Tag Archives: vinyl records

#361: Turn, Turn, Turntable

Some very old things are new again,
especially this gem, the turntable.
Certainly, you’re not going to see
a cassette tape renaissance, or,
god-forbid, an 8-track tape revival,
or a home stereo reel-to-real reprise,
or a digital audio tape come-back,
but you are going to see turntables,
turn, turn, turntables. Some old
technology is dead and no amount
of nostalgia will bring it back.
The VHS tape player is dead.
The beta tape player is a goner.
The laser disc is lost and done.
Some superior technologies have
suffered premature deaths for
whatever reason. Some group
of stupid humans simply dropped
the ball. But most dead tech is dead
for good reason. I used to buy
a record, for example, and record
that record to a cassette tape so that
I could put it in my walk-man. Then,
miraculously, I could walk with
that record, or ride, or drive, or fly.
Now, all my records are on Spotify.
I could save a lot of money,
but, for some strange reason, I don’t.
I keep buying records, a habit I
took up again maybe 9 years ago–
and in 9 years, I have acquired
as many pieces of vinyl as I had
when I was twenty and sold almost
my entire collection so that I could
go out with the money and buy a
handful of compact discs, which,
I understand, after spending years
replacing my entire record collection
with these things, is a dying technology.
It’s not about quality of sound.
Then what is it about? It’s about
substance, and aesthetics, and
physicality, and attention, most of all,
an antidote to obsessive multi-tasking,
and a reverence for structure and
appropriate sequence, and sure,
a return to something old–
but essential, something we almost
lost, and still might, but not yet.

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New Year Tradition? A New Way to Experience Music? 2020!

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Does this guy look ill? 

Section 1: A New Year Tradition?

I hope this does not become a New Year’s Tradition, but two years in a row now, I have been ill going into New Year’s Eve and absolutely down for the count on the first day of the new year. Coupled with that has been a tradition that I hope will continue, but please, without the illness: I’ve had a drumming gig two New Year’s Eves in a row now with a cover band I’ve played with for a couple of years. It’s a great experience and a coveted one to have good gig New Year’s Eve and a total honor to play with musicians that I sincerely want to share the experience with, but being super sick and needing to play the drums for two to three hours, suppressing coughing fits, sweating through the aches and pains in the body, trying to remember through the fatigue how the parts go, how these wooden things in my hands work, hoping that I don’t pass out, sneeze, or throw up–these things do not make for the drummer an enjoyable performance experience! Needless to say, I survived the gig and played most all of my parts correctly, and, except maybe noticing a little less than usual animation behind the drum kit, no one save my bandmates were aware of the compromise. But Jesus, when I got home at nearly two in the morning, I felt like I had been hit by a train. When we’re in a bad way, we often say, hyperbolically, that we feel like we’re dying. When I got home in the first couple of hours of 2020, I felt, without exaggeration, like I was dying. Here I am on January 2, not fully recovered, but clearly, no longer dying, able to compose a blog essay, on the mend, as they say. But now my wife and my son both also have come down with a thing–which may or may not be my fault. So we are celebrating the New Year together all convalescing in various household compartments, taking turns being the nurse to the other sickos in the house.

I did learn a couple of things about drumming a show while sick, and, for some inexplicable reason, practiced this learning somewhat intuitively while I was playing. So for those of you who might need to do some sick drumming at some future date (not to be confused with “sick” drumming, which is always recommended), here’s what I did, and what you might keep in mind, to get through:

  • Don’t sing if you can help it. The back ups will not likely be missed. If you’re singing lead on one or two songs, skip ’em. If you’re the lead singer for a consistent part of the show, I’m so so very sorry. It will be the worst thing ever.
  • Don’t rock out like you usually do. Give almost a zen-like concentration on simply playing the parts–leave the physical showy stuff out.
  • Don’t take any deep breaths: promotes coughing fit.
  • Don’t laugh if someone on stage does something or says something funny: promotes coughing fit.
  • Generally speaking, keep your mouth shut and breathe through your nose in order to avoid a coughing fit. It might be useful to note that my condition at the time, not a flu per se, but a super nasty virus of some sort, was in my chest and my throat and not in my sinuses. I would not recommend keeping your mouth shut if you couldn’t breathe through your nose. No one likes a sick drummer, but people like dead drummers even less (I’m told).
  • Have water and hot tea both easily at your disposal. The tea quelled the urge to cough. The water prevented drying up and withering away.
  • Don’t consume any alcohol. It turns out my illnesses have paved the way for two completely dry New Year celebrations in a row!

I hope you have found the preceding helpful or at least somewhat interesting. I think it might be the first time in my entire blog history that I have given any kind of instruction about drumming. It may really be the only drumming instruction I have any kind of authority to give!

Section 2: A New Way To Experience Music? 

For the longest time, just as, in the beginning of the smart phone revolution, I resisted getting a smart phone, I have resisted subscribing to any music streaming service. I have thought of myself as a purist. If I was interested in a record, I would buy it. If I was really interested, I’d buy it on vinyl. If I wasn’t as sure, I’d buy a CD. If I was experimenting with something new or if I was low on music funds, I’d pay for and download the album from iTunes or the Emusic subscription service. My righteousness came from the twofold conviction (which I believe is borne out by evidence) that one, the quality of the streaming audio would be inferior to both vinyl and compact disc, and two, that streaming services paid little to nothing to artists. I first started evolving on the issue when a mastering engineer friend of mine told me about TIDAL, a high quality, hi-fidelity streaming service created by and curated by musicians. But this was three years ago. That ruminated for a long time. The next phase of the evolution of my thinking was brought on by the resident 14 year old. My son requested for Christmas a family plan subscription to Spotify.

After some research between TIDAL, Qobuz, and Spotify, I decided to appease the teenager and not the audiophile. I’m sure he’s happy, but it has already, in the two weeks or so of subscribing, revolutionized my music listening experience. For good or bad, I cannot say. On the good, I am honestly enjoying the service. No question. I have added to my library and listened several times from start to finish albums that I was curious about, albums that have been perpetually on a wish list, albums that, in physical form, are out of print and circulation, albums recommended to me by friends, and albums that were on everybody’s best of 2019 lists. So, in a very short time, I have been able to listen to and enjoy a number of new records that would have absolutely broke the bank had I acquired them in a record shop. And I haven’t paid a penny yet–it’s a three month trial!  And as most of the listening I have done has been at my computer desk through my powered Audioengine desktop speakers, through the Bose bluetooth, or in the car, the loss of audio quality has escaped me. And the bad?

There are no liner notes. No songwriting credits. Don’t know who the musicians are. Don’t know who produced, engineered, or mastered. Don’t know where it was recorded or mastered. There’s nothing to hold. There are no lyrics. There’s no art outside of a front jacket. Those are negatives.

And this: It’s an embarrassment of riches. It seems not right somehow to be able to listen to any album I want from start to finish from any artist I choose, over and over again, but I can. I can download albums as well, so that when I’m on the road without the mighty wi-fi I can still listen to my favorites. $14.99 a month. What’s wrong with that? And of course any young people reading this are just shaking their heads in disbelief. What is wrong with this guy? Clearly, in my defense, the artist benefits less, far less, from my patronage. The brick and mortar shop where I usually buy my records benefits not at all. And these last two, perhaps, are the negative aspects of streaming music services that give me the most pause.

Since the first section of this blog entry ended with a list, let’s follow up and conclude section 2 with another list. Here is some justification, some rationalization, some arguments about why my decision to subscribe to Spotify won’t ruin the music industry:

  • I will do my part to support musicians and local businesses by continuing to buy physical products, records and cd’s. Music Millennium has not seen the last of me!
  • Because the budget for such things has a limit, because I can’t buy everything that interests me, artists and albums that I may have NEVER heard I will get to hear! They won’t get their cut of a $20 to $30 ticket price for new vinyl, but they will get a couple of pennies every time I listen to a song. And I am what you might call a loyal listener. If I like a thing–I’m going to listen to it a bunch of times.
  • And, if I find myself liking a thing enough to listen to it a bunch of times and it becomes a favorite–at this point fidelity is an issue and I will buy the physical record.
  • Every once in a moon, I will buy a new album that does not (pet peeve of mine) include a digital download card. This can now be removed from my list of peeves. New ELO album didn’t have a download code? Spotify has it. Download it there. That seems doubly good for Jeff Lynne, and it sure beats paying $30 for a record, finding it without download card, and liking the record so much that you are compelled to purchase it AGAIN on iTunes so that you can travel with it!
  • Finally, as a person of a certain age who nevertheless still gets a huge thrill out of discovering new musical artists, the main benefit of Spotify might just be the new possibilities for discovery that await–totally on my own just plunking around–not to mention the completely untapped potential (of which I know the youth is totally down with) of it’s social networking and sharing possibilities. I understand that shared playlists are a big hit with the kids.     

This concludes the first blog entry of 2020. Recovering from illness. Sad that I did not fully enjoy New Year’s Eve as I would have liked, but full of gratitude for the opportunity to play and with these people–people who have become dear to me over the last couple of years. Again, disappointed that I did not accomplish everything I wanted to accomplish before heading back to work after winter break, but, again again, not surprised, and thankful to have been able to do what I’ve done–not the least of which–four gigs in two weeks time. Now that I can see better health right around the corner, and despite recent news events that scare the shit out of me, I am hopeful and optimistic about 2020. Whatever we need to do to make our communities, our cities, our country, or the world a better place, let’s do that. Music is a starting point. Amen.

 

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#107: Ode To Vinyl

 

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The love poem for my dear wife is forthcoming, especially in light of all she’s been through lately.  Need some time to get it right, though, so, today’s assignment from NaPoWriMo is to write a love poem for an inanimate object. Here’s to another love:

Ode To Vinyl

I was 23 and bought
the new gospel about the
superiority of the new
digital format,
the compact disc,
and I sold my entire vinyl
collection and used the proceeds
from two or three hundred records
to buy ten cd’s.
Vinyl, please forgive me.
I’ve come back to you again,
24 years later, and you’re so
much heavier now, in a
good way, and often
more colorful, and I remember
now why I loved you so,
the listening so much more
intimate, the way I had
to gently lift you from
your sleeve, the way my
fingers attentively touched
only the edges, the way I
could only leave you alone
(but rarely did) for fifteen
minutes, the way I turned
you over lovingly on
the turntable, the pop
and hiss you made initially,
all fading away with the warmth
of the music. I’m rediscovering
all of that afresh.
So ultra hipster is the new
vinyl enthusiasm, that
the digital download of my
new Beck LP comes complete
with opening and closing
pops and crackles–and that
beautiful alarm at the end
of each side A and B,
the fwump fwump fwump
that tells us that for now,
until we make our next
deliberate move, the music is over.

 

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Only A Bad Dream: Record Store Paradise Lost

I had a nightmare last night that Music Millennium, the oldest independent record store in Portland, closed its doors, and I wandered around the store weeping while the employees packed everything into boxes. It was a terrible, suffocating dream, vivid, emotionally as real as they come. You know the kind, one of those night time visions from which it takes a few moments to recover and about which you have to convince yourself: it was only a bad dream.

I was wondering about the origin of this night terror, hence, an inquiry that began a blog entry.

There are a few independent record stores in Portland but you have to go downtown or into city neighborhoods. I grew up in the suburbs, in Milwaukie, Oregon, and as a child and all the way through my teens there were two decent record stores within walking distance of my house. The first one went under about the time I started high school, is now the office of a used car lot, and the other lasted almost all the way through my teens, finally failed, and became in short order an adult video and sex-toy shop. That porno establishment is still going after more than 25 years, but there’s no music to be had anywhere in my old neighborhood (once again my neighborhood of residence), save for the electronics section of Fred Meyer’s Grocery or the few titles available at the local Starbucks. So, I make the monthly, sometimes bi-monthly, sometimes weekly trek to Music Millennium, a twenty-five minute drive from my home, to shop for music. It’s food. It must be done. And while I order something on-line from time to time and download a bit every month, I always feel a little bit lazy and stupid when I do–unless I’m buying directly from the artist or from an independent label. So I have to work harder for new music. I have to travel.

I know that Music Millennium has had a rough time of it. There used to be two stores, one of which had a great stage for live music. Now there’s only one, the original, and it’s been in business for nearly 40 years, and it’s had to diversify, I understand, to make it. They do compact discs and record albums of course, and they have a massive selection, but they also sell dvds and books and classic toys and candy and games and  t-shirts and you can even buy a turntable there. Whatever, I say, it’s all good, and it all  has this power of recapturing the heyday of the vinyl record album, replete with incense aroma record store smell and great rock art everywhere; it’s a music fan paradise. Music Millennium is still in business and shows no signs of going under.  I hope it lasts forever.  But I worry, still, not just about this incredible store, but others like it in my town, all over the nation and the world.  And I worry not only about these great businesses, but maybe more so about the experience of music listening itself losing much of its vitality and richness.

It seems obvious that the artifact of the record album, despite its medium, digital or analog, is an endangered species and will ultimately become extinct and maybe soon.  This revolutionary fact that you can hold 40,000 songs on a device that fits in the palm of your hand makes compact discs and even more so the vinyl record album unwieldy, clumsy, inefficient things.  And the quality of the digital download has the potential to outshine the compact disc. So who’s complaining? What’s wrong with any of that?

First, the record album, the long-play record album, is a work of art worthy of preserving, and is at risk altogether when the practice of most music consumers nowadays is to download one song at a time, to pick and choose, to shuffle, rarely if ever to listen to a unified grouping of songs.  The record albums I loved growing up, and still love, are ones conceived, or at least understood, as one continuous whole–rather than a random collection of songs.  Think of The White Album, or Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, or The Wall, or Skylarking. These albums gave the listener a sustained experience, told a story, required our full attention, and the brevity of one side of a vinyl record in particular prevented us from mindless multi-tasking.

There’s a tactile experience, too, that goes missing without the music artifact. Vinyl records and their covers had a smell, all that cardboard and ink.  And you had to manipulate them physically, wrestling them out of their 12×12 houses, delicately pulling the record out of its sleeve with the tips of your fingers, careful not to muck up the first track, holding it gingerly between the two palms of your hands, gently setting it down on the turntable, selecting the correct speed, setting the platter into motion, admiring the shape of the individual tracks as they spun–yes, you could see this music!  And finally you set the needle down in the lovely and generous black space before the first song.  The pop of the landing.  The anticipation of the first note, beat, chord, word.  The reward.  Only some of this is maintained by the compact disc, a decisively inferior tactile experience–but we initially forgave that as we fell in love with this flashy new medium and believed at least we were getting superior audio quality even if we weren’t really.  But CD sales are way down and vinyl sales, even though there’s a whole bucket-load more of it than there was, say, a decade ago, belongs to a decidedly niche market, a niche market that seems to be stubbornly holding on, as I  notice that most new music I care about today is being released on vinyl.  It’s a tactile experience that true music fans are loathe to let go–and it’s not just nostalgia, truly.  The physical experience was part of the whole–an integral part, I think, that completely disappears with your iPod.

Next, the new portability of music allows us unrestricted, almost continuous, if we so choose, usage–which, in my mind anyway, devalues it, depreciates it.  We can, after all, listen to our favorite song while using a public restroom.  We used to have to make time for music.  One of my colleagues and I recently discussed how, as kids, we’d get up early so that we could listen to music before school. After school listening parties were daily rituals, even if they were parties of one. And unless you were lucky enough to have a stereo in your room, you also had to time your listening around the schedules of mom and dad. When you could get it, the time to listen was precious.  Today we are surrounded by it as often as we can stand it, and most of us stand it or desire it at least so much of the time that we really don’t know what it’s like often NOT to be listening, or watching, or looking at a screen. We develop a love and true appreciation for music, perhaps, only when we know what NOT having it is like.  I’m just throwing that out there.

This blog entry has become tiresome and long.  Let me conclude.

I don’t think there’s anything prescient about my nightmare: I am optimistic about the survival of Music Millennium.  It may, however, in a decade or less, be the only survivor in my town.  I feel bad for young people who claim to be music lovers who have never set foot in a real record store–either because they don’t know what such animals are, or because they can’t drive 25 minutes or an hour down the road to find one.  I’ve taught my son the joys and responsibilities of the record album. I’ve started buying vinyl again when I can afford it, not out of nostalgia, but in order to recapture the full experience of music listening.  I give myself permission to sit in a chair through the length of an entire record or two.  It’s rewarding.  It’s replenishing.  It provides a momentary continuity in the midst of all of the other noise in our daily battle with a thousand and one distractions.

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