Thursday, May 21, 2020

The F Word: Record Archive still spinning

Posted By on Thu, May 21, 2020 at 4:10 PM

With an unpredictable future looming precariously before them, Rochester-area music stores and venue owners have been caught in a kind of COVID-19 limbo. In this final edition of The F-Word series about how such businesses are surviving, CITY music writer Frank De Blase checks in with Record Archive.

This recent pandemic has ravaged the lives and careers of countless people, both here and abroad. Rochester is resilient and undoubtedly tough, but there are still scars to admire and stories to be told. Tales of dealing with distancing, wearing masks,washing our hands seemingly a thousand times a day, and self-quarantines. Wi-Fi is the new virtual commodity. COVID-19 is rendering our lives financially, emotionally, and physically compromised. It sucks.

Record Archive has been a constant in the Rochester scene for 45 years, selling recorded music in all its forms, plus a wild display of knicks and knacks and odds and ends. Alayna Alderman has been there, flashing a gregarious grin, for 35 years of the store’s existence.

Alayna Alderman, vice president and co-owner of Record Archive, has been with the company for 35 years. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Alayna Alderman, vice president and co-owner of Record Archive, has been with the company for 35 years.

The Record Archive’s vice president and co-owner with Richard Storms, Alderman is one tough lady. A pop culture champion, a retail visionary, a mover and a shaker, and a mother of three.  And yet she was caught unaware in the wash of this terrible viral tsunami, like so many other business owners in the entertainment and hospitality trades.

Initially, Alderman felt shock, fear, and the ultimate sadness of laying off her entire staff, 19 employees in all.

“I was heartbroken, tearful and frustrated,” Alderman says. “Next came the wave of uncertainty of ‘How long will this last?’ and ‘Can we all survive it?’ And now it is the acceptance of knowing so many people have lost their lives during this, and it's not over. In addition, we are trying to reopen, rebuild and re-establish ourselves.”

The effects of the pandemic have also impacted Alderman on a personal level.

“Trying to stay positive and upbeat for my children has been a tremendous challenge,” she says. “Also, I simply miss my friends. The only upshot of this ‘pause’ is that it gives you time to think and identify what's really important.”

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Even before the pandemic, the record industry had been hit hard as of late, with changing trends in technology and the culture of shopping. But it was “never this severe,” Alderman says.

“Discount retailers devaluing music, competing with free digital music, and the ongoing issues with distribution of physical goods in the marketplace are just a few hurdles that I must clear,” she says. “But never like this. It's eerie.”

On Friday, March 13, it was still business as usual, as the RA still hosted its Happy Hour in the Backroom Lounge. Opened in 2016, this live music venue and event space in the backroom of the record store can hold 150 rockin’ souls. and offers over 100 beers and more than 50 wines, plus spiked seltzers, hard ciders and sparkling wines.

“The room was full that night, but you could feel a heaviness in the air,” says Alderman. “The buzz went from the typical lighthearted chatter of music and beer to a nervousness of ‘What the hell is going on?’ As the reports of infections and deaths continued to climb, we decided to close.” That was on Wednesday, March 17.

Alderman (pictured) says the record store has already implemented plexi shields and sanitizing stations, according to CDC safety guidelines, in anticipation of reopening. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Alderman (pictured) says the record store has already implemented plexi shields and sanitizing stations, according to CDC safety guidelines, in anticipation of reopening.

Flash-forward to today: Alderman has her eyes on the prize — an imminent re-opening — and has gone through all the necessary steps to ensure financial viability. These actions include obtaining a Payroll Protection Program loan from the federal government, engaging in brisk online selling at shop.recordarchive.com (something they have always done), and ramping up listings on third-party platforms like Ebay, Discogs, and Amazon.

Record Archive is also getting its physical store ready at 33 1/3 Rockwood Street to make sure the business is compliant with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, once it is able to open again during Phase Two of New York state’s reopening plan.

“We have already installed plexi shields at the front counters, socially distancing markers on the floors, sanitizing stations throughout the space, and all the other CDC recommendations to the best of our ability,” she says.

The Backroom Lounge will have to wait a bit longer before opening, but Alderman is anticipating opening it as part of Phase Three or Four, with what she expects to be 50-percent capacity to start. She says the lounge has bookings well into 2021.

“I wouldn't say it will be back to normal or anything like that,” Alderman says.” We will be moving forward in new ways. I am cautiously optimistic.”

Frank De Blase is CITY's music writer. He can be reached at frank@rochester-citynews.com.
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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The F Word: Iron Smoke Distillery chases coronavirus with whiskey

Posted By on Wed, May 13, 2020 at 5:05 PM

[UPDATED 5/14/20] This article has been updated to include information on the newly announced online event "Wag the Jaw with Tommy Brunett."

Tommy Brunett is a triple threat. He’s the CEO and founder of Iron Smoke Distillery, the 56-time award-winning whiskey company in Fairport. Brunett also runs the tasting room and live music venue on-site, and he’s a musician himself as frontman for the Tommy Brunett Band.
Iron Smoke Distillery's Tommy Brunett - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Iron Smoke Distillery's Tommy Brunett
Earlier in his career, Brunett played guitar with the Rochester heavy metal mavens in Immaculate Mary, the band that displaced The Who as the “Loudest Band in the World” in 1988. The guy clearly knows how to let loose, and he’s brought that vibe to his distillery.

So the whiskey was flowin’, the joint was jumpin’, and the guitars were twangin’. Everything was jake; it was Shangri-La di da. Nobody saw it coming.

Then along came the COVID-19 sneak attack, and things fell silent. Brunett was hit in all places that you don’t want to be hit. He found himself having to adjust, just like the rest of the planet.

“I was on the road when the wheels came off in early March, and left to come home early after a cancelled event in Fort Lauderdale,” he says. It hit him hard as a business owner. “It was a long, uneasy, and contemplative trip home,” he says.

On a personal level, Brunett clearly has empathy for those tasked with battling the pandemic directly. He recently gained traction with the timely and beautiful song “Angels in the Rafters” — and its accompanying video — with fellow Rochester musician Elvio Fernandes. Lyrically, the track explores the plight of first responders during the pandemic.

Brunett’s company reflects this empathy as well. Iron Smoke adapted quickly, shifting to the production of hand sanitizer and partnering with Rochester Midland Corporation to distribute approximately 15,000 gallons of the product to hospitals, first responders, and other workers on the front lines who are most at risk of contracting the virus.

“We would make it, bottle it, and they would sell it and distribute it,” he says. “When the fishermen can’t fish, they fix their nets. That’s what I’ve been telling people, to encourage them to not stop being productive and turn this into some positive.”

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As a venue owner, Brunett had been getting his legs under him. Iron Smoke was a cool joint, and more and more people were coming out before COVID-19 kicked those same legs out from under him. Brunett didn’t know what to do, until he had breakfast with Rochester radio icon Brother Wease, who offered some sage but not exactly encouraging advice.

“I had lunch with Wease in Florida the day I headed back up to the ROC,” Brunett says. “And I told him that I was a bit distracted because of the whole thing, as far as the tasting room/venue side of the business quickly turning to shit, and I was trying to figure out what to do. And he said, ‘What’s there to figure out? You’re fucked, brah. Just realize it.’

“He was right,” Brunett says. “We would all go on to be fucked for a while, and hearing him say that about the live music and bar side of things brought me a little comfort in a very strange way. Then it was on to figuring out the rest of things.”

Brunett wasn’t just concerned about his business. He worried that the livelihoods of working musicians had become collateral damage — just part of what makes COVID-19 so insidious.

“As a musician, my heart completely fell out of my chest for all of my friends and cohorts depending on income from touring,” he says. “All sides: production, artists, promoters, venues. This is a world I know and have operated in, so it was crushing to think of them and their families without the ships sailing.”

Despite the choppy waters caused by the economic downturn, Brunett says that Iron Smoke has been able to keep its staff employed, helped in part by participating in the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP.

Brunett also credits their weekly contributions of hand sanitizer to healthcare workers and others in need as a way to stay focused and express gratitude. “It feels good that we can make a small but sometimes significant contribution to the new rockstars out there,” he says.

Iron Smoke Distillery’s support for the community extends to bartenders and musicians who have been affected by the pandemic. On its newly created website Smoke Out COVID-19, Iron Smoke enables people to tip bartenders and musicians, who post videos of original drink recipes and songs, respectively.

Brunett is also reaching out online with a new talk show, entitled "Wag the Jaw with Tommy Brunett," which premieres live on Thursday, May 14, at 5 p.m. via YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.  Stemming from happy hours that he had been hosting on Zoom,  his show will "lifestyle, music and, booze." The first show will feature virtual visits from reality TV stars — including the Greece-based psychic Jennie Marie of the TLC program "Mama Medium" — and a musical performance from Rochester's Todd Kraszman.

Believe it or not, whiskey sales are up overall, despite the pandemic. Brunett’s whiskeys ain’t your daddy’s spirits. It’s whiskey with a hint of smoke. For aficionados, that’s two great tastes in one that came from a serendipitous, you-got-your-peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate moment.

“I came up with the idea in the backyard in 2011, while getting my whiskey swerve on and smoking ribs — merging two great American pastimes of tasty BBQ and traditional whiskey-making,” Brunett says. Iron Smoke, a small-batch distillery that sources its liquor exclusively with local ingredients, will have its 10th anniversary next year.

Brunett has no particular insight, no crystal ball as to when this will all be over. He’s busy. There’s whiskey and hand sanitizer to be made, patrons to be served, rock to be rolled. There’s no time for worry.

“Change happens almost minute to minute right about now,” he says. “We’ll get there, but we need to figure out how to beat the virus before ‘back to normal’ happens, and that will be a while. The hardest thing to hear from my friends in the touring community is that it may be a long haul: 18 months or more before the crowds start roaring again. God only knows.”

Frank De Blase is CITY's music writer. He can be reached at frank@rochester-citynews.com.
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Thursday, May 7, 2020

The F Word: There are no shows, but Alison Coté's rock 'n' roll art goes on

Posted By on Thu, May 7, 2020 at 4:59 PM

With an unpredictable future looming precariously before them, Rochester-area musicians and the artists who help promote them have been caught in a kind of COVID-19 limbo. In this ongoing series of The F-Word, CITY music writer Frank De Blase finds out how various players in the local scene are staying afloat.
Alison Coté has become the go-to artist for Rochester musicians in need of show posters, album covers, and more. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Alison Coté has become the go-to artist for Rochester musicians in need of show posters, album covers, and more.
Graphic designer Alison Coté’s posters are so ubiquitous in the Rochester music scene, it seems a local show just isn’t ready for the stage until it has a slick showbill from Coté to accompany it.

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Her style is adaptable to whatever her musical clients can dream up, but Coté has a clear affinity for vintage aesthetics that range from “Live at the Apollo” to B-movie schlock ‘n’ roll. An Alison Coté poster is typically 11 by 17 inches, and will run you $100 and up. Since 2016, Coté’s been creating these works, which can be seen on lampposts and in shop and venue windows throughout the city.

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Enter COVID-19, exit the shows and the posters that promoted them. Before the scene came crashing down around our ears, the 27-year-old Coté was designing 10 to 15 posters a month for local and traveling shows.

That’s gone away, but “not entirely,” she says. “I’m still doing some work for optimistic folks who have shows planned for later this year.” Point of the Bluff Vineyards — with events planned for late summer at its location in Hammondsport near Keuka Lake — is among those hopeful clients commissioning new concert posters.

Coté stays busy, working out of her Penfield studio, the walls brightly accented with some of her art as well as that of others. The workspace, which contains only her computer and mid-century dollhouse collection, isn’t as cluttered as one might think. She used to work in physical mediums more. “It’s strictly a digital endeavor now,” she says.

Despite her obvious talent, Coté has precious little training; her time in college was abbreviated. After attending Pratt School of Design for a year and a half, she quit her formal education and began learning from her professional-artist parents, David Cowles and Laura Wilder.

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Coté’s works are highly recognizable, in large part because of the transparency of her influences. “I’m inspired by all things vintage and retro,” she says. “I especially love kitschy, playful design from the 1950s and 1960s.”

Her first concert posters were created for her husband Alex’s rock band, Dangerbyrd. Gradually, friends from other bands began asking her to create additional posters. Eventually, when demand started to get too high, Coté had to start charging, and poster design became her profession.

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A lot of Coté’s current work is coming from bands and artists who are taking advantage of being cooped up in quarantine and recording a lot more. It’s a surge of creativity. Those resulting new albums, LPs, EPs, CDs, and singles — released by the likes of Trevor Lake, Dangerbyrd, and Greg Townson — need cover artwork. For this, Coté charges between $150 and $500.

“I think Alison is great to work with because she communicates very well,” says Lake, Televisionaries’ guitarist and drummer for both Dangerbyrd and The Hi-Risers. “I’m also pretty vague with my ideas and she puts together a masterpiece from my not-so-descriptive ideas. She’s also mad cool.”

Frank De Blase is CITY's music writer. He can be reached at frank@rochester-citynews.com.
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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The F Word: Bernunzio Uptown Music is still strumming

Posted By on Tue, May 5, 2020 at 4:36 PM

With an unpredictable future looming precariously before them, Rochester-area music stores, in addition to club owners, have been caught in a kind of COVID-19 limbo. In this ongoing series of The F-Word, CITY music writer Frank De Blase finds out how such businesses are staying afloat.

John Bernunzio, owner of Bernunzio Uptown Music on East Avenue, has been an East End fixture for years, a devoted music fan and purveyor of just about anything with strings. And the man has a real affinity for hats, evidenced by the line of Stetson he sells at the store. This is the guy who, after hearing that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s banjo player had lost his instrument in the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, gave the man a replacement when he was scheduled to play the Rochester International Jazz Festival that year.

John Bernunzio with some of his wares. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • John Bernunzio with some of his wares.
Before the pandemic, you could stroll into Bernunzio’s store and be immediately awestruck by all the six-string beauties lined up on the walls, like a fine furniture parade of vintage fiddles, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles, and guitars. For now, some of these instruments may have to wait a little longer for their turn in the loving arms of the eager musicians who flock to the place.

The showroom at Bernunzio Uptown Music on East Avenue is officially closed for now, another unfortunate and hopefully temporary loss for local musicians in a long line of COVID-19 setbacks. But that’s not to say Bernunzio has completely shut down the operations. The business is still filling orders for instruments by mail, as it has for 40 years, and has begun curbside pick-up and delivery in keeping with physical distancing guidelines. Bernunzio is also selling instruments on consignment.

With the physical store shut down, a lot has changed in a short amount of time. But Bernunzio says it sometimes feels like the old days.

“We still sell a banjo or ukulele now and then,” he says. “The interesting thing is people are making a lot of music at home. They’re doing things from home and so they have some time to play. The downside of the whole thing is that our customers are musicians and their income is seriously curtailed.”

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Ultimately, Bernunzio is unclear about when he will be able to open the store again. He does seem to think that there will be irreversible differences in how we consume and communicate through music, even after the pandemic subsides.

“I think smaller venues will be important,” he says. “I can’t see people flocking to giant events, at least for another year, if at all. I think the whole thing is giving us an inward perspective on what is important. Musically, I think everyone has agreed to the importance of it in our lives but how it gets delivered could be drastically changed.”

He adds: “The idea of quarantine and the idea of buying local kind of go hand-in-hand.”

Frank De Blase is CITY's music writer. He can be reached at frank@rochester-citynews.com.
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Friday, May 1, 2020

The F Word: Sound engineers are suffering

Posted By on Fri, May 1, 2020 at 1:53 PM

ILLUSTRATION BY JACOB WALSH
  • ILLUSTRATION BY JACOB WALSH
With an unpredictable future looming precariously before them, Rochester-area sound engineers, in addition to club owners, have been caught in a kind of COVID-19 limbo. In this ongoing series of The F-Word, CITY music writer Frank De Blase finds out how businesses that rely on a regular live audience are staying afloat.

When COVID-19 struck, the infrastructure of the live music scene in Rochester collapsed like dominoes. Sure, there were the musicians caught in the avalanche, as were the venues that counted on those musicians to attract thirsty patrons. But there is a third group that has become a casualty in the absence of live performances: the engineers who run the venues’ sound systems.

One of those engineers is John Vassallo, who owns Spice of Life Productions in Hilton. “As far as surviving,” he says, “I am keeping the wolves at bay for as long as I can until money starts rolling in again. I unfortunately can’t get another job.”

Vassallo’s family is also being directly affected by his lack of work. He is the primary caretaker of his 87-year-old father, who needs daily care. On top of that, he plays the role of school teacher during the week for his 6- and 8-year-old children.

He does have a small amount of money from his dad’s pension coming in, but it typically runs out by the middle of each month. That’s when he counts on sound company dough to provide for food and meds for his dad. But currently, that’s not happening.

“The most difficult thing to deal with is the uncertainty,” Vassallo says. “We have had 35 to 40 events, that are a yearly thing, completely eradicated from our coffers. How do you bounce back from that?”

Unfortunately, income that Spice of Life Productions regularly took in from large-scale summer events such as Corn Hill Arts Festival, Spencerport Canal Days, and Park Avenue Summer Art Festival has disappeared for this year as well.

“On top of that,” Vassallo says. “We have lost all of the corporate work that was scheduled. Most of these events have been in my hands for 15 to 22 years. As of right now, I am looking at an 80 to 85 percent loss of total annual income for the company.”

In turn, he worries about his inability to pay his employees, and the possibility that it may be difficult to retain them and keep Spice of Life Productions on the right professional track for the next several years.

Despite having applied for aid through seven different programs, Vassallo says the federal government has been little help so far, and that he doesn’t have high expectations about outside aid coming in.

But that doesn’t mean Spice of Life is standing still in the face of the pandemic. In order to stay viable, Vassallo is shifting his focus toward the various rental items the company offers.

“I am pushing our tents, tables, and chairs for this summer, hoping that the backyard parties are going to happen,” Vassallo says. “I am banking on small groups that are going to want to be together rather than large crowds.”

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Another sound engineer whose work schedule has been decimated by the pandemic is Nick Marinaccio, whose job as the lead LED video wall technician at the Batavia-based Audio Images Sound & Lighting Inc. has been furloughed until the event cancellations subside.

Marinaccio was already planning a busy spring with Audio Images, including several bookings for spring festivals at colleges, when the hammer fell. Other prominent gigs for the company that have been postponed or canceled include the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival, the Fairport Music Festival, and George Eastman Museum’s Garden Vibes concert series. Additionally, Marinaccio says he will miss his regular side gigs for Dragonfly Tavern and Public House during the Park Avenue Summer Art Festival.

Despite the sudden downturn in events, Marinaccio is hopeful in the short term that Audio Images will see a demand for rental services, which don’t necessarily involve rock ‘n’ roll or require a PA.

That said, Marinaccio thinks it’s possible that an eventual resumption of concerts and events may be cut short if the virus’s impact ramps up, and another shutdown of public gatherings is required.

“My coworkers and I know the event industry will never be the same,” he says. “We are expecting a slow ramp up to ‘normal’ by summer/fall 2021.”

Frank De Blase is CITY's music writer. He can be reached at frank@rochester-citynews.com.
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