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Featured Record Store Columns:‘The Music Store: A Dying Breed?’ and ‘Clark Street’

In today’s Digital Age, music lovers like myself with high-speed Internet connections and enormous appetites for music have become spoiled. Via numerous web sites whether they be pay-download like livedownloads.com or free downloads like archive.org or the increasing presence of bit torrent sites the capacity to acquire music becomes as simple as a few clicks and an amount of time to wait for your download to complete; and in bit torrent cases, sharing that download with others. That is the method upon which I’ve acquired a hefty percentage of my music collection in the past five years, whether via bit torrent, http or ftp.

Regardless, what is happening outside the online music world is a change that has brought mixed emotions to an old music collecting geek.

As a teen growing up in the Rochester, NY area, I developed a love of entering a music store like The Record Archive to discover the latest releases on vinyl, and also to browse the used section to find that rare recording that I could not find elsewhere. My ears would get perked up to an album from an artist whom I likely would not have heard before, and in some cases buying that given album. I would easily spend over an hour browsing while casually making choices, looking with curiosity on the vinyl bootlegs of Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and the like, and decide which albums I would purchaseand which to later on! There were also the casually chats with the store clerk to learn about new albums and new artists. Not to mention enjoy the dr of old albums and posters, and those old album covers!

In the Digital Age, today’s equivalent of that experience is in the form of a person participating on any Internet BBS forum for a bit torrent website; in some cases, you can listen to mp3 samples of a seeded show so you can decide for yourself whether or not to download a copy. What matters is that the discussions in those threads become the seeds of an online community. I felt that back on the now-defunct easytree.org when an old friend I had not seen in numerous years recognized my handle, from which we caught up over email. Archive.org also has developed an online community via its forum, upon which it served as an example of an online community’s influence via many fans’ responses to the Grateful Dead soundboard removal episode.

Regardless, it takes people and their generosity to make these sites work, and you find more than your music collection that has been enriched, and vice versa. It’s the type of community noticeably absent in many pay-download sites. Yes, it is great to share recordings and words with others, even if you only know those people by their selected handles; but I’ve been a firm believer of the person behind the email address. That is why I share CD-Rs of my downloads with friends (especially those whom are not computer savvy), and in some cases, bring one of my external hard drives to a friend’s for sharing.

Over the years, even through my Grateful Dead cassette collecting days, I would often solicit independent record stores to find that hard-to-locate out-of-print album. However, at the turn of the 21st Century, I found one store in Massachusetts selling CD bootlegs. However, I recognized the game had started to change, upon finding a 2-CD recording of a Bob Dylan show I had already downloaded. As much as record company lawyers have argued that music downloads via services like the then-illegal Napster cut in on their profit, I had realized the potential of online downloads affecting another side of the business: the bootlegger! That store also had bootleg recordings of The Dead and Phish, two artists of now many with plenty of recordings you can download for free online. However, many bootlegs and unofficial recordings by oft-bootlegged artists like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen started circulating over the Internet via the bit torrent sites; the same cloth as those in that Massachusetts store.

There were two occasions last year where I witnessed a store closing that affected product sales for a given vicinity. In Boulder, I felt a tinge of sadness when a fine used-media store, Second Spin, closed its doors, leaving its south Denver store the single remaining Colorado store alongside its four California stores. When visiting family in Rochester for the holidays, I had also solicited the Media Play store in Henrietta, which closed its doors after Christmas. Upon doing a portion of my Christmas shopping there, a store worker had informed me that the competition from the nearby Best Buy was too much. There is a trace of irony in that both store closures were from small chains.

However, neither Second Spin nor Media Play fit the bill as a mom-and-pop music store; the one-of-its-kind where you get to know the merchants, enjoy a display of props from album covers and posters, and any memorabilia that makes that given place unique and gives it its soul. It’s more than a matter of what is on the shelves; it’s the feeling of being in a place meant for music, whether it is selling, listening or discussing.

A visit to Bart’s CD Cellar in Boulder is of that cloth, and what keeps Bart’s alive is the ongoing presence it has in the Boulder store community via promotions; with a 50s-diner dr setting where its walls are splattered with signed concert posters & album promos. Bart’s also hosts occasional in-concert store appearances by various artists. What makes the place vibrant, though, are people from its staff like Greg, who clearly possesses a vast knowledge of a wide variety of music especially in folk and bluegrass, but whom understands to the point of giving detailed recommendations to customers in a vein that can only be told by a music freak! On my last visit to Bart’s, upon giving Greg some CD-R’s of recordings from the 2005 Rocky Mountain Folk Festival, he raved to me about a new CD by Eric Burdon, Soul Of A Man, and how the Animals vocalist digs deep into the blues with pure feeling. It’s that kind of music talk and sentiment you cannot participate in at Best Buy!

Of course, Bart’s also sells CDs and DVDs online (http://www.bartscdcellar.com), but not downloads. With conglomerates like Wal-Mart now offering music pay-download web services, and sites like livedownloads.com now selling albums of artists (Yonder Mountain String Band, David Grisman, etc), the transition in media has clearly been in process from CD/CD-R to storage. As the iPod and other MP3 players continue to soar in popularity, and the CD format’s aging process escalating, it will be interesting to see how stores like Bart’s continue forward in response. What makes this a challenge is the sheer convenience online that you cannot find at any store, not to mention competing with brand names. You can purchase a CD or DVD from a The Music Store, but not a download.

It also depends on the format which you prefer your music. Today at home, I primarily use storage, downloading onto external hard drives, and playing a 300-CD changer, mostly of CD-R’s I make from my downloads. Several friends already have changed to storage, playing MP3s or FLACs on their home stereos using a laptop with a specified USB sound card (and I’m around the corner from doing so myself on the FLAC end). Most times when I burn CD-Rs now, they are either as gifts to friends or to play in my auto’s 6-CD changer. However, with auto makers like BMW, Honda and Acura already preparing to place iPod-based sound systems in their automobiles, it may arguably be the next step towards the gradual phasing out of CD & CD-R media, similar in vein to what CDs did to vinyl in the late 1980s.

With the ongoing changes in the music sales industry, particularly with the enormous impact of the Internet, the Digital Age, iPods, music downloads and changing media formats, this music collecting geek maintains hope that The Music Store in your local neighborhood maintains its niche and home.

Best and brightest wishes to all of you for a safe, happy and prosperous 2006!

[Back in the Grateful Dead years, John J. Wood was a regular contributor to DeadBase and also occasionally contributed to Dupree’s Diamond News and the first edition of The Deadhead’s Taping Compendium. Today, when John is not listening to music and playing with computers, he is learning the Earl Scruggs three-fingered style of banjo picking!]

*****

Clark Steet by Pat Buzby

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 isn’t 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 didn’t 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 Phish’s 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 you’re 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 60’s Wayne Shorter session called Schizophrenia. The CD reissue came out in the 90’s as part of Blue Note’s Connoisseur Series. With this series, Blue Note attempted to confer a mystique onto old titles which didn’t sell well. A 90’s thing, I guess.

Another one had a vinyl copy of John Lennon’s Sometime In New York City. This was a studio album with a bonus live disc. (An early 70’s 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 Lennon’s release, Frank Zappa put out his own version of this tape with a more straightforward mix. Lennon’s mix censors some vocal bits, puts wild panning on Yoko’s 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, Phish’s NYE 95 show was only available on audience tapes, which didn’t 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 Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti, an album many insist suffered when it got digitally remastered. So far, I haven’t 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 doesn’t 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.

That’s 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, it’s nice to think that those stores on Clark Street will still be there, and perhaps even some vinyl.

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