Stolen right from Matador Records - buy this, it's great.

Heh.  Retail is the puzzle, eh?

Today is November 16, the day that our new retail distributor, Burnside Distribution, has designated as the street date for Finest Specimens.  Burnside has done a great job getting CDs out there; from what I can see online this is going to be much different than it used to be, in that the record will actually be available, it will actually have a chance of being found in stores.  I found it in the inventory at Best Buy, for Chrissakes, which is a trip.

So buy it!  It’s great!

Retail is an interesting animal these days, I’m learning.

My mom gets me gift certificates to Borders.  I dig Borders gift certificates because they’re a corporate store that seems (or seemed, as the case may be) to have tried to stock their shelves with actual stuff a guy like me might like.  Not just your mainstream books and music, but indie CDs, box sets, cool zines, semi-underground books.  Absent See Hear, I could walk into a Borders and actually spend a few hours (granted, a good portion of it would be spent going through the baseball books, but still).

So there’s a Borders by my mom’s house, and another near mine.  So every holiday or birthday, when my mom asks me “What should I get you?” I tell her that a Borders gift card would be nice.

Invariably I never get out shopping, and so I wind up with a pile of these gift cards.  And eventually I open the drawer where I keep these things, discover I have a couple hundred dollars’ worth that I’ve accumulated, and I go on a shopping spree.

Last week, I was looking forward to doing some music shopping at Borders.  I’ve been thinking about doing some sort of boxed set, and wanted to get some examples of lavishly-packaged releases that I could enjoy, while getting some ideas for how to do what I’m considering.  And the Borders near my house has a pretty large music section, lots of indie stuff and a whole section of box sets.

HAD a pretty large music section, I learned.  Because, like, it was gone. There were a handful of box sets – Genesis, The Doors, Tom Petty, John Coltrane, a couple others.  There were about 12 feet of racks containing rock records, maybe another 12 feet containing all the other genres.

It was pathetic.  Evidently this particular Borders has decided to replace their music with calendars of cats, blank journals with craft paper covers, little arts and crafts kits for the kids, exquisitely packaged containers of cheap chocolate – you know, stuff you can’t download.

So it seems, on the surface, that digital downloads have taken the place of physical retail, at least at the places I used to like to shop out here in the country.  Except that from what I can see, people aren’t paying to download digital music, either.

So where the fuck are the sales going?

I’m not going to get all preachy about what you should and shouldn’t be doing with respect to illegal downloading.  There are a lot of nuances to the discussion, and the line seems to get fuzzier every day.  Hell, in the 11 months since we’ve been back at this, we’re released two titles that we gave away – Footstone and Stuyvesant – and we have a Cuppa Joe EP that we plan on giving you someday soon, too.  So I get the “music wants to be free” argument, and this particular entry isn’t going to be the one where I try and solve a dilemma that I still don’t completely understand.

But I do have an example of why you should buy our records.  Or somebody’s records, as long as they’re independent ones.

I still buy music.  I buy downloads every month, from eMusic, iTunes, and directly from the artists.  I buy CDs occasionally.  Once in a blue moon, I pick up vinyl.  But I buy it, even though I haven’t decided what side of the “music wants to be free” fence I fall on.  And clearly, bands are selling records somewhere, because if they weren’t, they’d all stop making music en masse and get jobs in the computer business, where the money is.

But it was the exquisitely packaged stuff you can’t download that stuck in my mind.  Stuff you can’t download.  And sure enough, the more closely I looked at the few CDs that were in the racks, the more I noticed the packaging.  My mind wandered back to the SIX CD BOX SET I just bought from Matador Records, chronicling their 21st anniversary as one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to indie rock.  Six CDs, packaged in a very nice chipboard (I think) box, with some poker chips wrapped in plastic, and a neat booklet filled with in-jokes and pictures.  Thirty-five dollars got me all that.  About six bucks a disc and I’ve got remastered DustDevils and Toiling Midgets tracks from when I was in college, a whole CD of live (mostly) Pavement stuff, and, umm, poker chips.  And while I could probably download all that music somewhere, I wouldn’t get the poker chips.

I just bought Andrew Earles’ biography of Husker Du (Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock). Besides being great so far, it’s got a super high-quality hard cover, and inside the front cover is a bumper sticker that says, simply, “What Would Husker Du?”

So I guess its the lavish, exquisite packaging that’s somehow going to catapult the authors and the musicians past this speedbump where people no longer want to pay for their music.  I’m sure this makes the artists and the writers and the printers and the photographers very happy, but maybe makes the artists and the musicians pretty pissed.

But then on October 22, Jenifer Convertible, who hadn’t put out a record since 1996 and probably hadn’t sold a record since I bought one in 2004 or so, got on stage at Maxwell’s and dusted off the cobwebs in front of a bunch of people who, jaws agape, were really fucking happy that they shelled out eight bucks and went to Maxwell’s on a Friday night in October.  They played – if “played” is even a fair word to describe what they did – a dynamite show, blowing through absolute knockout versions of old favorites and “holy shit, I forgot all about this song” classics alike, playing an amped-up version of “Big Wheel” that I’d only heard for the first time that week when Jim emailed me a recording I’d never heard before, and causing no less a musician than Michael from the Mommyheads to grab me by the elbow and say “Wow, these guys are really good.”

The guys looked pretty good, too, but I would not characterize them as having been lavishly packaged (though I overheard a couple of people discussing the possibility of mugging Andy Moore for his vintage JenCon T-Shirt).  They didn’t come with chipboard boxes or silkscreening, a booklet of in-jokes or poker chips, hand-numbering or limited edition comic books.  They just came with their instruments, got up onstage and blew away a half-full club of people who had come out to see a live band that they may or may not have even remembered.  And they saw four guys perform a magical set that exceeded my wildest expectations, the best Jenifer Convertible set I remember seeing, ever, in my life, here in October of 2010, against all motherfucking probability.

You can’t download a silkscreened, chipboard box, for sure.  But you also can’t download the magic of a live band, ripping into a set in a legendary room (where they’d never played before, BTW), with the energy of wanting to outperform three other great bands, and the comraderie of all those bands supporting each other while they played, either.  You can’t download the feeling in that room that some of us had, that we were part of something cool.

And this is why people need to buy independent music.  Whether it’s via download, box set, seven-inch, CD, whatever.

Because if you don’t buy it, if you don’t somehow compensate that artist for his work, that artist eventually will get a job in the computer business, and stop making music.  And once they stop, you will not get to hear Jenifer Convertible mute their instruments and sing James Pertusi’s “Coffee” in three-part harmony to a roomful of stunned indie kids.

And that will be a damn shame.

~ by Al on November 17, 2010.

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