Musicians Off the Record: John Kunz

John Kunz is the owner and president of one of the most recognized and reputable independent record stores in America, Waterloo Records.  Kunz started his career in music while an undergraduate at the University of Texas in Austin, putting himself through college while learning the vinyl trade. Within a few years, he made the business a full-time occupation and became a chain store regional manager. Despite being on the corporate fast-track, Kunz opted for the trials of private enterprise and formed a partnership with Louis Karp, who had recently opened Waterloo Records in April of 1982.  

The staff of Waterloo Records understood from the outset the unique role their shop played in a fragile, yet tight knit music community.  Operating with little capital, Kunz and Karp reinvested their dollars in creative projects that fomented grass-roots support for local and touring musicians, as well as budding nightclubs, recording studios and alternative media. But Waterloo’s DIY aesthetic was mostly predicated on customer-first policies. Kunz, now sole owner of a 6,400 square foot store and a self-professed “purveyor of music culture,” insisted on letting patrons listen to albums in the store before buying, keeping prices affordable and helping bands create a fan base through free, in-store concerts. Waterloo became a mutual admiration society of music lovers, as Kunz recalls, not a fast-buck setup for “people more concerned with chasing the dollar than chasing the music.”

That philosophy has made Waterloo a beloved Austin institution—it’s been named best Austin record store by the Austin Chronicle since its inception—with a street credibility that is unmatched. “[We opened] for the purposes of marketing and exposing great music we all believed in,” Kunz states.   This indie spirit prompted Kunz to co-found the Coalition of Independent Music Retailers to ensure a level playing field for self-supported businesses and prevent the urban spread that characterizes the large corporate chains.  The coalition also helps break buzz artists through their network, with Texas’ Los Lonely Boys (which had the biggest selling debut in Waterloo history) being one example of their success.

“The connection that Waterloo was always searching for was to find those music junkies, those music lovers in the community,” Kunz said, believing that “if we were the place that they would find the music they were looking for, or discover music they didn’t know they were looking for, we would find kindred spirits.” As the world moves into the digital age and record stores are seeing a decline in customers, Kunz plans to adapt to those changes, but promises to keep that entrepreneurial vibe that has made Waterloo what it is today.