Frank Gutch Jr: The Music Industry: The More It Changes The More It Stays the Same, Plus Notes…..
I know it’s true because I have just had an epiphanic weekend (and a few naps) and can see clearly now (with a nod to Johnny Nash, whose I Can See Clearly Now has indeed stayed the same for decades). It has been a flashback in more ways than one. The music, of course, for I have been handed some of the best retro I’ve heard in some time. A few thoughts came to mind too, thanks to Jaimie Vernon‘s reactivated Bullseye Canada Records and a bit of time trying to figure out exactly what happened to the old music industry paradigm, and while I see a bright future for music I see a constant morphing happening as well. The print side of music is also showing signs of life again, though not yet for writers, who will have to suffer the bread lines for awhile longer if not forever.
One thing that crossed my mind came via the trailer for the documentary about the life and times of Tower Records, that iconic superstore chain which started in Sacramento and supposedly took over the world. It didn’t. Not really. For one thing, at its peak Tower had only 400+ (?) stores worldwide. Put 400 dots on a world map and see the how little they cover. Money-wise, Tower definitely was the 800-pound gorilla, though, and as a result the vast majority of information you can find in the trade magazines, the source of most music retail history, centers on it. Think Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll. I mean, Elvis didn’t exist in a vacuum, as much as most thought he did.
Much has been made about the release of the documentary put together by Colin Hanks about Tower (All Things Must Pass) and of course I have to take it at less than face value. I was in the business for many years and have my share of stories about record stores, including Tower, and the business overall. And while I have not seen the documentary yet (I guarantee you I will, because I want to), I can answer Dave Grohl‘s comment about not understanding why Tower Records is gone in a word: Economics. The truth is, the business ran away with itself and the music took a back seat.
Seriously, if you think that any major chain of box stores (which is what Tower became at its peak) survives off of their own money, you’re delusional. I would venture to say that the company at the time of bankruptcy was well into the major record labels for millions if not more. Credit was the name of the game and Russ Solomon played the game as well as anyone. While the company survived off of the Wall Street-style largesse of record labels for decades, the ride was bound to end regardless what spurred that end. The labels hated pulling the credit but it became so large that it had to be done and, for whatever reason— digitization, cash flow, a downturn in business or whatever— they did it.
If you ask me why not only Tower but the entire record industry collapsed when it did, I would tell you that the labels did it. They did it through discrimination, pure and simple. Not racial or ethnic discrimination, but financial. I remember Tom and Ellen Ogilvy, owners then of Seafair-Bolo Records out of Seattle, giving me a lesson in early record company economics. After opening a small record/music shop called Electro-Mart, they found that if you wanted to deal directly with the labels, you played by their rules which for Capitol Records at the time was, if you want to buy wholesale, you have to buy everything we release. While that was not the rule with the labels during Tower’s reign, the rules still existed. Tower was big enough to bend those rules. What started out, I am sure, as cash-on-delivery soon evolved into billing which soon evolved into credit which soon enough got out of hand. While the little stand-alone shop down the street paid for a shipment by the end of the month, Tower at its peak paid in 90 days at a minimum, possibly 180 days. In other words, labels gave them records for six months before payment was due. Want to know how hard it would have been to open those megastores without that credit? Not all money comes out of jukeboxes, you know. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that.
In the meantime, the labels just plain stopped giving a shit about stores below a certain dollar level. They appeared to put more and more money into the pockets (and advertising budgets) of the Towers and Peaches and Wherehouses while kicking the little guy to the curb. In effect, they put the vast majority of their money in one basket— not just Tower, of course, but let us say the megastore basket. When things began to crumble, instead of making adjustments for the entire retail side of operations, they doubled-down. By the time the dust cleared, there was no Tower and no Wherehouse— in fact, the whole chain aspect of (now) “music” stores had imploded. They looked around and saw that not only was online-sharing killing their market but they had few places left to actually sell their product. They had, in effect, shot themselves in the ass. Or would that be their asses?
I do want to see this documentary. I want to relive the glory days of the business and listen to what the Tower and the label people have to say. I want to watch supposed pundits analyze the run of the major labels through the telling of Tower’s story to see if I got it right or wrong. I want to hear the people who made the biggest difference to me— the people who actually worked in the stores— give their insights. Here are some insights from Colin Hanks you may have missed.
I, like Colin Hanks, applied at Tower— the Seattle Tower store. Their manager at the time, Kenny Sokolov, told me I was overqualified while pulling returns. The conversation lasted 20 minutes, eighteen of which was Kenny sweating over a bin of records as he pulled records and filled out the form. I didn’t argue. I figured that if he didn’t want me, I didn’t want to be there. I headed over to Peaches right next to the U-District and talked with Marty Feldman (no, not THAT Marty Feldman), who asked if I could buy singles (not unmarried people but 45 RPM records— man, you youngsters make it hard to write about the record business). I said I could learn and thus began a thirteen-year-plus run at one of the best stores at which I had the pleasure of working. Thanks mostly to the people with whom I worked. I learned a lot during that run, the most important of which was that jobs can be fun but the people with whom you work are what makes it really fun.
Thanks to Dave Coker (whom we called Coker Dave back then), I have heard some interesting Tower stories over the years. Dave has been posting pictures more profusely on his Facebook page since the imminent release of All Things Must Pass was announced. In them are rock stars, of course, but more importantly there are pictures of the people who made Seattle record stores what they were back then— the label reps and the managers and the people who worked the floor at the various stores, mostly Tower of course. I hope you don’t mind, Dave, but I’m posting one of your pics here. The one with Bobby Bare. Some of the people in this picture are the reasons I loved working retail records.
Just this morning I found another of one of a long string of outstanding reviews/recommendations for music from The Active Listener. The Listener is actually a dude named Nathan Ford and is my go-to guy when I want to delve deeply into the world of psychedelic music. Him and the Powerpopaholic dude (he does not list his name on his page so I will keep it a secret here) and a couple of others. Ford is the man, though, extolling virtues of all bands psych, regardless of time or period. If it’s good, he will let you know.
This week, he uncovered an absolutely stunning album recorded by a band right up there with The Soundcarriers in their understanding of the psych form— The Magnetic Mind. He not only gets the music but obviously understands how hard it is to get to the core of what made/makes psych a genre to be not only enjoyed but studied. And, as always, he provides links to the music. Read the review (click here) and if it sounds like something you might enjoy (I am enjoying the hell out of it, myself), click on nthe music link. This is good, good stuff! As always, thank you, Mr. Ford. Guys like you make today’s music fun. While waiting for the new album, feast your eyes and ears on this little puppy from an earlier record.
Adam Marsland over at Karma Frog Records is keeping his foot in the pop market with a new release by a band calling themselves Mod Hippie. Can Hippies be mod? I have no idea These guys aren’t straight psych but borrow from a range of genres covering pop, power pop, surf and more. They do not exactly have “the” sound of the sixties but it is definitely the base upon which they build. They have a bit of a more gritty Gripweeds approach, not a bad thing (The Gripweeds have been a psych/pop favorite for years) and they know how to rock. They even do a pop version, I think, of The Hombres‘ Let It All Hang Out, which isn’t even close to the original but knocks my socks off. I hate covers but this can’t really be classified as such. I may have heard the lyrics but not the music. I wish they had a video for that one, but you will have to suffice with this. Ladies and gentlemen, Mod Hippie:
For those who may have missed it, I am high on Karma Frog‘s release from a month or so ago, too. Summer Children has that very sixties sound we all (well, those who are old enough) remember from sixties AM radio. A little sunshine pop, country, Bacharach-type tunes. Genre radio? It didn’t exist back then. A hit was a hit.
I know I told you before but have you even tried to listen to Susan James‘ Sea Glass? The more I hear it, the more I am impressed. She has put together a brilliant album, coming at it from all angles— production, performance, songs. And, just to show you I care, here is a link to her Bandcamp page (click here) so you can hear it for yourself.
I know. We all thought the labels were going by the wayside. Thing is, we didn’t count on the people who love music beyond the norm. I already mentioned Adam Marsland, who has amped up what once was a vanity label for his own music, to full label status. There was a time I would have been astonished to hear anyone say that he would make such a move as he was as frustrated as anyone at the lack of headway. Adam has a lot of friends, though, many of them musicians, who would not let the dream die. The truth is, some bands need a label and also need someone to believe in them. That doesn’t mean that Adam will back anyone, but it means he will back those he really likes and understands. Thus, Summer Children and Mod Hippie, not to mention a string of his own earlier albums.
I am pleased as punch to see Jaimie Vernon finally put both feet in the fire, too. As long as I’ve known him, Jaimie has struggled with the whole idea of the music business. Of course, I only know of him from the time of the advent of DBAWIS, which happened after his first go-round with Bullseye Canada Records sank alongside the rest of the music industry. I am happy to see that he has decided to put his knowledge to good use.
Bullseye Canada is certainly not the first label to double efforts or reactivate after the big crunch. New West started because of the major label collapse, picking up artists who otherwise would have still been major label but for the downsizing, though that label could have been in the works for a time before the crunch. Bloodshot Records has done very well by today’s standards as has Yep Roc Records. Signature Sounds, with their signing of Winterpills and Zoe Muth, are solid favorites and there are others— Red House, Compass, and up in Canada, Seventh Fire and Borealis filling in the gaps. Many more, really. One of these days I will have to write about the labels as they exist. It would be fun, even if no one else is interested.
Green Monkey continues its journey in Seattle. Tom Dyer is a class act and includes his artists in label decisions to more of a degree than others. His roster includes The Green Pajamas, The OF (those guys are out there in a Zappa/The Flock sense), Gary Minkler, who fronted Red Dress in the eighties but has mellowed since his eating-mousies-raw days), and others. One hell of a roster.
In fact, between Dyer, Vernon, and Marsland, things might just get interesting. All have had hands in the business for awhile, Dyer and Vernon walked away and came back. They are all positive dudes and really believe in what they are doing. We need people and labels like this. They are crucial.
The more I think about it, the more the label rundown appeals to me. Perhaps a running commentary on how those three, Karma Frog and Bullseye and Green Monkey, are faring on an ongoing basis? We’ll see. In the meantime, you look like you could use something edible, so chew on these…..
Notes… I mention Hymn For Her all the time because they are one super-creative force in music, as far as I am concerned. They return the favor by turning me onto musicians and projects involving the arts and buy have they found one this time! There is a lady named Miriama who has taken it upon herself to open a music school for women in The Gambia. The idea is to set up an educational resource for girls and women regarding music— give them access to instruments and allow them to learn and study about music. I think we can all agree that this crowdfunder is no big moneymaker and in fact will need funds for years to come if it is set up correctly. This is our chance to pass a few bucks along to a very good cause. Check out Miriam’s page by clicking here and pass the link along if you so desire. I will be. Hey, if nothing else, read the linked page. You might learn something.
I was in the Army back in the Spring of ’71 and there was this guy named Hal Whipple (we called him Ripple because he was always sampling the sacramental wine). The dude had been going to school at the University of Nevada studying electronic music and we had numerous conversations about Xenakis and Stockhausen and John Cage and the like. I have always thought of Hal as a genius because back then, you had to program your music on cards and feed them into a computer and it was so far out of my comprehension I could not at all grasp it. So when I saw this post passed along by Peter Hackett of Cult of Wedge, a UK project, I had to pass it along. This is for the people who believe that music is more than just a guitar or keyboard plugged into an amp. Very cool. And thanks, Peter!
I first found Will Locker pounding drums for the Des Moines band Bright Giant. He was solid as a percussionist but I am sure always wanted to do more. Well, he has. While he did not trade his drums in for a guitar, he has oicked up the guitar as well and has just released his first solo album, Redhead. It’s good. Real good. Just to show you, first Bright Giant, then the ol’ redhead his own self, Mr. Locker. The Rock & Roll Man.
Some days I wake up and feel just like this video shows. It’s Clique. No, not The Clique. Just Clique. I need some coffee.
I can’t help laughing when I see videos like this posted on YouTube because the comments are always in a foreign language. I saw it when I watched the videos by Ma Rain, out of Holland, Alcoholic Faith Mission, out of Denmark, and now Tina Refsnes, out of Norway. Luckily, the music is good in all three instances. From Norway, here is Tina Refsnes!
In order for a rock balladeer to make me perk my ears up there has to be something special there. In Daniel Martin Moore‘s case it is an entrancing voice and the way with a tune. Golden Age has an inward feel that brings a knot to the throat thanks to smo-o-oth production and a captivating voice which will have many— well, not swooning, but you get the idea. Click on this video and lay back. Moore will do the rest. It is mainstream but, man, it is good mainstream.
I am a sucker for retro rock probably because I lived it the first time around. Give me a guitar, a beat and a Farfisa and I’m happy. So, evidently, are The Fawns. No doubt about it, it’s a party.
Here you are probably all thinking I only listen to music from the English-speaking Big Four— USA, UK, Australia, and Canada. Well, lookie here. A video of a band from, gasp!, Portugal! I wish these guys would get a lyricist but the music is pretty damn nice. Secret Lie.
There has been a move the past few years to bring some soul to the country and I have found no one who does it better than King Radio. Mainstream, for sure, but with a groove.
Ever hear of Amason? Neither had I until musician (one of my favorites) Gabrielle Gewirtz passed this along. Flashes of the eighties pop scene— the real pop scene and not that crappy dress up as a mannequin with freaked out hair and twenty keyboards and no guitar crap.
Thank the gods I am not alone because I would be, alongside Jack, a very dull boy. People have no idea how much I rely on friends and what I consider pundits to clue me in to the good stuff. One day I will write about Dominic Valvona, saying I am sure that this cat will write about anything, but I know better. Valvona digs deeper than most, even myself, and plucks the gems with care. He writes a blog called Monolith Cocktail and I swear to God finds reasons to post the oddest but the best of the music he discovers (or rediscovers, as the cade may be). Here are a couple of videos from his most recent post. I repost them to give you an idea of the musical world in which he lives…..
Valvona also posted a few Soundcloud embeds of music I most certainly would not have heard, including a link to an album of Alan Lee tracks, Lee being one of the lesser known jazz musicians from Down Under. You won’t appreciate what he does until you visit one of his pages, though, so if you would like to read what a real music fan/writer is all about, click here. I am sure some of you will subscribe. If you like adventurous music.
Gotta Have Pop, eh? There’s lots of it out there, folks, and this is one I like. Almost Poer Pop, in fact. From Karma Frog and due for a December release— Tommy Habib.
Frank’s column appears every Wednesday
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“Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”