As other stores pull them from shelves, Waterloo Records promises to “not abandon” CDs.
-- Austin American-Statesman, February 8, 2018
This headline of a story by reporter Jake Harris caught my eye. In this age of mass murder, corruption, scandal, and sexual innuendo and assault, here is a major American newspaper devoting time and space to our little buddy the Compact Disc. For the past 147 years, the Statesman has been the primary newspaper of Austin, Texas, reputedly the “live music capital of the world,” so the statement carries some authority. Waterloo Records, an iconic record store on Lamar Boulevard, has a history of thumbing its nose at music-industry insiders in support of its local customers, and for the last 35 years Waterloo has been the heart of the local music business. In fact, the store has won the vaunted Best of Austin award from The Austin Chronicle every year since the store’s founding, in 1982.
The most interesting thing about Harris’s article is not the fact that it’s about the CD, but that it’s about a customer-centered store like Waterloo promising not to abandon its CD-buying customers. And the story’s Rorschachian headline traces another interesting fault line; in fact, you can probably predict a reader’s age by his or her response to it. Millennials -- those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s -- wonder why anyone wants to own music when it’s so obviously free from Spotify, Pandora, or YouTube. Boomers will remember the audio cassette and other once-dominant recording formats. Granted, the LP has long been on the rise, but that’s due as much to the desire to own a piece of art as for the music contained in the grooves. And those even older than baby boomers probably bought their last recording years ago and are now happy with their collections as they stand.
Harris mentions that Best Buy and Target both cite sagging sales as their reason for getting out of the CD business. That has to be a huge blow to the CD, DVD, and Blu-ray makers of the world. As if further proof were needed, a few days later I got an e-mail from the Criterion Collection that gave me a doleful pang: “For the next 24 hours at criterion.com, all in-stock Blu-rays and DVDs are 50% off the suggested retail price (SRP)!” That type of sale happens only when a manufacturer is trying to dump inventory, either to raise cash or improve the company’s balance-sheet ratio analysis. Criterion is aiming for the streaming market of the future, which equals banning the boomers and planning for the millennials.
That same week, I had two conversations that explained much. The first was with a friend who spent more than 30 years in the record business as a promotion man. Like 112,347 other Texans, his name is Bubba. His knowledge of music is encyclopedic, and he’s worked with top names: the Who, Tom Petty, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steely Dan, etc. Bubba was so good at what he did that Elton John once threw him a private thank-you party that included a solo concert for Bubba’s lucky friends.
The other guy is a musician, songwriter, and writer. A millennial, he’s also a recent grad of an Ivy League school. But before Max was out of high school, he was on the road with the Steve Miller Band, playing second lead guitar and jamming with Les Paul, Eric Johnson, Keith Richards, and many others -- all before he graduated from high school.
Bubba and Max share an abiding interest in music, and they both like older music as well as the newest acts. For all three of us, there’s no question of a life without music, and we constantly surround ourselves with it. The question is how, in the future, we’re going to acquire and utilize the songs themselves. I encourage anyone who has a large collection of music to start thinking through this process.
The boomer perspective
Many of us are veterans of the 1960s and how we then listened to recorded music. When you bought an album, it was a special moment. The first time you played it, you’d listen to it reverently. You’d invite friends over to join you and listen to it again. Your collection was a shorthand description of who you were. Were you collecting Judy Collins and Laura Nyro, or Jimi Hendrix and the Jefferson Airplane, or Steve Reich and “Blue” Gene Tyranny, or the Cowsills and the 1910 Fruitgum Company?
Remember, back then the record-company bigwigs believed that rock was a stupid fad that would never last, and that buyers would soon regain their brains and go back to the good stuff -- you know, Broadway musicals and Barbra Streisand. So they did little to protect or value their catalogs. Most records got one pressing, and if you didn’t get one of those early releases, you might never see the record again. If you wanted that first Laura Nyro record on Verve Folkways (FTS-3020), you had to grab it -- it was out of print within a year. If you went another step and became a fan of Verve Folkways itself, then a world of music opened up. The Blues Project, Tim Hardin, Lightnin’ Hopkins, the Paupers, and many others made great records for the label, and most of them soon went out of print.
One of my favorite records from the era was The Cycle Is Complete, by Buffalo Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer (Verve Forecast FTS-3086). I had two copies of the LP, both of which sounded like Rice Krispies in skim milk. For the next 33 years I waited for a reissue, with little hope of ever seeing one. Then, finally, a CD. Ditto the Paupers’ first album, Magic People (Verve Forecast FTS-3026) -- it took only 32 years for the songs to show up on a compilation, and a breathtaking 41 years for the album. Those are long waits. The mere idea of that level of self-denial would render millennials apoplectic.
Bubba spent an hour on the phone with me talking about great bands and performers he’s worked with whose records are hard or impossible to track down in any way other than laying out Ben Franklins by the dozens: New England, the Dixon House Band, Rupert Holmes, Spyro Gyra, Hot Chocolate, and Dobie Gray, to name a few. Some of these were great live acts and have some representation on YouTube. Bubba and I talked about a concert, now lost forever, when the hot band New England, in a short, 30-minute set, blew away Journey, and even had the headliners, AC/DC, look up from their parade of 6’-tall, stunningly gorgeous groupies. Bubba teared up when he talked about Tom Petty’s death, and wondered how long it would take the labels to start cutting out Petty’s classics. As he talked, Bubba began to remind me of the final speech by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Blade Runner. Time to die . . .
One of Bubba’s complaints surprised me. He said that the change has made choosing what to listen to more difficult. It used to be that you went to your record collection and picked something to play. Or you turned on the radio and hoped the programmers liked the kind of music you did. But now, he said, so much music is available that he suffers from analysis paralysis. He was having a problem with John Mellencamp and Tom Petty. Mellencamp had just written a touching note to Bubba for use in a projected book, and Petty had just died. Bubba, feeling nostalgic, went to YouTube to hear something by one or both artists -- until he saw all the albums, concerts, and videos. What to pick? Albums? Songs? “Jack & Diane” or “Here Comes My Girl”? I think he has a point.
My most important point is this: Many of our feelings about music were cooked in our teens, and those feelings still live within us. Given the changes in the music formats and the means of distribution, these feelings may be unusable in the very near future.
A short list of aspects of boomers’ relationships with music:
- We lusted after the object itself: the vinyl LP.
- Those LPs provided a shorthand for letting others know who we were.
- The records were available for a limited time. When they went out of print, there was no other way to get the music.
- Unless you were a radio-station programmer, the only way you could listen to a song at will was to own a copy of the recording.
- Downloading an artist’s music without paying for it doesn’t seem fair.
- Many of our readers believe that MP3s suck. Period. It just makes sense to them. If you subscribe to Tidal, you may fit this category.
The millennial perspective
Why own recordings of music? If, for some reason, you can’t find the specific song you’re looking for -- and these days it would have to be very obscure -- then listen to something else. But given the combined power of Amazon Prime, Band Camp, Google Music, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, YouTube, and Lord knows what else, what defines “hard to find”? One current artist whose music I love is Fink. I may not be able to find his records, but YouTube has beaucoup concerts by him. Juana Molina is another artist whose work I adore, and while her records go in and out of print, I know that YouTube will always have plenty of concerts available. What more could I want?
What about the poor souls who collect opera, jazz, or film scores? When these recordings are released on physical formats at all, they go out of print as soon as the first pressing is shipped. Pity the poor collector of Morricone soundtracks, or fans of mainstream but obscure operas by Bizet or Mascagni, or jazz singers like Carmen McRae or Blossom Dearie or even Mark Murphy.
Max lives in a tres groovy neighborhood of a large American city and, like many other millennials, shares space and expenses with friends. He recently contacted me about his new addiction: the Grateful Dead. Max studied classic country music at his university, and that and his own playing with some pretty amazing guitarists, and a burgeoning interest in jazz, led him to the Dead (despite his buddy Steve Miller telling Reuters, “I couldn’t stand that band”). Max said that he heard echoes from country music’s classic era in the Dead’s music, but most important, he’d also dipped his toe in jazz by listening to Charles Mingus. His father despised jazz; while growing up, Max had had no experience of the power and grandeur of that music. But Max, a smart and a questing soul, was starting to enjoy not only the listening but also the structure, and he saw the Dead as an American band whose music included heavy hits of jazz, country, and blues. I sent Max a small hard drive filled with Grateful Dead bootlegs I’d collected over the years, to give him an idea of their magnificence.
I expected Max to enjoy and appreciate the gift. I was surprised to hear that he and his flatmates thought it was very cool that now this music was available to them anytime they wanted. They liked the fact that they could pick a song -- say, “Dark Star” -- and listen to 50 different unreleased versions. They also loved being able to sort and search the data any way they wanted, something that’s hard to do on Dead websites like archive.com or nuggs.net.
Like those of boomers, many millennials’ beliefs were forged during their adolescence, and some of those beliefs might be shortsighted. Even YouTube is missing huge swaths of modern music. But by and large, the millennial outlook is:
- Music is less of a fetish item because, for most of our lives, it’s been available for free.
- We usually listen to music through headphones, so no one knows what we’re listening to.
- Most music (though certainly not all) is available on YouTube or Spotify, and if I can stomach the ads, it’s free!
- My ability to choose a song is almost solely dependent on my willingness to type in its title.
- Musicians make their money from touring, not album sales. They expect everyone to download their albums and/or songs for free.
- MP3s sound fine on my iPhone. If I can get hi-rez, great, but I’m not going to pay twice as much money as a premium account with YouTube or Spotify just to get Tidal.
What we can learn from each other
The main challenge for both boomers and millennials is getting what they want when they want it. For this, millennials have the best solution. By not spending money, they retain the ability to use their cash for something else that they feel is important in their lives. Good for them -- but too bad for professional musicians.
I was happy to underwrite the rock’n’roll lifestyle of my favorite artists. David Crosby buys a yacht? I was happy to help him buy it. Jimmy Webb buys a new glider? Fine with me -- I’ll still buy “MacArthur Park.” Brian Wilson wants to put his grand piano in a sandbox? I’ll gladly help pay for his privilege. And when Jerry Garcia died and they announced he’d been living rather luxuriously on a $40 million estate, I was happy for him.
Most of my music money went straight to the obscure end of the street. Are you a Bruce Cockburn fan? I have everything the man ever released, all paid for -- which I hope means that Mr. Cockburn has earned hundreds of bucks from me alone. There are just as many albums by Dougie MacLean. I’ve spent even more than that on records by John Martyn and Sandy Denny, and the list of acts whose every new release I’ve bought is long indeed. Jazz? I was happy to finance Miles Davis’s collection of red Ferraris, but just as happy to invest a huge amount of money on the complete Bill Evans, all of Gabor Szabo’s most obscure titles, all of Louis Armstrong’s out-of-print albums, and everything -- everything -- by Nat Cole.
I spent thousands of hours in record stores, hunting for sunken treasure. My friends were other record lovers. I worked in music -- sold records at Sound Town and set up stereo systems at Hillcrest HiFi, both in Dallas. My first writing was record reviews, first for the college rag, then Buddy Magazine, Texas Jazz, and finally Stereophile. I worked my way through college as a country-music DJ for KGTN (later KHFI-FM, now KISS-FM in Austin), then through grad school doing rock and pop at KGVL (Greenville), and finally classical at WRR-FM (Dallas).
Are there any chances for millennials to pursue the same sort of love of music? As room-filling stereo systems are replaced by the isolation of headphones connected to an iPhone or other such device, the social aspect of music is reduced to sharing a single pair of headphones or attending a concert. Are millennials’ relationships with music simply different from mine, or are they missing out on something important?
I’m not against music-streaming services, especially those that actually pay the artists. The streaming services, along with a wickedly overused dBpoweramp ripper, allowed me to cull my collections from “monumental” down to “simply too much.” I’m down to 500 LPs -- a mere 2.7% of my original collection -- and 1800 CDs (11%). I thank Amoeba Records, in Berkeley, California, and Austin’s Waterloo Records for buying the other respective 97.3% and 89%. I lost a ton of money on them, but then again, I’d gotten to listen to those collections for years of fun.
What about my dearly beloved rarities? What made me spend some time contemplating what I wanted to sell or keep were two rare albums by Sammy Davis Jr. He made two duo albums with guitarists. They sold dismally, and have been only occasionally reissued. The first, Mood to Be Wooed (1958, Decca DL8676), featured jazz electric guitar player Mundell Lowe. The second, Sammy Davis, Jr. Sings / Laurindo Almeida Plays (1966, Reprise RS 6236), is one of the most masterful vocal recordings I own. Each is one of the most-listened-to items in my collection, and both are impossible to find. There are occasional sightings on YouTube, but as often as not the person who posted the file has “improved” it by adding to it other Sammy songs they like. If you have even the slightest interest in Davis and can find the latter album, check out “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” with Almeida’s lovely classical guitar. When they get to the line “How strange the change from major to minor,” miracles happen. Hear it once and you’ll be a fan.
I kept both albums.
Boomers can learn to be much more selective about what they buy, and otherwise can enjoy the breadth and depth of the streaming services’ deep catalogs. Millennials should learn that whatever music they love, there’s a low chance that it will be available when they’re applying for Medicare. If they love it and they have it, they should find a way to keep it.
Boomers should stop complaining that MP3s sound like shit. They don’t. They sound pretty darn good at 320kbps. And millennials should try listening to a really good hi-fi system cranking their favorite music, to feel with their entire bodies the impact that can never be reproduced by earbuds.
I’m not even going to open the discussion of ensuring that the musicians themselves make money from their creations. Both sides should pay attention to that and make it happen.
I no longer spend much money on CDs or LPs. If I really love something and it’s available on a physical format, I buy the disc, rip it, then store the disc somewhere safe. These days, I spend way too much money on streaming services.
What can I say? I love music.
. . . Wes Marshall