Interview by Ryan Goldade
Words by Alan Ng & Ryan Goldade
Photography by Christine Tang
Grant McDonagh, owner of Zulu Records, is an encyclopedia of Vancouver music history. In his mid-teens, he was a writer for a fanzine called Snotrag, he worked at a record store name Quintessence, and he helped produce a compilation LP of Vancouver artists called “Vancouver Complication.” Many events have happened since the late 70’s and downloading has made the music business more of a struggle. While many record stores have shut down, Grant and Zulu have survived, and he’s doing it for all the right reasons.
Tell us a bit about yourself and Zulu Records.
Well, I am old enough to remember when AM radio was good. I grew up in Montreal. I used to listen to really good songs on the radio. There was really good diversity. AM radio was so diverse. It wasn’t just soul; it wasn’t just pop, or bubble gum or whatever the genres were at that time. It was just a mixed bag. Being in Montreal, there was a real black component too. Radio was great. I always felt like there was good music. When I was growing up, I felt like there were people that did it for the art of the music, they were working on radio stations and they were open-minded. It was about finding new things. Then the business of radio became more prominent just like when the record companies started sucking. Therefore radios started sucking and you get into this dissolution. Then you realize that there’s a thing called live music and other resources. You just have to do more research to find the good stuff and different music. You could say that’s the blueprint of what I do. That’s me personally and I worked in a record store called Quintessence, the old store prior to Zulu. They went out of business then I managed to take over the space and started running it and we are still open so it’s pretty good.
As a vintage vinyl stores, what types of genre do you specialize in. What are some of these genres that people can expect when they walk into your store?
Well, it is a bit of supply and demand when it comes to records. I think records peaked around 1980 or so. That’s why you see to this day, there are so many copies of the same record. The Eagles and Pink Floyd sold millions. That’s why there are a lot of people in our era that have lots of vinyl to trade in. There are some real gems in there obviously. We have a pretty good eye in spotting. Trying to be fair of course, but it is kind of a sniffing process. Certain genres like classical, even if it does do well in other stores, we don’t sell it. Sometimes you get disappointed because they are such good records, but sometimes they just sit there. Ultimately what’s cool about it is then when you see something like jazz or R&B. When you see the original pressing of the sleeves and posters, and the feel of it, they just looked right. The graphics of a record were so important. Some of the records that you associate with, you immediately picture the graphics in your mind. That’s where of course things changed in themodern world. There are graphics but cassettes made them small. CD booklets, people sort of noticed but they didn’t really. We were all vinyl when we opened, then we hesitantly got cassettes. Then CDs were creeping in around this time. I remember 18 years ago vinyl was really dead. The only people that kept them alive were the DJs. There were some bands that were putting out records but our vinyl selection was hard to sell. We couldn’t even sell it for two bucks. It was just a weird barrier in the early 90s. It was the Beasties Boys and other singles coming out from American major labels on vinyl. There were always DJ labels, when some of the rock brands brought it in. They brought it into the DJ scene and created crossovers, and then it got really good. Then the music scene of England grew. A lot of trance, house music was happening there. There was a lot of artistically strong stuff. It really almost fell off the cliff except for DJs that kept it alive. Man it’s just so cool. Everything converged, whether it’s grudge or hip-hop, funk. This is fun again. It changed since, but it never dropped off like that because it never will.
This location used to be called Quintessence; the store that you are working with. Then you ended up taking over and becoming Zulu. How did that process take place?
Interests rates were high. I borrowed money at 22 and ¾ percent interest. That was legitimate money from the Bank of Canada. I was probably the only guy that walked into the bank that week. It was just a different time. You got to understand that the store is way smaller than what it is now. The overhead and property tax was way less. It was doable. As of now, you’d have to have a good business plan and lots of money. I am glad I did it then.
Why is it named Zulu?
The old store started with a “Q” with Quintessence. All the record stores had boring names back then. The name of the store sounded like the records that they carried. We thought Z was a good letter and it literary came from the dictionary. We wrote it down on the short list. We actually had a store for two weeks without having a name. Eventually we settled on Zulu. I didn’t recognize the whole history and significance with Zulu and South Africa. Then later on I learned more about the history from South Africans.
You mentioned that you were young and you were even younger when you started at Quintessence. How was that?
That was fun. It was sort of like the time with radio. I used to shop for records in Downtown and eventually 4th avenue. I use to hang there and bought all the imports. They were the store that had a lot of those, where most stores didn’t have it. They were somewhat more expensive. You know? There was a lot of exciting stuff happening in the music industry in New York, London, Los Angeles and Germany. It was a good time as history shows. The store made a lot of good decisions and some questionable poor decisions. The store went out of business.
And they did the record label?
Yea they did that and they did a lot of really great records. Some weren’t that great but if it wasn’t for them; there wouldn’t be so much Canadian content out at that time. They also distributed other independent records. Ultimately, they were good people. That was a long time ago, but I do like those folks, they are really fun.
Tell us a bit about your involvement in the Vancouver punk seen.
Well it was great. Radio by that point was terrible. I wanted to find my kind of music. The tie in was with all these local bands that started to emerge. I was young and it was the right time. It was simple gigs. Then I got wise and learned that you can walk through the backdoor into clubs when you’re under aged. I met a lot of people back then. It was fun. Frankly, it was also like a competition between the bands. You will be at a gig, and hear about who’s playing next. Everyone knew each other. There was competition and people also supported each other. It was pretty innocent back then. People believed in the music. There was a lot of passion behind the guys that recorded music back then. They were better than their records by quite a bit. There was a lot of great music that wasn’t properly recorded. It took over 25 years until I gave commercial radio a little more credit because it is a little different now. The difference, now, is that someone can flick on the dial or listen to internet radio and hear strong songs on a lot of the stations. I don’t know a lot of the programs specifically, but there are good ones out there. The fact is, radio had to respond to the fact that anybody with any brains can find good music. It wasn’t that hard, and now with modern technology, it’s even easier. I think radio is better. I think the Vancouver stations are better now. The big thing is that I still think there are a lot of people out there that don’t get it. I still get pretty pissed off to certain radio stations promoting all these 70s stuff. They are not giving new artists chances. You know?
Internet changed everything. The problem that I think is happening is that the record companies don’t sell as much as they use to. When they made a lot of money back in the day, they actually had a budget to diversify the label. The major labels don’t make the money now, and nobody is getting signed.
Speaking of local radio, the host of Definitely Not The Opera, is a lady by the name of Sook-Yin Lee (also from Much Music). She released music on your Zulu Records label. What were some of the challenges of operating your record label? What are some of the adversities you faced?
We did two solo records with her, and one record when she was in a band before that, [Bob’s Your Uncle]. We also did a number of other records. There was a pattern here. Almost none of them had managers, and the ones that did, the managers didn’t know what they are doing. I saw the same mistakes happening again and again. Artistically, I look back and sometimes there was terrible production and then there were ones that I am proud of. I am not embarrassed of my involvement but I am embarrassed by the compromises that we made to some degree.
A lot of release we did had videos. Only some of them are on YouTube. I should upload the rest. But yea, I got a little tired of it after awhile. I really believe in the art that we are promoting. It just became a money pit and I just got tired of it. As years went by, you felt like they were always holding out for somebody better than you. You just feel a little insulted sometimes. You feel just slighted a little bit. Ultimately, that’s when the cross over of technology change. Digital was more prominant in studios. The good thing is recording cost came down. The CDRs became bigger. It used to be that you needed a label, now everyone can do it themselves.
Winning awards with Georgia Straight, tell us about that.
I’m really appreciative of that. You know? There aren’t that many records stores in Vancouver so we had a better chance. Every thing changed over the period of a few years. There are fewer stores around than the years that were good. But there are still actually quite a few record stores in this city. I can name a dozen of them. There are a lot of little stores. Sometimes it helps just to know.
What has been your ability to survive and persevere in the industry that sort of collapsed?
There are a number of things. I do believe in promoting good music. That part hasn’t changed. I really still care about promoting good releases. I am not necessary as knowledgeable as I was. Like anybody, why do you do what you do with your job? I really like listening to good music while working.
How did downloading affect you?
The majority of people that bought CDs don’t buy anymore. Vancouver being a tech-savvy city, it’s hard. I think that’s why the big stores didn’t do so well. What we notice is that the new releases still do good and I think the other stores can do the same thing too. I don’t think people buy CDs that much as they use to. Even then, some people will not buy it. It’s risky if we carry that music. Yea, it has affected it. At the same time, we have adapted. We have learned to be very careful with what we purchased. You’ve got to be more conscious. We use to get a lot of imports for years and years, but it’s so risky to get imports now because you can’t return it.
With the internet, it’s exposing more bands and more artists. Does that mean that you have to be that much knowledgeable about them?
Maybe not me, but the staff should. If people are listening for very specialize cases, they can take care of themselves for most cases. I hate to say that but they have the resources to find out where to get their music.
What does the average customer come in and ask for?
“Is there anything good here?” It would be people asking question about what’s hot. If you walk into a store, you only have so much time. Certain people are willing to put out money for the new releases and they might put out money for the things they really like. Of course for vinyls there are limited editions and all that. People are really on it. It’s more vinyl than CDs. Except vinyl is quite unpredictable with release dates. It’s not realiable because of distributor. Everybody tries his or her best. Sometimes stores get it and sometimes they don’t. That’s why customers go around to find what they want. I don’t think there’s one store that can carry everything.
On your website, you post videos on new releases. You have recommendations; you also post for a different blog for: your top 10 picks, the best for the week, and performances to look forward to. You sort of branched into the internet and distributing and advertising through that media. Where do you see Zulu records going into the future?
Well, frankly. There are a lot going on. It’s a big store. 3800 feet. There are a lot of projects. It is question of prioritizing whether it is photos or updates. Certain people take on other responsibilities. A lot of people take on things themselves. Some of the staff here are really good at what they do. I don’t actually have anything to do with it other than reading it like a customer. I find out things myself from reading the things that my staff post. You can do it on the internet or you can do it in the store. I still think when you walk into a store, you get so much more. It’s like going into the library versus going onto Amazon. In someway, you all know what’s it like to go into a store like London Drugs. You go in wanting to buy that one thing and then they have a special there. Before you know it, you are buying eight things. I would say that we are successful like that. There are so many cases of people that go into our store that buy more than what they intended to when they walked in. That’s kind of fun. I think that really well done websites, just like internet radio and good blogs are great. I would like to see more of that converge. It’s really expensive to operate a retail store in the year 2010. The saddest part is that more stores are going down. When I was in New York in Time Squares, it was really sad to see that Virgin Records closed down. That was the big record store in New York. 2-3 years ago, Tower Records went down. There are no more big record stores nowadays. We are almost like librarians. You can find anything on the internet, but it’s so much better to have that one to one connection in a record store. There are a lot of people that are really sad that record stores are going down. It’s like watching a movie at the theatres versus watching it on DVD. It’s different when you are sharing the movie with a bunch of people at the auditorium. For record stores, that’s the part that keeps me going because we are really important. A lot of people don’t come in but, frankly, enough people keep coming in.
What is HYPE?
Bullshit, in some ways. HYPE is something that you have to pay attention to, but more often than not it is bullshit.