I had last Saturday to myself, and there was no snow on the roads, so I headed into Chicago to peruse a stretch of record stores on Clark Street. When I lived in Chicago, this was a simple trip. Now that I live in the suburbs, it takes an hour to get there and a great deal of strategy to avoid traffic jams. This isnt the only way in which buying music has gotten more complicated lately.
Clark Street used to have more music stores than it does now. A fair amount of people out there may be following the advice I read recently in a financial planning book, which asked rhetorically how many CDs are worth buying. However, that day I was in the spreading-the-wealth spirit, although I had to think about where the wealth was going. On this day, the artists didnt benefit, but at least the gains went to the next best choice the retailers with the most integrity.
For instance, one item on my list was Phishs NYE 1995 CD. The week after Christmas I stopped by Best Buy and Tower, neither of whom had the disc in stock, so I was strongly considering taking the download option. However, one of the Clark Street stores had a promo copy for sale, so I gained $7 in exchange for a bit of guilt about depriving Phish of further income. (Trey, if youre reading I bought several Live Phish volumes, all but two of the studio releases and tickets to twelve shows. Is that okay?)
Another store had a 60s Wayne Shorter session called Schizophrenia. The CD reissue came out in the 90s as part of Blue Notes Connoisseur Series. With this series, Blue Note attempted to confer a mystique onto old titles which didnt sell well. A 90s thing, I guess.
Another one had a vinyl copy of John Lennons Sometime In New York City. This was a studio album with a bonus live disc. (An early 70s thing, I guess.) The live disc included a jam between John and Yoko and the Mothers of Invention from 1971. This disc gives rise to some thoughts about how music passes through different people on the way to the listener. Twenty years after Lennons release, Frank Zappa put out his own version of this tape with a more straightforward mix. Lennons mix censors some vocal bits, puts wild panning on Yokos voice and adds enough echo to make it sound like an audience recording.
Not only are there multiple people one could pay to experience this music, there are multiple experiences available. For ten years, Phishs NYE 95 show was only available on audience tapes, which didnt tend to come out well on this occasion. Now, we have a multitrack mix, with an upfront perspective on it all, although some fans might prefer a version with more of the audience. Schizophrenia sounds fine on CD, but I suppose there must be some folks out there who would argue that it was better on vinyl. Another item I found that day was Zappas Sheik Yerbouti, an album many insist suffered when it got digitally remastered. So far, I havent noticed many differences, but it seemed worth $3 to check on it.
One of the last things I grabbed was Abbey Road. I bought this on CD once ten or so years ago, and this was the only CD of mine to get absorbed into my parents collection. (This is a situation where it just doesnt feel right to ask for it back.) I found a reasonably priced LP, which I bought in spite of the fact that it had an orange Capitol label. Even more than a CD, it seemed like this label would grate that green apple seemed like a fundamental part of the late Beatles experience. Fortunately, these concerns drifted away once I got this LP onto a turntable.
Thats the lesson which gets lost sometimes, for me and others the important thing is what comes from the music. Still, keeping track of alternate mixes, label campaigns and new formats can, on some lucky occasions, enhance the experience. And, as much as the media overemphasizes money issues, it is worth considering who gets the financial rewards for these experiences. Whatever the music delivery medium of choice is 50 years from now, its nice to think that those stores on Clark Street will still be there, and perhaps even some vinyl.