Electronic music outpost MC Audio is moving east

DJ Mike Carlson's long-running music-gear shop will leave its downtown space in June.

  Mike Carlson at MC Audio on Friday. Photo by Scott Gordon.

Mike Carlson at MC Audio on Friday. Photo by Scott Gordon.

Veteran Madison DJ Mike Carlson is moving his DJ- and electronic-music-focused gear store MC Audio from its downtown location to a new spot on the east side. The store will be at 1734 Fordem Avenue, right above another local outpost for electronic music listeners and creators in Madison, Jiggy Jamz Records. Carlson hopes to make the move sometime in late June.

In addition to the role Carlson himself plays as a well-liked veteran DJ, MC Audio has been a crucial place for people involved in local music, from event organizers needing to rent a subwoofer to curious musicians hoping to fiddle with a new synth or drum machine or sequencer. The store hosts free workshops on DJing, production, scratching, and lighting, which Carlson hopes to continue at the new location. As cheap and easy as it is to order music gear online, the store's element of hands-on experimentation and friendly advice is still important. Even people who aren't DJs or electronic producers rely on the shop for sound and lighting gear rentals, or stop in for odds and ends like instrument cables. Aside from Spruce Tree Music, it's really the only independent spot for music gear, period, on the isthmus.

Carlson opened the shop in part to help steer people interested in DJing or producing in the right direction. Having been a DJ since the early 1980s, he loved turning fans on to that world, but got frustrated when those same people went off and bought crappy gear, or things that a novice would have a hard time learning to use. Plus, he felt that music-gear sellers were making money from DJs but didn't really make an effort to nurture their passions (or, he points out, turn them into returning customers).

"Almost every time, if they would go out to some place or order online...they were just buying from people that didn't care and were like 'fuckin' DJs!'" he says. "They'd go out and come back with just crap, and they'd be all fired up. I'd see them a week after they got it and they'd be like—I'll not say names—'I picked up certain products by certain manufacturers and I'm all fired up to get into DJing!' And I'd be like, that's just horrible, because that's going to be frustratingly hard. It's like trying to race at Indy in your ma's CRV."

Carlson is a laid-back and talkative presence at the store, in contrast to the over-eager staffer who tries to upsell you at Guitar Center; to remain likable while holding forth on music gear is a rare virtue. (MC Audio has four part-time workers, but Carlson himself mostly makes his living through DJing, not the shop.) As he discussed his impending move on a recent afternoon, Carlson stopped frequently to help customers pick out lighting equipment, take in returned rental equipment, and chat up a patron about his new synth. He's a well-liked guy—when Carlson's house burned down in 2010, the music community rallied to help out Carlson and his family. The Majestic is hosting a benefit and customer-appreciation party for the store on Sunday night.

The store has been in its current location at 515 University Ave. since 2000, but Carlson has become increasingly worried about safety and insurance costs in the wake of a few recent attempted and successful burglaries. The store also shares a lobby with an apartment building, and he told Isthmus that he's worried about what could happen if one of the building's residents interrupted a break-in; the idea stressed him out so much that he almost closed the store entirely. As for all the other things that have changed for businesses downtown over the past 18 years, Carlson actually doesn't mind the boom of high-end housing developments as long as they attract young people to the area, but admits he's always looking for lower rent. Plus, the parking and traffic situation in the current location is tricky, especially for customers who pull up to buy or rent heavy equipment. (There's just a slip of a driveway that's easy to miss, and a very tiny parking lot out back.) Often game-day traffic, Carlson says, will cause potential MC Audio customers to keep driving to the far west side to shop at places like Guitar Center, Full Compass, or Heid Music.

The new location comes with its own challenges. Carlson is concerned about moving away from downtown foot traffic. "I bet you our cable sales go down to next to nothing, which is not good because that's a good profit center for us," he says. But he hopes that having better parking (the new spot is also fairly easy to get to by bus) will even things out, and it's really not that far out of the way. He's also been talking with Jiggy Jamz owner Geoff Kaster for a while about potentially joining forces. It's a good symbiosis, as the stores' offerings don't overlap much but their market does. After a bit of renovation, Carlson hopes the new space will also be more hospitable to the store hosting classes, which he is thinking about expanding into more community-building efforts around electronic music.