Vernon_Penny_LaneIs the compact disc dead? Everyone assumes that it is but the industry doesn’t want to discuss it. What they don’t want anyone to know – most notably the artists who thrive on the ability to reach non-media savvy old-timers is that the entire future of the physical product rests on two entities: Best Buy and WalMart.

legoWhen Tower Records heaved and died in 2007/2008 the distribution power struggle shifted in the USA entirely to big box entities like Best Buy/Future Shop (as well online marketers like Amazon), book franchises like Barnes & Noble and Borders, plus department stores like Target and Walmart.

Fast forward to 2013 and the last distributors standing with any purchasing, distributing power are Best Buy, Walmart and Amazon. Amazon, however, is in a class unto themselves. Record labels in their cdstoreinfinite denial dismiss online sales as some side entity unrelated to their bottom line. Clearly they’ve paid little attention to the fact that any Amazon customer in the UK who bought a CD online since 1999 now has access to all of their purchases via Amazon’s Cloud Player – free – as streaming MP3s. And they’re blaming illegal downloads for continuing sales drops?

But I digress. The old guard record business still relies on the bulk buying and selling power of brick & mortar retail stores. After all, a system that’s 50 years old must be the ‘best’ way for distribution, no? Evidently, this is what they still believe – having never fully comprehended that the world now shops for everything online. And so, the original question of the CD’s future rests in the hands of the two massive retail chains.

Best BuyCurrently Best Buy is in the business of Top40 Billboard titles (known as Top Con). They’ve repurposed valuable floor space in their stores to cater to more electronic wares – especially video games and accessories. Their music department is a shadow of its former self. While Walmart still caters to Top Con and some catalog with healthy doses of discount bargain bin clearouts of product absorbed through quantity buys all over the United States – including major independent labels as well as the majors – they have the industry by the proverbial short hairs. The clout and fire power in controlling the flow of music to the unwashed masses makes them the gatekeepers of a dying format.

And if either of these franchises decides that physical product and maintaining inventory is no longer in the best interest of their annual bottom line those departments will disappear overnight. And it’s bye-bye compact disc.

explosionWorse still is that the record labels have no Plan B. The MP3 revolution steam rolled over them. They’re still trying to catch that train long after it left the station. Without the CD and without a firm grasp of managing the ubiquitous nature of downloads, they need a new strategic plan. Actually, they needed it ten years ago. I expect that we’re going to see the compact disc as a delivery system implode over the course of 2013 and 2014.

So where does that leave independent artists? Struggling as before to eek out a meager living trying to balance promo and commerce with these shiny audio calling cards. There is the street_musicianodd success story of independent sales records (Amanda Palmer comes to mind) but for the most part maximizing the potential of the CD as a stepping stone to a bigger pay day (and recognition) is what many indie artists have to come to accept as the new reality.

To wit, I still receive my fair share of material from indie artists living out that dream. This month we have a new batch from people proud and hopeful that they too can make a difference on the musical landscape.

STICKY HENDERSON – ‘Life on the Sideboard’
As a bass player I’ve always believed that the bass guitar has been grossly under-utilized as an emotive instrument. Melodically, Paul McCartney turned the device into more than a percussive extension of the kick drum. He gave it a voice. The Alice Cooper Band’s Dennis Dunaway turned that on its head and decided that playing one string at a time – even in arpeggiated runs – wasn’t nearly as satisfying as using a combination of strings and finger chording to create rhythmic counter-point to either the drumming or the melody of a song (sometimes both simultaneously).

stickyhenderson_photoFormer Weeping Tile/Assmachine bassist Sticky Henderson has followed Dunaway’s path and uses the bass more as a rhythm guitar than a thrumming bottom end support for drums. Because of this, actual guitar is absent from her self-produced, self-penned and performed EP ‘Life on the Sideboard’. It’s not as minimalistic as it sounds. Henderson has stories to tell and the production recalls the heady-days of female experimental musicians like Laurie Anderson, Dalbello and Jane Siberry especially on tracks like “Any Old Story” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YovRaA2q8U4 and “In The Basket”. Vocally Sticky gives us a mix of classic Suzanne Vega and Martha Bouchier (Swedish Fish) with an almost sing-song approach as in “Take a Right” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ew_nruXnx-g and “Clime”. Catchy, melodic but with an idiosyncratic delivery.  http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/StickyHenderson

LARRY WILKES – ‘Step Aside’

wilkes albumProducer Michael Jack contacted me during the recording of Toronto, Ontario resident Larry Wilkes’ new CD and wondered if I’d be interested in reviewing it.  It was an unusual move for a producer – many of whom leave the promotion of their productions up to the workings of the artist’s promo team. But Jack was excited before the album was even complete. It arrived in my mailbox this week from Jack – and not Larry Wilkes. This, too, was noteworthy in that it showed how excited he still was about this release.

And excited he should be. Wilkes is a true undiscovered gem of a blues guitarist who wields his Stratocaster as a symbiote to his smooth wilkesmelodic rock & blues. “Pale Blue”, “Gimme Lots of Money” and “Thinkin’ About My Baby” are Stevie Ray/Clapton/Colin James like and will appeal to the enthusiasts – particularly fans of the late Johnny V. However, Wilkes‘ strong suit is not only in more pop oriented numbers like “Anchors Away” and “The List” but the songwriting itself which is mature and devoid of the typical “I been done wrong” screeds in I, IV, V that become clichés in the hands of lesser artists. Wilkes’ grand slams come in the form of the co-writes with band members Marv Bishop (bass) and Mike Pulkinghorn (drums) on both “Hot Wet Night” and the Santana-esque “Tu Fazer Brincadeira Mim” – the CD’s most outstanding track. For a change of pace Wilkes also bends a little slide and jives on a little country rock with “Deal With the Devil” and the gorgeous jazz-styled instrumental “Strat Etude”. Also included are four radio edits of the CD’s best tracks – which, in itself, is a brilliant promotional idea. http://www.reverbnation.com/larrywilkes

DANA COUNTRYMAN – ‘Pop! The Incredible Fantastic Retro Pop World of Dana Countryman with Special Guests’
I’ve known of Dana’s penchant for all things Pure Pop, Sunshine Pop and Powerpop for years via an old online music group called Audities. It was there I became aware of 1980s vocal comedy act The Amazing Pink Things and then his solo material which he began making in 1991. In recent years he’s come to prominence with his cheerleading of all things Moog – and specifically for shining a spotlight on its earliest pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey. When Dana began sending sneak peeks of songs from his latest all-pop album I just had to hear more. And “more” includes 17 incredibly produced tracks of what can only be described as a visit to the way-back machine: 1974 through 1977 specifically. There are no cover tunes here but when you spin this disc suddenly it’s as if you’ve heard every one of these Dana originals before. Elements of Manilow, Sedaka, the Beach Boys, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Andrew Gold and even those bubblegum songwriting master of pop Chapman & Chinn (Bay City Rollers, The Sweet). Stand out soon-to-be pop classics include “Every Night”, “Thrill Me” (featuring guitar work by Klaatu’s Dee Long)  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7VAqwiF-TKQ, “Tricia’s Song” (a love letter to his wife with authentic killer Beach Boys harmonies), “She Loves Me”, “I Lie Awake And Dream of You” (again with Dee Long) and “I’ll Tell The World” (with guest vocalist Wally Reddington III).

Countryman_PerreyThe CD then takes a decided left turn part way through the track sequence as it introduces a handful of special guest vocalists like Peter McDonnell (“For Now and Forever”), Jimmie Herrod (“A Lady Like You” and “I’ll Never Be The Same”), and Scott Krippayne (“Eternity”). As the title of the CD suggests, these are Dana’s Special Guests. However, the left turn comes from the musical shift. The album goes from straight Pop into Broadway and Adult Contemporary love songs. The feel good of the first part of the album is replaced with a series of Hallmark card and Showtune ruminations we remember from made-to-order celebrities turned singers turned celebrities such as David Soul, Shaun Cassidy and John Travolta with no irony whatsoever. Personally, I would have liked to have seen the two styles of music released on different discs. However, Dana knows his audience – one that has supported him for years and he’s a smart man for catering to all music tastes. It’s rarity in an age where a pop song is written by a dozen people and strung together in ProTools by a ‘team’ of producers. Dana has done everything himself (REALLY WELL) and added ringers only when the songs call for instrumentation played by others who can articulate a different mood or sound. There is something here for everyone and I highly recommend a listen. http://www.danacountryman.com

Send your CDs for review to this NEW address: Jaimie Vernon, 4003 Ellesmere Road, Toronto, ON M1C 1J3 CANADA


Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonJaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 35 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 17 of those years. He is also the author of the Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ both of which are available at Amazon.com or http://www.bullseyecanada.com

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