By Matt Meade
So, we have been doing this Old School Record Review thing for a year now. We’ve learned a lot about the music industry and what is happening out there. We have talked to a bunch of really, really, ridiculously talented people making superlatively great and exciting music. We have learned some strange things about what catches people’s attention on the internet (Kenny Loggins, Buffalo Tom, sick slide guitar riffs, lists of things, Hell, Tom Petty, other stuff) and a few things about each other. It turns out Dave Schwitick and Matt Rector really love Love and Theft for some reason; Dave Keneston has a soft spot for internet memes; Sarah Gray, not unlike Oz’s Tin Man has a heart after all; Josh has a thing for Beck; and Noah Kucij is the greatest writer of his generation. Just playing. We already knew that.
We have written about a lot of what was happening before we were born, what is happening now and what is to come, but we still have a lot of ground to cover. We know have not written about enough hip hop, we haven’t written nearly as many classic record reviews as we wanted, and there are plenty of artists we are still as desperate as a lovesick teen to cover.
It has all made me think about the way music is consumed in the twenty-teens. That’s a little bit about what we are doing here. We are trying to wade through the confusing seascape that is the current music scene and give our honest opinions about it and what got us here.
And things are weird now. It isn’t hard to find one-time music warriors who fought on the front lines of the culture wars of yore, who are now complaining about how hard it is to make it in the music industry because paying gigs are so few and far between and what a tragedy it is that no one buys music anymore. Because of the internet, members of the punk pantheon, the hippie movement, and former love addicts of all stripes have made this complaint. These are folks who once accused the mainstream of being sell outs and craven thieves but who are now longing nostalgically for a time that never was. It can be pretty disappointing.
But with the proliferation of easily accessible musical instruments, musical instruction, and the capability to hear pretty much any song in the history of the world ever on Spotify (except Prince’s and Van Morrison’s, but they should be dead soon anyway) one could make the argument that now is the greatest time in the history of music. You can now listen to MC Hammer’s later work any time you want.
One could argue that there has never been a better time in history to spend your days off mastering Ableton Live and recording a concept album about love in a steam-punk era that strangely mirrors our own.
But that is another argument for another day. I only bring all this up because I don’t want to be lumped into that category of “back in my day” fogeys who long for the good old days. I love what the internet has done for music. And for all the bad stuff that has happened because of the internet, I am able to accept it.
Today, being that this is being published on the one year anniversary of The Old School Record Review, I just want to muse and reminisce over those halcyon days before music was free. Next week we can get back to celebrating Bandcamp and Pandora.
I, just like most other people, don’t buy music anymore. That is not to say that I steal it. I just have to really want something before I buy it. The last few times I bought music, according to iTunes was:
1/3/11 – Stevie Wonder – Innervisions – (Which is one of the greatest records of all time and I have no reservations about buying)
4/1/2012 – Julia Nunes – Settle Down (which was fine but not nearly as compelling as her youtube covers)
10/14/2012 – An episode of This American Life (which I should have just streamed)
1/26/13 – The Beatles #1s (which was probably a solid purchase)
6/18/13 – Yeezus (which I hated at first, but then came to appreciate, though I never listen to anymore)
6/1/14 – The Lion Sleeps Tonight (which I bought because my kid happens to love it and I somehow did not have it, but the file was damaged and that single glitchy purchase may be my justification for never using itunes ever again.)
The only things I’ve bought on Amazon in the last decade include the Japandroids Post-Nothing and The Strokes’ First Impressions of Earth, both of which I pre-ordered because I was so excited for them to be released, but neither of which seemed worth the cost of shipping & fucking handling and the week it took for them to get to me.
I am slightly more likely to purchase music through Bandcamp because I know that it is a more artist friendly environment and it is filled with the kind of frantic art that appeals to me. The last three purchases I made there were the straight up ebullient Projection Room by my friends’ band Sleepy Kitty, Zoe Keating’s haunting, contemporary-classical, cello pop Into the Trees, and Sufjan Stevens’ All Delighted People EP which is not Seven Swans, but is still pretty decent.
That is 11 purchases for a total of fewer than $100 in a five year period. For someone who listens to music every day and is supposed to be writing about music at least every week, that is shockingly little.
Not only do I rarely purchase music, I rarely even download music, even when it is free. If an artist is really trying to get their music out there and I really like what they are doing I will sometimes download a track just to have it, but I am even becoming discerning about that. Everyone my age has had the gluttonous experience of sitting in front of a Soulseek interface and pressing Ctrl+A, and watching cherished records seed and download, filling 2 terabyte drives with songs, only to never listen to them. It becomes exhausting. You think you want the extended, 6 disks worth of songs from the Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness sessions, but you don’t. Billy Corgan gave them to us because he didn’t know what to do with them. Even he doesn’t want them anymore.
Artists will sometimes send me their music to review, which I really like and if I feel like I have something to say about it I will try to write about it. (I have about a dozen pieces in the pipeline, and that is just articles I have started that are stored in my Old_School_Review folder, and that dozen doesn’t even include artists whose records I have listened to and have decided are fantastic enough for me to want to write about them but I don’t even have the words nor the time to do so). But I sort of feel like my collection of music has reached its natural capacity at 16,800 songs, two crates full of vinyl and a trunk of disks I am not going to listen to again until my kid pops it open and asks me, “who are the Hoobastank?”
(picture of CDs and records.)
And people who are not musicians just give me music all the time. My friend Terry has hipped me so much great post rock (Mogwai, Tyco, El Ten Eleven, etc.) that I sometimes feel I may never get a handle on it.
The stuff I feel like I need to hear because it is culturally relevant I can easily hear on YouTube, or Spotify and I consume that like a television show. I listen to it once, form a shallow or cursory opinion and move on.
Even when I go to the gym I listen to a playlist I have on SoundCloud instead of listening to the “workout” music I own (which accounts for some of the more embarrassing purchases on my iTunes account history. AWOLNATION, anyone? Before you judge me, you try working out to Captain Beefheart and Times New Viking you fucking hipster).
Even still, I miss buying records. I miss finding out about albums from Hit Parader Magazine, The Source, or Circus and going out and getting them. I miss taking the risk. I miss wanting to own “Where the Party At?” but taking one look at the cover of the record and knowing I could not live with myself if I purchased said CD.
I miss the discovery of it all, the thrill of failure, the investment. I really do. But what I miss most are those interactions with the holier-than-thou clerks who are so difficult to impress. The ones like the guys at Reckless Records who scoff at you because you want to listen to the new Ryan Adams in case it is cool even though he is not supposed to be cool anymore, but he might eventually be cool again, and you want to be there when he is cool again. (By the way Reckless, if you were actually a hip record store you would have 50 different records by Loudon Wainwright and 1 by Rufus Wainwright instead of the other way around because it is obvious to anyone who loves music that Rufus is maudlin and a little phony, while Loudon is one of the more talented writers rock and roll has ever seen and history will be on my side on this one.)
The reason I miss those miserable fucks in droopy sweaters and too tight jeans are because making a great purchase takes skill. It takes knowledge of the present and of history. It takes savvy and guts. It also takes a limited budget because spending $400 on Beach Boys red vinyl is sort of beside the point and gauche. You are looking for content, mostly. And the only people credentialed enough to judge whether or not your purchase of Los Campesinos! We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed on vinyl, a David Essex casette single, and a handful of Skip James CDs is cool are those smug, self-righteous bastards behind the vintage cash register at the record store.
So, this whole article has been leading up to the following anecdote about the greatest purchase I ever made in a record store. But first, for the sake of context, here is a list of the great purchases I made leading up to the greatest purchase of my life.
5. Living With Matt and Dave:
The fifth greatest purchase I ever made was when I came home from the f.y.e. with Wyclef Jean’s almost there follow up to The Carnival called The Ecleftic, Ghostface’s masterpiece Supreme Clientele (stay tuned for a good, old-fashioned, OSRR style review of that record), The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (brazenly at quarrel with Wyclef’s record), and Dead Prez’s row boat tipping Let’s Get Free. What I could not have known was that at the very same time as I was making my purchase, Matt Rector was making a life changing music purchase as well. In some kind of perfect coincidence Matt Rector, who I was living with at the time, on a whim, bought the exuberant Zingalamaduni for 99 cents at a flea market. The record was revelatory in ways that no one expected it to be. It was somehow protest music, roots music, hip-hop, R&B, World music, and experimental. We all wanted Arrested Development to be the future of music and we were sort of heartbroken when we found out that they were kind of full of shit, but Zingalamaduni was a pretty good constellation prize.
No one applauded us for our purchase, but the records colluded with one another and sort of transformed three white kids (me and two other OSRR contributors) into Assata Shakur quoting, Pan-Africanists who wanted Leonard Peltier to be freed. My five disk CD changer (somehow malappropriated as DJ Quattro) spun those five disks for a year straight with no one allowed to touch them and while we sold drugs, drank ourselves into stupors, wrote poetry, and played NFL 2K1 on the Sega Dreamcast until we weren’t friends anymore and then, miraculously were friends again, and made love (not to each other, though we should have). A beehive of culture indeed.
- David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars / Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps from a Borders Books on Wolf Road in 1996.
This purchase made no impact on the hair gelled and gum snapping clerk at the Coconuts where I purchased the two CDs, but certainly made an impact on my neighbor Joe Hyland whose passion on music and influence on my own love and understanding of rock and roll was second in those early days only to my father’s. He happened to be at my parent’s house when my mom and I got home from the mall and I’ll never forget the Tex Avery face he made when I pulled the two disks out of the bag to show him my haul. I knew then that when I peeled the plastic away from the jewel cases I was going to find something life changing.
- First shipment from Columbia House Record Club 7 cassettes for a penny deal in 1993 which included Wrex N Effex’s Hard or Smooth, Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Second Helping, The Spin Doctor’s Homebelly Groove, Neil Young’s Unplugged, C & C Music Factory’s Gona Make You Sweat, Mountain’s The Best of Mountain:
When I opened the box my dad alternately gasped in disbelief and groaned cynically as I took the tapes out of the box one by one. My dad informed me that he had not listened to Mountain in 10 years and he could not believe I had bought it. He picked up the tape and put it on and Never In My Life never sounded so huge. He kept the tape in his car and I never listened to it again, but I’ll always think of Mountain as belonging to me. Also, even though he scoffed at them to start with, he ended up thinking The Spin Doctors were pretty funny.
- Hail to the Thief & The Marshall Mathers EP from a Virgin Megastore in 2002:
I purchased these CDs when I was first trying to write fiction and it felt like Yorke and Mathers were the literary forefathers I was more interested in studying. The Faulkner and Hemingway of pop music. Milton and Pope of early 21st century post-911 angst.
Buying music was an art form. I spent most of the first part of my life crafting this capability. It has to do with sniffing out the phonies, knowing your own proclivities and covering as much diverse ground as possible. I am glad that music buyers are no longer subject to record companies’ price gouging, cynical repackaging, and bait and switch maneuvers, but I still long for the elegance of the system where an artist created a document and then tried to disseminate the document. Things are more amorphous now. While documents are still created and their worth is valued in a somewhat more honest way, we have lost the kinds of experiences that Kurt Cobain is talking about in this video:
Which brings me to my greatest achievement of music buying. When I purchased Blue Valentine and What’s Going On? from a used record store on Tremont Street in Boston in 2003
- Tom Waits’ Blue Valentine and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? From nameless used record store in Boston in 2003:
It was a small place. It was on a corner and it could have been another, bigger store’s storage area. For all I knew it may have been at one point. The store differed from its neighbors, a tailor’s, a high end electronics store, a sports apparel store with overpriced jerseys of every Red Sock, Patriot and Celtic on each of the team’s respective rosters. The record store existed in a part of Boston that was a strange mix of tourists and wealthy locals. I always wondered how the store made rent. I walked in there on a Saturday in the summer where the foot traffic was so oppressive I felt like I needed to escape the throngs to get from the sidewalk to the front door of the record store.
I never walked into the place looking for anything. That was always the key. You have to be open to what they have. You have to conform to the shape of the store and see how you fit. I checked out the cassette tapes which, even at that point were pretty much free. I ran my hands along the towers of CDS. They had a couple hundred copies of Green Day’s Dookie, it seemed, a few copies of Marky Mark and the funky Bunch’s Good Vibrations single in order to walk the line between hipster kitsch reasons and local pride.
The final purchases came to me, of course, like they always do. They formed out of the shelving structure like some kind of bizarre musical constellation, where suddenly the pattern came into view. Do you see how these records work together? Why they are such great selections? Both are passion projects by single auteurs, each with equally distinctive vocal stylings, though those stylings are as different from one another as possible. Waits is looking back, while Gaye is looking forward. One man is shedding a persona while the other is adopting one. One is trying to dive into the gooey sentimentality that his other releases lack, while the other is breaking the formulaic chains of the highly successful pop love song. Do you see? Do you understand how these records balance each other so perfectly they risk blinking the world out of existence? If you don’t see by now, you never will.
Having found my purchases, or rather, having let them find me, I brought them to the register. The guy at the counter was a little older than me, worn out looking, and I want to say he was flipping though some kind of trade journal, looking for new records to acquire. He seemed like he might own the place, or be some kind of manager. He was annoyed that I was interrupting him. Being in such a centrally located place, I am assuming that he got a lot of people who treated him and his store like an outpost of the tower records (that still existed at that time and was selling great CDs for 8 bucks because everyone had just got word that music was free so every chain was all of a sudden selling CDs for a profit margin that was at least approximated sanity.) He must have had a lot of people coming into his store asking for Let Go by Avril Lavigne, or Up by Shania Twain.
When I placed the disks down on the counter, he was not quick to ring them up. But when he looked up from his paperwork, he finally saw what records I was purchasing.
“You want to buy these?”
He picked them up to see if there was a price tag and if maybe I was selling them, or trying to return or exchange them for a Korn CD.
“Yeah,” I said, pulling out my wallet.
“This is gonna sound a lot better than the reissue,” he assured me.
It just so happened that at this time there was a big re-issue of all of Marvin’s catalog and die hard fans were appalled with the re-mastering. I could not have told you the difference, but this dude thought I was some kind of hard core audiophile. And not just a hard core audiophile, out there looking for Marvin mixed at just the right levels, the high ends just creamy enough, the mid-range plump and sweet, but the kind of audiophile who went from early Tom Waits to peak Marvin Gaye in the same afternoon. I wasn’t that kind of audiophile. I just loved good music, but I wanted him to think I was that kind of audiophile.
“Cool,” I said. “I hope so.” I was faking it and he was buying it.
I am not sure if he felt it happen, but there was a tipping, a sliding as I suddenly became cooler than him. He went from being the smug authority to the glowing admirer. Before his eyes I became the connoisseur.
“These are two great records,” he assured me.
Now, I am not exactly good with the come backs, I live most of my life in a state of what the French call l’esprit de l’escalier, but there was something about that day, propped up by Tom and Marvin where I knew the perfect thing to say.
“I know, I told him. That’s why I want them.”
It had taken a decade, but I had finally showed that all the research, all the listening, all the slogging through Captain Beefheart and Sex Pistols, all the conversations about whether or not Ween was good, it had all manifested itself in this exchange. This guy could see through me, and only the good parts. I saw him see me as I wanted to be seen. As a guy with a killer taste. The kind of guy who had all of Radiohead’s imports, who had already been listening to Outkast for years by that point. A guy who had opinions about Dylan, Public Enemy and Manson (not Marilyn, of course, Charlie). A guy who could jump from reading Chaucer to reading Brett Easton Ellis, Shakrespeare to Iceburg Slim, The Bible to Pynchon. I was complete. At least in his eyes I was.
“$12.50,” he said and I gave a twenty and he made change.
When I walked back to the train that high was fresh on me and I looked at everyone else on the street that day knowing that I had done something great. I had purchased the right music in the right formation. The high would fade over the next few days and when I returned to the record store the gentleman there would not remember me, even when I bought Rum, Sodomy, and The Lash and The Wu Tang Clan’s double album. Eventually that record store would fade into the ether and I would be left with scratched CDs and vinyl and this skill set that no longer applies to the world we live in. Now I know how the Luddites felt.
But, it’s not like that changed the fact that I love music. It’s not like it affected how music can affect me. I’m still finding those little moments that Cobain talked about, still finding those special little treasures. Like Youngest Son, The Mineral Girls, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, and MaryLeigh Roohan. I am still leaping from gritty lo-fi acoustic records to slick, soaring chamber pop, to strange, ethereal IDM. I just have to find them in new ways and pay for them with attention, with presence, and with love. I guess that is sort of what Old School Record Review is all about.