Playback: Waterloo Records at 331⁄3
Waterloo Records turns 331⁄3; native poster artist Jason Austin battles MS with an Aug. 7 benefit
Meet John Kunz, Austin's preeminent recorded-music merchant. He owns Waterloo Records, an emporium of cultural paraphernalia that's both the oldest and largest music retailer in town. While the music industry apocalypse nuked chain stores and left a culture of microshops, Waterloo's grown in size and appeal.
"What's true for us is true for so many baby boomers in Austin," says Kunz of the store not only surviving, but thriving at 33. "We were dreaming really cool things in the Sixties and Seventies, and a lot of us did pretty good with those dreams because we had a community that shared and supported them."
Raised in Houston and eventually schooled at UT where he studied "staying out of southeast Asia" – he amassed 200 credits while avoiding the Vietnam draft, but never earned a degree – Kunz received his higher education at Highland Mall's Disc Records and their offshoot Zebra, where he worked up to regional manager. Resigning on April 1, 1982, was no joke; Kunz had aspirations for an indie record haven. Joining forces with fellow vinyl veteran Louis Karp, he bought into a brand-new shop near South Lamar and Barton Springs called Waterloo Records.
Today, Kunz still works six days a week. Now 64 (cue the Beatles), he obliged our request to reflect on his personal Waterloo history at the three ages represented by turntable speeds: 33¹/3, 45, and 78 rpm.
"I had a night job waiting tables at Jeffrey's restaurant," he remembers. "I was working six days a week at the store, eight- to 10-hour shifts, and three nights a week waiting tables. For me it was 'Don't give up your night job.'"
Waterloo had just a handful of employees then. Now it has 50. In the beginning, all of Kunz's earnings went back into inventory. The shop had opened two years earlier on pure vinyl, but soon expanded to include the increasingly dominant format of cassette tapes. Waterloo's first maxim: "Where music still matters."
"I believe we've held very steady on our core principles," Kunz reflects.
Three years later, he bought out his partner and became Waterloo's sole owner.
By the time Kunz turned 45 in 1996, Waterloo had grown like an oak. The store was seven years removed from moving uptown to Sixth and Lamar and business was good.
"That was the beginning of heady times for records stores and Waterloo in particular," he says. "We were truly establishing ourselves in the community. Things were clicking a lot on the tourism side of the music industry. Prior to that, it was all of us swarming around our own little hive."
It was also when tapes were falling out of fashion and vinyl had flatlined. Outside of 12-inch singles and punk 45s, new releases were only coming out on cassette and CD. Six years earlier, they'd been inundated with wax from format-jumpers, so they'd opened a vinyl annex.
"People would come in saying, 'I got a new car and guess what? It's got a CD player in the dash. I'm never buying a record again!'" recounts Kunz. "I told people, 'You might want to go through your collection and not sell everything.' I've been telling people that for 30 years."
Yet by 1996, vinyl interest had plummeted to the point that Waterloo's record annex became their video rental extension.
When Kunz blows out 78 candles, it'll be 2029. The future of recorded music sales is unforeseeable, but Kunz has one prediction: "I certainly think Waterloo will still be here."
For starters, the store's already weathered the lean years.
"Ninety percent of the places that sold music at the turn of the century don't exist anymore," he says. "All those places in the mall – they're gone. But I think the record stores that survived have the advantage of those that went away.
"2000 was when the decline in the recorded music industry started, then 9/11 helped push it down. From 2000 to 2005 our sales flattened out. We'd always been having leaps-and-bounds gains, then from 2006 until two years ago, we started feeling the decline and had several years with double-digit declines in sales."
What Kunz calls the "vinyl renaissance" turned things around for Waterloo. Ask him his biggest point of pride regarding Waterloo and he points to a staff he considers the best and brightest in music retail. Maybe when he turns 75, one of them can take over.
"My hope and dream is that folks who are there are picking up the baton and running with it."
Waterloo's 33¹/3 anniversary begins today (Thursday) and ends with HAAM Benefit Day on Sept. 1. Through Sunday, a storewide sale knocks 33% off staff-selected vinyl. Tonight, the store hosts teen rock scion William Harries Graham & the Painted Redstarts, featuring appearances from former Waterloo employee Alejandro Escovedo and the frontman's father Jon Dee Graham, presumably bashing out classics from their cult group True Believers. Waterloo remains sacred ground to the Troobs: The store financed their first LP and they played Waterloo's first, 10th, and 20th anniversaries.
Jason Austin's Pop Noir
On the walls of Jason Austin's West Campus home, his legacy confronts you. Eye-bulging posters of the Jesus Lizard, Butthole Surfers, and Flaming Lips knock you back to a time when concert posters were all the club listings needed. The steady hands that made them today tremble, since Austin now suffers from multiple sclerosis.
Austin's added color to the city's gray-scape since 1988, posters trumpeting shows at Cannibal Club, Emo's, Stubb's, the Black Cat, and Liberty Lunch – with subjects ranging from Retarted Elf to Waylon Jennings. The native Austinite was also notorious as a deejay. His art and music, both dark distortions of pop culture, thrived under the same moniker: Pop Noir.
"I was mentored by the Armadillo World Headquarters artists, so I had a high standard of quality to live up to," says Austin. "Micael Priest was a really good friend to me, so was Guy Juke, Bill Narum, Sam Yates, Danny Garrett, and Kerry Awn. I had so many great teachers."
Austin grabs an Ed Hall poster and bends the longitudinal edges inward, wherein the image comes alive.
"I designed them so they'd stand out on a pole. The telephone pole was the way messages were transmitted in the Nineties, and there were posters on every pole."
In the last decade, Austin's work has slowed due to the disabling effects of MS, a condition he's had since the early Nineties. For a while, acupuncture kept him healthy, but recent years on a Western medicine regimen have caused his health to tank. Next he'll explore selective antigen therapy, a treatment not covered by his Medicaid.
"Before I was riding a bicycle everywhere, climbing buildings, falling down escalators without spilling my glass of wine," he laments. "Now I can barely walk to the trash can."
That's why his friends are holding a benefit for him at Spider House Ballroom on Friday, Aug. 7, 6pm. The show will feature freak rock allies Pong, Pocket Fishrmen, Tia Carrera, and Jesus Christ Superfly. There'll be raffles and door prizes for his extraordinary poster art, a new bicycle, Pop Noir mixtapes, and T-shirts.
"I'm so thankful," says Austin of the show. "I've got to get well and continue working on badass projects, which is what we've spent our lives doing."
Single-day ACL Fest tickets are now on sale. Not committed to a full weekend and just want to see your two favorite artists, Drake and Dwight Yoakam? Check the newly revealed daily lineups and purchase accordingly.
Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos hosts Jenni Finlay Promotions' 9th Anniversary on Saturday. The venue's late proprietor Kent Finlay was the Socrates of San Marcos music, a pure songwriter and brilliant song editor who nurtured aspiring troubadours including George Strait and Todd Snider at the club. His daughter bolsters Americana music though her radio promotions company and artist management arm that represents James McMurtry and Kevin Welch. Her roster – including all-stars McMurtry, Rod Picott, and Adam Carroll – bring it home to CSW.
Playback's In Iceland looking into native acts besides Björk, so no column next week.