Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Decline of the Record Store and the Future of Music

Wow... what can I say about the closing of Cactus Music and Video? To be honest, I don't know what to say. I'm sitting here at my desk and many thoughts and emotions are running through my head. It's funny though, because not too long ago I got into a heated argument with someone over music and the person said "Chris... you take music a lil' too serious, sweetie." I admit that I do. Music has played a key role in my life since I was in the womb. My aunt says that when they brought me out... I came here with rhythm. I'm inclined to believe that.

The past two days have seen some changes in my life: my first (legal) download and the closing of one of the most influential record stores in all of the United States. I came home on Thursday and looked around online for some downloads. Not really thinking much about it, ya know? I came across Prince's new track "Black Sweat/Beautiful, Loved & Blessed" and thought to myself "I want it -- I'm gonna download it." I paid my $1.98 and less than 90 seconds after I clicked "buy," I had a CD with two new Prince tracks. I was fucking shocked! Granted, in the past I got some stuff from Napster and Kazaa but it was usually rare stuff and live joints and it took days for the stuff to burn onto a disc. This was of course back in the dial-up era when I would download my joints, go to work for 10 hours, come home, and the last track would finally process! The good ol' days.

So I'm sitting at home and I got this fresh CD of new joints and it is totally bugging me out. I'm old school -- I like to go to the store and cop my music on CD. I like cover art and the excitement of Tuesday, when the new releases touch ground and I'm so excited about getting the new Janet Jackson, I can't sleep at night! Now, I've just entered a different phase where I don't have to wait until I get off work to go and cop the new stuff -- just click and burn. Not only that, long gone are the days where I bought a CD for maybe one good song and the rest was all filler music. Now, I can just pay my .99 and I got the flavor of the week in the palm of my hand.

Which brings me to Cactus Music and Video. Have you ever had to go through the belongings of a recently deceased relative? Ya know, everyone is at the house rummaging through things and fighting for what's left? They all want a piece that they can hold onto so that they can cherish that memory. Well that's how I felt today walking through Cactus Music and Video. One of the largest independent record stores in the country, after 30 years in the game, Cactus is closing it's door. With the sales of legal downloads booming, the decline of the CD, DVD sales, file sharing, and a music industry that's steady breaking at the seams, it's all over. I've been going to this place since I was a kid, man. My mother says that when I was a small child, she took me to meet Bootsy Collins and his gorilla. Many great artists like the Police, Patti Smith Group, and Chris Whitley have graced the stage for free concerts. I can't tell you how many times I would go there and see some cat onstage and rocking out. I'll never forget going to see Mary Cutrefello and drinking free beer. That's a record shop going experience that you can never forget, man. Not to mention, that's where I copped many a great independent project by cats like Stiffed, Saul Williams, and this chick named Ani DiFranco.

So I'm walking around this place and there are folks pillaging the leftovers. DVD's are on sale and CD's are damn near being given away. I had to literally fight back tears as I saw aisles upon aisles of empty CD racks. What was left as far as music was all pushed together to clear some space. The area where they rent and sell video was almost wiped out by customers walking around with armloads of VHS and DVD's. I made my way to the front where they have the stage and saw that it was occupied by T-shirts. Can you believe the Ramones actually played here? So I made what was probably my last dig in the crates and came across a vinyl copy of Jesse Johnson's Shockadelica and copped it for $2. I took it to the counter and as the kid rung me up, we made eye contact and on the cool, I think we could feel each other's pain. Here is your change and welcome to the future of music.

It's a bitter pill to swallow because if Cactus Music and Video is closing it's doors, this is the beginning of many others like it to call it a day. About two years ago, I worked part-time in an independent record store and to be honest, there were days where I wanted to slit my wrist! I would spend an entire Saturday where maybe two CD's were sold. At the time, Usher was hot on the charts with his Confessions and Prince was kicking Musicology. Both CD's eventually went on to platinum status, but they were about the only CD's that made a dent that year. I watched good projects like Janet's Damita Jo, N*E*R*D's Fly or Die, and Ghostface Killah's The Pretty Toney Album fall off without a blip on the radar. The bell was ringing and I didn't like the tone. The music industry and CD sales were in dire straits.

On the cool, this is what it's come to for consumers and record shop owners. But then, there are so many people to point the finger at. For one, you got greedy executives who are about the almighty dollar and less about talent. They sign just about anybody who can shake their ass and hype them as the flavor of the month. They drop a CD with the producer of the moment, lace the record buying public with a high price product, and there is maybe three decent tracks and 15 other joints with no rhyme or reason. Then you got places like Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and Circuit City that sells CD's for maybe $9.99 which shuts out the Mom and Pop stores. Finally, there's Joe Sixpack, the consumer who has had it with the bullshit of buying crappy music. He digs a song so much that either he burns his man's CD or he heads to a file-sharing site and says fuck it to everything.

And there you have it, my friend. Now we have legal downloading and iPods and we're all happy. As for cats like me? Well, I tried long and hard not to join the digital revolution but I'm here, man. They got me hook, line, and fucking sinker. Dude, they got me by the short and curlies, chief! It's like either you jump on the boat or you will get left behind. This is the future. This is where we are headed. However, I am approaching it all with an open mind and a willing heart. Let's just hope that the ride won't produce any bullshit.(((Chris crosses fingers)))

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Recording Industrial Complex

I had absolutely no clue that New Edition's first royalty check was only for $1.87 -- for each member! Millions and millions of records sold, sell out tours, merchandise, and God only knows what else, and their hard work paid off in pocket change? Literally? Amazing.

Seeing their story on Behind the Music was sad and my heart went out to those cats. New Edition has made some great music; songs that will forever be embedded in the music history books. You would think with the spin-offs (Bobby Brown, BBD, Johnny Gill, Boyz II Men, Ralph Tresvant) that these guys would be rolling in 2006 with fat pockets. Not so. I've always known how cold and callous the music industry was and is, but I didn't know that it could be that ruthless where you give five young men who worked their asses off not even ten bucks!

But I'm not surprised. Not by a long shot. Ever since Little Richard was making half a penny per song in the 1950's, the music industry has made a mockery of it's artists by taking advantage of their lack of business savvy. It's almost as if it's set up for artists to fail. You would think that since it's the artist who's making money for the label with their creativity, the powers-that-be would see to it that those involved would be taken care of.

Please. Maybe in a perfect world.

The Recording Industrial Complex is all about one thing: money. Fuck taking care of an artist because it's all about what image will sell records and put asses in concert seats. I hate to be blunt, but I have to be real. Lack of business savvy on the part of the artist is the reason why you can go to a record store and see six different versions of Greatest Hits and Best Of packages. Sad but true. Do you really think that New Edition owns the publishing rights to their catalouge?

When Prince went toe-to-toe with Warner Bros. and scrawled "slave" on his face, everyone thought he had lost his mind. "How could he?" was the question asked by many people. Even though he was the writer-producer-arranger of his material, he desired more creative control over his work. He knew the deal and he wanted out. Until he released Musicology in 2004, Prince was the butt of jokes and deemed a has-been by the media as well as some fairweather fans. When he decided to include the CD with the purchase of a concert ticket, he beat the industry at their own game. Then he was called a genius.

Right now, the music industry is suffering. Downloading has become the norm and many consumers are now supporting independent artists. Sales have dropped drastically over the past few years and we have Shawn Fanning and Napster to thank for the way in which we have access to our music. Many people feel like after years of ripping off the artists, it's payback time. Suffice to say, it's true. For every ripped off royalty point that New Edition, Little Richard, Toni Braxton, and TLC did not recieve -- an illegal download is playing on Bobby's iPod.

Crazy, huh? One day it'll all make sense.