Friday, April 19, 2013

Celebrate! Record Store Day

Add to the list of spring high holy days (NCAA Final Four, Easter, Masters, Earth Day) a music event: National Record Store Day is tomorrow, April 20. It has become a crossroads between old vinyl (collections sold in the few remaining stores) and new vinyl (pressings of new recordings and remasters from famous artists).
In one of my earliest posts on January 26, 20111 I offered my thoughts about ( the joys of time spent flipping through cardboard sleeves and listening to music in your neighborhood record store. While the stores continue to disappear from the landscape they assume an almost iconic status in our musical culture. They are where dreams of fame and fortune (High Fidelity) are nourished or where musicians are discovered (Alabama Shakes found their drummer, Steve Johnson, working in a record store). And they become the metaphor for the conflict between the good old days and the steamroller of progress (Michael Chabon’s, Telegraph Avenue).

I discovered Record Store Day thanks to an article by David Lindquist in The Indianapolis Star profiling some vinyl collectors in Indianapolis.
Lindquist offers a nice look at Dr. Spin: The World’s Only All Vinyl DJ, aka, Doug Babb, who claims his trove of 200 albums featuring the Moog synthesizer is the world’s largest. It must also be something of a record for Indianapolis to have three record stores, Indy CD & Vinyl, Luna Music and Vibes Music.

The stores have jumped on this bandwagon with live concerts and exclusive sales of new releases sold on the big day. Check out their website ( for an amusing video of Jack White taking you on a tour of a vinyl pressing plant or new releases from Billy Bragg, MGMT and the Doors, plus a screening schedule for the film, Last Shop Standing.

The Washington Post reports these special issue vinyl albums are proving a mixed blessing for the stores because their orders are not returnable and if the owners don’t guess right about what the fans want this year, they are stuck with the unsold records.

Even if record stores are not here to stay, it appears that vinyl records are. The Recording Industry of America reports that sales have jumped from just over 1 million to just over 7 million in the past five years. That’s only two percent of recordings sold but at least you can’t pirate vinyl.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Steve Jobs Rock Star

Just as our grandparents could remember life before airplanes, we can remember listening to music before it became portable (unless you had a car wrapped around an AM radio). Today being able to listen to any kind of music, anywhere, for hours on end seems as natural as breathing.

Such a cultural change kind of creeps up on us (or rather steamrollers us) in the microchip/internet/social media age. Still, it struck me as time flying when I learned that Apple’s I-Tunes Store will be ten years old this month.

How that came to happen is another fascinating chapter in the Steve Jobs saga as retold by Walter Issacson in his biography of the Apple legend. The story has all the elements of a Gordon Gecko movie with corporate intrigue, personal ambition, millions of dollars at stake and the superhero doing battle against all odds.

Of course the saga began with the arrival of the I-Pod: the slick, shiny cigarette box that Jobs unveiled in October of 2001, saying, “This little device holds a thousand songs and it goes right in my pocket.” In musical parlance, it was an overnight sensation.

Apple’s digital system…I-Pod, I-Tunes and computer… worked fine for taking music you owned and going portable with it. But the music industry was being buffeted by big changes. Napster and its followers were making it easy to copy and distribute songs for free and the big corporate players, Warner Music (AOL), Sony and others were watching CD sales drop. At first they tried lawsuits and then they went into partnerships to offer subscription services, but neither was successful.

In rides Jobs on his white horse with a couple of simple concepts. First, he believed that people wanted to “own” music not rent it. Second, he was opposed to theft of creative content. “It’s wrong to steal. It hurts other people. And it hurts your own character.”

Jobs then proceeded to write the rules of the new game: 99 cents a song, sold individually (not as albums), 70 cents to record companies. Then the super salesman turned on the charm to convince AOL Time Warner to get on board, then Universal, and finally Jimmy Iovine of Interscope-Geffen-A&M.

The biggest stumbling block was Sony whose chief then, Andrew Lack, wanted a cut on sales of I-Pods. Jobs refused and played his coalition off against Sony’s fractious divisions. Then he courted individual artists like Bono, Jagger and Sheryl Crow. One artist who became convinced of the symbiosis of I-Tunes to I-Pod, was Dr. Dre, who said “Man somebody finally got it right.”

In less than a year, Jobs had brought the I-Tunes Store to reality, opening its digital doors with 200,000 tracks in April 2003. The store manager had predicted the service would sell a million songs in six months. It sold that many in six days.

Two years later Apple sold its one millionth I-Pod and by 2012, Apple reported sales of I-Pods worldwide had reached 350 million units.

You say you want a revolution? Steve Jobs proved there was more than one way to become a rock star.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Phil Ramone & Paul Williams: Makers of Rock History

In reading the recent obituaries of Phil Ramone and Paul Williams I was struck by how the rock producer and the rock writer were connected by only degree of separation: Paul Simon.
In the first issue of Crawdaddy(named for a London Club where the Stones played), Williams reviewed Simon & Garfunkel’s new release, "Sounds of Silence", which he had to buy himself. A copy of that seminal, mimeographed issue in 1966 made it to Paul Simon, who called Williams in his dormitory at Swarthmore to thank him for the review. Crawdaddy predates Rolling Stone and Creem but was eventually overwhelmed by the glitzier magazines. Still, Williams, who also wrote a trilogy on Bob Dylan, set the bar pretty high for writers like Jon Landau and Peter Guralnick, both Crawdaddy alums.

In writing about rock music, my intention was not to judge the records (like a critic) or report on the scene (like a journalist) but to explore as an essayist, the experience eof listening to certain records and feeling the whole world through them.

Phil Ramone crossed paths with Paul Simon a few years latter, producing “There Goes Rhymin Simon” and then helping win three Grammys for “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Reading the list of artists he worked with, first as an engineer then producer, one can’t help but consider him as a giant of late 20th century music. It began with John Coltrane and Count Basie and came full circle with a Grammy for Ray Charles’ duets: "Genius Loves Company." In between, besides Simon, were Dusty Springfield, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Billy Joel and Tony Bennett and many others.

For several decades, in the music business, Phil Ramone was the answer to the question: Who you gonna call? No doubt, one key to his success was his willingness to let the artist have the spotlight. As reported in the NY Times, he wrote that a record producer’s role was much like that of a film director: to bring out the best performance.

But unlike a director (who is visible and often a celebrity in his own right), the record producer toils in anonymity. We ply our craft deep into the night, behind locked doors. And with few exceptions, the fruit of our labor is seldom launched with the glitzy fanfare of a Hollywood premiere.

For a guy who spent his life working with rock stars, he says his personal highlight came from a gig with a Hollywood screen legend. He was running sound when Marilyn Monroe cooed Happy Birthday Mr. President in 1962.