Sunday, October 16, 2011

Transmissions from the Vinyl Underground



This week, I attended the movie Vinyl: The Alternate Take by Alan Zwieg on Thursday followed by an insightful panel discussion with Terry Currier from Music Millennium, Hisham Mayet from Sublime Frequencies and Eric from Mississipi Records. Then, on Saturday I went to the Night Owl Record Show at the Eagle's Lodge for a couple hours. All in all, it was a pretty exciting week for me!

Alan Zwieg's first feature called Vinyl was about obsessive record collectors whose predilection for hoarding vinyl seems to have impacted their ability to carry on normal relationships with friends and family. While the first edition of Vinyl was mildly entertaining, it mostly depicted the profound sadnesss that these people experienced due to their excessive collecting habits. I felt that Vinyl was too one-sided in it's message that anyone who collects to this extent is an inherently sad and depressed person, as there were no portrayals of the vinyl enthusiast who manages to have a well-balanced and happy life.

With Zwieg's Vinyl: The Alternate Take, he manages to squeeze in a little more positivity amongst all of the darkness. Among the high points of the film are lighthearted moments between a father and son who regularly go out record hunting together and manage to have a good relationship with each other, a twenty-something music freak who talks about the first time he discovered jazz and how it opened up a whole world for him and the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a young black male describing his experience of first discovering the music of Iron Butterfly. In fact, the worst parts of the film are when Zwieg positions himself in front of the camera as he films himself looking into a mirror and continuously fumbles around with the microphone. His realization that rediscovering his favorite albums from his youth (Doors and Blues Magoos) did not give him the same pleasure as rediscovering a friend from the past leads the viewer to believe that he is using music to replace basic foundational needs. If you are looking for a movie that looks at collecting vinyl in a positive light, this is probably not the movie for you. Instead, there is a forthcoming documentary called To Have and To Hold: A Musicmentory that promises to be a much better film that celebrates the medium and the people who champion it.

After the film, I was fortunate to participate in a round-table discussion about producing, manufacturing selling and buying vinyl from the standpoint of the consumer, the record store owners and label heads. It started out slow, but once the panel got warmed up, we were knee deep in a spirited debate about the fate of vinyl as a medium. You couldn't have asked for a better group of music aficionados than the panel that was selected  for the evening with Hisham from the mind blowing international label Sublime Frequencies, Terry Currier, the long time owner of the oldest record store in Portland, Music Millenium and Eric, the owner of the fantastic Mississippi Records record store and label head.

During the discussion, we largely talked about the supply and demand of vinyl, and the fact that vinyl appears to be the only format of music that is showing any signs of life in the music business today. I brought up the point that vinyl has shown a definite resurgence in the past several years, and it doesn't seem logical for a person to run a record store without featuring a substantial used and new vinyl selection. The panel didn't completely agree with me on this, as they were comparing the percentage of today's vinyl sales with that of the heyday of vinyl in the late 60's and 70's. This comparison doesn't seem fair considering that the only format available at the time was vinyl, so it would only make sense that the percentage of vinyl sales was higher then than it is now.

The next part of the discussion revolved around the cost of making vinyl versus the profit margin. Everyone on the panel was in agreement that you put something out on vinyl because it is meaningful to you and not to make a profit, as the costs of producing and manufacturing vinyl grossly outweigh the ability to make a profit on your investment. This is an area that I couldn't remark on as I have not been aware of the actual costs of making records. For the most part, it sounds like the labels want to release vinyl because they deem it to be the best medium to experience music, but it is virtually impossible to make a profit by releasing vinyl solely.

One of the most controversial topics of the night was the argument that music piracy is single-handedly responsible for the demise of the record industry. I personally don't agree with this assessment, as I feel it fails to see the big picture. Over the past decade, the music industry has continuously shot itself in the foot by raising the prices of CD's to the extent that record stores have struggled to supply a product that the comsumers want at an affordable price. As a result, file sharing services such as Napster, Mozilla, Bear Share and Soulseek have emerged to illustrate the point that if the record industry doesn't play nice, the consumers will take the power back.

There were a couple topics that I wanted to bring up which didn't get addressed within this discussion that I would like to talk about now. The first of these that I wanted to address was my personal experience with digital downloading. When I was first introduced to the wonders of Napster, I was starting to grow disinterested in music as a whole. The classic rock radio station in Peoria, IL was hammering the same mundane songs into my head while the so-called alternative radio station was simply playing music which catered to the mainstream listening audeience. Since Peoria didn't have many avenues for buying music, I was left to my own devices.  With Napster, I was able to download music from bands that I had read about in the music zines and then decide if it was good enough to buy from online retailers.  I bought more music because of Napster than I had ever bought in my life. While I realize that I am not the average music enthusiast, I'd be willing to bet that other people have similar stories to share.

The last point of discussion that I wasn't able to address was "What can I do to ensure that record stores and vinyl as a medium continue to flourish throughout my days"? If any of you have ideas for what we can do to ensure this, I am all ears.

Yesterday,with hesitance I attended the bi-annual Night Owl Record Show for the first time. I was primarily hesitant because I had heard horror stories about people pushing you out of the way and being agressive. This was not something that I felt I was mentally prepared for, but I managed to muster up the courage to check this out for myself. We got to the show arouund 5:00, and had to wait in line for about 10 minutes before we were able to enter. Once we got in there, the room was oppressively hot with funky music blaring from the speakers that was almost too loud to hear yourself think.

There were so many people and records in this tiny space that at times I felt a little claustrophobic.  I started searching for wax wherever there was no wait, as some of these spots had 3 people waiting in line. The first place that I checked out was the one that I bought the most records from, as I was caught up in the thrill of being there and couldn't help myself.  Scores from this booth included a first pressing of EPMD's Strictly  Business and Eddie Harris Is it In. 

Then, proceeded to the next booth right around the corner. He had a bunch of amazing records, but they were definitely aware of what their records were worth. I managed to score a Jimi Hendrix w/ Isley Brothers record in VG-EX shape for $14.  Toward the end of my digging expedition, I found a booth that had a treasure trove of rare soul and funk records that had a note attached to each record indicating the hip-hop artists who had sampled it.  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to buy much from them because at this point I had already spent a lot of money, but I did get a Hampton Grease Band album in fairly good condition and a Hamza El Din record for very cheap. For the most part, the sellers were helpful and polite which made the experience that much better. I would definitely attend another of these as it was a fun way to spend some time hanging out with people who share a common passion for music.

I would love to hear from any of you about what you think about the current state of music,  as well as what kind of things you think that we as music lovers can do to ensure that music and especially vinyl never goes away?

Stay tuned for a Halloween mix for 2011 as well as re-ups of past Halloween podcasts that are no longer available on Podomatic.

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