Exterior photo of Goner Records, a record store

Interview with Eric Friedl, Goner Records by Ryan Leach

Alongside Zac Ives, Eric Friedl is the co-owner of Goner Records. He also plays in The Oblivians and True Sons of Thunder.

Located in Memphis, Tenn., Goner operates as both a record label and storefront. Like Shangri-La, Goner Records has been a Memphis institution since the storefront’s opening in 2004. Every year, Goner hosts Gonerfest—a still-vibrant music festival stretching several days. For those outside of Memphis, Goner’s frequently updated online store is a hub for what’s new in esoteric music. The site’s message board is a place to get updates on touring bands, small labels’ releases, and anything else music related.

Interior photo of Goner Records, a record store
Like countless small businesses, Goner has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The storefront has been closed since March 16. I caught up with Friedl to talk about how Goner’s coping with these changes and what their plans are for the future. Goner is and hopefully will remain an important part of independent music’s infrastructure.  

Interview by Ryan Leach

Ryan: How’s everyone at Goner doing?

Eric: We’re good. But like everyone, we’ve fallen into a freefall. Locally, we’ve been doing door deliveries. People have been stopping by to pick up records. We’ve had some success selling online. If we really scale back and don’t spend anything for a minute, we can hang on for a little while. We might have to lay off our staff; have folks go on unemployment. Goner would be reduced to just me and Zac (Ives) as the owners. We could limp through it that way. We’re trying to figure it out. 

Ryan: Like most small businesses in America, Goner’s storefront is closed. How are these alternative strategies like doing door deliveries and having folks stop by to pick up records working?

Eric Friedl of the Oblivians playing guitar
Eric: One of our regulars just can’t stop buying records. He’ll call me up in the morning—I guess he’s unaccustomed to looking at the site—and I’ll tell him what’s come in. He’ll respond, “Oh, man, I’ve got to get that album.” We then pack his records and he comes by to grab them. We’ve delivered a few records off locally. It’s super informal. But every little bit counts. People have been helping out. It’s been great.

Ryan: You had mentioned to me a couple of months ago that you were going to relaunch the Goner website. While the COVID-19 pandemic and economic meltdown have been an unmitigated disaster, it was at least fortuitous timing.

Eric: We were getting ready to launch the site when the coronavirus hit. We wanted to fine-tune it a little more and add some things. But once it became imperative that we be able to sell stuff online, we said, “Screw it. Here it is. We’ll fix it as we go.”

Ryan: I went to buy the Aquarium Blood LP you had recently released and it took me to a Bandcamp site initially.

Eric: [laughs] It really is a matter of working out the kinks as we go.

Ryan: While everyone’s situation has changed, in some ways Goner wasn’t a case of just punching a timeclock. Record stores are hubs and hangouts for people. When Trailer Space closed down in Austin, it was a significant loss.

Eric: It is weird. We definitely weren’t a Trailer Space-style of hangout, but people on their regular circuit would stop by and explore the used bin. On weekends, we had a big crew of normal folks buying classic rock albums. There’s absolutely no way to sell that stuff online. We were stocked for those folks and that side of the business completely died. We had a bunch of really cool events coming up. You feel like you’re right in the middle of things and then you’re isolated. That was sort of my idea with doing these video check-ins. I sent out requests for people to give us video updates. I want to show people that we’re still in this. Facebook just makes us feel like we’re on our own little islands, which we really are now. We’re isolated from one another. It doesn’t have that sense of community that you can get from other places online. We’re just hoping to keep people’s spirits up as we go forward into the unknown.

Ryan: That’s a good point. Used bins are the home of the “five-dollar record,” although I’m unsure what people are selling them for now. You’re not going to sell used copies of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars or a Led Zeppelin record online. They’re so ubiquitous that it doesn’t make much sense. However, they’re perfect for a store.

Eric: Sure. People would walk in and buy ’em. We’ve had people call up and ask, “Do you have this Allman Brothers record? You do. Great, I’ll pick it up.” They can buy it on eBay. They can buy it on Discogs. But because they live locally, they can stop by the shop, purchase it, and listen to it this afternoon. It still works. The store sold a lot of meat-and-potatoes rock‘n’roll records. We needed that balance between selling weird, underground rock records and classic rock albums.

Ryan: Byrds, Bread, and Toto records all at the same place without the shipping price and wait.  

Eric Friedl of the Oblivians and Goner Records self portrait
Eric: It’s awesome. There is a little bit of that at the store. Speaking of which, if anyone out there is looking for a Sister Sledge record, we’ve got it! Call us up.

Ryan: Talking about the atomization associated with Facebook—I think of the site’s sort of opposites. Terminal Boredom’s message board was a great place for likeminded people to share ideas about music. The Goner message board, which has been revamped, was a predecessor of sorts to Terminal’s board.

Eric: Yeah. Even for me, it’s frustrating to use the Goner board. It’s such a dinosaur. It kept chugging along for years. We need to tweak it and make it more functional. It’s hard to envision people staying on it now like they used to. But it is there, and it was a big hub for people who were into underground stuff. Terminal Boredom was too. I always felt comfortable reading that stuff up until a point. The squabbles got to be a bit much and I’d lose track of what was going on. Anyway, check out the Goner board!

Ryan: For bedroom record labels like ours (Spacecase), you could sell fifteen titles almost right away by going on those boards. And you didn’t need to pay a public relations company a couple grand to do it.

Eric: You were getting your records in front of the right people.

Crowd of Gonerfest attendees
Ryan: Beyond COVID-19 and the global economic meltdown, in our milieu we had Apollo Masters burn down a couple months ago. I use Musicol out in Columbus, Ohio, and I know they’re going to be closed for at least a few weeks. Did the Goner label have anything in the works that’s been put on hold?

Eric: The Bloodshot Bill record is done and is supposed to come out on April 10. We’ve got those shipping soon. We did the preorders on that album, so it is in motion—if you get what I mean. We had this Optic Sink record in the works. Optic Sink is Natalie (Hoffmann) from Nots and Ben Bauermeister from the Magic Kids. It’s really cool, electronic stuff. That’s at the digitally mastered stage. The Ar-Kaics record is up there. So is the new Quintron record. We have a choice of getting these lacquers cut and then wait to press. Or we can try to hang tight and wait. I think we’re going to have to wait to minimize expenses right now. They’re all there. I think once we get through this it’s going to be a clusterfuck of people trying to rush through records. But who really knows what’s going to happen? There are all these Record Store Day LPs that supposedly got pressed or are getting pressed.

Ryan: I read that Record Store Day’s date has been pushed back to June 20, 2020. That might be a little optimistic.

This shutdown is going to put a lot of people—obviously, record stores included—out of business
Eric: Yeah. It’ll be interesting. It’s another nail in the coffin for trying to sell records. We’re limping along. If we can get our weekend regulars in to pick up records, that’ll help. But this shutdown is going to put a lot of people—obviously, record stores included—out of business. Labels are going to be in trouble too. If you’ve got records scheduled for a Record Store Day release in mid-April, that’s done. That money isn’t coming back until Record Store Day finally happens. The market was already shrinking before all of this hit.

Ryan: You’re still getting new stuff in. Goner’s site is getting updated regularly. What new records have you been listening to?

Eric Friedl of the Oblivians playing guitar
Eric: We’re trying. It’s going to be hard justifying it going forward. We were really excited to get that Dadamah record (This Is Not a Dream) in. I remember it coming out in the early 1990s. That kind of dreamy, New Zealand stuff is what we want to push. However, the hard part is that everyone into that subgenre already knows about it. It’s difficult to get new people into it. We did that Chubby And The Gang record (“All Along the Uxbridge Road” 7”). That was a street punk-type of chugger. We sold a bunch of records for them. Alec (McIntyre) and Cole (Wheeler) at the shop were really into it. So, we gave it a shot. That’s been interesting—getting into the American oi-type stuff. We were trying to put some more of that material out when everything ground to a halt. It’s not really my scene, but it’s been interesting weeding through all of this stuff and going, “Oh, yeah, this is pretty good.” Currently, I’ve been trying to find music for the kids at home that they’ll find palatable. They’re playing really crappy stuff. It’s a constant battle. They like songs from cartoons.

Ryan: I bought that recent Exek record (Some Beautiful Species Left) off the Goner site. It was great. It had a real Neu! and Tuxedomoon feel to it.

Eric: That’s a great record. I appreciate that.

Ryan: It’ll be difficult getting inventory. Just thinking about it now—Revolver (Distribution) is closed for at least another couple of weeks.

Eric: Yep. Because all of the distributors and stores are closing, it drives the people who want those records straight to the labels. It’s bad for the stores, good for the labels. We’re a store and a label, so we kind of benefit. But it takes away from having a centralized place to buy records. Which is fine, but it’s something else to worry about down the line.

Ryan: I always looked at our (Spacecase’s) relationship with Goner as symbiotic. I always knew you were going to buy our releases. The Goner store has enabled us to kick the can down the road for a couple extra years.

Eric: For sure.

Ryan: Any closing thoughts, Eric?

We’re not going down without a fight
Eric: We’re just another small business caught up in total economic collapse. We’re lucky in the sense that we have a pretty loyal customer base. It’s awesome. But in the end we’re very vulnerable. We have to make tough decisions on how to move forward and keep it going. We’ve always had to do that. It’s just that right now it’s so dramatic. You screw up, you’re done. It’s really heavy. At the same time, we’re not going down without a fight. We’ll see what models develop. If we can get through this—if it’s not too long—we’ll make it. If not, everyone’s going to get wiped out. But we’ll see.