From roaming the globe freely for a decade in the 1980s, through to opening a group of record and book stores in the late 2000s while others continue to close, Steve Kulak is a man who evidently follows his own path.
Since opening his first TITLE store in 2006 in Sydney’s Surry Hills, Steve has opened eight stores across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide. TITLE however is just the public face of a multi-faceted business that includes music and book distribution group Fuse, and his latest endeavour, a publishing and artist management company, Strangelove.
Steve now employs 30 people across the three businesses, which all are devoted to the creation, distribution and sharing of music, books and film that tap into “the exotic side streets of the imagination.”
What is a current or recent influence?
Children. Always. And the things they say. And the way they draw. And laugh. But also successful business people who can do that too. And those who give their money and their time to good causes because they really believe they should.
And a past or childhood influence?
Impossible to limit this to one influence or a single experience. I spent over ten years travelling around the world, hitch-hiking whenever possible and basically trying not to be too comfortable wherever I was. Endless roaming on a shoestring and seeking out the genuine travel experience – which was still possible in the post-hippy, pre-internet 1980s days. All without imagining an end would ever come. And every day of that long, hard journey was influential – to a degree that nothing today can touch.
When you meet somebody you don’t know at a party, how do you answer the question “What do you do?”
I’ve been told I’m a serial entrepreneur with a healthy aversion to safety. I like that.
Most people in inner Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane would be familiar with your TITLE stores, but this is only part of it. What other businesses are in the group?
TITLE is the retail face of the business. An emporium; a temple of culture for all those who trust their imagination in all things. Or more basically, all those who just want to buy something they haven’t seen before but may already have imagined existed.
However, behind this, the main game is Strangelove, a new book publishing, artist management and record company that is all about creating a place where creative people can prosper. The great artists play in the arena of life and we are the circus tent under which bigger things happen.
There are so many businesses opportunities out there for those willing, but my advice is to make sure you have the determination to see them through. There are difficult lessons that will be learnt there and resilience and self-belief will take your business a long way.
What was your background and trajectory that led you to establishing these businesses?
I was unemployable after spending so many years travelling and exposing myself to so much wonder, it just would have made an office cubicle uninhabitable. And although I had been to university, I believed my prospects were slim because I had lived so freely for so long. There was nothing in my past to suggest I would be pursuing a business life – after all, my parents were both factory workers and very poor. But there is a momentum to things, and although we sometimes resist the obvious, it is just that which we should follow.
For me, this was a life behind books, music and the cinema of experience. Making that a business was the most obvious thing of all – actually, no it wasn’t. But it comes down to a choice of doing something that you are passionate about or working only to get by and not improving anything other than your own place in life. Which for me is not a good enough reason to do anything.
What is a typical workday like for you?
I’ve got so many incredible people working with me across all our stores and creative ventures, so a large part of my job has now become about thinking. And making sure everyone else is doing the same. But of course never having the business far from my mind. The moment you stop thinking about it is the moment it moves away from you and defeats you.
Last book and album that grabbed you?
Book: The Last Sultan: The Life of Ahmet Ertegun (About the founder and head of Atlantic Records)
Album: Neil Young, Psychedelic Pill
And the stunning new voice that is Anabelle Kay, who we’ll be launching on Strangelove.
You’ve established a group of music and book stores in a period when music and book stores are closing all over the place. What are you doing differently?
Well, I can tell you what they’re doing that’s causing them to close: they are closing because they are boring. They are not aware that retail is drama and retail of any persuasion needs to be informed and dynamic. A person needs to feel like they’re travelling, either as part of a circus or as part of a dream. TITLE places you in exotic side streets of the imagination. Then you walk back into main street and feel different. Even if you only think you do. Our trump card is those who connect with our kind of retail experience are not only seduced by it, but addicted.
Is retail dead? Or what do you say to those who say it is dying?
Retail is only dead to those who are not conscious. Retail is a love affair. It can invigorate you, change your life… or give you hell. Love it or leave it. But it’s here to stay in one form or another.
I’ve been told to ask about the time you were deported from India…
I was on my way overland to Pakistan and Iran and sleeping in the Golden Temple in Amritsar because it was free for pilgrims. The Indian army decided to pay a visit, not because I was there, but they did startle me and let’s just say I reacted. There is a lot you can ask anyone when they travel the old fashioned way, and look for trouble. It always finds them. From the Congo to Calcutta, you only have to ask… and I always did. There’s an adventure on every street corner if you want to engage in it. And no safety net. Thrilling. It can teach you a lot to prepare you for any future business career that you care to mention. Especially when it comes to people.
If you could change one thing…
It would only lead to changing another and what’s the point of that? But perhaps banning mobile phones in reaction to the shrinking horizons of the young who can’t stop looking at their own reflections in the mirrored glass would be high on my list.
If you could give yourself one piece of advice to your 21 year-old self, what would it be?
Learn to play your instrument better. And stop thinking the world is about you. It isn’t.
The “serial entrepreneur with a healthy aversion to safety” – Steve Kulak.
By Matt Hurst