Self-editing is overrated. Or is it?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Music? That's like what plays in the background of video games, right?

Oh, it is not a good time to be in the music business, lemme tell ya.

Never mind that the record labels are slowly merging into one giant conglomerate that only puts out music for girls between the ages of 13 and 14. I'm talking about the actual business of selling cd's is just quickly fading away.

When I was a teenager, I became a record collector. Not just a fan of music, I was a total dweeb in learning and buying everything out of the wide catalog of artists that were out there. I would buy the latest single by a band, and then track down the import version which had a different B side. Colored vinyl? I'm so there. The Velvet Underground's first album where you could actually unzip the banana on the cover? I had that. The import version of Thomas Dolby's The Golden Age Of Wireless which had a completely different track listing than the US version? Bought it for two bucks in a garage sale. Flexidiscs! Remember those? Where some magazine would release some incredibly obscure song on like this super thin plastic sheet that would fit into the magazine? Invariably, the disc would get bent or misshapen in the handling of the magazines getting to the stores, so by the time you listened to it, you couldn't tell if it was supposed to have this warped sound, or if that was just what it sounded like after its journey to you.

I read Goldmine magazine, for chrissakes! This was basically a huge listing of every guy who spent every weekend at a flea market somewhere in this country, and what records that guy had for sale. And like, two articles on somebody like Eric Clapton, but like only about when he was the second guitar player in The John Mayall Bluesbreakers. Or on like Fleetwood Mac, before Buckingham and Nicks, when Peter Green was the leader of the band, and they did mostly blues covers. Some completely obscure point that NOBODY except die-hard record collectors would care about. The magazine still exists, but there's much less of a market for it now.

Why? Well, there just aren't that many record collectors anymore.

Case in point is the recent closing of Rhino Records, the record store in Westwood, as reported by The Hollywood Reporter. Rhino, before it was a record label, was just a record store in Los Angeles that was staffed solely by complete record collectors. People who really loved music in all its forms and wanted to get the word out to as many people as possible about the wide variety of stuff that existed. They had the weird stuff that people like me were looking for, such as the obscure single that few people had or the new band that no one had heard of yet.

And their staff, well, they were opinionated. You know that part in the movie High Fidelity where someone is berated for 5 minutes, because they asked where the Michael Bolton records are? This happened hourly in Rhino. In fact, the clerks were so surly that they use to keep a huge list, prominently on display, called the "Worst Customer List". Give them any grief or, god help you, ask for something really cliched and awful, and bam! You went on that list.

Could you have less of a hard time shopping in a mall record store somewhere? Sure. But then, a mall record store was never gonna be able to have the great music that you couldn't find elsewhere, or the people who believed in it either.

But it's just not that way anymore. There are still a few stores out there now that are still great. Thank god for Amoeba Music on Sunset in Los Angeles, as well as their other 2 stores in San Francisco and Berkeley. This is, bar none, the greatest record store that I have ever seen, and let me tell you, I have seen them all. My only advice when going here is to make a list in advance of what you're looking for and only look for what's on that list. If you just start browsing, you will literally never leave. Ever. I'm serious.

But for every Amoeba, there are 20 Rhino's or Aron's (which just closed at the end of last year) that are gone now. Hell, last week, even the mall record store Musicland filed for bankruptcy, and they have 824 stores.

The saddest part of all, though, may just be the devaluation of music in our culture these days. Because it's so easy to get now through the internet and there's no longer a packaging that associated with it that makes you feel like you bought something, it's almost too easy to take music for granted now.

"There's too many other things to do and too many ways to get your music without paying $18 for a CD. . . . I don't see a great future for physical product." said Richard Foos, the owner of Rhino.

Indeed, a study by England's University of Leicester showed a basic difference now in the way consumers are looking at music. The school's psychologists noted last week that music had "lost its aura," and was now viewed as simply a commodity. The trend will probably only get worse with time.

Well, ok, so as not to be totally depressing here, let me give you two options of things you can do to keep the spirit of music alive:

The first is, if you're in LA, to head to Rhino Records this weekend for their massive store closing sale, Saturday and Sunday from 10am-4pm. Somebody has got to take all those import cd's off their hands, and it might as well be you.

The second is that I've just received word that Bang On A Can is offering a free sampler CD to anyone who joins their mailing list in the next couple of weeks. If you don't know who Bang On A Can are, they are a really brilliant collective of contemporary classical musicians who, after years of being frustrated by the lack of opportunities for new works by contemporary composers, finally just put their money where their mouth is, and started up numerous programs to stimulate new classical music in this country. They now have a program where they commission composers to write new works, they actively seek out collaborations with composers from different cultures, and they run a summer institute to foster new composers and performers. The emphasis here is on new works, not just some child prodigy playing a Mozart concerto. These people are actively shaping the future of classical music, and they make some pretty cool stuff. Go here, fill in your info, and presto, free cd of cool new classical music is on its way to you. Then, you can see if you wanna buy stuff if you like what you hear. It's a no-lose situation, and frankly, if we don't start actively fostering people to seek out adventurous music, it won't be around much longer to find.


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