers to keep coming back: Every Tuesday, the stores offer a 10 percent discount on all new products, and each Thursday, 15 percent is slashed from used items. But changes have been made as well: Within the past several weeks, Wax Trax employees have completed a reconfiguration of the Denver spaces. The main store, at 638 East 13th Avenue, has been expanded to include a separate room for the oldies selection; what had been the oldies and jazz branch, at 620 East 13th Avenue, has become a roomier home for used records; and the building at 619 East 13th Avenue that previously provided quarters for the used merchandise is now devoted to new vinyl long-players and 45s. (Across the Trax, at 624 East 13th Avenue, remains relatively unaltered.)
For Stidman, the renovations have been quite a chore. "Some of these things haven't been moved in twenty years," he says. "But we think that by doing this, it'll help us keep our niche. The big stores don't necessarily pay that much attention to a lot of the more fringe types of music, and they don't care as much about what you might call the cutting edge. Whereas we actually try to carry what people want--what they ask us for. We aren't becoming millionaires by doing that, but we're keeping the quality up. Maybe it's dusty and dirty, but you've got to admit that the stock is pretty interesting."
Indeed it is--and local albums are still an important part of the mix. The store's policy toward such recordings is intended to be beneficial for customers and musicians alike. "The first time a band brings something in, we do it on consignment and take three cassettes or three CDs," Kerr notes. "And if those sell right away, we'll buy anything in the future outright." He laughs. "Bet you Virgin doesn't do it that way."
Musician magazine is again sponsoring a best-unsigned-band contest. Entries need to be postmarked by December 31. For more details, go to the Musician Web site at musicianmag.com.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Other places to visit: On Thursday, December 3, the Greyboy Allstars Sidecar Project tests the road at the Fox Theatre; Bregstown celebrates the release of a new CD, Welcome to Bregstown, at Avogadro's Number, 605 South Mason Street in Fort Collins; the Ugly Americans bring their pretty faces to the Bluebird Theater; and Cry, Cry, Cry, featuring Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell, sobs at the Boulder Theater. On Friday, December 4, Sara Hickman and Tish Hinojosa perform a doubleheader at the Swallow Hill Music Hall, and Bob Hall and Chris Zorn headline an African music and dance concert at the Naropa Institute in Boulder (the program is repeated the following night; call 303-546-3567 for more information). On Saturday, December 5, Hellworms tunnel to the 15th Street Tavern, and children's music performer Ingrid Faraj showcases at the Bowles Crossing Media Play, 8055 West Bowles Avenue in Littleton. And on Sunday, December 6, Bio Ritmo rumbas at the Fox. Shake your moneymaker.
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com.