Bringing rare albums to collectors worldwide, Secret Stash Records truly is a secret in its hometown - except to its faithful volunteers.
On a recent Monday night, when most men were at home watching football, a dozen male music geeks crowded into an Uptown Minneapolis office for a three-hour volunteer work shift. Their mission: Hand-package 1,000 vinyl copies of a record that came out 41 years ago and was largely forgotten.
Welcome to the cult of Secret Stash Records.
A two-year-old Minneapolis label with an especially strong following in Europe, Secret Stash finds old, long-out-of-print albums that it reissues to rare-vinyl-seeking record nerds around the globe. Its releases have ranged from Peruvian funk to Ghanaian R&B to '70s porn-movie soundtracks.
The company's latest comes from a Georgia soul singer picked by James Brown's old label to replace him in 1971 -- Mickey Murray, who is coming out of retirement to perform Saturday at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.
Murray's album, "People Are Together," was the raison d'être for the recent Monday night assembly line. Plied with cans of Surly beer and their own hand-numbered copy of the record, the volunteer force treated the work more like a living-room cocktail party than a questionable case of free manual labor.
"It's fun," said David Applegate, 42, who spins rare vinyl at King and I Thai and other nightlife spots. "We're hanging out with like-minded people listening to good music, contributing to something we all believe in."
Their attention to detail was unbelievable. Each record sleeve was carefully inspected for defects, hand-numbered and nimbly placed into a plastic-wrap bag. Some were packed with a limited-edition 45-rpm bonus record and a special wax seal. Each set also came with specially coded download cards -- always placed face up in the plastic wrap, so diehard collectors could read the code without breaking the seal (adding to the prospective long-term value).
Secret Stash co-founder Eric Foss -- who blended right in with his workforce -- laughed at the geekiness of his operation but noted its serious implications.
"If you're going to spend a little extra for a special-edition record, the least we can do is spend a little extra time making sure it's of high quality," Foss said.
Vinyl sales still rising
A Fridley native and graduate of McNally Smith College of Music, Foss is only 26 but arguably learned a lifetime of lessons at his first job in the record business: It was at Liquid 8 Records, the Minnetonka label run by Michael Catain, now serving a seven-year prison term for his ties to Tom Petters' $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme.
Foss did not want to discuss his time with Catain, except to say, "That's why I'm so adamant about doing things the right way now."
With its "liquidate" approach -- buying up rights to defunct record labels for reissues -- Liquid 8 did provide Foss with connections and know-how that now help Secret Stash navigate the complex and sometimes sordid world of music-biz licensing and copyrights.
Started in July 2009 with a childhood pal, local jazz star Cory Wong, Secret Stash debuted with the "Porno Groove" compilation, still one of its best sellers. That "groove" tag became its only common denominator among the 21 records in its catalog. Its fastest sellers were two albums by '70s Ghanaian star K Frimpong. Its biggest niche is South American jazz and funk.
The label has latched onto the record industry's one bright spot of late: vinyl sales, which rose in 2011 for the sixth straight year to around 3.5 million U.S. records. Secret Stash's releases start out with an initial pressing of 1,000 copies and are capped at around 3,000. A few ads in record-collector magazines and an up-to-date website are about the extent of its promotion costs.
One record's story
The new Murray reissue is an oddity for Secret Stash in that the artist is still alive and resides stateside. As part of the King label catalog, "People Are Together" went through a series of ownership changes before ending up under the umbrella of Nashville-based Gusto Records.
"When we talked to the people at Gusto, they were like, 'Mickey who?'" remembered Secret Stash's one paid staffer, Will Gilbert.
Legend has it that radio DJs in the South refused to play Murray's record because of its racially provocative title track. Before its release, Murray recorded a million-selling remake of Otis Redding's "Shout Bamalama."
Reached by phone in Macon, Ga., where his singing career now consists of church services and the occasional wedding, Murray said he was taking a wait-and-see attitude toward his young, new suitors in a city about which he said, "I've never been there, but I know enough to bring my jacket."
"I didn't make any money off the record in the first place, so I'm leery of everybody in the business," Murray rightfully huffed. "These guys seem to be going about it the right way. Anything I make off it now that might make life a little better is certainly wecome."
Foss pledged to pay Murray his songwriting royalties from the reissues, plus the singer will get an extra cut from each copy sold at Saturday's Cedar show.
The concert also marks a local coming-out of sorts for the label. Outside of being stocked at the Electric Fetus, Cheapo and a few other local stores, Secret Stash has kept a low profile in its hometown.
"They're definitely growing in reputation," said Tim Schloe, who runs the MSP Music Expo collectors show (happening again Sunday at O'Gara's Bar in St. Paul). "They put a lot of time and effort in research into what they're doing."
While plans are in the works for reissues featuring local artists, Foss believes Secret Stash already has a connection to the Twin Cities beyond just its address.
"We live in a town that puts a great amount of value on records and the arts in general, whatever their mass appeal might be," he said. "We're definitely a product of our environment."
That's to say nothing of the local volunteers and Twin Cities-brewed beer that went into packaging their product.