Imagine the Tower, Babbling

Vinyl Fetish uploaded to Flickr on November 29, 2005 by Thomas Hawk, creative commons 

I am a passionate music lover with a deep and abiding love for almost all types of music.  Any given week I will listen to music from every era of recorded history, from early voice cylinders to 1920s and 30s rebetika to late 50s electronica or French chanson to early 80s goth and maybe some Charalambides today.   I don’t feel restricted by genre since any particular performer’s skill can trump musical limitations, and the best performers will often feel absented from genre and from time.  Brigitte Fontaine’s Comme à la Radio sounds magically fresh no matter how often I listen to it, and Sun Ra’s Jazz in Silhouette would confound most any jazz expert as to what era it was recorded in.  And of course the best artists become definitions in their own right, whether it’s Johnny Cash talkin’ up murder at Folsom Prison, Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s cultural showdown at Kalakuta Republic, or Lee “Scratch” Perry burning down of his Ark.

I am thinking a lot about the state of music these days, though I think for me the heart of the matter began with the bankruptcy of Tower Records.  Somehow when they closed shop in the States I was very emotional about it, even though I was never a good customer by any stretch.  Their prices were always awful, so that wasn’t the draw.  For me, their selection was what amazed me, the remarkable depth they maintained across every genre and sub-genre that only specialized stores would usually provide.  And growing up just outside NYC did have its advantages.  I would often go to Other Music, Kim’s Underground and Downtown Music Gallery whenever actually purchasing something, or better yet save my cookie money for the WFMU record fair (which, if you have never been, it is your duty as a music lover to make the pilgrimage at least once in your life; you have NO IDEA what embarrasing levels of wonderment and enchantment await you). 

Tower Records though represented something, a true love of music mapped out over a corporate behemoth.  Visiting Sam Greedy and Coconuts and Virgin and FYE and especially any music store incorporated into a larger media conglomerate like Media Play or Target or (shudder) Wal-Mart can be so depressing for music lovers.  How can they have every album Poison and Marilyn Manson and Styx ever put out but not a single album by Françoise Hardy, Caetano Veloso or even just Tom Waits?  Oh, they do have the Stay Awake collection of Disney tunes, isn’t Tom Waits on that?  (You can tell I’m dating myself here…Waits has been stocked ever since that grammy for Bone Machine, but it was valid back in the day, trust me)

By the middle of the nineties stray albums did begin to show up by artists other than heavy airplay stadium draws, due to less restrictive ordering policies that let employees get in on it, but no genuine representation on the scale Tower offered.  Browsing Tower’s racks, and being able to listen to songs at listening stations from a more encompassing universe of music, was revelatory for me.  (Not to mention that magazine selection!  A bounty of contemporary world art and design for the eyes of collage artist on a budget.)

Numerous laments have been written to Tower’s fall, and many have decried the rise of the Internet or file sharing as main offenders.  My feeling is that that view doesn’t consider it the right way, for ultimately it was more their greedy pricing and their operational stubbornness. 

Tower certainly had a large consumer base with mucho emotional investment in the chain.  We just couldn’t afford it, not at $18.99 and up for a single CD; it’s so much easier to buy Nirvana Unplugged at Coconuts for $10, if that’s what you’re after, and just forget about finding any early Siouxsie albums since Coconuts simply didn’t stock them.  Some local store probably has a used vinyl copy anyhow, or at least the 45s…

Vinyl Stack webbed — creative commons

Tower held desperately to boutique pricing rather than going for volume, and they diversified their promotions in the wrong direction.  Business wisdom said, before widespread use of the Internet, and when so many record labels were buying air time, that it is too difficult to educate people about other types of music, just sell blockbusters.  Tower had survived the eighties, and knew that people weren’t so limited in taste as advertised.  But they didn’t embrace new opportunities for branding or advertising afforded by the Internet at all, and they started to cut back on their diversity of offerings. 

Part of what inspired this post is the upcoming Smashing Pumpkins album.  Apart from the nowadays banal irony of big business promoting an album whose cover artwork is trendily anti-American (showing Lady Liberty afloat in a blood-red sea) is the banal use of exclusive editions to promote the CD.  No fewer than 4 versions are being released, three of which are exclusive to their respective retailers with unique bonus tracks.  I cannot imagine that this model of marketing can survive, not today.

Japan has been doing this type of promotion since the beginning of CD sales.  For the Japanese industry however it has to do with the cost of domestically produced items vs. imports.  A CD imported from the States or from China is much less expensive to the consumer than Japanese CDs, so they would write into musicians’ contracts that they had to supply a bonus track for Japan’s market.  The Smashing Pumpkins imbroglio is quite different, and speaks of desperation, not of support or, more importantly, respect for any fan base out there. 

Consider this great quote from, from an article from May of this year: “Here’s another way to weather the storm, and while we’ve said this before, it bears repeating: Everyone in the industry has to get used to making less money. That goes from the execs at the top all the way down to the EAs at Rolling Stone. You can’t live like it’s 1985 anymore, with those Rumours and Thriller accounting statements coming over the Telex, and with the only competition for young kids’ dollars being the Pac-Man machine down the street. If everyone could get used to this concept, maybe there’d be less panicking about lower physical-CD sales and piracy, and more emphasis on A&R and talent.”

Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, will be releasing his new book both in print and for free online.  The catch is that the free on will feature advertising, probably from Google’s AdSense program, but really little different from standard pages of a magazine in layout.  What will this mean for libraries and personal collections?  Will a subsequent iteration of become the go-to resource of library bibliographies?  (Check out the blog Print is Dead for timely discussions of these topics; you may hear more from Robotic Librarian about the blog in weeks to come)

And, if rumours are true, Tower will be back in America.  The online component never left, and it still thrives as a franchise in Japan.  It’s in Mexico as well, owned by the billionaire Carlos Slim Helú (who has been in the news a lot lately; having passed Warren Buffett already, and hot on the heels of Bill Gates, he may soon be the richest man in the world!).  Have they been paying attention to Web 2.0 successes, and new models for bricks and mortars? 

But then, is it about delivery of content or about form ….?

Uploaded to Flickr on May 17, 2007 by filologanoga, creative commons

"I was in danger of verbalizing my
moral impulses out of existence.
--Daniel Berrigan, on trial in Baltimore

1. My neighbor, a scientist and art-collector, telephones me in a state of violent emotion. He tells me that my son and his, aged eleven and twelve, have on the last day of school burned a mathematics textbook in the backyard. He has forbidden my son to come to his house for a week, and has forbidden his own son to leave the house during that time. “The burning of a book,” he says, “arouses terrible sensations in me, memories of Hitler; there are few things that upset me so much as the idea of burning a book.”

Back there: the library, walled
with green Britannicas
Looking again
in Durer’s Complete Works
for MELANCOLIA, the baffled woman

the crocodiles in Herodotus
the Book of the Dead
the Trial of Jeanne d’Arc, so blue
I think, It is her color

and they take the book away
because I dream of her too often
love and fear in a house
knowledge of the oppressor
I know it hurts to burn ”

(from The Burning of Paper Instead of Children by Adrienne Rich, click for full poem)

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