October 16, 2006

Tower Records, R.I.P.

"The Lefsetz Letter" featured a nice rant from Bob Lefsetz on the demise of Tower Records, which prompted a flurry of emails from his audience. (See http://lefsetz.com/wordpress for more info).

Having my own intense feelings about Tower Records, I sent Bob an email. I was not expecting to see it published on his blog/email list, but here it is:

Rodger Coleman: I've spent countless thousands of dollars at Tower
Records stores in Boston, New York, and here in Nashville. Yeah, the
staff always treated me like shit, even if they knew who I was and
that I was likely to spend money there week in, week out. And that
was annoying. But what really killed the Tower experience for me was
when they decided to start charging $1 or MORE over list price for
non-hype records. CDs are just TOO DAMN EXPENSIVE and THAT is
what's killing the music industry. Give me a break about downloading MP3s. MP3s
sound like shit. Hell, CDs sound like shit compared to a well made vinyl LP, but
MP3 or AAC is a joke. It might be fine in the car, but for serious listening? -
forget about it. I suspect that the CD pretty much killed the "home stereo"
experience for most people, hence the rush to portable, disposable MP3s, i-Pods,
and a musical culture on the decline. I'm willing to bet that if the record
industry and (former) market leaders like Tower priced CDs at $10 or less (like
what the vastly superior LP cost), they would still be selling and Tower Records
would still be in business. But no, the RIAA has decided it is more profitable
to hire mercenary law firms to sue their own customers. Now, there's a business
model! Hah! Sometimes I truly believe the record industry DESERVES
to die on the vine. And this is coming from someone who LOVES music, who
LOVES records, who LOVES record stores and spent his entire life spending EVERY
DISPOSABLE DOLLAR on records. But, it got to the point where I just simply
could not justify $20.00 for a crummy CD in a crummy jewel box with crummy
liner notes. You could walk into Tower and buy a DVD of the latest movie
with bonus features and multiple soundtrack options FOR LESS THAN
THE COST of the soundtrack CD. What an insult to musicians and music

Anyway, sorry for the rant. The part of me that loves browsing record stores will
miss Tower. There will be no other game in town for jazz or classical records and that is a shame. But, to hell with $20.00 CDs. Enough is enough.

Heh. Well, then Bob publishes a bunch more emails and the one and only Michael Fremer had this to say:

Michael Fremer: Rodger Coleman wrote: "It might be fine in the car, but
for serious listening?" The biggest problem today is that most young people
don't do "serious listening." They don't know what that is. Music is for
background while you exercise, eat, screw, read or whatever. Even live music is
for the background. That's why people yap through concerts ---sometimes on
their cellphones. Serious listening means, stopping one's minds from yabbering
internally, and letting the artist communicate. A generation growing up
now doesn't know what that means. They can't sit still and just stop everything
going on and just LISTEN.... It needs to be taught, like meditation or it
will be lost forever. What we have now is "listeners" using musicians in a
parasitic relationship. They are there to provide an energy for the
parasite/listener to suck on to energize his or own lame thoughts instead of
shutting the fuck up and PAYING FULL ATTENTION......

Wow. The Lefsetz Letter goes out to tons of music industry honchos and musos. I am blown away that perhaps some of these people read what I wrote. So, I wrote Bob another email, which, again, much to my surprise was "published" today:

Rodger Coleman: I never expected that my email rant to you would wind up
being sent out on your mailing list. If I'd thought so, maybe I would have toned
down the profanity! But, to have Michael Fremer respond to something I said -
wow, what a rush. Fremer is largely responsible for making me realize that vinyl
is truly superior to CD and that you don't have to spend a fortune on playback
equipment to realize this. But, anyway, after sending you that email and talking
with my wife about all this stuff, I had a dream that night about shopping in a
funky record store, crawling around on the ground searching through every nook
and cranny for weird and wonderful treasures. The next day, I decided to make a
trip to Grimey's here in Nashville, a funky record store where the staff is
actually friendly, helpful, and enthusiastic about records. I bought the last
four Robert Pollard LPs (all of which were released this year!) and Sonic
Youth's latest on LP. Yep, that's right - brand new vinyl records. With
Pollard's latest LP on Merge you also get a coupon to download the album AND a
free CD of a live gig opening for Pearl Jam this past summer. Now THAT is
getting some value for your money (a whopping $13.99)! I couldn't wait to get
home from work and peel off the shrink wrap, savor that new vinyl and printer's
ink smell, and spin them all in a row. I drank too many beers and sat enraptured
to the glorious sound - or, got up and danced around the living room. It was an
experience I hadn't had in a long time, and it was thrilling in a way that no CD
has ever been, no matter how much I like the music. So, I got to thinking. Maybe
the death of the CD is necessary to have the music industry move forward. Maybe
the labels will move towards DVD as the delivery method. Maybe they'll embrace
lossless compression schemes like FLAC for downloads, price them reasonably, and
have DVDs (with or without video content) for physical goods (any DVD player
will reproduce a high-resolution PCM soundtrack). Maybe pricing could be more
dynamic and fair. Maybe the equipment manufacturers could adopt a uniform
standard that will play any 5 inch disc you throw at it. Maybe the MP3 could
serve as a free promotion tool, whetting the appetite for the high-quality
product. In any case, it sure looks like vinyl LPs will outlive the CD. Whoulda
thunk it a decade ago? So, Tower is dead. Long live the indie record

I think that about sums up what I have to say about Tower Records. Check Out the Lefsetz Letter. You won't be disappointed.



Sam Byrd said...

An interesting parallel to some of the things you and Michael Fremer mention is the fact that just as less serious listening is taking place, fewer and fewer people are taking the time to read a book from cover to cover. Maybe the phrase "dumbing down" is too simplistic but it's hard not to think that we're losing something as a culture--and I think this is evidenced in people not willing to take the time to listen to a well-developed argument and critical analysis of an issue from a politician. And nowadays, too, most politicians are either incapable of making those kinds of arguments, or if they are they are unwilling to do so because they worry that people will think they are too smart, too intellectual, too challenging. People want dumb, and that's why we're in Iraq. "Full attention" is becoming a scarcer and scarcer commodity.

I could write scads more about how my own musical listening habits have changed since the advent of CDs and MP3s, but I ain't got time! Maybe later.

Christopher Murray said...

I'm a slave to my iPod, I must admit. I take it to work and I listen to it at night when going to sleep. I have a great pair of headphones which really helps, but I know it's not the quality Rodger is talking about. But it suits me for most of the day that I can spend listening.

I can tell you first hand about Rodger and his voracious appetite for music. He's truly on a quest and has been since I became great friends with him more than 30 years ago. I still have yet to meet someone with such a broad range of knowledge and truly deep passion for music. I am thrilled that he is writing.