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Thank you, Russ Solomon

[Tower Records: No Music, No Life]

This site owes its existence to Russ Solomon, the founder of Tower Records who died on March 11 while watching the Oscars and drinking whiskey, according to reports.

I’ve already mentioned how Pulse magazine shaped my listening habits. The magazine also inspired me to become a music reviewer.

Jackson Griffith wrote columns for the magazine using a series of aliases. His writing style could be inscrutable and long-winded, but it was also humorous and, for avowed non-reader as myself back in high school, endlessly fascinating.

When I started writing reviews for the school paper, I tried — with little success — to emulate Griffith’s style. By the time I reached college, the greater lesson sank in: write like yourself, not that I had a clue who I was. The advent of the Internet allowed me to become my own publisher, and I’ve been subjecting you poor readers to these opinions for some 18 years now.

In college, I would receive promotional albums to review, but I could never get behind them. I could only write about items I bought with my own money, and back then, most of those items were bought at Tower Records. It was a lovely racket — Pulse spurred me to write about music, and Tower provided the product to do so.

I would read stories about how Walmart was the only place in town to buy music, which horrified me. Department store music sections were temples of mediocrity compared to the cornucopia found at Tower. I counted my lucky stars I could take the bus to a store that would stock albums by John Zorn, Joan Tower and In Tua Nua.

And while the Honolulu stores did their darnedest to have breadth and depth, Pulse hinted more was available that would never reach the islands. Early music e-commerce sites CD Now and Music Boulevard would chip away at Tower’s hold on my spending.

After I moved to Austin, my allegiance shifted to Waterloo Records and Amazon. I would later discover Tower didn’t have a monopoly on the idea of far ranging stock. Waterloo, Amoeba, Music Millennium, Silver Platters — the experience of Tower lives on.

So thank you, Russ Solomon, for connecting a precocious teen-ager to a lifetime of music fandom, financial ruin and obscure punditry.

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Achievement unlocked: the first collection purge since 2012

[James Blake - The Colour in Anything]

In 2013, I was ready but reluctant to turn my music collection over to the digital services. My ripped library had been backed up to Google Play, and my waning interest in new releases meant my shelves filled slowly.

Then I got bit by the vinyl bug and doubled down on physical product.

It’s taken a few years, but I’m reminded now of a big drawback to ownership — space constraints.

In short, I’ve run out of shelf space, and I have little room to add more shelves.

So I’ve had to resort to a collection purge. The last time I did one was right before I moved to Seattle in 2012. Those posts about the ones that nearly got away? Well, I’m letting a few titles do exactly that.

Many of the purged discs are actually redundancies — old pressings of albums that have been remastered or expanded into deluxe editions.

But those thrift store bargains that led me to explore something unfamiliar? Some of them ended up as duds. And as cheaply as I acquired them, I can’t say letting them go is much sweet sorrow.

In the case of James Blake’s The Colour in Anything, which I bought when it was released, I should have stuck with my initial impression and left it on the store rack. (Metaphorically speaking — I ordered it from Amazon.)

When I made the decision to keep collecting — even when market forces would rather I rent — I told myself I’d keep the purges to a minimum. It’s hard not to second-guess myself when trying to decide how much I like an album occupying some much needed room. The ambivalent choices are the toughest.

But sometimes, spring cleaning is in order.

In trying to find some old files from college, I ran across some ancient spreadsheets which documented albums I had nearly forgotten I owned. I turned that info into a private list on Discogs.

In a fit of nostalgia, I tracked down some of those lost titles online — and reminded myself why many of them remain lost.

Titles I’ve welcomed back into my collection needed a change of context to let me know what I gave up. Other titles will never be that lucky.

All is not really lost, though. I still have more than enough room on the external hard drive for the rips of those departed albums to remain. And I still have my Google Play subscription.

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By the numbers: 2017

[Renée Fleming - Distant Light]

In the past, I would try to write about every album I encountered. These days, I listen to a lot of stuff, but I’ll only post an entry if something sparks a memory.

As these statistics demonstrate, I’m leaving a lot out of this blog.

First and last purchases of the year

The first and last purchases of the year are determined by the date of order. Pre-ordered items not yet shipped have already been taken into account.

  • First purchase: Sleater-Kinney, One Beat (2014 reissue) on vinyl.
  • First purchase of a 2017 release: Renée Fleming, Distant Light on CD.
  • Last purchase of a 2017 release: Anne Dudley, Anne Dudley Plays the Art of Noise on CD
  • Last purchase: Wilco, Summerteeth on vinyl.

Purchases by format

Format New release Reissue Catalog Total
7-inch 0 0 0 0
12-inch 0 1 0 1
CD Single 0 0 2 2
CD 31 14 289 334
CD-R 0 0 1 1
Downloads 3 0 1 4
Vinyl 9 43 110 162
Total items bought 43 58 403 504

Definitions

New release
Initial release within the calendar year.
Reissue
Originally released prior to the calendar year but reissued within the calendar year.
Catalog
Initial release prior to the calendar year.

Top catalog release years

Year Number of items purchased Year-over-year change
1987 22 +9
1988 21 0
1999 20 New!
1996 19 +6
1992 19 +1
2016 18 New!
1989 17 +2
1984 17 New!
1986 16 New!
1998 15 New!
1998 15 New!
1990 15 -7

Top artists

Single titles purchased in multiple formats are counted individually.

 

Artist Number of items purchased
Clannad 8
Depeche Mode 8
David Bowie 6
Chris Isaak 6
Kronos Quartet 6
Midnight Oil 6
Perfume 6
Stevie Wonder 6
The Clash 5
John Coltrane 5
Dead Can Dance 5
Enya 5
Steve Reich 5
Bruce Springsteen 5
SUPERCAR 5
Aphex Twin 4
Miles Davis 4
Bill Evans 4
Charles Mingus 4
Outkast 4
The Streets 4
A Tribe Called Quest 4
Steve Winwood 4

Notes

  • The death on Pádraig Duggan in 2016 spurred me to bring a lot of Clannad titles back into my collection.
  • Cheap CDs from thrift shops account for some of the entries list, namely Chris Isaak and Steve Winwood.
  • If I grouped this list by title, David Bowie wouldn’t rank as highly. Pretty much, I bought different versions of Ziggy Stardust.
  • Midnight Oil and Depeche Mode concerts made me want to dig further into back catalog I hadn’t yet explored.

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How the pre-web Internet fueled my interest in Celtic music

[Clannad - Clannad 2]

Long-time readers probably remember this site from 15(!) years ago as a resource for non-mainstream Japanese rock music. Had I launched it back in 1996, it might have been a resource for Celtic music.

Boy did I go through a Celtic music kick in the mid-90s.

A friend of mine from high school sowed the seeds for this fascination. Although I had learned about Clannad before he did, he convinced me the band’s folk era in the ’70s was far better than the pop band they turned out to be.

We both dug “Harry’s Game”, though.

In 1993, I took a political science class as part of my core requirements, and the instructor arranged for the class to get Internet accounts. The campus was two years away from providing Internet accounts to everyone, but till then, e-mail accounts were granted only to computer science majors and students in classes that required the Internet as part of its curriculum.

The accounts would have been deactivated at the end of the class, but I kept using mine. The web was still in its infancy, and I had yet learned how to create a page in HTML. But I did learn how to subscribe to mailing lists and to visit newsgroups.

Given my fascination with Clannad, I visited a group called rec.music.celtic. Within a week, I had recommendations for other artists similar to Clannad. Over the next three years, I would get my hands on albums by Capercaillie, Talitha Mackenzie, Altan, Boiled in Lead and Wolfstone.

I signed up for the postal mailing list of Green Linnet Records and soon afterward discovered Värttinä and the Klezmatics.

Of course, record stores in Honolulu didn’t actually stock albums by any of these artists. So how did I get my hands on them?

The first e-commerce site I ever used was not Amazon, or even its predecessors CDNow or Music Boulevard. It was CD Connection. And the service didn’t even have a website — it had a Telnet server.

That’s right — Telnet, not SSH. I bought music through a command-line interface!

That experience sold me on the potential of the Internet. I was a kid in Honolulu with little access to music outside of radio and MTV, but with the help of people from clear across the globe, I could indulge in an interest as esoteric as Celtic music.

From today’s perspective, I took a big risk handing my credit card number over an insecure protocol such as Telnet. Back then, the Internet hadn’t yet been made available to the nation at large. It was still the domain of universities and governments. Net etiquette was easier to enforce, and users really invested into the egalitarian potential of the Internet.

But using the Internet as a source of music discovery is something I learned early on, and it eventually led to the launch of Musicwhore.org as a resource for Japanese music when I saw a niche being underserved.

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By the numbers: 2016

[Glenn Gould - Bach: Goldberg Variations]

In the past, I would try to write about every album I encountered. These days, I listen to a lot of stuff, but I’ll only post an entry if something sparks a memory.

As these statistics demonstrate, I’m leaving a lot out of this blog.

First and last purchases of the year

  • First purchase: Glenn Gould, Bach: The Goldberg Variations (1955) on vinyl.
  • First purchase of a 2016 release: Henryk Górecki, Symphony No. 4 on CD.
  • Last purchase of a 2016 release: Meredith Monk, On Behalf of Permanence on CD.
  • Last purchase: George Michael, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 on CD.

Purchases by format

Format New release Reissue Catalog Total
7-inch 0 2 0 2
12-inch 0 1 0 1
CD 34 4 116 154
Downloads 3 2 1 6
Vinyl 4 33 71 108
Total items bought 41 42 188 271

Definitions

New release
Initial release within the calendar year.
Reissue
Originally released prior to the calendar year but reissued within the calendar year.
Catalog
Initial release prior to the calendar year.

Top catalog release years

Year Number of items purchased
1988 16
1985 15
1990 13
2015 12
1992 12
1991 12
1989 11
2002 10
1996 10
1987 9

Top artists

Single titles purchased in multiple formats are counted individually.

Artist Number of items purchased
Prince 10
Madonna 8
Sting 7
Sonic Youth 6
Depeche Mode 5
Meredith Monk 5
Sleater-Kinney 5
Clannad 4
Idlewild 4
INXS 4
NUMBER GIRL 4
Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet 4
Tracy Chapman 3
Glenn Gould 3
Ty Herndon 3
Kronos Quartet 3
George Michael 3
Dolly Parton / Linda Ronstadt / Emmylou Harris 3
The Sugarcubes 3

Notes

  • These number pretty much bear out that I’m pretty much out of touch with anything new happening. Catalog purchases took up 70% of my purchases in 2016.
  • The death of Prince sent me on a mission to catch up with his work.
  • The news of a new album from Sting gave me a chance to reconsider his work from the late ’90s onward. Cheap CDs from the Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Shop allowed me to save on Internet bandwidth.
  • Madonna’s presence in my collection grew due to a combination of a vinyl reissue campaign and some lucky purchases from Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Shop.
  • In fact, encountering the Lifelong Thrift Shop stall during Gay Pride had an outsize influence on my purchases. From street level, the shop looked like it sold only vintage clothes. I didn’t realize the lower level had a room of CDs and vinyl.

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CDs are the new vinyl

[Compact Disc Digital Audio]

No, that linkbait headline isn’t talking about the current cachet of vinyl records. It’s comparing compact discs to vinyl in the 1990s, when the former started to edge out the latter in retailer shelf space.

I saw it happen gradually throughout my years in high school, and it’s weird seeing history repeat itself on the very thing that ushered in that change.

Week after week, a row of record bins in my favorite music shops would yield to compact discs. By the time I graduated, CDs had nearly taken over entire stores. Classical sections had surrendered months beforehand. In 1992, all stores reconfigured their bins exclusively for compact discs. Remember the longbox? It was a stop-gap measure to allow CDs to be stocked in bins designed for vinyl records.

That was the day vinyl was supposed to die.

Of course, it didn’t die. Vintage vinyl migrated to thrift shops, second-hand stores and special conventions. Independent bands kept the format alive all throughout the compact disc’s reign. I’m not going to analyze why the format rebounded. I’m just going to be thankful it did.

But turnabout is fair play for the compact disc. When I worked at Waterloo Records in the early 2000s, vinyl records occupied one aisle of bins. By the time I moved from Austin to Seattle 10 years later, vinyl records took up the entire second room of the store.

Stores in Seattle show the same symptoms. I’ve seen rows of CDs turn into rows of vinyl at Everyday Music and Sonic Boom. Spin Cycle Records doesn’t even stock CDs.

So what’s happening to all those aluminum discs? Pretty much, the same thing that happened to vinyl.

First, labels stopped pressing discs. New releases still show up on CD, but catalog titles have either gone out of print or are offered as print-on-demand. As a result, inventory in stores becomes second-hand.

Waterloo used to separate used discs from unopened inventory. That changed in the middle of the aughts. On my last visit to the store, Waterloo reflected the reality of music shops everywhere — used discs outnumbered new ones.

Vinyl went through a similar trough in the ’90s. The glut of unwanted LPs meant bargain hunters and adherents to the format could go hunting. They pillaged the thrift shops and second-hand stores of prime catalog titles, setting up the collector’s market that would eventually inflate the price of vinyl.

I’m starting to see signs that CDs have reached that point where prices on used discs are starting to inflate. Inflation has already hit unopened discs.

Camelcamelcamel.com tracks Amazon pricing on products over time. Some of the titles on my list have hit the $0.01 mark, but that time has long past. One example: a Nonesuch recording of Philip Glass’ Music in Twelve Parts at one time reached a low of $3.61 for a used copy. It’s currently selling for about $60. An unopened copy sells for $360.

What does that mean for the future of the format? Will we see compact discs priced more expensively than they were?

CDs are becoming collectibles now, so yes, some titles will be exorbitantly priced. Most will end up in bargain bins.

The role of hardware manufacturers is seldom discussed in the fate of formats. Vinyl didn’t go away because the players didn’t completely disappear from electronic stores. Cassette tape decks and VHS players didn’t fare as well. As long as there are CD players made, there will be CDs to play them.

I don’t imagine CDs having a resurgence the way vinyl has. The last transition went from one physical format to another physical format. The current transition has gone from physical to ephemeral.

If such a renaissance were to occur, perception would need to put focus back on the benefits of the compact disc. Market forces have moved away from the concept of ownership, but that may change when titles start disappearing from people’s streaming libraries.

I can picture it — a listener falls in love with an artist’s music. She adds that artist to her streaming library. The artist has a squabble, and the rights to that music come into question. It disappears from the library. The listener scrambles to find that artist elsewhere, but all traces have been scrubbed from all digital vendors. Now what?

This scenario is why I have doubled down on physical formats. My collection has actually grown, and bargains are pretty abundant right now.

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