A low-key Main Line music mogul takes a bittersweet look back.
When a local brand dies, people ought to take notice. With the recent release of the 50-song retrospective Town and Country 1989-2006, Bala Cynwyd’s Record Cellar has, by and large, ceased to be. And it’s truly a brand of music that Neil Drucker’s label trafficked in—an achingly gorgeous, often frank brand of country-tinged Americana.
“I love every CD that I’ve put on the label,” says the 52-year-old Drucker from the label’s home office—which, by the way, isn’t in a cellar. “That love for the music is the only thing I could trust.”
That and the community where he, his wife of 24 years, Sally Zamostein Drucker, and their two children live. There’s trust in family and home, town and country. His kids, Emily and John, played township sports like soccer, baseball and basketball. They went to Lower Merion public schools. His wife grew up within walking distance from where they live now and teaches at Lower Merion High.
In regards to the music, Record Cellar owned a large part of Drucker’s heart long before the label started. Closing it was pretty much a business thing. He made some positive strides at radio and with the media, but completing that cycle and generating CD sales was the tough part. After 21 projects, Drucker felt it was time to stop.
“I love doing the projects, being the underdog and finding an audience for our music,” Drucker says. “I love fighting the battles and developing friendships with the artists and the network of like-minded music people out there in the world. I love the entire process—from beginning discussions with the artist to having someone actually buy the CD and enjoy the music. I will miss it.”
Drucker began collecting records at yard sales and flea markets back in the ’70s. As a kid, he listened avidly to classic AM stations WIBG and WFIL during the day and WMMR-FM at night, when the latter was a free-form station.
“Gene Shay’s Folk Show format was a big influence,” he says.
Drucker loved bartering so much he nabbed a degree in accounting from Penn State so he could turn his hobby into a business, partnering in 1980 with high school pal and fellow music obsessive Craig Satinsky, who’d opened Record Cellar in Northeast Philadelphia two years prior. It was one of the first—and best—new, used, import and rare record stores in the country.
They bought out large collections to help amass an impressive inventory; they sold tons of cheap records, got a premium for the rare things and hosted scads of independent releases.
“I made sure the bills were paid and the posters were hung, but Craig knew the B-sides of records that never even made it onto the charts,“ says Drucker. “Record Cellar was best between ’80 and ’85. We had a great new wave era and sold a ton of heavy metal and the blues, soul and folk genres. Our strength was good-quality used records at fair prices.”
More Than a Store
Pat Feeny used to tell Drucker they only started the Record Cellar label so they both could own a record by their favorite local band, Horsham’s Flight of Mavis. When Feeny came aboard, he treated the store as if it were his own. “When we started to get involved with bands and releasing records, he led the way,” says Drucker of Feeny, who now owns Main Street Music in Manayunk.
Working at the record store gave Drucker an appreciation for the network required to promote local releases. He had contacts at radio stations, newspapers and magazines, and he knew who booked the clubs. In fact, many were Drucker’s customers at Record Cellar.
“So we had an idea what we would do with the finished product,” says Drucker. “We didn’t set out to start a label, but we would play the Flight of Mavis tape in the store because we loved it—and customers seemed to be interested in their music, too. They would come up to the counter and want to know if they could buy it.”
Local producer Al Fichera arranged a few recording sessions with the jangle-pop trio, and the first Record Cellar release was born. Other area bands followed, among them the harder-rocking Emily Valentine; tasteful acoustic folkies The Low Road; country-folk anomalies the Rolling Hayseeds and Frog Holler; and Buzz Zeemer, which was essentially Flight of Mavis with semi-famous Philly darling Tommy Conwell on guitar.
All of the music on Record Cellar was a direct reflection of Drucker’s tastes. And back in the ’90s, there happened to be a network for the “alt-country” style Drucker loved. “It gave me promise that there was potential to generate business,” he says.
Even so, Drucker never expected anything more than great music from the artists on his label.
“All Neil wanted was a piece of work that you believed in completely,” says Rolling Hayseeds singer/guitarist Richard Kaufman. “If you were sure of it, that was enough for Neil. It would’ve been easier and more profitable if bands simply refined the ideas that worked and stuck with them. But Neil knew that trying to play catch-up or slow-down with the buying public was a soul-crushing endeavor and no guarantee of anything.”
After a decade, Drucker suddenly realized he had a label going—that it was no longer just a hobby. “In 1999, I was working on three CD releases at the same time,” says Drucker with a giggle. “I had national distribution for the first time.”
He also realized that Record Cellar artists like John Train were making sociopolitical statements people might be interested in. “Jon Houlon of John Train is a special guy—a Columbia Law School graduate who represents abused and neglected kids as an attorney for the city of Philadelphia. He’s a class act.”
For John Train, the feeling is mutual. “Neil was an absolute godsend to me,” says Houlon, who’s currently looking for a label to release his latest CD, Mesopotamia Blues. “In 2004, John Train put out this odd concept record called The Sugar Ditch—about a young girl found dead in a septic runoff area in Tunica, Miss. I was thinking this is gonna be the one where Neil says, ‘Sorry, Jon. This is just too wacky, uncommercial, ridiculous, etc. A dead girl in a ditch? How are we supposed to sell that?’ But he turns to me and says, ‘Jon, this is the best thing you’ve ever done.’ I still can’t figure out if he’s crazier than me or what.”
There were good times: Flight of Mavis opening for Squeeze at the Tower Theatre in 1990 in front of 2,500 people. “During one of their quietest songs, the audience was still, and you couldn’t hear a sound except for the band playing—people actually caring and paying attention. Awesome,” says Drucker. “After the show, they packed up their gear, drove to Old City and headlined a show at the Khyber Pass in front of 150 people.”
Things clicked nationally, too. Mavis signed with Frontier Booking, home to R.E.M., and hit the road with Sinead O’Connor. Most Record Cellar bands toured nationally and enjoyed exposure on WXPN-FM and other more open-minded stations.
Still, the cracks in Record Cellar’s foundation began to show. As Drucker continued to throw his money and energy into new projects, more and more he did so with blinders on. “I felt that if you do good work and put out worthwhile releases, good things will come to you as far as business goes,” he admits.
Yet too few of his bands did the extensive national touring needed to bolster sales. And then came the escalation of digital sales and increased competition from all sides. But no matter how little he sold, his family hung in there with him.
“My wife is terrific,” says Drucker. “She always showed unconditional support for me and the label.”
Rather than end with a whimper, Town and Country sends Drucker and his Cellar out with a bang—three discs’ worth of old and new tracks.
“When we did the original CDs, the artist always had complete artistic control. That was my philosophy,” Drucker says. “I’m a businessman, not an artist. So they chose the songs and the sequence and so on.”
But for this project, Drucker chose the songs and the sequence. “Hopefully, there’s a flow to it and it will get some new fans on board who will go back and discover the old CDs for the first time,” he says.
As for the rest of the Record Cellar releases, “I think I’m going to start making money on these worthy efforts sometime in the future,” says Drucker. “My plans are to keep the catalog in print.”
Ultimately, Drucker will miss the challenge of running Record Cellar—the fight of the underdog, the camaraderie he knew. But what if he gets a tape from a band that wows him as much as Flight of Mavis once did?
“I can offer a bit of encouragement,” he says. “Sometimes a bit of encouragement goes a long way.”