Poor, Proud, But Independent

Houston's indie record entrepreneurs do it for the love of the music. Of course, they don't mind moving a few units, either.

For months, Darryl Menkin waged an internal debate over the pros and cons of trading in his old career for another. A record label -- his own record label: the thought of it one night caused a tossing-and-turning Menkin to bolt upright in his bed. "Why the hell not?" he thought.

A frustrated part-time musician, Menkin couldn't have been more miserable in his day job. After eight years at the Texas Medical Center, the native South African found his skills as a dentist were being wasted in a research position. Besides, he was pushing 40 and sick of eyeing molars.

After conquering his own doubt, Menkin had to persuade his skeptical wife Marleen that it was more than simply a middle-age crisis pushing him toward some scheme that could throw his family hopelessly into debt. "She thought I was nuts," he says. But after countless reassurances, Marleen relented, and Sound Virus Records was born.

Menkin's story is not all that far removed from the handful of other self-made ideologies behind Houston's small but feisty community of independent record label entrepreneurs, who operate in a hit-and-miss realm that has produced precious few out-and-out successes but plenty of inspiring stories of survival.

The most recognized of the city's tiny number of rags-to-riches tales are those of two independent rap labels, Suave and Rap-A-Lot, former back-yard enterprises that have experienced phenomenal growth in a relatively short time. Outside of rap, Randall Jamail's Justice Records is considered to be the only high-profile game in town. Still, aside from Justice's oft-maligned Hellhole compilation, a fussed-over affair that features selections from some of the more promising young bands in Houston, Jamail plays it fairly conservative when it comes to signing new acts. That selectivity leaves a lot of open territory for the smaller guys, whose resources may be limited, but whose commitment to their craft speaks more for their value in the music community than units sold.

Nowhere is this never-say-die attitude more pronounced than on the hard-core fringes of the Houston music scene. Whether dealing in thrash, punk or out-there experiments in pure noise, a passionate few are making sure that local music is reaching inquiring ears around Texas, throughout the country, and as far away as Europe and Japan. You may have heard the names around town -- Broken Note, Fuzzgun, Lazy Squid, Worship Guitars, Fleece, Twistworthy, along with Menkin's Sound Virus and others. They operate out of homes and tiny offices to make their imprint (no matter how small) on the city. For most, the plan is to stick around until every last band they've nurtured moves on to bigger things -- or breaks up, whichever comes first. And if a little money is made along the way, all the better.

As a youngster growing up in Johannesburg, Darryl Menkin was obsessed with America. "My dad would buy me these Viewmaster things, where you put in the little circular card and see the Golden Gate Bridge," he recalls. "I used to dream about coming here."

Menkin finally made good on his dream in 1985. After eight months as a practicing dentist in South Africa, Menkin moved to the United States, following the lead of his younger brother, who had immigrated here five years earlier. By 1986, he had a job at the Medical Center's dental branch supervising students and conducting research on leukemia patients through a fellowship at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

If you squint hard enough, it's possible to picture Menkin behind a microscope, though it's obvious he's trying hard to put his lab-rat years behind him. Short, bearded and stocky, the post-academic Menkin's typical work wear consists of faded Levi's, running sneaks and a black T-shirt. From the waist up, Sound Virus' founder and CEO is a walking billboard for his small label -- from the polite, persistent Sound Virus plugs in his conversation right down to the shirt on his back, which almost always advertises a label act (this particular afternoon, it's the cartoonish graphics and moniker of Houston punk-metal bad boys Spunk).

Menkin says he eventually became disillusioned with the scholarly process, especially the restrictive peer review system, which kept most of the financial backing needed for research out of his reach. "You worked for months and months and months getting a grant -- all that labor-intensive work. You put the so-called hypothesis together and then you send it off to the powers-that-be at the National Institute of Health and hope that they're going to approve it and give you all this money. A lot of times, it came back approved but not funded. So what do you do then?"

In Menkin's case, you contemplate quitting. "I felt like I had to go into business for myself," he says. "At least to the extent where I felt like I had more control over my future."

First, Menkin's thoughts turned to private dentistry. But, to have his own practice, he would have to start over and earn a degree from a U.S. university, and the idea of returning to dental school made Menkin's blood run cold. He contemplated selling dental supplies or opening a restaurant, but neither option thrilled him much. Then, Menkin turned to his favorite pastime. A self-professed "old hippie fart," Menkin was an occasional working bassist (he played with Houston's Trolls) and a lover of classic rock and blues when he began to broaden his tastes in the early '90s, hanging out at local clubs that catered to younger crowds and heavier music. He heard and saw a lot that he liked, but he also experienced the negativity and sense of impermanence felt for years by many bands and clubgoers around Houston's here-today, gone-tomorrow local scene.

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