As you must have deciphered by now, The Bunker is chocked to the ceiling with records. I make it a point to badger Glenn into adding new vinyl, CDs, 45s and downloaded tracks to our wampum on an almost daily basis, even if I know it will be six months before said music gets audibilized for the benefit of the neighbors. He obliges, spineless stooge that he is. All items considered, I think we’re holding about 4,000 titles in the arsenal at present. Not the biggest pile in the area code, but it does the trick.
And that’s a wunnerful thing, alright, because it gives me and the assorted cast of local hangers-on the ability to pluck almost anything at whim. For example, today, while playing a Koko Taylor record, I was reading a review of the upcoming new Miles Davis Live In Europe 1967 release. The article made mention of 1995’s stellar Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel. How nice it would be to hear Miles’ Plugged Nickel set again, I thought, and five minutes later, it was spinning in the Oppo. Still is, actually.
Of course, there are probably a dozen ways to hear that box set online, legally or illegally, even though it is out of print (actually, it’s not completely – popmarket.com seems to be the only place on earth that still sells it). Having a great big record collection is clearly not the only way to locate and hear music anymore. But it’s far more rewarding to remember that you once had the good sense to have purchased exactly what you would like to hear right now, and managed to actually hang on to it in anticipation of this very moment.
Acquiring and, frankly, curating a worthwhile record collection is a life’s work and one that pays terrific dividends, both in terms of enjoyment and in cash, if you are inclined that way. And the logarithmic scale of lust for more music is a disease you just learn to manage, right? Anyway, they’ll all be gone soon, we’re told. After all, the record industry is in decline, right? They just don’t make so many records anymore, am I right?
Dead wrong. Currently on The Bunker’s bedside reading table is a terrific book by Travis Elborough called The Vinyl Countdown (Soft Skull Press, 2008). Elsborough does a fantastic job of detailing the history of the LP, from its birth in 1948 through the CD and MP3 revolutions, and on to the coveted place it seems to hold today as a cultural defense against the fast-food disposability of downloaded music.
Early in the book, which, to a lummox like me, only suffers from the perspective of being written in England by an Englishman whose references are sometimes provincial, Elsborough points out that in 1973, about 5,000 albums were released. Fast forward to 2005, and the peak of the record industry’s tantrum about illegal downloading putting them all on the street. At the time we all read articles about the coming apocalypse: The end of not just record stores, but record labels. But in ’05, some 44,000 albums found their way to daylight. Yeah, that’s three zeroes. Seems to me that if the music biz was bleeing cash through every orifice, it might be wise to be very careful about how many contracts you hand out and how many albums you manufacture, even if “manufacturing” just means giving a master file to iTunes. Hey, you still have to record it, promote it and do the accounting for it, right? All releases cost money, and all that money is supposed to be an investment.
But no. The record industry, mentioned in conjunction with the word ‘wise’ for the first time in history in the paragraph above, and which I still think we need, seems to think like some parents I have met: To get one of their children a full-ride scholarship and great job (in other words, to make them a hit), you don’t need to manage their education carefully as they grow. You just need to have more and more children. Because the odds say that if you just give enough birth, one of those kids will hit the jackpot, right?
Trouble is, those odds are still long even if you have a spouse willing to help you shore up the numbers, because the folks next door are at it too, and who’s got to time to read to kids at night, when you need to get back to making more of them. Yeah, unless the kid gets more than a little focus from his or her breeders, it’s quite possible (even likely) that he or she is going to turn out as a half-wit. Correspondingly, its certainly possible to drop 50,000 albums on the public and have 95% of them be forgotten a week a later, or, if they are noticed, identified as complete turkeys.
And that is clearly what we are looking at right now. 2011 has delivered few really outstanding albums so far… and this year’s race is almost over. TV On The Radio, Joseph Arthur, The Strokes, My Morning Jacket, The Rebirth Brass Band and Adele came, and did not disappoint. But off hand, I can’t think of too much else. As usual, many things touted by the hipmeisters at Pitchfork and Spin are just weak retreads of REM, Pavement, or even the Velvets. The wildly overrated Arcade Fire is already being Xeroxed at an alarming rate (Note: I didn’t say AF were bad, but they get better press than the Pope on Christmas Eve). And you can’t count the number of bands that look like The Decemberists or Ray Lamontagne.
I have to be fair: I haven’t heard everything. Nobody really does, but I am still ready to admit that I don’t listen to half of the releases that I would like to, or maybe that I feel I SHOULD hear. But, don’t you see? NOBODY can. The record industry, ailing from a supposedly incurable disease, can still somehow find the time and scratch to release an average of about 130 albums for every day of the year. And while I understand that we’re talking about hundreds of genres here and countless reissues, we’re still, even with the instatouch access of the Internet, letting enormous amounts of possibly worthwhile rock and jazz slip right by without any chance to check it out. Or worse: The stuff we do sample is really as dull as you think, and it is not the exception after all… There isn’t a coal seam of real winners just below the crust.
My point here is that it SEEMS like most records these days suck. But I know that I am not hearing ‘most records’, and the effort to keep up with new sounds is tiring and confusing. I believe that bewilderment, a symptom the fact that music is a flood of mostly unknown artists washing by us in a fast stream, is one of the things that reduces people’s interest in buying new tunes. We don’t get the time to lock onto something and grow that interest into a satisfying purchase before we’re being asked to buy something else and again and again, until it’s easier just to watch Adult Swim and forget about it all.
The first mantra of the truly sick is “I don’t have enough records yet.” But how do you feed the beast if the music scene is a swirl and not a feast? By using a time machine, apparently.
To be continued, natch.
Last album: Miles Davis – Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel 1965