Sunday, August 01, 1999

SHAKE IT RECORDS


Music store and label small, personal

BY LARRY NAGER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[blase]
Darren Blase owns label and record store Shake It.
(Stevn M. Herppich photo)
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        Shake It Records owner Darren Blase acquired his label the old-fashioned way — he traded for it.

        Jess Hirbe, former owner of Mole's Record Exchange in Corryville, started the label in the late '70s. He wanted to record such local rock bands as the Customs.

        By the early '90s, Mr. Hirbe had sold the store and was living in Sedona, Ariz., when Mr. Blase called to ask if he could revive the label.

        “And he said, "Sure, I don't care. Let's trade something for it,' ” recalls Mr. Blase (pronounced “Blaze”). The deal was sealed with an old LP Mr. Hirbe had been looking for, Blues in the Gutter by Champion Jack Dupree.

        Mr. Blase started with a 45 RPM release by the local band Mortals. He has since turned Shake It into the most active punk and roots rock label operating out of Cincinnati. The label has released more than 20 45s, EPs, LPs and CDs.

        But though groups like the Tigerlilies provided him with some of his earliest releases, he soon realized he needed to look beyond Cincinnati.

        “I never wanted to do just local stuff, 'cause you end up just preaching to the converted. My whole philosophy was to build up a clientele outside of the city, so when you do put out something local you have somebody to sell it to who's not a friend of the family.”

        Earlier this year, he expanded Shake It. He opened a record store of the same name on Hamilton Avenue in Northside, where he presides over one of the city's most eclectic record inventories. From old King LPs by bluegrass greats Stanley Brothers to obscure punk 45s to Dave Matthews Band CDs, Shake It has it all.

        But like J Curve and Malandro, Shake It can't survive on the hometown market alone.

        “I've sold very, very little stuff in Cincinnati,” he says. “Even Straight Outta Boone County, which we've sold almost 40,000 of (worldwide), we've sold like 12 in Cincinnati.”

        Straight Outta Boone County, an alt-country tribute to the old '50s WLWT-TV show Midwestern Hayride, was a co-production with Chicago's Bloodshot Records. It introduced Shake It to a national audience and provided seed money for the Shake It store.

        Mr. Blase, 31, has always worked in record or bookstores, including 10 years at Mole's. He worked briefly for local ARC Distributors and spent a couple of years at New York stores.

        But what first hooked the Cincinnati native was a record from his older brother Jim's collection, the Clash's 1979 masterpiece, London Calling.

        “That was my ice-breaker record, 'cause it had like reggae and rockabilly on it. It just took me on a trip of just going hog wild, every penny I had, just buying records, figuring it out, going back further and further and further. When I look at my record collection it's my autobiography.”

        Like his fellow local label owners, Mr. Blase started out trying to play music (and like his fellow label owners, he has a very understanding wife, Dean). “I played guitar and then I quit 'cause I hit the wall and I never cared anymore. But I still wanted to participate.

        “As far as the store goes, I've always wanted to own a place that's tied into the community, like Floyd's Barbershop (in Mayberry). And in the four months that I've been here, it's kind of become a haunt for some people. You don't have to buy anything. It's just a cool place to hang out.”

        His releases, by regional acts such as Cleveland's Cowslingers and West Virginia's rockabilly savant Hasil Adkins, usually sell between 4,000-5,000 copies. Not even a blip on a major label's screen, but enough to be profitable for Shake It.

        Upcoming projects include a tribute album to Hank Penny, King Records' premier western swing bandleader, and CDs by Indiana's Tip-Top Daddies, which also performs as Roundups.

        “We could afford to put out something every month, 'cause the cash flow is good. But this is what I want to do 20 years from now, so I have to be careful. The world can wait an extra two months for a Hank Penny Tribute.”

        His business is 70 percent the store and 30 percent the label, but he'd like to see a bit more balance. Right now, he's a happy anachronism, a thriving small-time indie record store and label in the age of Amazon.com. (A Shake It Web site is in the planning stages.)

        “Independent record stores are a dying breed and when they're gone people are really gonna regret it. That human interaction is something I've always enjoyed.

        “That's what a lot of music I love is all about, and putting that into a business environment where I can make a living is an extension of that communication, dealing with warm, human-being people instead of buying something online.”

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- Music store and label small, personal



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