By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Matt and I are shuttled to Liz's office. It is full of Elvis: Elvis dolls, skinny-Elvis stamps from the United States Postal Service, commemorative cups and plates, and a display of 7-inch singles. Liz sits behind a large, officious desk.
I'm here with Matt because he runs a label called Flapping Jet. It's a tiny operation based out of his partner Max's house in San Diego. Their focus is on vinyl records by destined-for-obscurity Scandinavian garage bands, clattering San Diegan rock, galloping drum patterns, barbwire guitars, men of limited range and talent screaming in key, and assorted agitated lunacy. Matt carries the artwork and master tape of his latest project in a brushed-aluminum briefcase.
Liz and I agree that in the album's cover photo, the lead singer's cheekbones look like those of Botticelli's Venus. Matt leans toward Liz and places his hands on her desk, then whispers conspiratorially, "I would like to see us sell 10,000 copies of this record."
"I would, too," Liz replies, drolly.
"You know, if I told this to Max he'd go arraahgah!" Matt throws himself out of his chair and rips at his clothes, miming the behavior of a partner destined for penury. Matt and Max will spend many thousands of dollars pressing these records. There is a slim chance that they'll make this money back.
"But, like me, you love it," says Liz, "and we'll never stop doing it."
"It treats us well," says Matt.
Liz shoots back: "Does it?"
CREEPING TOWARD DEATH
For almost two decades now, vinyl has been creeping toward death; in the 10 years between 1978 and '88 alone, LP sales dropped almost 80 percent. Of course, vinyl will always be a viable way to store music, but LPs and singles are now as much objects and instruments as they are a medium for playback. They are pop-cult fetishes, an element of the turntable.
Matt and I go back and forth on the merits of one major label's vinyl re-release of classics like the Stones' Exile on Main Street. ("I just saw it at Aron's for $45. What record collector doesn't have Exile? Did people wear out the grooves? Did they sell their copies to buy some dope?") There is still a fervent collector's market for vinyl. DJs thirst for one-of-a-kind dubplates, inscribed on acetate. The reckless affection of people like Liz and Matt will always exist. But love has never staved off death.
And now we have options such as Napster. In case you've been living in a bomb shelter without an Internet connection, Napster is a music-file-sharing application that narrowly escaped injunction at the hands of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) a couple of months back. (The RIAA is a trade organization and lobbying group for the ever in-flux major labels: the Canadian-cum-French Universal Music Group, Germany's BMG, Japan's Santa Monicabased Sony Music, America's Warner Bros., and Britain's EMI, which may soon merge with Warner.) It is no exaggeration to call Napster a phenomenon. As a company, it claims as many as 28 million users and a valuation of close to $2 billion. As a concept, it has alternatively drawn the rancor, love and confusion of the industry, artists and music fans nationwide. If enough people download the application and log on to Napster's servers, or utilize other peer-to-peer file-sharing applications of its ilk, all the recorded music in the world could conceivably be cataloged and available for free download via one central source. Because of Napster, the U.S. Congress or perhaps even the Supreme Court may be forced to reconsider the sustainability and enforceability of intellectual property and copyright. Some have accused Napster of hastening the end of music as we know it.
In light of this, it's worth pondering Matt's dedication to records and Liz's apparent doubts: Does music, as it's been sold to us for the last hundred years, treat us well? Should we celebrate packaged music or hasten its death?
There's little question records have treated us well in the past. Well, okay, there's no question they've treated me well in the past. Throughout my adolescence, punk rock records and their surrounding ephemera -- fliers, magazines, T-shirts -- provided documentary proof of a foreign but ever more accessible community apart from the suburbia I grew up in. Records were the gateway to a secret culture that seemed to birth itself, a self-willed community of sound based on rawness, lust, disorder and youth. It was a culture that certainly would have existed without records, but records best told the story and spread the song.
Whenever I begin to get wrapped up in records these days, however, I'm reminded that records are just objects. My nostalgia for these commodities is awkward and unwelcome in this, an era of frictionlessness, weightlessness, wirelessness and Web technology, and of frictionless, weightless talk about Web technology. Records are merely an amalgam of printed paper and flat plastic: garbage. They have become less real than digits floating through the ether.
As a collector, though, I've always engorged this garbage: B-sides, obscurities, the offshoots of the obscure; the gnarled or guileless or jaded sounds of pop. Thankfully, this particular garbage is small and portable enough that it can be filed neatly on a shelf, but these objects, this data you can hold in your hands -- wax cylinders, shellac, magnetic tape, compact discs -- has been accumulating on shelves for over a century. Call it a sign of personal growth, but these days, when I walk into the indexed sprawl of a record store, I don't just see the unmatched possibility of popular art, I see the garbage as garbage, as glut.