How the east side coffee roasters have made themselves a mainstay of the Austin music scene
+ Brownout Live in Studio 1A
By Jeff McCord
It doesn’t happen very often. But once in a while, happenstance can conquer careful planning.
Try Hard Coffee never set out to become a hub for Austin music vinyl. For that matter, they never even envisioned having their own store.
Their location, nestled in an alcove in a revitalized and almost unrecognizable stretch of East 11th, hums with a steady flow of loyal customers. Yet, prior to the pandemic, a group of bakery and coffee roasters were wholesalers, with no plans to sell directly to the public.
“Try Hard opens shortly after the COVID 19 pandemic,” recalls owner Jon French, “in June of 2020. And when we opened, we were all experienced baristas. My partners, Gabrielle Rose and Rachel Hurd, we owned a wholesale bakery and we were roasting for various cafes in Austin. When the pandemic started, a lot of cafes had to shutter for a few months due to all the restrictions with guest service.”
Losing their customers at such a dangerous point, they saw the need to take things direct.
“When we opened,” Jon recalls, “we had to have a very limited version of our service. We were only able to serve coffee to go, outdoors and open air and having people spaced apart.”
These days, Try Hard still sells a lot of coffee, pastries and tacos, but inside there’s a large rack of local vinyl, with a DJ spinning tunes. Their brand has become synonymous with its creative coffee and Austin vinyl packages. And it all just fell into place.
“When we moved into that location on East 11th and we were serving coffee and tacos and pastries to go, a lot of the people that work there and me and my partners were all super into vinyl and the Austin music scene.” (From the beginning, Try Hard has donated a percentage of profits to HAAM for each bag of coffee they sell.)
“We installed a couple of record player players on a fold-out table and put them behind the espresso machine. We listened to records all the way through, side a, side b. But we started getting really busy on the weekends and the idea of going around and flipping records when you had a line of people trying to get coffee was becoming just logistically challenging.”
You see where this is going.
“We had a few deejays that lived in the neighborhood,” Jon explains. “One, in particular, was DJ Chicken George, who’s a member of a band called Third Root, the (San Antonio/Austin) hip hop project that was produced by Adrian Quesada. And he [said] ‘Hey, I’ll come out on Saturday, I’ll spin some records.’ He actually brought his whole crew. The Austin Boogie Crew brought out a couple of different members to spin and catapulted this idea of having deejays in a coffee shop.”
Try Hard Coffee opened its doors during the pandemic and has continued to adapt.
“It wasn’t something we had dreamed up as the vision of Try Hard, or what we intended to do. It turned into this whole thing now, you know, seven days a week, every day of the week you have somebody from the neighborhood or a DJ that is professional, trying out their set or bringing new stuff that they want to spin. And members of bands will come out. We have a KOOP residency. We’ve had Gold Rush vinyl come and spin, Waterloo Records. A lot of people will have collections that are not digitally available. You have a DJ thinking about every song you’re listening to while you’re getting your coffee. Not just an algorithm playlist that’s playing stuff that sounds like the song that you selected. So Try Hard became kind of a hub for vinyl, a hub for music you might not be able to hear on Spotify.”
Getting a little music in a socially distanced setting with your morning coffee was an instant draw. With so many musicians and DJs showing up, the Try Hard gang, already avid Austin music fans, became even more plugged into the local scene. That is, what little of it existed during the heady days of the COVID pandemic. Clubs were shuttered, and entertainment options were few. Musicians were wondering how they were going to make a living, or what to do with albums they had already recorded. And one of those happened to be Try Hard’s first DJ.
“DJ Chicken George of Third Root.” Jon explains. “They had a record that was already recorded, already pressed, scheduled to come out. And everything was misfiring, I guess, with the pandemic. A lot of the traditional go-to-market strategies for record release weren’t there. And we just thought, hey, as a coffee roaster maybe we could do something to promote the release of this record and make a signature roast with the band, do something cool with the artwork on the coffee bag. We designed this box set that had a record, a poster, an insert, and a screen-printed bag of coffee that we designed with the band [which] used the coffee origins that were particularly of interest to the members of the band, and [we] made it taste the way that they would want it to taste.”
It was an ambitious leap. But Third Root loved the idea, and it proved to be an instant hit. Jon and his partners were eager to continue, but bands with already finished vinyl were few and far between. As other groups approached them, they realized every case would be different, and Try Hard’s involvement would vary widely. When regular customer David Ramirez approached them in 2021, he had little more than an idea. And without hesitation, Try Hard took the leap.
“David had a concept for an EP that he wanted to do,” Jon remembers, “and at the time releasing albums on labels just wasn’t something that was super practical for a lot of artists. So we teamed up with Austin Signal Studios and David’s team, and helped to finance the recording and pressing of his EP Rules and Regulations. We released that as a box set similar to what we did with Third Root. We had a bag of coffee that was the way that David liked to drink it, the record, and we were his fulfillment for that vinyl release. And he kept rights to all of his digital streaming revenues. That release really planted the seed for the idea of working with bands to create albums from scratch.”
The next project they financed was a double EP by local punk up-and-comers Die Spitz. And this time out, Try Hard approached them.
“I saw this band Die Spitz play at the Hole in the Wall,” Jon recalls. “Probably must have been within ten or 20 shows of them starting as a band. Their parents were there. They didn’t have anything recorded at the time, didn’t have an album or anything digitally available that reflected what the band was doing live. I reached out to John Niess [with Austin Signal Studios], who we teamed up with for that project with David Ramirez, and said ‘I’ve got this band that’s super cool. They’re all 19, they don’t have anything recorded yet. You want to put them in the studio and record an EP with them?’ So we did their very first EP, and it was cool watching this band that had never recorded professionally before. A couple of months later I said to John, ‘We haven’t put that EP. out yet. This band’s doing well, why don’t we bring them back in and do another EP with them and we can release a double EP on vinyl?’ Obviously, if you’re working with a 12-inch format, you don’t want to have a blank side. And so we brought them back in, did another EP with them, and that’s what we pressed in March of 2023.”
The Die Spitz pressing sold out almost immediately. By this point, Try Hard had launched their vinyl subscription service for their vinyl/coffee box sets. Die Spitz was their third release of 2023, following Jackie Venson and an exclusive release from Kalu and the Electric Joint. Their latest effort is another exclusive, a compilation from Austin mainstays Brownout. As bassist Greg Gonzalez explained in their recent Studio 1A session, the band had no new material in the can, but was eager to get some of their past triumphs out in the vinyl format. The Legacy best-of is the fifth Try Hard release this year, with many more on the way.
Brownout performing in Studio 1A during our Open House on July 18, 2023
Each situation is different. Some bands come with existing product, others with nothing more than concepts. Partnering with Austin Signal, Spaceflight Records, and Gold Rush Vinyl for their monthly releases, Try Hard has reinvented itself as a local record label. Except…. they’re really not.
“We pay for all the recording costs [in some cases], explains Jon. “We pay for the mixing, the mastering, the vinyl pressing. We cover all that upfront. We have an artist agreement based on whether or not they’re receiving artist copies, and then there’s a pay-off structure with the bands similar to a label. But there are no strings attached. Once the project is done, they own the rights to the music, they own the rights to repress it on their own. They have the plates, they have the artwork. We have no long-term contract with any band. It’s just it’s a catapult or a catalyst that we’re trying to create.”
“Our revenue model [being] coffee roasters is based on coffee sales. When we create an artist coffee that’s named after the band, we rely on people to drink that coffee to fund this project. We’re not a we’re not a label and we’re not making money off of vinyl and we’re not making money off of streaming services and licensing. We’re making revenue off of coffee and use that bag of coffee to fund this project. Fans, people that want to support them, they understand that the band has a profit share with these bags and it’s what’s helping to fund their records being pressed.”
Try Hard is not a huge franchise or conglomerate. They’re a local east side coffee shop with one location. But their out-of-the-box creativity has made them so much more. Lately, they’ve been sending out bands, newly able to tour, with a UPC code to put on their merch tables. Fans can order their coffee/vinyl box sets direct from Try Hard, from all over the place. Artists don’t have to lug the sets from town to town, fans don’t have to carry things around in the club, bands and Try Hard alike benefit from a score of new customers. Win/win.
While they might not consider themselves a label, their passion and commitment is consuming.
“It’s probably half of my week,” estimates Jon, “for the last year. It’s a lot of work. It’s a labor of love and an investment into the art and music scene so it doesn’t have to follow the same rules. You know, if we weren’t a coffee roaster, we’d have to make money on vinyl. But that’s not our primary business. So we’re not limited to having to think about it in terms of profit and loss. In a lot of cases, we’re doing really cool exclusive artwork, you know, on some of the releases that we have coming out this year. We were hands involved even down to the artwork on this Brownout release, working with Adrian Quintero to design the album cover, helping organize in stores at Waterloo, with y’all at KUTX. For us, the success of these releases is helping [the artists] have more opportunities to get their release further. And for us as coffee roasters, it’s helping people be aware that we exist.”
“We’re all in the same boat here. It’s a really strange form of marketing. We’re not getting rich off making records, but we’re going to spend money on marketing anyway, so why not do something cool that is actually helping the scene in the music community rather than just buying Google ads or paying for, you know, Facebook marketing? For us, we just decided really early on, rather than spending any money on marketing, we just put all of our money into making cool shit.”
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Credits for Brownout Studio 1A performance
Set List: “Chafa Khan” / “Pole Position” / “Oozy” / “You’ve Got To Change”
Album: Brownout Legacy
Musicians: Alex Marvero – vocals; Matthew “Sweet Lou” Holmes – congas; Peter Stopschinski – keyboards; Beto Martinez – guitar; John Speice – Drums; Greg Gonzalez – bass; Josh Levy – baritone saxophone; Mark “Speedy” Gonzales – trombone; Dan Bechdolt – alto and tenor saxophone; Gilbert Elorreaga – trumpet and vocals
Credits: Producer: Deidre Gott; Production Assistant: Confucius Jones; Audio Engineer: Jake Perlman; Rene Chavez; Audio Mix: Jake Perlman; Cameras: Michael Minasi, Patricia Lim, Amaya Austin, Renee Dominguez; Edit: Renee Dominguez; Host: Jody Denberg