with Kimber Lanning, owner of Stinkweeds & Modified Arts
August 14, 2006
It has been a few years since I last spoke to Kimber in depth & I forgot how full of energy & exhilarating she is. People who think I have way to much going on with all my projects can look to Kimber & see that I'm just at a normal level compared to her. She runs her record store Stinkweeds, her art gallery Modified Arts, & the Phoenix local business coalition Arizona Chain Reaction. I think this interview came off really well & has kind of filled me with more energy than I have had in a long time. Here it is....
QRD – What’s Arizona Chain Reaction?
Kimber – That is the non-profit coalition that I started about three years ago. It’s basically a shop local campaign, and we’re trying to get people to understand the cultural & economic impact that shopping locally can have. Here in Phoenix, all the people moved here from somewhere else & chain stores are sort of feasting on that transient culture. The chain stores have actually been able to pit these suburbs against each other & it’s bleeding the area dry economically and culturally. The municipalities are putting all our tax dollars towards subsidizing these huge sporting goods stores & Radio Shacks or Targets or whatever. They think it’s going to make shopping better, but they’re just crack-addicts for sales tax dollars & they don’t realize they’re bleeding us dry. There’s no sustainability in their planning. They’re pitting Stinkweeds against Best Buy. Local restaurants are against Applebee’s & Red Lobster & everything everywhere. Amazing local places are what give a city flavor. When people don’t understand. I ask them, Who ever came back from Chicago saying, “Chicago is a great city because they have a Lowe’s & an Applebee’s & a Kohl’s at every corner,” & then they’re like, “Oh, yeah, that’s not what makes Chicago a great city.”
QRD – Yeah, Phoenix has grown & changed to a totally different town in the past ten to fifteen years.
Kimber – Yeah, & we’re struggling with that. I think we are making some strides with this local coalition. We have over 800 members now & I can sit down & have meetings with the city council & speak with mayors & the beating of their chain store drums has subsided a bit. I think they’re realizing it’s not such a great business plan. We’re exporting our wealth at a high rate & for what? To make it so no one wants to come here? All we’ll have left is golf. So it’s a war. Everyday is a war. I’m also still doing Stinkweeds & Modified Arts, so everyday is action packed.
QRD – You recently opened a second Stinkweeds, but then pulled yourself back to one store. What happened?
Kimber – Well, the new store’s going to have its second anniversary at the end of September. There were really a lot of factors in that decision. I found this building downtown that I wanted to buy, but there were still nearly 2 years left on my lease in Tempe. Rather than miss the opportunity, I decided to open a second store until the lease ran out. It was never my intent to have two stores, it’s just how it worked out.
QRD – But you’re just working at the one shop?
Kimber – Yeah. I sold the Tempe store to a couple that moved here from Salt Lake City & they’re calling it Slow Train. I didn’t sell the name or the website or anything like that.
QRD – Just the physical location?
Kimber – Right. They bought all the inventory & fixtures & shrinkwrap machine. It was like a store in a box pretty much.
QRD – So there is now essentially just one Stinkweeds?
Kimber – Right. It made sense …it all just added up & the time was right & I made the decision to move forward. I needed more time to focus on the non-profit, and I was working 7 days a week for the past 3 years.
QRD – What’s Modified Arts & how does it compare & relate to Stinkweeds?
Kimber – Modified is a performance space & arts venue. Basically I started having local art & shows at the store in Stinkweeds years & years & years ago, probably back in 1993. By 1999 we were having shows four nights a week & I had the art on the walls booked over a year in advance. So I found this little building downtown & I brought together this group of hardcore Stinkweeds customers who were all dancers, performers, actors, & musicians & I said, “Hey, I can lead this thing & run the business aspects & renovate this building. But I can’t do this on my own. It has to be a community effort because it’s going to have to be volunteer run.” I started with a group of forty so I could end up with six volunteers & that’s what I got.
QRD – So you started out with forty people saying they were committed & ended up with six willing to do the work?
Kimber – Yeah. That’s a pretty normal rate I think. People are like, “This town sucks & we need to make it better,” & then they go home & play video games. That’s fine for them, whatever; at least I got six people. It’s still volunteer run this many years later & that was in 1999 that we opened Modified. We’re open six to seven nights a week & we have theater, film night once a month with local filmmakers, gallery receptions twice a month, & live music, both local & touring. Anybody who’s touring that’s going to bring less than 150 people comes through Modified pretty much.
QRD – You’ve brought a lot of good bands into the Phoenix area over the years that would’ve other wise skipped the town. Are there any you would’ve liked to bring, but you just didn’t think the local scene would support?
Kimber – You know, that happens a lot. I run into a little bit of a difficult spot because we don’t have a liquor license. A lot of bands are used to being paid $500-$800 in other cities & they come to Phoenix & can only be paid $300-$400, which is still an exceptionally high ratio of the door money because we only come away a lot of nights with $75 in order to pay the bands as much as we can. We have volunteers running things but all we have to sell is chips & soda. So we have to work extra hard & still we sometimes miss good bands. Right now Tucson has several options with alcohol. I just lost DoMakeSayThink because I offered them $100 less & they went right to Tucson. That breaks my heart because I could personally lose the $100 to bring them here, but I wasn’t given that choice. A lot of times it’s pretty cutthroat & they’ll only want to stop in Arizona one time. It’s a guessing game because I don’t know what the guy in Tucson is going to bid. It gets a little rough. But I’m pretty firm on not wanting a liquor license in Modified because I’ve got thousands of dollars of art up on the walls every month.
QRD – Throwing up on it or whatever.
Kimber – Yeah, or an elbow through it.
QRD – You started the store about twenty years ago & offered a bit of a guiding hand for what customers should check out. Are there any bands from Phoenix you think wouldn’t have happened without Stinkweeds?
Kimber – I really hesitate to take credit for someone else’s hard work. I will say that we have always encouraged & supported local bands like crazy. But how much of that is their own hard work is hard to say. I like to give bands credit for what they do. But some of the bands we’ve really gotten behind like Fatigo & Necronauts recently. There’s a label here called Western Tread that Jim Adkins from Jimmy Eats World started & another label called Sunset Alliance & I’ve formed allegiances with them to handle all of their distribution through mail order. Those kinds of things are really helpful. I’m willing for a buck a disc to connect them to our Americart shopping system so people can order the CDs with the same ease as anything else on my website. Currently there’s a band on the road called Stiletto Formal that is a Phoenix band & I can literally tell what city they are in by the orders that come in. All of a sudden I get a lot of orders from Las Vegas & then Denver. I believe those kinds of things are helping bands on the business side of what they do so they can just go & create & trust that I’m behind them doing everything I can.
QRD – As the age gap between you & a lot of your customers has increased, do you have more trouble relating to them?
Kimber – At times absolutely, but let me answer that two-fold. What I’ve realized is I need to approach things somewhat differently. I’m so used to being the person out there handing out flyers & stickers & being at shows & being the face of the store. This is hilarious, I handed these flyers to these guys one time & as I was walking away I heard one of them say to the other, “Dude, some lady just handed me a flyer.” & I thought, “Okay, time to change your business practices Kimber!” I’m like the one CEO that’s ten years past retirement & doesn’t recognize that there’s a competent staff that needs to take over some of the stuff. Also my customer age has actually increased due to the electronic influx in my industry. I used to have a lot of high school customers & I no longer do. & that’s a pretty scary aspect. Most of my customers are college through mid-thirties I would say. So it’s not that far of a stretch. But when I do get the younger customers in, there’s no doubt that they’re looking at me in shock that I can talk to them about the bands that they like.
QRD – Do you have a lot of second-generation customers of people coming in with their folks?
Kimber – I wouldn’t say a lot. Most of my customers’ kids are still too young to be buying their own music. We have some that are old enough, but mostly what I have is a big box of crayons & playthings behind the counter so the parents can actually look around. I have a little area where kids can draw me pictures & they get put up on the wall. What happens sometimes is you get the rebellious kid who can’t stand anything progressive. I have a customer who was asking, “Where did I go wrong?” because he had to go see Christina Aguilera with his twelve-year-old daughter. I think it’s particularly hard in this country right now because the mass media is smothering kids with a standard that is unachievable in terms of physical beauty. It used to be ordinary looking people with extraordinary things to say & now we’ve got extraordinary looking people with nothing to say. It’s been a subtle morph that most people aren’t really thinking of. I recently started teaching a workshop in high school called Youth Culture & Mass Media where I address these issues. I start off showing pictures of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison & Brian Wilson & James Brown & Jimi Hendrix & Janis Joplin & all of these people would have the door slammed in their face today because they don’t look right. Then I take them through the whole punk rock thing with Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone & I then show them a picture of N-Sync next to Good Charlotte & ask, “What’s the difference?” & nobody says anything. I say, “Exactly, these people & concepts were created in some record executive’s office to get money out of your pocket & into theirs.” What are these bands saying to you? I talk to the girls about how unrealistic Brittany Spears is. Her face has been airbrushed; guys, your girlfriend is not going to look like that. When I went in I was afraid that they would just not respond, but they get really engaged. The teachers love it because they get engaged in conversation. & the geeky kid in the back who’s always drawing that probably listens to Pink Floyd & Jimi Hendrix sits a little taller when I’m done & so do the reject skater kids. It’s pretty interesting because I can go through a classroom & say, “Name me one CD that you got recently that you really like. It doesn’t have to be your favorite, just tell me one that you like. & I can tell what’s going on in that kids head & the teachers are fascinated by that. They wonder “How do you do that?” It’s because it’s what I do for a living. If they say Nora Jones I have a clue what they’re like. If they say some skate punk band I kinda know what they’re like . The really super-geeks are listening to music from another generation entirely. Then the alpha-males are into the shittiest gangster-rap. The rich white kids in ties listen to whatever crap you want to talk about, but primarily Eminem. The dirtier the better is their personal trip. It’s all pretty interesting. But to answer your question; in a class of fifty people, probably only ten of them have even heard of Stinkweeds or Modified. Which is pretty scary.
QRD – & these are kids in the same zip code, not in another suburb or whatever.
Kimber – Absolutely. These are kids whose concept of music is downloading it, buying it online, or buying it at Best Buy.
QRD – Did you see emo coming? It seemed like overnight alternative music was assasinated by emo in the press. You can hardly find an alternative music magazine anymore.
Kimber – It’s possible I’ve been so entrenched in my own wars that I haven’t really noticed what’s happened in the press to tell you the truth. I’ve always relied on actually listening to play copies & to what the distribution companies say to know what to buy for the store. But I do now look at online resources just to make sure I have a clue what people are talking about. InSound & Pitchfork definitely affect sales much more than anything in the physical press, which is fascinating.
QRD – In the early 1990’s when there was the big indie label boom, why were you content to stay a store when so many others tried their hand at being a label?
Kimber – For me it was really just a matter of time. Whether I’m playing in bands or going back to school or running two separate businesses, or starting a non-profit, there’s just not enough time in the day. & there’s never really been anybody that I felt I could really partner up with. Right now I’m contemplating starting another new company because I’m an idiot. It has a lot to do with live music & trying to get people to go out to see more live music, but I’m having a hard time feeling confident that anybody else that I join with is going to come to the project with the amount of energy that I always bring to whatever I’m doing.
QRD – Yeah, you need to get forty people to find one.
Kimber – Yeah. I don’t know what it is. I just do what I say I’m going to do & it’s getting harder & harder to find people who do that.
QRD – Do most of the local customers know that you were in Half String?
Kimber – No. I don’t really talk about that. I’m actually in a new band now & people are surprised to find out.
QRD – Playing drums?
Kimber – Yeah. The band is called Letdownright. It’s two of the guys who were in an old Alias Records band called Trunk Federation & we’re having a blast with it. It’s a good place to be because nobody is trying to be a rockstar. We’re writing new material & having a blast while we’re at it. We just played a couple shows & we’ll be opening up for Silversun Pickups in October. But I don’t really talk about it that much in the store.
QRD – Will there ever be a Half String reunion? I mean the Pixies got back together....
Kimber – Matt & Brandon & I are still close & I can see the three of us doing something. But Dave is far far away. He has kids & I believe he’s in Wisconsin, and he’s fallen out of touch with all of us. Matt’s in San Francisco, Brandon’s in LA, & we all talk fairly regularly. Actually Brandon hasn’t been playing too much, but Matt & I are still playing.
QRD – Do you think people wanting music as data with no associated physical object (e.g. MP3s) is a fad or a permanent market shift?
Kimber – I don’t see how you put the genie back in the bottle. I don’t see how we can ever re-invent what music is to you & I to the younger generation. Because it isn’t just music, it’s everything in their lives. They’re impatient & everything’s being dumbed down to the lowest common denominator & it’s all about immediate gratification. Even when you think about food, you’ve really got to cherish the best restaurants. Because what people are eating is not the best food, but who has the best picture of the food. It’s all being reduced to more of a visual connotation than any other sensory input. It’s more important what people look like than what they’re playing or saying. It’s an across the board shift in American culture & this is just one of the fallouts. But I’m an old diehard for this stuff. There’s that band Elefant who had a problem with their newest CD. The problem was they got the gig opening for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club & the label couldn’t get the merchandise to the stores fast enough. But, they’d already sent out advance promos, so I don’t see why they couldn’t get it together, but they said they couldn’t. So what they wanted me & all the indie retailers to do was, since it was already available online, was put out a jewel case in the store with no disc in it; but only instructions on the inside for how to go home & download it. So I whole-heartedly refused & wrote letters across the industry stating, “How dare you imply that I would do this to my customers & how dare you undermine everything that I stand for. I’m out here trying to keep this industry together & you think for $13.99 I’m going to sell instructions on how to download something?” The sad part is that I’m in a coalition of indie stores & I only got about 50% of us to reject it. The others were like, “We’ll do it just to prove it’s not going to work.” But to me, ethically, I had to take a stand because it’s a copycat industry & if these guys think they can actually not manufacture the disc anymore & still sell them, they’ll do it in a second. It was a little dis-heartening that the stores wouldn’t join hands. Anyway, someone at Hollywood got fired over it & it was a big huge mess. I’ll hang on to the CD packaging & the lyrics & if I can’t do it this way, I won’t do it at all.
QRD – What will digital downloads kill first - chain record shops, indie record shops, major labels, or indie labels?
Kimber – Definitely chains & majors. Tower’s on the brink of bankruptcy again. Mainstream listeners are not music fanatics. That’s the big difference. Music fanatics want to support the bands; they want to support the labels; they want to support the indie store. They get the big picture by & large. Mainstream listeners want that song they heard on the radio & they want it now & three months later they can’t tell you who wrote it or who sang it because they weren’t really that engaged in the first place. So that’s going to come out of the chains first. Also I think chains are much more expensive for the most part except for Best Buy. Like at Tower Records, it’s getting harder & harder to justify pricing anything over $13-$14 & they’re doing it all the time & wondering where everybody went. But Best Buy will never be able to compete with indie stores as far as breaking new artists. For catalog sales & mainstream artists they’ll always be able to hock stuff & so will Wal-Mart.
QRD – When you go to other indie shops (be they record, book, clothing, or whatever), what’s the most common mistake you see them making?
Kimber – Bad customer service. It’s a thing I kind of talk about constantly in Arizona Chain Reaction, the non profit I’m working on. We could often use to learn from the chains. When you walk into an Applebee’s you’re instantly greeted, you’re instantly seated, everybody’s friendly, your cup’s always filled, your food is served & it’s the same as the food you got last time. People are appreciative of those things. Personally, I don’t care if my meal is different because of who’s in the kitchen. But what I do care about is if people have good eye contact & if I have an issue I feel it will be taken care of. A lot of times you go into places & there’s just some dude behind the counter who really doesn’t give a damn. Then you talk to the owner & he says, “Oh, he just covers me for a few hours during the day….” Look, when I go into your store & it’s my first time in your store & you got this kid behind the counter who doesn’t even want to be there, then I don’t walk away going, “Oh, I bet the owner is really nice, but that kid wasn’t very nice.” I think, “Look, those guys are jerks.” That person is speaking for your store 100% when you’re not there. You better make sure your staff is up to par.
QRD – What do you think indie record labels could do to best help both themselves & indie stores?
Kimber – What I would ask indie labels to do they would never be able to do. What I would ask them to do is to stop the advertising buy-ins with Best Buy, that would be my very first thing. Did you follow that thing that happened last year?
QRD – With Best Buy having Merge releases below cost & all that?
Kimber – Yeah. That sort of program hurts indie stores more than anything else & if they continue to do that, there is going to be resentment. & they don’t want there to be resentment because what’s going to happen is all that will be left standing is Best Buy, Wal-Mart, & all the little indie stores. & the only way they’re ever going to break new artists is through the indie stores. So to me it seems the train is going off the cliff & they’ve got to make a decision which side they’re on. I think the more they support Best Buy & Wal-Mart, the more bitterness & lack of enthusiasm there will be on our part.
QRD – When you see a record store selling skate shoes or fancy soda or bongs or novelty toys to make ends meet, do you feel it really is necessary or they just aren’t doing their job properly?
Kimber – There’s all different ways to run an independent store. I personally decided to stay true to selling music, but there are a lot of stores that do a hell of a lot more business, so I can see both sides. I went into Twist & Shout in Denver & they’ve got rows & rows of things like skull-shaped salt & pepper shakers & shower curtains & who knows what. So they gross who knows how many times as much money as I do & that allows them to support indie bands better than I can. If they have an in-store, they might sell 70-80 copies of a band’s CD because it’s such a massive store because they make so much money selling salt & pepper shakers. So it goes both ways. I’ve remained true, but when a band comes to town & does an in-store I do good to sell 10 copies of their CD because I’m still so relatively unknown because I still don’t carry Beatles or Eminem or anything else & I’m a hard ass about it. It’s not the best business model, but it is the best business model for who I am & looking in the mirror everyday. But I can see how you can do it & still have a damn good store. I’ve never been to Shake It in Cincinatti, but I have a hell of a lot of respect for the owner Darren & I know he sells a lot of stuff.
QRD – What is the job of the independent record store & how is it different from Tower & Target?
Kimber – To help brand new bands find their audience, number one. Number two, help customers discover music for real. Number three, & this is a really important one, to provide community. There’s a community around a record store the way there is around a bookstore that you’ll never find in one of those other stores.
QRD – What’s your favorite music geek movie? High Fidelity?
Kimber – I don’t really have one. There were aspects of High Fidelity that I thought were funny, but for the most part I’ve never really liked any of them. I still have my aspirations for doing something with my collection of short stories that I’ve been accumulating.
QRD – What makes you feel like you had a good day at the store?
Kimber – Being able to juggle a 16-year-old
kid, a 38-year-old mom, & a 45-year-old business man who all stopped
by & felt like they had a good experience.