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Gate-Fold,FM-Album-Side, Double-LP,Red Vinyl Concept Post (in platforms)

The Last Record Store

Maybe not the last, but close.

My first job was as a “record cleaner” at a small “record store” (a whaa??) in a very, very small town. My pay? Albums. To this day, I believe it was my most rewarding “job”. I would sit for an hour or 2 after school, inspecting and cleaning each and every used vinyl specimen that arrived in the store. Some in batches of 10 or 20, occasionally 1 solitary obsidian auditory orphan, but usually crate after crate of abandoned childhoods and symbols of misspent youth sold out to be forgotten. Bloated, torn cardboard discards of reminders. Many of them left signs of a collector, pristine as the day they were purchased. Others told tales of being played a thousand times and thrown to the unmade bed to make room for the next listen. Each one I cleaned with solution and velvet meant I was one step closer to that next discovery. And I made so many of those back then.  From the strange, anglophillic joys of Stackridge to the nearly forgotten, bizarre but rewarding Godley and Creme. I discovered XTC late in the game there as well, somehow. I stumbled upon the early experimental CAN albums, old King Crimson, The Alan Parsons Project (with friggen lazers), Todd Rundgren (who I thought was just another disposable 80s phenomenon at the time… until I found the inventive,wondrous gem of his, “A Cappella” which led to many more Rundgren discoveries of much earlier and later material), Peter Gabriel, Parliament/Funkadelic, Syd Barrett, Roy Wood(his “Boulders” was played for me as “the world’s only true solo album”),  numerous German and Japanese electronic artists and countless others. (most of which I am practically unable to listen to these days)

By the time he’d been fed up with my sometimes **pot-induced tardiness coupled with the obvious financial burden of a business reliant on a dying medium and “let me go”, (he said “fired” was for a-holes.. once family, always family and I could come hang out any time I wanted, no harsh feelings, man)  I had procured well over 1000 albums. Over time, this number has shrunk to what is now a pitiful little crate in my closet. But I hope that number grows again. Vinyl is far from dead. It’s just sleeping comfortably.

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“And don’t even get me started with radio again. They compress what is already compressed and expand what it already expanded until the whole thing sounds like a mildly musical, uniformly loud, inelegant drone.”

See, I never really loved CDs. Hated cassettes. I love the convenience of mp3s and the crisp, bright and full sound of digital recordings. But there’s something not quite right about it all. It’s not an audiophile thing. I’m not interested in buying 2000 dollar tube amplification and even more expensive speakers even if I could afford them. Sure, most recordings are mastered more for competition than quality, with each track trying to “POP” louder than it’s predecessor and losing pretty much any semblance of dynamics. And don’t even get me started with radio again. They compress what is already compressed and expand what it already expanded until the whole thing sounds like a mildly musical, uniformly loud, inelegant drone. Indeed, something is to be said for a great vinyl album playing on a decent turntable, amplified well. But at 320kbps, my ears are hard pressed to notice and soft pressed to care when I consider the convenience and portability. Not to even mention the deep-catalog availability of tracks and albums from retail and not-so-retail sources. It’s a great world we live in today and I wouldn’t want to trade it for the past. Nostalgia for old music or for dead mediums as primary entertainment (I LOVE vinyl, so don’t misunderstand here) is for those whose lives have halted, propping up only the memories of lives enriched creatively in hindsight but stagnated by reality if ever given a chance to freeze for even a moment’s pause to contextualize. (I’ll take my opiates opiated, thank you very much) No, what I miss is something a little specific.

I miss the album. The entire experience, from CD-store aisle, “you like them.. oh man, wait till you hear THIS” hipster curation* all the way to the large, gate-fold double-album with near-biblical liner notes. The way the inner plastic or paper sleeve clings to the vinyl in a certain way the first time (and only that one time) you remove it. The experience of leaning back into a bean-bag and experiencing a first listen (on over-the-ear, bulbous monster headphones) while perusing the 11 page booklet explaining the usually ridiculous album-concept, suspending my disbelief joyously while stifling chuckles. Finding out that the music is reversible, but time is not.. turn back.. turn back. While I miss those tactile experiences and immediate discoveries, I can live without the actual medium itself. I do not expect vinyl to “come back” again at some point. In a small way, maybe, the way it already has.  I love that there are new albums I can have in vinyl, I’m just realistic about it’s future as a format beyond a niche market.

I can has self-indulgense?

no I serius, it iz a trillogi

What the album format needs to be re-born is a new way to present it’s visual and tactile experience, the part that was lost at the onset of mp3. Let’s face it, ID3 tags just don’t do the trick. It’s scrolling text and maybe an album cover the size of a postage stamp. It may seem like a small complaint. After all, we listen to music FOR the music, not for the extra stuff that comes with it. Yet,  it’s still just not quite the same. Something is missing.

Even if the act of holding a physical “thing” remains virtual from now on, I believe this virtualization is the key to truly bringing the “I have” back to media purchases.

The moment I saw the iPad , the first thing I thought of was the album. Now, I want to be clear. I do NOT think the iPad will be the savior of the album. But I think it’s a start. It has the promise of reproducing a comfortable, colorful, somewhat large screen experience that approximates the experience of holding a jacket in your lap when you listen to an album. Certainly better than a CD ever did with it’s tiny, folded booklets and crammed, minuscule text. With the right , OPEN standard for art and liner notes presentation, it could happen with the iPad. In a better way than iTunes does currently without over-extending things with video and links to social media to the point of distraction. It needs to be large and high-resolution enough to really come close to the album-jacket-liner-notes-lyrics experience.  There’s a lot of talk about this iPad and it’s eventual knock-offs being a “middle” product. Not a phone, not a computer. Not a laptop, not a netbook. Something in-between. And it is, but I think eventually this type of product is something people will want AND over time NEED.  Eventually we’ll all look back at these articles and chuckle, wondering what we were thinking back then and how we could imagine a world without these “middle” products.  I’m not an Apple fanboy by any means. The only Mac I’ve ever owned was a discarded iMac and the thing never booted. I follow what goes on in the world of Apple with fascination and respect, but I have not climbed on board the Apple hipster ship. I’m still waiting for an Apple product that does something more than what a netbook or a home computer does at a price point that is competitive and affordable without being crippled, controlled and limited. In other words, I have my bags packed for the hoary underworld, filled with parkas, furry boots and snow shoes. Some things are just too much to ask for. But at 500 bucks or so for something that does as much as the iPad does, maybe this will be the first working Apple product I seek out and purchase.  Then again, there’s the part of my brain that has experienced Apple product launches before and knows that if I wait just a bit longer, I’ll get a little something more. A little something for a little less money, in fact. “Just one more thing” as a certain person would put it.

What about the album itself? In the world of mp3, ignoring the popularity of album downloads via bittorrent for the sake of making a point, most people opt for downloading/purchasing single tracks rather than going for whole albums. As the years go by this will probably remain the norm if more attention and innovation is not brought to the table in regard to albums.  To be honest, I’m like most people. I find a lot of filler in albums lately and find myself deleting this filler just like everyone else, or skipping it on CDs (in the rare cases when my CDs actually go anywhere with me). But I still love and miss the album experience, even the sub-par ones.  Any solution that brings back this tactile album interaction of course will not just have an effect on 9-12 track full albums, but will do the same for EPs and singles. On the other hand, most of the people I know have embraced the immeasurable acceleration of time brought about by the approaching death of novelty by embracing the attention spans of house-flies. Making it easier for these people to have an actual “experience” with an album in a way that actually presents itself as an album package may be .. well.. good for them.  Eventually they might even grow a preference for such things again, if it’s just laid out for them in a way that is easy to consume/acquire. It’s not a huge added value, but it’s something. And the industry could use a few of those “somethings” right about now. No-one is seeing a musical version of what 3D just did for the movie industry on the horizon. SACD (same-audio-costs-different) failed, quad failed, 5.1 discs are a novelty and most of the CD-DVD combination/bonus packages contain content that will be online within hours of release if not before. DRM isn’t a consumer advancement by any stretch of the imagination. 3D audio schemes were treated as novelties and cast aside. People have proven now that past a certain point, audio quality matters, just not enough for most of them to care. So what’s left? The ITEM itself is left. Or in this case, a facsimile that comes damned close. Just as the iPad will not be saving babies and feeding the hungry, the return of the album in a recognizable format won’t by any means save this dinosaur of an industry. However, it could help. Maybe enough to keep some companies afloat while they slowly adjust to the new parameters.

And you have to consider the value of these bits vs atoms (a download vs a physical album). Already, a download is in some cases more expensive than a physical copy. This makes little sense, but most people simply accept that this is the value. Demand, of course, begs to differ. A larger, more detailed and complete album experience in download form would add back some of the value of that purchase. Especially when you consider the still-in-the-room elephant that is FREE. I’ve said it elsewhere, but the next innovation in technology won’t be retinal display technology or a smart phone that’s smarter than you are. It will be “price point”. Cost of bits needs to come down to a more realistic point before you’ll see the masses REALLY embrace cost over free. Adding value to that digital purchase with elegant, high resolution packaging facsimiles and treating it AS a purchase rather than a “license” is the key here.

Lastly, what about the mystery? In this time of everything, everywhere, all at once, where are the mysterious, beautiful albums that used to pop up from time to time? This Mortal Coil was one that simply crept into my cultural sphere, shocking with it’s beauty and mystery. I remember buying it only for it’s cover and after playing it thinking “who are these people?”. This remained a mystery for some time since I didn’t have a Google to google it with. I think this added to the experience as a whole. The album was forced to stand for itself and not on it’s laurels or pedigree. Fewer and fewer are willing to release something in that fashion, the financial stakes being far too high. And to me, that’s sad. What we gain from this loss, however, is a much larger and daring underground and a quickly shrinking mainstream relegated to competitive reality TV winners and “Disneysteins” (artists that had their careers, images and personalities  “grown” and crafted at Disney and ended there when the marketing machine moved on).  Will the mainstream get kicked in the nuts again as it was back in the time of Nirvana breaking through? I say it’s been gradual and we might not ever see something like that again, at least not in the same way. As the aforementioned pop machines grow out of fashion while genres with so much passion and possibility like rap start to resemble constrained genres like metal and country, where innovation is greeted with insults related to sexual preference, we see a musical landscape far broader and less definable.  Many call it indie, others call it a thousand different things. But it has this aura of a sleeping giant, waiting to explode and shift things again for a while. It’ll be fun to watch people and companies scramble yet again to ***cash in. Which will not necessarily be a bad thing. I think what I’ve learned after watching all this so closely for so many years is that artists will make art, even if it means they won’t be rich or famous or even known in many cases.  But it would be nice if they could pay their bills. Or, if we’re lucky, maybe they will be able to afford to produce the next great, double concept album.

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*** Anyone interested in saving radio? E-mail me.(oh boy, this one is full of himself!!) I’d do it practically for gas money. Then again, any old schlub with even a tiny bit of taste and a little knowledge of new music could do that. What radio needs to live again is someone willing to take just a few small risks and have just a little bit of patience.  Good luck with finding that person/company. With all those side-band HD channels out there, it’s fairly shocking how few (if any at all) actually take risks and play new music. Instead they relegate those channels for “all 80s mix” stations and “rock of the 90s” crap. What a waste.

** My experience with weed was short-lived. (consequences, it would seem, were too severe, from legal risk to things like being late often, stoner behaviour, etc) Although I’m for legalization, I’m not a user.

*There’s a lot of “buzz” out there recently about “curation” vs “discovery”, something I and those I know have already been yelling about for years. But that’s okay, I wouldn’t want to interfere with anyone’s status as a “guru”. It’s just that, well, while they were out there talking about it, we were out here DOING it. Without a “business model”  motivating it and propping it up. We do it for the music, and when all is said and done, if these people don’t find a way to shut us down because they feel threatened, real people.. real listeners and music lovers are going to recognize authenticity over commerce ONLY and self-interest. And if not, I get the feeling most of us will still do it anyway. And that’s the real difference.

Photo Credits:

1.  http://www.flickr.com/photos/robotson/2706685409/

2.  http://www.flickr.com/photos/jbreitling/991802104/

I do not accept ad money (or any sponsorships/payment) for this blog, but if this post made you think or entertained you, I could always use some Whuffie!

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