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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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The history of a music fan in four decades, part four

[A shelf in the Musicwhore.org vinyl colleciton]

Read Parts One, Two and Three.

When I started collecting music, vinyl records were the medium of choice. Walkman players shifted that focus to pre-recorded cassette tapes for a short while before compact discs steamrolled over everything. I nearly joined the 21st century in forsaking physical formats till I bought a pair of decent speakers for my stereo system.

Then I played a record from my old collection on that system, and a new obsession began.

Vinyl

Records force listeners to interact physically with the act of listening. You have to care for records. You have to flip slides while playing them. You have to pay attention. Computer files can be strung together in hours-long stretches that effectively severs that personal connection.

When I started collecting vinyl again in 2013, I focused on used copies of albums I could have bought as records but hadn’t discovered at the time. But slicing through the shrink wrap of an unopened record was an act I hadn’t experienced in more than 20 years, and something about it felt communal.

So now I double down — if I really like an album, I’ll buy it on vinyl as well. For me, the vinyl purchase is the premium display of support, short of seeing a band live.

Seattle arts scene

I lived in New York City from 1992 to 1993 on an exchange program between the University of Hawaii and Hunter College. I had an internship at a classical record label. I saw Kronos Quartet twice. I went to Broadway shows I’d been craving to see since high school. And my first Duran Duran concert happened two weeks before the band released The Wedding Album.

It makes me wonder what more I could have done if I had my 2016 income in 1992.

I would probably be doing a lot of the same things. I’ve seen Kronos Quartet three times now, and my fifth Duran Duran concert happened in Puyallup. I went to see a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in March 2016, and I’m a subscriber of the symphony.

Austin and Honolulu couldn’t fulfill my need for classical music the way Seattle does.

Nearly half way into decade four

It’s been more than 10 years since I’ve given up trying to be a tastemaker, and I’m glad to have yielded that responsibility, not that I was great at it. I used to have a vague clue about what’s popular, but I can’t even claim that any more.

I don’t want to say I’m done exploring music, because every time I think I’m done, I fall down yet another hole. I do, however, feel my tastes have settled down. I have my go-to genres, my go-to periods, my go-to artists.

But there’s always room for more.

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The history of a music fan in four decades, part three

[Cocco - Bougainvillia]

Read Parts One and Two.

Just when I thought I was done cycling through niches, I found one last rabbit hole into which I tumbled long and hard. The earliest days of this site owes its reputation to that period, but midway through the last decade, something broke.

Japanese indie rock

I remember the moment I was introduced to Cocco very well.

A co-worker was playing a Japan Nite sampler CD, and when it reached Cocco, I got up from my desk to find out who was singing. Here was someone who could have gone the easy route and sing anime theme songs. Instead, a wail of grunge guitars backed her. It was the Japanese rock for which I was searching.

[Shiina Ringo - Muzai Moratorium]The office sent me to cover SXSW music events, and I volunteered to cover Japan Nite in 1999. That night introduced me to Missile Girl Scoot, eX-Girl and NUMBER GIRL. A trip home to Honolulu in 2000 led to Utada Hikaru, the brilliant green, L’Arc~en~Ciel and Shiina Ringo.

Web sites covering Japanese music focused primarily on pop idols. I wanted to feature more of the rock music showcased at Japan Nite. So Musicwhore.org became a webzine to do just that. My rusty Japanese needed a lot of help from online tools, but over time, I got proficient enough to localize short news stories into English.

I also used this site to hone my skills as a web software engineer, pulling together the articles I was writing with various discography services. Building the site from the ground up while also creating its content took its toll, and after five years, I pivoted to write more broadly about all the music that interested me.

Turning 35

My favorite article from the Onion is “Lifelong Love Affair With Music Ends At Age 35“. In my case, it’s less satire and more biography.

It takes a lot of work to be connected all the time, and in the heady music blog days of the mid-2000s, bands got deafening buzz from posting a single MP3 to MySpace, and then the focus would shift elsewhere before that band could make a second song.

I just didn’t have the energy to trawl music sites in Japanese to find another band to fill the NUMBER GIRL void, and Western bands sounded too similar to what I grew up with to make a non-cranky judgement. So I retreated into catalog.

Cutting out the middle man

One interesting side effect of the shift to downloads and streams is the rise of direct fan relationships with artists. Facebook and Twitter makes it easy to discover and connect with artists who don’t rely on a label for promotion and distribution.

[Matt Alber - Constant Crows]In an effort to find gay artists who played music more to my personal taste, I skimmed articles in gay publications and sites for leads, and a great majority of them sent me directly to an artist’s web presence. Similarly, I would follow opening acts at concerts if their performances impressed me.

The label system lacks such transparency that the direct fan relationship feels a lot more pure. I know when I buy directly from Matt Alber, Sacha Sacket, Jarell Perry or Shaprece, they’re getting my cash, not the middle man.

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The history of a music fan in four decades, part two

[John Zorn - Naked City]

Read Part One.

As my high school career drew to a close, I went off the rails because I couldn’t make sense of what my hormones were doing, so I channeled that insanity-making into my choice of music.

I badly mimicked Björk at a time she could barely stay in tune herself. I made regular trips to the library to borrow anything on Nonesuch. I swore off radio and depended entirely on music magazines to determine what I listened to next.

In 1993, the first alternative radio station launched in Honolulu, and seemingly overnight the music that put me on the outs with everyone was socially acceptable. Of course, my young, dumb reactionary self couldn’t abide by that. So while everyone was catching up with where I was five years earlier, I found ways to go further afield.

Anime

[Various Artists - Macross Song Collection]Robotech was a huge hit in my household, probably the only thing on which the siblings in my family could agree. But when the home video market made it possible for anime to be released stateside, a whole world opened up, particularly J-Pop. One of the first CDs I bought — and still own — is the Macross Song Collection. In fact, the first few CDs I bought were anime soundtracks — Megazone 23Bubblegum Crisis and Akira.

But the prohibitively expensive Japanese imports made exploration of J-pop economically unfeasible for a broke college student. As much I liked J-Pop, I still wanted something that something closer to the Replacements than Paula Abdul.

Downtown New York

Nonesuch’s release of John Zorn’s Naked City sent me down a rabbit hole of downtown New York jazz, but the independent nature of the scene guaranteed I wouldn’t track down a fraction of the recordings connected to it. Not from Honolulu, at least. So I concentrated on the major label artists I could access — Bill Frisell, Robin Holcomb and for a while, Wayne Horvitz.

A political science class finally gave me Internet access, and a few pioneering sites attempted to connect music fans with rare recordings. I was ordering albums from the Internet even before Amazon launched.

Celtic music

[Clannad - Banba]Clannad really took off after Volkswagen featured “Harry’s Game” in one of its commercials. Enya laid some groundwork in introducing the beauty of the Irish language, but her siblings in Clannad took it further with their catalog of folk albums.

I think this passing fascination wouldn’t have spiraled if it weren’t for USENET and a newsgroup called alt.music.celtic. This precursor to the web message board offered a few more recommendations, and I spent a good part of the mid-90s listening to Altan, Capercaillie and Talitha Mackenzie.

Emmylou Harris and country music

Asylum Records sent an interview disc of Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois talking about the making of Wrecking Ball to the school newspaper where I was the features editor. I was familiar with Harris’ name but not her work, and I can’t say I was entirely open to covering country music.

But Wrecking Ball wasn’t country, and it made me receptive to listen to Harris’ previous work. A year later, Warner Bros. released the Portraits boxed set, and I became a fan for life.

I learned right away that Harris’ music bore little resemblance to the kind performed by Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and Shania Twain, and the country music I preferred drew its lineage from Uncle Tupelo.

Welcome to Austin, Texas

[Bruce Robison - Wrapped]My college career concluded with an internship to the Austin American-Statesman and my first job out of college. The homegrown music scene focused mostly on Southern music — blues, country and its derivatives — but it had enough versatility to include a diverse rock scene.

In my first years in Austin, I supported the likes of Asylum Street Spankers, 8 1/2 Souvenirs, the Kiss-Offs and Bruce Robison. Toward the end of my time in Austin, I became a fan of … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and Explosions in the Sky.

 

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The history of a music fan in four decades, part one

[The Manhattan Transfer - Extensions]

This month, I turn 44. I’ve been collecting music for about 81 percent of that lifespan. I bought my first album when I was 8 years old.

OK, it was my mom who caved into my whining about wanting that Manhattan Transfer album with the “Twilight Zone” song on it (Extensions, by the way.) She’s regretted it ever since. I think the last time she chided me for spending too much money on music was … three months ago?

When my collecting took off in junior high, I went through phases where I would dive deep into a particular style of music and play it to death on the family stereo. Every year, I would glom onto something new, then ditch it for something else. It was such a reliable metric, my siblings would ask, “What are you going to get into next year?”

In college, the phases started to grow longer and overlap to the point that I though I outgrew them. In reality, I was just figuring out what kind of music sustained the dopamine rush. I kept those around while I explored other things.

By then, I had figured out that anyone can like any style of music if you learn how to listen to it. When I got into post-punk music, my siblings hated being subjected to singers who couldn’t sing. They had been raised on a steady diet of radio pop and didn’t understand a lack of polish was exactly the point.

So to commemorate this birthday month, we’ll explore the various phases that marked my history as a music fan, starting our first decade with the 1980s.

New wave

[Duran Duran - Rio]I can’t say MTV influenced my music consumption because my parents didn’t subscribe to cable. But network TV attempted to ride the music video coattails with such shows as Friday Night Videos and Prime Time Videos.

It was music video that spurred my childhood interest in ABBA. And it was music video that got me into Duran Duran, Eurythmics, ABC, Tears for Fears, Huey Lewis and the News and Sting. I preferred the more theatrical videos made by bands from England and Europe than the song-and-dance numbers of American bands.

That steady diet of English bands set up an affinity for punk-influenced music that would set me at odds with my peer group. That didn’t stop me from trying to fit in.

Radio pop

In 1986, I started high school, and I wanted to establish an identity different from the one I had in junior high and elementary school. So for a time, I was listening to Club Nouveau, L.A. Dream Team Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam and Janet Jackson.

But my conscience eventually won out. Some of the most popular hits played on the radio weren’t songs I really liked on first listen, and repeated plays didn’t make them any better. And the popular kids with whom I was trying to ingratiate myself? Turns out I didn’t really like them all that much.

“Hawaiian Electric” by Hiroshima

In 1987, Hawaiian Electric Co. commissioned a pair of television ads featuring music by jazz fusion band Hiroshima. It was my first introduction to non-Western instruments, and I was fascinated. Hiroshima was a staple on a new radio format for light jazz and new age. Basia, Enya, Spyro Gyra, Hiroshima — all different styles of music unified by mood. It was a diversity I’d been craving.

Musicals

[Andrew Lloyd Webber; Tim Rice - Jesus Christ Superstar]In my junior year of high school, my band instructor introduced me to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jesus Christ Superstar. Around the same time, a television broadcast of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George alternately bored and fascinated me. Jesus Christ Superstar led to CatsEvita and The Phantom of the Opera, while Sunday in the Park with George was the springboard to Into the WoodsSweeney Todd and A Little Night Music.

Sondheim and Lloyd Webber pretty much allowed me to break rank entirely with everyone in high school. I no longer felt a need to fit in. I would explore music that interested me, and the more it confused my cohorts, the better.

Music: An Appreciation by Roger Kamien

All throughout these years of exploration, I was taking piano lessons, but when I expressed interest in songwriting, those piano lessons became rudimentary lessons in music theory and composition. To take advantage of my large finger span, my teacher introduced me to works by Claude Debussy and Aram Khachaturian.

My dad also took a music appreciation course at a community college, and I used his textbook, Music: An Appreciation by Roger Kamien, as bathroom reading. Over time, I absorbed the names of composers, the eras in which they lived and the forms of music they composed. The section on 20th Century Music fascinated me in particular.

All these events came together when I ran across a description of Kronos Quartet in a music magazine, and my love for modern classical music was born.

Pulse! magazine

[Tower Records Pulse! magazine, Dec. 1989]As my high school years drew to a close, a free magazine published by Tower Records, named Pulse!, became my bible. Pulse! introduced me to Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Camper Van Beethoven, the Sugarcubes, the Replacements and Steve Reich. It published some of Adrian Tomine’s earliest comics, and one of its columnists spurred me to write about music. This blog owes a lot to Pulse!

Up next …

College would deepen my understanding of classical music, but when all the underground rock I was precociously consuming during high school became mainstream, I would find new ways to differentiate myself.

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The year in music for the graduating class of 1990

[Kronos Quartet - Black Angels]

I’m writing this entry ahead of time, but when it gets posted, I will have attended my 25th high school reunion. I graduated in 1990, a nice even number made all the more significant by its relative placement to a new century, let alone a new decade.

The musical identity of a decade doesn’t get established till two years into it, so until then, a lot of gambling happens among the tastemakers. Nielsen SoundScan was a year away from launching, which meant the Billboard charts in 1990 still relied on phone reports by retailers to determine its rankings.

That year, the chart-topping albums included MC Hammer’s Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme, Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl and Sinéad O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

Billboard created a new chart at the time to track what would eventually be known as alternative music. The songs on this chart would set the tone in the years to follow, but till then, radio spun hits by Wilson Phillips, Roxette and a newcomer named Mariah Carey.

For me, 1990 marked the year the foundation for my ensuing music collection solidified.

I stopped listening to radio two years before and relied entirely on magazines to direct my choices. In the days before streaming audio and widespread Internet access, I put a lot of faith in a writer’s ability to convince me to drop cash on something I’d never heard. Some of those gambles paid off, and some of them didn’t.

But it was the sense of discovery that provided that hit of dopamine on a malleable mind. Needless to say that kind of independence set me apart from everyone else in high school. My classmates were rallying around a shared experience. I was more concerned with finding something I could monopolize, perhaps even proselytize.

My new wave proclivities from freshman year evolved into a taste for what was called “college rock”. A friend ushered it in by playing Beelzebubba by the Dead Milkmen the summer before. Camper Van Beethoven, 10,000 Maniacs, the Replacements and Midnight Oil followed. And, of course, I remained steadfast to Duran Duran.

Kronos Quartet had introduced me to classical music, but Black Angels sent me down a path of study that would last the first half of the decade. The frightening timbres of George Crumb’s title piece and the anguish of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet for Strings No. 8 tapped into the uncertainty I felt about my own identity. That taste for dissonance sharpened when the self-titled album by Robin Holcomb led to John Zorn and Wayne Horvitz.

Some of my choices that year would prove prescient, as college rock morphed into the alternative rock made popular by Nirvana. I remember my sister telling me she was watching 21 Jump Street, and a character mentioned Camper Van Beethoven and 10,000 Maniacs. She wouldn’t have recognized either of those bands had I not brought their albums home to inflict on everyone in the house.

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Music may have been better back then, but it doesn’t mean I heard it the first time

[Chart: Evolution of music tastes in a person's 20s]

A study using listener data from Spotify confirmed what the Onion reported more than a decade ago: listeners stop seeking music once they reach their early ’30s.

For me, the Onion story mirrors my own experience closer than the conclusions drawn in the study. Right around 2005, I got exhausted trying to keep up with all the new bands. It really did feel like I was going through the motions, and at one point, I realized I wouldn’t get back all those hours listening to music that moved me only fleetingly.

So I pivoted, and a decade on, I can say I add maybe one or two new artists to my collection each year. Most of what I listen to now is catalog.

At the same time, I’m not sure I totally believe the idea that music was “better in my day”, as the study would like to claim. A lot of the catalog I’m exploring is music I didn’t hear when it first came out.

Rhino released The Complete Studio Albums by the Replacements, a band I’ve been listening to in bits and pieces till I dropped $40 on this set. Curiosity got the best of me during Record Store Day when I picked up reissues by Social Distortion and Happy Mondays with only scant research on Google Play to help.

Neneh Cherry, Ambitious Lovers, Ofra Haza — I considered buying their albums a long time ago but didn’t act till now.

Then there’s my deepening relationship with modern classical music, a genre I’ve been following for a quarter of a century. I’ve discovered quite a number of great new pieces, such as Gloria Coates’ Music for Open Strings, just by picking up a vinyl record that looked interesting.

Heck, I’m going back and listening to music I actually disliked the first time around. Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, AC/DC — my 18-year-old self is looking at my 43-year-old self with a very suspicious eye.

So while it may look like my tastes have entrenched, I’m still getting as much satisfaction from the discoveries I’m making now as I did when I first encountered the bands that would become my idols. It’s the same experience when I encounter newer artists such as Jason Isbell, Jarell Perry or Steve Grand.

I’m not stuck in the past. I’m exploring parts of the past I never got around to visiting.

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Music genres do not save us from male, white, corporate oppression

[Collectorz.com Music Collector genre picklist]

Waterloo Records in Austin, Texas does not file its CD stock by genre. The name cards indicate by color code the genre in which an artist primarily performs. But they’re all stocked in the same room.

To get to the John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, you’ll need to thumb through Cocteau Twins and Elvis Costello. Compilations, soundtracks, world music and classical music are sorted separately, mostly out of taxonomic necessity. (Classical music, in particular, doesn’t lend itself easily to an artist/title naming convention.)

It’s a structure that I mimic with my own collection — compilation, soundtracks and classical get their own parts of the shelf, but everything else is sorted alphabetically by artist, regardless of genre.

For a long time, I’ve ignored genre as an attribute in the music I listen to. On an instinctive level, I recognize broad categories — Emmylou Harris and Renée Fleming don’t circulate in the same circles — but I try not to use genre as criteria for judgment. If anything, I tend to favor artists who blur them.

I use a database software called Music Collector by a company called Collectorz, and until recently, I used only four genres: Popular, Classical, Compilation, Soundtrack. (Seem familiar?) I recently decided to granularize that list to include more specific genres — rock, pop, country, soul, heck, even new age — and I reminded myself why I stuck to such overly broad categories.

Genres require judgement calls, and the traditional list used in most record shops reflect the kinds of individuals who would work there — straight, white males.

Let’s take the dichotomy between rock and pop. Rock, in your traditional music critic perspective, comes from a more authentic foundation than pop, or so it’s been perceived. A lot of calculation and commerce goes into creating pop idols, and rock musicians supposedly rally against that kind of prefabrication. So what about a guy like Steve Grand? He’s got a lot of guitars and butch posturing on his debut album. What makes him closer to Nick Lachey than to Neurtral Milk Hotel?

The relationship between rock and soul is even more contentious. This categorization is entirely race-based. Are you black? You get filed under soul. Never mind that Jarell Perry sounds more like Kate Bush than OutKast ever will. And what about Res? She released an EP of Fleetwood Mac covers.

Jazz is almost reverse discrimination. Yes, there are plenty of white jazz musicians, but the black musicians in the genre outnumber them.

The very idea of world music is Western-centric. Speak a language other than English? You are automatically a world artist. Not that I hear much Asian folk influence in the pop music of Utada Hikaru. Molotov certainly incorporates Latin rhythms in their metal hip-hop, but then so does Shiina Ringo.

Yes, certain music can be clearly classified in a particular genre. But what happens when artists confound expectations? Rock music is to guitars as pop music is to synthesizers. Is Björk a pop artist because she doesn’t have guitars on her albums? She has strings, so that makes a classical artist instead? No, ultimately we file her under rock because wearing that swan dress is not a marketing-driven decision.

The exercise of using a more granular genre list made me realize I’m pretty dumb to the nuances of each genre. What determines entry to the pop category? Use of drum machines? Sales figures? Audience size?

Is Duran Duran a pop band because they’ve sold millions of records? Are they a rock band because they play their own instruments and write their own songs?

All these judgements make genres a tiring attribute to attach to music.

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