Monday, April 07, 2008

(Twenty Years) Part 13: I Can't Quit You Baby

While I was never a stereotypical 90s "slacker" type in appearance, there is no question that my work ethic occasionally warranted an outside adjustment. At odd times, this was simply a matter of growing comfortable and complacent with the job, and there were a couple of other occasions where I was going through some kind of life turmoil that greatly interfered with my ability and/or willingness to do anything aside from show up and occupy space behind the counter. There were never shouting matches over this (this wasn't Greg's style), but the point would be made and, if necessary, enforced by my hours being reduced to part-time (spring 1994), or being placed on involuntary sabbatical in order to get my head together and figure out what the hell I was going to do with myself (spring/summer 1990).

By the middle of 1999, though, there were new forces in play that began to affect my work performance. For the first time since I was hired, I was finally starting to tire of forever being "third key." This change in attitude was precipitated by two factors: 1) I was pinned under the proverbial glass ceiling being the third man on a three-man crew, and 2) I had met Sarah during that spring and was presented with a choice to relocate, start anew, and perhaps move up from my present position whilst doing so.

When Beth (the store's longtime assistant manager since 1989) left Record Den at the dawn of 1997 for a job downtown with the Cleveland Indians organization, I was passed over for promotion by a co-worker who had been hired 6 years after me. Thankfully, there has never been any rancor between me and Brian (who had moved ahead of me) over this, for I knew full well that I had deserved the snub considering my recent performance, and the simple truth of the matter was that Brian was the better pick of the two of us due to his retail management experience from previous jobs.

Another factor that kept any possible hurt feelings at bay is that I had been offered management jobs in the company before (I had turned down, after much internal debate, an offer to run the Great Northern Mall store during the fall of 1995), and I figured it was only a matter of time before another opportunity presented itself. What I didn't count on, of course, was the complete disintegration of the entire chain over the next two years, which effectively left me stuck at #3 for the foreseeable future. D'ohh.

The cover of an old Scene magazine. Before the dark times. Before the EMPIRE.Towards the end of 1998, a new opportunity did come along, but not from Record Den: Scene magazine, a local entertainment newsweekly that I had been freelancing for over the previous two and half years, was being bought out by the Phoenix-based New Times media group (now called the Village Voice Media, as I discovered while researching this post). The situation at Scene was almost perfectly analogous to what had happened the year before at the store when Record Town had come calling: anyone who wanted to stay at Scene was offered employment under the new ownership, but it was going to be a very different kind of publication than what had existed before and, unsurprisingly, most of the editorial staff abandoned ship as the transition drew near.

From the tone of his voice, it sure didn't sound like incoming music editor at Scene was very pleased with the situation he was rapidly finding himself in as everyone walked off the plank instead of swearing eternal fealty to New Times. In a subsequent fit of pique, or perhaps in a "Year Zero"-styled move to wipe out the past and start from a new blank slate, New Times consigned the old Scene culture to oblivion as every single pre-transition article and review (thousands of record, movie and concert reviews, interviews and news stories covering the Cleveland music scene going back nearly 3 decades) vanished from the web archives forever. Jerks. I sure hope someone somewhere is keeping every issue of the old Scene magazine in safe, dry place, otherwise this represents an incalculable loss.

Anyway, back to that opportunity: as we watched a high school football game and chatted about the New Times situation one Friday night that October, Steve (my editor at Scene) told me of a brand new entertainment weekly called Spot that he was seeking to get off the ground. If memory serves, Steve had managed to snare three or four of the senior music writers (of which I was one) from Scene, along with a couple of other contacts/friends from the outside to make up his new staff.

The idea was that Spot would quickly move to flank Scene, which we knew was almost certainly going to veer away from the all-music format it had owned since its inception and skew towards the socio-political turf long patrolled by the Cleveland Free Times. Spot would also attempt to reclaim Scene's old territory with a more irreverent, eye-catching approach to news coverage than the well-worn, familiar Scene style (for reference points, Steve had in mind such vibrant British music monthlies as Q and Mojo). The most enticing prospect was that if everything worked out, we would would have the entire "local entertainment" playing field all to ourselves. After laying all of this out, Steve then asked me if I could commit full-time to the new venture.

At the risk of cheapening the moment with an unintentional pun, this was one of the toughest decisions I ever had to make on the spot. I had started freelancing for Scene on a pure lark in the spring of 1996 after years of wanting to make some kind of inroads into professional writing. The whole gig had come about from me asking a regular Scene contributor named Lee (who had been coming into the store for years) exactly how one applied for a writing position down there. Lee basically told me to knock off a few "demo" album reviews and send them down to Steve's office for approval. To my great surprise, I was brought on board immediately and started submitting copy within days, eventually "graduating" to concert reviews, interviews, and feature articles. While the pay was minimal and on a per-article basis, I was finally taking steps towards my old dream career, and what I was being offered by Steve that fall evening was basically the full-time writing job I'd been wanting for years.

However, there were two problems that made me chew this over for a minute or so before I could respond. Firstly, I knew that the survival rate of new startup magazines beyond six months wasn't very good, and regardless of their new approach, we'd be going up against two long-entrenched local 800 pound gorillas. Granted, Spot wouldn't be fighting the twin titans head on as our content would be quite different from theirs, but we would have to call in favors and take a lot of time setting up credentials, advertising accounts, and taking a long, slow route to possible success.

Then there was a question of loyalties, plain and simple. While I felt like I owed Steve for giving me a shot and then respecting me enough to offer a full-time position at his next venture, I had known Greg a decade longer and felt equally, if not more indebted to him for keeping me employed over the previous eleven years. As much as I loathed having Deak skulking around the back room all day, the thought of leaving Record Den when we were just getting started over again tore at my insides. After a few months of steadily increasing momentum, sales were starting to take off and we were all excited by what might be possible as our first Christmas season in our new location approached. To make a move to Spot, I would have to jump ship from the Den at the worst possible time to do so, and that alone was unthinkable. Even if the timing hadn't been as terrible as it was, I knew full well that there was no room for a fourth full-timer at the store, and if Spot were to fail, I would be pretty well screwed for a job, at least in the short-term.

After a minute or so of thinking everything over, I declined Steve's offer. I would be more than happy to keep on writing and coming up with content ideas, I told him, but I couldn't leave the store at this time after all we'd gone through to land it and then set it up. I think Steve understood, though I still felt terrible for turning him down. After I dropped him off at his apartment later that night and drove home down Route 2, I wondered if I might have just made the biggest mistake of my life, because it sure felt like it.

As it turned out, I couldn't have been more wrong: about four months later, after a half-dozen or so issues had been distributed around the Cleveland area to a promising initial response, it appears that, depending on how you interpret this brief wrap-up piece, either Steve had a catastrophic falling out with the publisher or (as I had heard) Spot's sole financier developed a lethal case of cold feet and pulled the plug on the whole enterprise. It didn't matter, really: Spot never published again. The dream was over.

Steve was a pretty low-key guy emotionally, but you couldn't miss the anger and betrayal in his voice as I talked to him a day or so after the shit hit the fan. I wasn't sure what to feel: on one hand, the end of Spot ultimately marked the end of my professional writing career. On the other, I had somehow made the wisest decision of my life to that point and thus had a full-time job to fall back on, while Steve (after a stint that following Christmas working for us as part-time help) eventually landed at Lincoln Electric for a while, then ran a CD Warehouse outlet in Mayfield, and now, it appears, lives in New York City.

Within weeks of Spot ceasing to exist, Sarah and I had become an online item, and as that situation developed further, the feeling that I wasn't going anywhere at Record Den had started to gnaw at me to the point where I was seriously considering moving to Columbia, Missouri (where she lived) to see what life had to offer a thousand miles from home. With hardly anything to keep me here if I left the store, the plan was that I'd work through Christmas, save up what I could, and move sometime in early 2000. This idea was sweetened considerably when Sarah informed me that the big record store in Columbia was now hiring for a full-time position. Yahtzee! I sent off a letter and resume to the store owner, shortly thereafter informing Greg of my plans.

January 2000 came around at last, and Western civilization had failed to collapse in on itself despite all the media hysteria that the Y2K bug would send us all back to the stone age at the stroke of midnight on New Years Day. I was just starting to make final preparations for the move when the news came down that the job I thought I had a fairly good shot at was not going to happen (and I'm very glad this news was passed on to me before the move, because Goat knows what the hell kind of chaos that little snafu might have wrought after I had already arrived in Columbia). With that opportunity gone, my spirit was broken and all the little doubts about this idea that had been flittering about in the back of my mind (that I had been studiously ignoring for weeks) suddenly became a very big deal. Perhaps a bit panicked by the sudden change in the situation, I began to reconsider the idea of moving, and wondered if I might be better off staying in Ohio instead.

As luck would have it, I didn't have to think about this very long: a week or so later, Brian had accepted an offer to work full time for our ex-assistant manager Beth at a warehouse she had opened in Willoughby. While he wouldn't be leaving Record Den permanently (he offered to work Sundays in order to keep up with the biz and give Greg and I a common day off), Brian would no longer be available to be a full-time assistant manager, and the job was suddenly mine if I wanted it.

Not being a complete moron, I accepted the promotion.

(Picture of me flipping the bird while reading Q magazine by Dave M.)

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