By Zach Jennings
It’s a well worn cliche, but life has a funny way of throwing you unexpected curveballs. For nearly four decades, San Marcos residents and visitors alike have been able to rely on one of those college-town staples — the record store — for vinyl, CDs, cassettes, knickknacks and just good old-fashioned conversation about music. So it’s with a heavy heart that I come as the bearer of potentially bad news; but despite a couple newspaper articles spilling the beans already, I thought you all should hear it from the horse’s mouth with as little lost in translation as possible.
For those that may not know, for years Lone Star Music has been the online go-to source for Texas Music (arriving about the same time as Amazon to the CD game), long supplying an outlet for the independent artists that simply might not be able to count on other outlets to provide coverage, much less sell their CDs. In 2003, LSM opened up a record store focused solely on Texas/Americana Music, merch, gear and assorted swag. When other stores would turn artists away, we welcomed them with free beer and warm smiles. Lone Star Music Magazine started in 2007, though significant changes were made in 2010 — all with an eye on shining a light on those who slipped through the cracks.
So back to the point at hand …
Lone Star Music and Superfly’s Lone Star Music Emporium record store in San Marcos face a very existential threat. After 18 years of LoneStarMusic.com serving as THE e-commerce site for Texas music aficionados and after 14 years of running a brick-and-morter record store, the futures of both are in serious doubt. Even the magazine, which I believe we saved and revitalized in 2010 before digitalizing in 2016, is very much in jeopardy. There’s no way around it: Lone Star Music is in trouble and I want nothing more than to play a role in saving it in one way or another.
Let’s take a step back: I’ve owned and operated Lone Star Music — the e-commerce site, the magazine, the event arm and of course, my beloved record store, since 2009. As previous owner Michael Devers generously put it in a January ’16 text, “If LSM went into the Hall of Fame, it would be wearing a Zach Jennings cap,” as I’d officially owned and operated LSM longer than he and wife Claire (2003-2009) and visionary founder Chad Raney (1999-2003) — though I feel confident in saying that their combined contributions from 1999-2009 would, at the very least, warrant a shared plaque, or more likely separate plaques in the wing devoted to those who pushed and promoted the Texas/Americana Music Agenda, often with little thanks to show for all the hard work. Michael and Claire opened Lone Star Music, the record store, in Gruene, Texas — right down the street from Gruene Hall — in 2003. It was a tourist destination and it was unlike any other record store I had ever been to. It not only specialized in Texas Country and Americana music, it simply didn’t carry anything else! And visitors were greeted with live music, friendly conversation from Kris and Simeon Franks and ice-cold Ziegebock. (So, soooo much Ziegenbock!)
I had been working an assortment of jobs of the sort that would make one’s parents proud: corporate jobs for telecommunications companies and for business advisory/government relations firms. I had secured my MBA and everything felt … “secure,” for lack of a better word. But as my wife and I readied ourselves for the birth of our second daughter and the economy started to crater in 2008, an itch started to well up in me. It was like Ray Kinsella’s “If You Build It, They Will Come” moment from the iconic Field of Dreams, only slightly less dramatic and without the belief that a dead baseball superstar would suddenly reanimate in my backyard one day. But the itch was there and it was real. I felt I was living a life that wasn’t me, answering to people who I didn’t feel “got” or respected me. And I wondered how I’d tell my daughters that daddy was doing what I felt was ethically dubious work (albeit on a lower level) for a financial services firm that I felt was taking advantage of a rigged financial system. It culminated in me telling my wife one late night that I was worried that, if my daughters asked what I did, I’d either have to lie to them or feel ashamed to tell them the truth. She promptly told me to find something I love and I’ll forever be indebted to her for understanding. This led me to buying Lone Star Music in 2009 — a decision she was against, for the record — with the hope of bringing LSM up-to-date through strategic investment in an updated website, a newfound dedication to the magazine and, further down the road, an all-genre record store that still maintained that very special focus on Texas/Americana Music.
I entered into ownership of Lone Star Music thinking “how much FUN am I going to have?!” and quickly learned that 3 a.m. nights working on newsletters were the norm. Not that my fellow employee & troublemaker-in-chief Shane Jones and I didn’t have our share of fun as locals at Mozie’s Tavern in Gruene, but seeing how much Lone Star Music (LSM from here out) meant to folks in the Texas Music Community (and abroad) was enough to not only push for greatness but to strive to improve every policy and process. Only thing was: this well-developed customer base didn’t want any fancy new website or store overhaul! They wanted the site they had grown up with and that fundamental misunderstanding was all on me.
The magazine overhaul was much better-received, as I made a couple of strategic hires: the oh so awesome Melissa Webb as Creative Director, and noted curmudgeon (ha!) but preeminent wordsmith Richard Skanse as Editor. Physical circulation climbed from 6,500 to 10,000, to 20,000 to 25,000 before peaking at 35,000 with the iconic Mike Judge-designed Beavis & Butt-head/Billy Gibbons illustrated cover and accompanying interview/story (complete with Butt-head in a Lone Star Music t-shirt!) Our venue distribution was second to none and we had even toyed with the idea of augmented reality content and ads well before they had hit the mainstream marketing lexicon. But as we were hitting our creative stride, long-term advertisers were losing their print budgets and printing and shipping costs were only going up. In an attempt to shore up our marketing side, we made a hire that could only be described as disastrous. This guy had handled marketing for a couple high-society Austin mags and we trusted his vision of turning on higher profile advertisers with money in their coffers and and a widespread need to get their vision out to a number of demographics. He proved to be a fraud, left without ever selling so much as a single ad and the damage he did was irreparable. To this day, I believe we both hope we never run into one another again, though if we do I’d like to believe it would be in the darkest of alleys. Regardless, we made the decision to take the magazine online with a full archive of past issues. For this venture, we chose the best of the best: Shauna Dodds of the mulitple-Grammy-Award Winning Austin design firm Backstage Designs. We had our hiccups, but got running with the full archive out there for every band and publicist (and fan, of course) to access. The lack of immediate support from management and artists was a bit perplexing as there was a wealth of well-written content from 10+ years on artists all across the spectrum to be (re)discovered and shared, though the fact that two of our highest trafficked pieces were 64-album “ultimate album brackets” probably speaks to the type of content we should focus on in the future.
The e-comm site, our flagship property, ran smoothly for awhile — right up until I attempted to “upgrade” it. With Michael Devers having the basic keys to the upkeep and what I wrongly perceived to be an outdated design, I went forward with the site redesign. Monumental mistake. LoneStarMusic.com made a comeback but there was a good 10-month period where I fielded more hate mail than Steve Bartman in October of 2003. I’d like to think the website survived because people enjoyed pouring money into the scene via LoneStarMusic.com rather than lining the pockets of Amazon or Apple, but the truth may also be that we had exclusive autographed copies and other perks. We gave away no fewer than 20 autographed guitars over the period of 2009-2014, before labels also started feeling the pinch and our longtime contacts were unceremoniously let go or reassigned. The autographed copies still play a huge role in the e-comm realm and we’re working on an “all-autograph” newsletter with pieces that go way beyond our traditional “autos” to truly bring value and exclusive pieces to our fans.
LSM’s involvement in events took on a wider Americana feel starting in 2010 as well. From Folk Alliance showcases and sponsored events (with magazines in every swag bag) to Americana Music Association/Award events and SXSW official showcases and unofficial day parties — it was clear that Lone Star Music was expanding in music and lifestyle coverage. Here’s where I bring up the “Mama-Shi” influence. Shilah Morrow had run (and continues to run) Sin City Social Club, and she knows the movers and shakers, the degenerates and the folks who seem like degenerates but run it all. The bulk of our expansion to SXSW, AMAs, and Folk Alliance was her doing and she was instrumental in helping shift the tone of LSM toward a more groove-oriented affair.
We had our other successes and failures; an example of both being the Phoenix Sessions at the Phoenix Saloon, which combined a great idea and wonderful operational management (for the most part) with poor financial planning and broken promises from somebody I trusted. Broken promises in the music industry are as common as purposely-omitted information on an E-bay listing (whoa wait, this original Darth Vader figure has an Ewok head?!) as I later found out, but I still regret what could have been and I believe Ross Fortune at the Phoenix Saloon knows that we were onto something special if I had just jettisoned the dead weight and altered a few things to align his vision better with mine. Alas, life moves on, lessons are learned and the heart keeps on beating, albeit with a bit of a fracture.
This brings us back to the lede, the record store. The Gruene iteration of the Lone Star Music Record Store was a haven for pre-partying tourists, partied-out tourists looking for a free beer and a colorful selection of locals who didn’t miss a good in-store — and we had them all (or most of them). Robert Earl Keen, Pat Green, Cody Canada & the Departed, Randy Rogers, Wade Bowen, Reckless Kelly, Jason Boland, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Turnpike Troubadours, Hayes Carll, Jim Lauderdale, Jack Ingram, Whiskey Myers, Josh Abbott Band, Shinyribs, Robert Ellis, Sean McConnell, Jason Eady, the Trishas, William Clark Green, Quaker City Night Hawks, American Aquarium, Terry Allen, Walt Wilkins, Terri Hendrix, Sons of Bill, Cody Johnson and so, so many more have left an indelible mark via in-store performances at the old Gruene store and at our current store, Superfly’s Lone Star Music Emporium in San Marcos, that I truly cannot begin to thank them all.
How did we end up moving to San Marcos? In 2012, with a lease expiring and a lease proposal that was essentially a rent-hike after me expressing that we could use some rent relief, we decided Gruene wasn’t going to work any more. Lo and behold, at this exact same time, word was passed down the grapevine that Sundance Records would be shutting its doors after 35 years. With nearly triple the floorspace and a prime location across from Texas State University’s campus, my personal goal of owning an all-genre, vinyl-heavy record store was so close that I laid in bed dreaming about it: about the bin shuffling, the smell of used vinyl and turning people on to classic records that (I imagined) few college kids knew of. Faust, Bedhead/New Year, Disco Inferno, Seefeel, the Sonics, the Chameleons, Doves, Fugazi, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Kitchens of Distinction, Eluvium, William Basinski, Sparklehorse, Pulp, Blur, Suede, the Stax Catalog! So much to share, so much to learn, so much to listen to, so many opinions to form/change…
In retrospect, our 7-month preparation for opening was a series of bad omens. For starters, in order to do ANY work to a building that hadn’t been worked on in more than 30 years, we had to waive our right to be grandfathered in to an existing code, though I deeply suspect that wouldn’t have lasted long anyway as the gamut of issues ran from a broken HVAC system, asbestos, unsafe wires, an electrical closet that was just begging to electrocute someone and carpet that could best be described as ancient — truly, a general building that was falling apart. There was nothing safe about it and as soon as we decided to make an improvement, we lost out on the ability to be grandfathered into the old code. We then had to put in men’s AND women’s restrooms (something I’ve NEVER seen in any other record store), which was particularly egregious because of the cost ($30,000), the amount of potential floor space eliminated and the fact that we previously had an agreement with Subway (located right next door) for our customers/employees to use their restrooms for free! Though the initial estimate for construction work was $9,000, by the time all was said and done, we had sunk between $75,000-$100,000 into bringing the building up to code and doing necessary renovations (like putting in a new floor and a sign).
We thought our luck had changed and we had hit pay dirt when a friend let us know his friend’s record store was going out of business in Colorado, and that the friend would give us his inventory of 30,000 records if we simply picked them up! Road trip time! Our own Kristen Townsend (more about her in a second) and Hannah Kate wasted no time in volunteering to drive to Pueblo with a stop in Denver for a night of LSM-financed partying — all in the biggest U-Haul van they made. Everything was gravy until they saw exactly how many records 30,000 was. From there, it was like an episode of The Bachelor gone wrong (the ones where an ambulance gets called because a bimbette decides to chug three bottles of champagne and security guards are summoned to make sure one roided-up bro doesn’t stab a lesser-roided up bro). I got a call around 1 a.m. saying that the U-Haul had broken down in the middle of nowhere (Raton, New Mexico, to be exact). I had instructed my record haulers to take a detour through Santa Fe and have another party night on me. Instead, I now told them to stay in the “best motel Raton has to offer!” They survived and made it back but it was abundantly clear that the records were WAY too heavy for the U-Haul. We had a party late into that night as we unloaded records upon records, ultimately leading to the above photo of me sitting atop piles of newly acquired vinyl (mind, that’s only a tiny fraction of the U-Haul haul pictured).
Of course, we soon found out thousands of these records were either moldy or otherwise unsellable. Again, short of the new Superfly’s sign falling on the U-Haul and smashing sign, U-Haul and records, there weren’t many more bad omens we could have failed to read.
We opened to little fanfare but with a loud BANG in October 2012 with a rousing, capacity crowd watching Cody Canada & the Departed blast out a blistering “welcome” concert while drinking Ziegenbock samples and shouting along to hits and deep cuts alike. Things seemed on the up and up and we had plenty of people coming in on a daily basis. Personal differences between some of the old Sundance staff (who I had retained thinking it would work out) and myself led to a parting of ways and, in some way, I definitely feel that drove a wedge among the Sundance customers. They were loyal to their Sundance people and I respect that, but it’s tough enough to run a record store when you’re not battling the ghosts of the previous record store and employees and processes whose literal place you just took over upon their store closing.
We soldiered on despite some adversity. Never in a million years did we expect the construction on LBJ and University Dr. to last three to four years after hearing an initial estimate of 12-18 months. This wasn’t only a problem, it was a catastrophe, as it made it almost impossible to make it to the Nelson Center (the strip center where we were located) without taking back roads and suffering delays. There was a rent relief extended by our landlords in August of 2014; “a reduction of 45% commencing on August 1, 2014 and continuing for six months or until the entrance to LBJ Street has been opened, whichever comes first.” Predictably, after four-plus years of working on LBJ and two months of rent relief, LBJ opened in October. Read into that what you will but as much as we appreciated the gesture we felt it was long overdue and short on actual “relief.”
I’m fully aware that San Marcos may simply not be able to support a record store due to a number of variables. However, I built up a spreadsheet showing all the record stores in college towns in the Big XII, SEC and Sun-Belt Conferences and was astounded to see the only college towns not able to support an independent record store were: Stillwater, Oklahoma; Starkville, Mississippi; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Statesboro, Georgia; and Conway, South Carolina. That’s it. That’s the list of college towns that can’t support at least one independent record store. So amongst the towns that can and do support an indie record store: Ames, Iowa; Mobile, Alabama; Moscow, Idaho; Monroe, Louisiana; Boone, North Carolina (two stores); Morgantown, West Virginia; Manhattan, Kansas; and many more.
That got me thinking, late at night, why San Marcos couldn’t seem to support a record store? Sundance left. Hastings left. Superfly’s is currently looking for a way to stay but the economics have to be right. So what is it? Is it the proximity to Austin and the wealth of lovely record stores there? Is it that priorities are more aligned with beer and weed than music (hey, it IS college, after all)? Do we simply carry the wrong records? Is there anything else we should be carrying? We’re a record store in a college town within a two-minute walk from campus — what are we doing wrong?
Or, as I suspect, is there some truth to the oft-repeated adage of the Nelson Center being viewed as off-limits to customers due to predatory towing practices? I’ve personally voiced my opinion to our landlords numerous times stating my opinion that towing was doing much more harm than help to our business. I personally had a Saucedo’s employee try to fight me while attempting to tow me in front of several employees and family members in spring 2012 when I mentioned that I was the business owner and hadn’t left the premises. “Come at me bro,” the tow truck driver said as he took off his shirt, and I simply said, “Dude, not fighting you, but release my car or I’m calling the cops.” We’ve also had customers come in crying because they turned the corner to get a smoothie AFTER shopping with us. We’ve had all sorts of irate customers come in and tell us we should be ashamed for the towing we do, despite the fact that we have ZERO say in who gets towed. It takes Saucedo’s roughly 2.3 minutes to get a car teed up to be towed. I have no doubt they would win an Olympic event that consisted of “quickest to immobilize a car with intention of towing.” With one and often two “spotters” occupying spaces in our parking lot — which seems counterintuitive to the idea of protecting our limited parking spaces — it’s a pretty well-run racket. The spotters watch and the second someone leaves the Nelson Center (in clear violation of the signs posted though not prominently displayed, to be fair), the spotter radios in to the tow truck who is there and has the car hitched within the time it takes to play Devil Town by Daniel Johnston or roughy 1/3 of the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. And as soon as it’s hitched, it apparently HAS to be towed, seemingly resulting in one of the world’s most expensive smoothies.
On Feb. 7, 2013, less than four months after being fully operational, I wrote to our landlords to let them know the towing situation was hurting our business. As far as I know, and judging from what I saw, nothing happened. “It takes about five minutes of googling and reading comments from citizens on those posts to see that the towing policy is truly limiting business to at least some degree,” I wrote to them at the time.
Now, the idea as presented to me upon taking the lease made sense: “Without the towing company keeping watch, kids will take advantage of the proximity to campus and park in your lot and take up a spot for hours.” Well, of course we don’t want that to happen. But in the five years we’ve been here, I’ve only seen maybe a handful of people cross over to campus, which leads me to believe either our landlords are misinformed or Saucedo’s is in charge and represents the ultimate problem for us. Roughly 90% of the people who get towed are shopping along LBJ. Many of them have shopped at our store or another store in the Nelson Center, so what Saucedo’s and the Nelson brass are doing is effectively driving our customers away, whether they see it that way or not. No sooner than 24 hours after the San Marcos Daily Record ran a story on Superfly’s store that mentioned Saucedo’s, the picture below was taken, showing a tow-truck in the very front of our store, with an almost empty lot. Needless to say, business wasn’t brisk during the time the tow truck was parked there.
There’s a bit of a butterfly effect to all of this, also. The folks that get towed are justifiably irritated and likely will think twice about visiting the Nelson Center again. What’s less noticeable and immeasurable are the hundreds of people each week who see a car get towed from the Nelson Center and see people crying, arguing or almost fighting with Saucedo’s over their car getting towed. How many of these consumers are able to differentiate a car getting towed by the property managers from a car getting towed by the businesses themselves? We’re mostly talking about college kids, after all, so who knows? But from the horror stories I’ve heard and the ones I’ve witnessed, I remain singularly convinced that no other impediment has driven away more customers than the Nelson Center’s (and tenants) reputation as a predatory towing operation.
So what next? To be honest, we’re not sure. I feel confident we will not be in the Nelson Center after April, but I remain hopeful that we’ll be in/around San Marcos.
As for the Lone Star Music brand, its future is similarly up in the air. We’ve had a dedicated staff of three (and only three) working for so long that it’s astounding. The aforementioned Kristen Townsend, in particular, wears so many different hats — often at the same time — that I’m simply amazed she has any sanity left at all these days. She deals with so many matters — small, large and frankly not even worth her time — on a daily basis that I feel like she deserves a year-long cruise just to get away from all of this. But nobody loves this scene more than Kristen and she puts in the work that four people would struggle to do, all while going out and supporting live music on a near-nightly basis. I’m indebted to her and so many others.
We do a lot for the scene, particularly behind the curtain, but if that curtain doesn’t open again, I think I’ll be ok with it. But not without laying out exactly what we need, because if this scene is anything, it’s resourceful as hell. Which is why am I explicitly stating this … Because we need your assistance and backup, as we’ve given it to you for 18 years and counting. Because we need a marketing team with the contacts and know-how to get shit done immediately. Because we have a team of three working when we could use a minimum to seven or 10 to drill down at more concrete big picture items while making sure the day-to-day efforts don’t get overlooked. We’re open to partnership ideas. Record company and brewery? Why not? Record company and coffeeshop? Of course. But we’re also open to sponsorship opportunities or outright offers, as there may be the perfect entity/person out there capable of exceeding even our goals.
We believe that this little company, which has grown from 6,000 Facebook fans to 5o,000 in five years, still has plenty of room for growth left. We just need some assistance from those to whom we’ve dedicated so much time, effort and money over the years. All in the name of a love for the music. All for the sake of the song.