Monday, April 22, 2013

J&R Music: Record Store Day

J&R Music, the last great record store in New York City, in the greater New York Area, and probably in the United States of America.

Last year, I heard that J&R was going to close, that 2012 would be the last year. I think I went down there and bought some CDS when I heard this, but turned out that rumor was not true, at least not yet.

Saturday was Record Store Day, which means nothing to me except that every year, fewer stores exist to celebrate their existence. Vinyl has becoming a big thing – not enough to improve music industry sales, but steadily increasing. It’s newly hip. I’m sorry. I’m not going back to Vinyl. The damn things warp, and for all its warmth, and for all the careful handling one implements, pops and crackles abound. Plus you can’t share.

I like CDs. I like compact and round. I love the crispness of the CD sound. Easier to store and dust, and while the disc and actually the coating on the disc can suffer damage, that gets less of an issue with the windows music player. The ole CD player is now mainly an NPR reception unit. Although it’s taken more than a year, I’ve copied every CD (I think about a 1,000) to the computer. As these things go, the speakers that came with The Dell sound great. Technos whine about the MP3 sound, I guess I either do not mind or do not hear the tinny. The last few years, I never even play the CDs straight out, I just copy and play the copies.

Clive Davis was on the Leonard Lopate show a few weeks ago, and when asked what he thinks of the vinyl revival, does he miss vinyl and he said yes, but I miss CDs too. Finally, somebody else speaks up for CDs. I’m old enough to have been through several formats, and of that generation who spent much of the 90s replacing my LP collection on CDs. In the 90s, I also discovered Jazz and rummaging through record stores (anyone remember Record Hunter in Chelsea) and finding Nat & Cannonball Adderly and John Coltrane masterpieces were always great music purchasing adventures.

Probably for about 20 years after I was a teenager and entered the working world, some piece of every pay check probably went to (depending on the decade) a LP, Cassette, or CD.

Remember Tower Records? Sam Goody? Discomat?, the Virgin Record Store (obnoxious and over priced), this was in addition to the smaller stores in and around the “village” Bleeker Bobs closed recently, here’s an oft linked tale of how they helped me get into Elvis, but Rebel Rockers continues to rock on. But forget that in addition to, while I enjoyed those smaller stores, I prefer the big box, especially as CDs proliferated. Smaller, ‘compact,’CDs meant more and J&R, unlike say Sam Goodies, would carry smaller, off-beat label releases. The attitude was archival. This makes the browsing experience informational, especially as my tastes began expanding to country music (vintage of course), adding new names to my personal musical lexicon. J&R was the only record store equal to Tower, but Tower was convenient so I went there most. I can remember when a new Dylan was released and everybody on line had the CD in hand – of course, this was for World Gone Wrong and everyone on line was somewhere around middle age, but still. Nowadays, the Friday before the Tuesday of a release, I go to Rebel Records (shh, you didn’t hear that here!).

I appreciate the specialty record stores, but I prefer love the rampant democracy of J&R. No bogus High Fidelity elitism. Just a lot of merchandise, a lot of titles. I love the idea that there are entire universes, like Classical or World music that I never know, just as there are probably fellow music lovers who know those departments and have no interest in Ralph Stanley or Hilary Kole.

Anyway, never apologize for your music. Music is the most subjective of all the arts, and as the digital revolution makes music less communal, it also increases the subjectivity so even references are getting harder to recognize (until you google that is). If I didn’t read Rolling Stone, I would be totally lost when it comes to new artists. I used to boast that I loved Hole, and while I still boast that, all them Grrrls are nearing menopause, which doesn’t make them any less Grrrls but digging Hole, L7 and the Lunachicks no longer gives me cred for solidarity with the youth, just the younger portion of the Middle Aged population. Punk is forever young in a way its perpetrators and proponents are unable to be. True for all musical genres, but for Punk that part of the joke was always on us.

So, what me come to J&R on record store day? Ladies of the Canyon.

A friend on FB mentioned this record in passing. Pre-Blue Joni is an acquired taste, and in the current era my preference is for that indisputable great jazz inflected trifecta of Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hjiera, and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughters At least that has been the focus of the CD replacement therapy regarding Joni, whom I’ve been a fan of since high school, which coincided with her hey day. Ladies is the best of the pre-Blue, heavily folked up Joni, I use to love this record, haven’t heard it in full in some 25 years – AT LEAST – and couldn’t get it out of my mind after the FB newsfeed aside.

So, I immediately went to J&R to purchase it. Well, not exactly. I first went to buy it online. I do download music, but I generally buy single songs – 99 cents on Amazon – rather than complete albums. One things I’ve done is bought a used CD -- I recently got an Aaron Neville CD – The Grand Tour – for 99 cents, plus $2.98 shipping. The download was like $11 and new was like $18, but I think it is out of print so those were new copies of the original release, if such definitions still apply in our digital reality. Used of course, copies as well as new, sounds the same download.

So, I tried the same with Ladies, with new being about $10, plus shipping; download $11, used was $4.79 plus shipping, which for some reason was $3.98.

Prices subject to change and misremembering.

So, with J&R, you can see if something is in stock, and Ladies was -- $5.99 (For some Record Store Day sale reason, it was marked down to $4.99 at the register).

See, you used to have to go to a store, either buy it or ask them to order it. But now we live in the internet world. I shopped around online and found the best price – in the non-virtual world, a brick-and-mortar store.

I was further enticed to buy more music, much of it on sale –Clouds by Joni Mitchell, The Best of the New Riders of the Purple Sage and a 2-CD The Gospel Collection by George Jones. Every CD was either $4.99 or $5.99, came to about $22 total – much better than 99 cents per song. When I shop online, I only buy the target product, impulse purchases as they are generally called, never enter into the equation. How can you survive additional inventory online? Why would you? Well, I suppose there are methods and programmer is probably dreaming up effective methods but I do not see how this combination of price and product and random chance can be replicated virtually.


Online vs. Brick & Mortar, they are two distinct experiences and when it comes to buying music, we are loosing something vital, a human dimension of capitalism, with the death of the record store. Maybe this issue is emerging for all our products, but with music the impact seems particularly dire because digitized makes online easier and physical stores superfluous. Some are surprised anyone is still paying for music at all. Aside from the current iteration of napster, streaming is the latest option and while I’ve dabbled some, the removal of some decision making and all ownership has no appeal for me.

What’s the better way to go? Going to the friggin store! Pilgrimages to J&R are always worth it, there’s a real nice park nearby and you get to skim the archive. That browsing is what is being lost – and because of the nature of consumer process, probably only applicable to record stores, book stores and I guess DVD stores. Maybe it harkens back to my youth, when you only had enough for record and had to decide between Red Octopus and Devil in Disguise. That’s no longer the situation and if there was a cheaper option to satiate my Ladies of the Canyon desire, I would have bought online.

So, for now everything coexists but the cost-effectiveness and convenience of online music purchasing are false assertions, at least not always true.

And lower cost, has not always been the case. I have eyed this George Jones Gospel collection before, and I seem to recall prices of $21.99, it is a two-disc set, and sort of a specialty item. That price was at J&R. The disc was in the Country Section – on the 2nd Floor – and the prices there were pretty cheap, a lot of $5.99 discs. But I also noticed something else. There used to be dozens of discs for each artist, but now there was noticeable fewer – only one Roy Acuff CD of any kind, for instance. The country section is pretty comprehensive, old and new, bluegrass, on the far wall in the section is the folk music, which I didn’t look through.

I noticed the same trend in the Rock & Roll section on the 1st floor – this covers the broadest range of artists and s where the Joni is located – that there were fewer, usual suspects were missing. I have all the Dylan, but of course I looked through Dylan. AT J&R, they will often have imports, and in Europe they put “best of Theme Time Radio,”CDs, which have no Dylan but are filled with weird cuts from his Satellite Radio Show (which may no longer exist), but I have some of those imported CDs and they’re great but they were no where in sight this Record Store Day .

I also noticed hardly any box sets of any kind, along the wall were always box sets of all sorts. Now, there was more Vinyl, new racks to accommodate the space this bulkier format requires. There are likely lots of factors encroaching on shelf space and what seemed to be the dwindling CD inventory. The previous depth has diminished. There are fewer CDs being manufactured; how economically feasible is to re-master old tapes and reissue a Blind Lemmon Jefferson series, a product whose audience was limited in the best of times. Sure, there’s Bruce Springsteen galore, everything on disc but the those other artists – there was only one Sleep LaBeef CD! – were not in the same abundance. I have to assume there are just not as many being produced and the lines are not being replenished.

But I also wonder if J&R is actually conducting a long term GOB (Going Out of Business) sale. Bring in the new releases, but the inventory depth, the old and reissued, are priced to move, but not entirely priced at a loss and they are just selling off the stock. It seems the CD sections of Barnes & Noble, which tend to be eclectic and filled with non-commercial items like Smithsonian Folkways, is doing the same thing. I never see the new old in B&N any more. The inventory is stale, I’ve seen it before, been the case for three years at least. At B&N, the NOOK is taking up more floor space, and the CD/DVD section keeps shrinking and within that section, the Blue-Ray DVDs are absorbing shelf-space, further encroaching on the music, which is frustrating since these are not new titles, just replications of the regular DVD releases.
Vinyl is acting in the same way as Blue Ray, a format replacement. Inventory attrition is not occurring with introductions of new material. The selection is shrinking on all fronts. There’s less to browse. At J&R, will the vinyl resurgence be sufficient to replace the CD loss? That is a business proposition we are seeing play out. But the fact is, there is less material being introduce and made available. Not just in the physical format, but also the downloadable format, which is an observation that cannot be substantiated here.

Maybe the rumors of the immanent closure of J&R were true, just the time frame was way off. They’re just selling off the warehouse stock. I can’t imagine vinyl ever becoming a major format option again, but a small but loyal following can do wonders in sustaining a business. The idea that there are people out there who having bought an original LP, replacing in cassette, then CD, then going out and buying the LP again, boggles the mind. I’m assuming they bypassed 8-track & DAT. People may prefer the store experience to the online experience, but even the record stores still able to attract enough customers to stay in business still need to get stock to inventory and that seems more of an issue. It seems inevitable that there soon will not be enough depth of inventory CD-wise, and in lieu of closure, the record store will revert to its original incarnation of a retailer of LPs and Singles, which made up the bulk of the Record Store Day promotional items for sale.

J&R owns the property and has a cluster of stores, selling all sorts of electronics and other merchandise. I’ve never been inside of some of the stores. While I generally buy Dell desktops, for accessories and software, J&R is my go-to store and has been since the 90s, which I reckon is true for most of Jersey City. In their home audio department, the scarcity is in CD players, an irony when you consider J&R Music is right next door. Why buy a multiple disc player and press the random setting when you can make your own playlist and the computer speakers are as good as any?

Paradoxes aplenty; trends conflict. The CD is dead, I remember reading recently, in article that said 2012 was the first year the long decline in profitability for the music industry was halted, and a small increase in sales was finally recorded. Buying and browsing music titles is a disappearing pleasure. In most places of the country, it has already disappeared and if it wasn’t for J&R, it would have disappeared here as well.


And the CDs I snagged during the recent pilgrimage? Incredible. The New Riders have recently regrouped and released two credible, wall of guitar, country-tinged folk rock. They do a great version of You Angel You, an overlooked Planet Waves gem. For some reason, I was unable to get t his as a download; If it did, it would have been 99 cents, so for an extra four bucks I got 14 other songs. Panama Red may not do it for me any more, but Glendale Train still resonates and She’s No Angel is a great rocker. Country Rock was always a hippie/redneck  mash-up, and the Riders were always more hippie than redneck. Overshadowed by the Grateful Dead (Jerry Garcia was a founding member), the New Riders had more warmth and scope than the Eagles, and their records come close to Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
George Jones – you can never have enough George Jones. I think country gospel is my favorite form of gospel. Songs about Jesus are just enhanced by twang. Jones never shied away from slickness, but his songs glow like a neon beer sign in the cracked window of a rustic bar. All the best known country gospel standards, “Amazing Grace,” “Lonesome Valley, “Softly  Tenderly,”  “Rugged Cross,” as well as some rarities, like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which some may recall from the recent True Grit remake soundtrack. Jones conveys a believable sincerity with this collection; a man whose drunkenness and debauchery are well-known, he sounds like someone winning his struggle for redemption.
And Joni… folkie Joni… well Clouds has Chelsea Morning and that’s a song impossible not to love. “Won’t You Stay, We’ll Put on the Day, and we’ll wear it till the night comes,” – reminded me of Laurie Cowlin’s fiction, where Romance makes NYC fresh and new, embodying a sensuality commiserate with your heightened senses.  I’m not sure how well this as a collection has aged, it was an utter impulse buy at J&R. Both Sides Now has lost some of its anthemetic impact, but her original has grit and emotional depth that Judy Collins hit could never approach. Her  earnestness eventually erodes the built up cynicism preventing full appreciation.  Songs to Aging Children may be ponderous, but still haunts. Back then, songwriters never did not resist the profound. More profundity; less irony! Her voice is young and shiny bright, a flame of glass.
But Ladies of the Canyon, the instigating CD to this blog, what a masterpiece. That’s an undeniable fact. Woodstock, Big Yellow Taxi and Circle Game, those are hits, sure. But I love the hippie Ladies of the Canyon and Morning Comes to Morgantown, but with Joni, it’s the relationship songs I love and of course, those chords. She just writes great chords. Conversation – a brilliant song from the other woman’s perspective, about a man who “comes for conversation, I comfort him sometimes” but “she only brings him out to show her friends/I want to free him.” As complex emotionally as anything she’s written, a saxophone pops up on the fade out, prescient of the jazz she needed to explore, which began with Court & Spark, even though she had to get the Blue our first, on that long unforgettable road to Mingus.
Rainy Night is a set piece, about an affair with a trust fund guy, who “gave up all the factories/just to see/who in the world you might be…” is the same elusive man of Troubled Child or Harry from Hissing?
With Ladies (and Clouds), we see Joni beginning to realize her vast talent. It’s like we’re on the same journey of discovery. Optimism doesn’t dominate these songs, but it is present and while she reached more highs lyrically and musically, but her vision grew darker.  The hope here – in love songs like Willy, but also anthems like her haunting original Woodstock (compare and contrast to the live version on Shadows and Light, 10 years later) – is just as honest as the despair she was never able to shake. Well, like I said at the beginning, it’s the mid-to-late period Joni that’s been the go to, but hearing Ladies, you hear all the elements that she went on to explore. Hearing them fresh again is stunning. I was both experiencing the music now – captivated by Joni – and joyfully spring into concentric circles of vivid recollection, remerging every lyric to Rainy Night House, realizing I’ve probably hummed and/or sung this song to myself during countless idle moments, forgetting the record, where I knew it from, even the artist who sang it. The song embedded itself into my consciousness and lingered throughout a lifetime. There are hundreds that are like this for me, as they are for you. It doesn’t which songs they are (although, we all know my songs are better) – and these embedded songs are not the only songs you care about or hum for random, unknown reasons. I thought about death, how you think about loved ones who have died. You don’t just remember them; you still have a relationship with them. 
Why these records are in my mind for these past few days – the others have their day too – who knows, and in the end, aside how they are bought or when we experience them – music is utterly subjective. What we bring to it is as important as what it is. In fact, more important.
Maybe when I was a kid in the record store, I felt in control. When you’re a kid, you control nothing… except for your soundtrack. When you’re an adult, you control your life even though much of that life is subject to the indifference a cruel world. The sound track remains though, as does the solace it brings you. I am sure there are folks reading this and scoffing, just another baby boomer thinking that his era was the best and everything that followed sucks. Okay, the 80s music did suck but what didn’t suck was you and your childhood and how your experience of the world evolved.
Nostalgia is too simple an explanation.  After age 30, nostalgia is a factor, but not the only motivation shaping the sound track. You still buy new music, or at least new records by artists you already like, or new artists that work in familiar genres (Neko Case!). Well, I do at least. The digital revolution has meant that new music exists alongside the familiar more easily, and more obviously that in the past. The days of Record Store Days may be numbered, but your music remains forever… within.

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