Tag Archives: records

Fred Mills: 10 Records, 10 Days

What records have had the greatest impact on YOUR life? Here’s 10 of mine.

By Fred Mills

It started as an innocent Facebook “make a list” meme—favorite records, blah blah blah. Me being the extemporaneous gasbag that I am, I took the concept and ran with it. Well, strolled might be a more accurate description. But it did seem that certain records have had a profound impact upon me as a person and not simply as a music journalist. So this is not my all-time Top Ten; it’s more of a confessional. (Thanks to fellow music maniac Glenn Boothe for tagging me in the first place and getting me started here—now you know who to blame.)

 

Day 1 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.

Various ArtistsGarden of Delights 3LP
(Elektra, 1971)

In ’71 my record buying options were pretty limited; I was still 3 years away from shipping off to Chapel Hill for college (but when I did finally get there, I encountered my first store that sold both new and used records, so things would ramp up considerably, as would the balance on my parents’ Visa card), and while my hometown’s five-and-dime as well as Mack’s Record Rack mom-and-pop store did stock albums and singles, including stuff like Cream, Hendrix, and Steppenwolf, the odds of them having an album like this one were pretty low. So it’s likely that I found this at a headshop in Charlotte, about an hour away, called Infinity’s End, as they had a small but vital bin of records that was very much of an underground bent. I bought my first hippie fanzine there as well, along with patches, headbands, rolling papers, etc.

This compilation was a revelation and it completely rebooted my mind, much like those great Warner Bros/Reprise 2LP “loss leaders” collections of the era had done. It’s not every day you see the Stooges, Judy Collins, Atomic Rooster, Renaissance, Love, Crabby Appleton, Incredible String Band, Spider John Koerner, Tim Buckley, Audience, and Earth Opera all on the same album, testimony to the genuinely visionary – culturally subversive, too – nature of the Elektra label at the time. And it was also my first exposure to over half the artists, notably David Ackles, Roxy, Bamboo, Rhinoceros, Koerner, Earth Opera, and the Voices of East Harlem – several became instant faves. The album also had full liner notes on the sleeves of all three LPs that detailed each artist – more fully, in fact, than the aforementioned WB/Reprise titles – effectively schooling me in ways very few albums had done previously. If this were to be released for the first time today, I’d be all over it like the true #vinylporn hound that I am.

I can’t say I’m all that interested in multi-artist anthologies these days, but in the ’70s, compilations were our mixtapes and playlists, and the gateways to discovering new music, particularly if there wasn’t a non-Top 40 radio station with reception in your hometown. So there’s both cultural significance and an emotional resonance attached to Garden of Delights for me. For the rest of you, there are plenty of cheap copies at Discogs, and I’m not sure if it’s ever been on CD, so it is well-worth the purchase.

 

Day 2 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.

Flamin’ GrooviesShake Some Action (Sire, 1976)

I already owned “Teenage Head” and loved it, but when Cyril and the gang went full Carnaby Street and tuned up the 12-string, something seismic occurred. The title (and opening) track alone was downright volcanic – journalists (yours truly included) have written entire essays just on that song. And as I have mentioned many times, my family has orders to play the song at my funeral ‘cos I want folks to leave the church grinning and singing along; the ushers have been instructed to allow air guitar as well.

For me, the album also represents one of those classic scenarios you only get from walking into a record store. In ’76 I was attending UNC-Chapel Hill and living in a trailer nearby, just over the Chatham County line (no pun intended). The first North Carolina Schoolkids Records was on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill (original location, two door down from the Varsity Theater), and it had been recently opened by a young hippie couple from, if memory serves, Ann Arbor or somewhere in that vicinity of Michigan. Kinks-worshiping and savvy retail merchants, they had sized me and my musical tastes up early on and would tip me to new releases they thought I might dig. My parents didn’t “dig” the subsequent uptick on their monthly MasterCard statement… but I digress. So there I am one sunny afternoon, wandering into the store, and John, the co-owner, nodded, reached over to the bin of LPs beside the house stereo, and dug one out. “Hey Fred, I bet you’ll like this new one, you ever hear of the Flamin’ Groovies?” Yes, I had, but not the new LP. He lowered the needle onto side A, and my mind proceeded to be blasted into outer space well past the rings of Saturn….

Trust me, you won’t get anywhere near a similar experience browsing the playlists on Spotify, or letting the algo-bots of Amazon making suggestions. Support your local indie record store!

Day 3 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.

Spirit 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (Epic, 1970)

The 1970-72 period yielded a ton of records that would go on to be among my all-time faves, and the 4th album by Spirit is easily in my top 10. In 1970 I was already into the band to a degree, having been primed from the get-go with early single “I Got a Line On You.” But I didn’t have all the records yet. “12 Dreams” wrapped its sonic tendrils around me like nobody’s business, and I even bought the 8-track version as well so I could hear it in the car.

In fact, the first time I heard it was on 8-track. A vivid memory I have is of riding to Charlotte with friends for a concert one evening, and as I sat in the back seat of Bryant Hunt’s green Mustang fastback, the (cough) “enhanced mood” gradually coming over me, the Spirit album unfolded in metaphysical waves to match that “mood.” I can even hear in my mind right now the telltale “ka-CHUNk!” as the 8-track player advanced each of the 4 programs. (For all you kids scratching your heads about what I’m describing: go look it up.)

Years later, in 1991, I was interviewing guitarist Randy California from Hawaii and I related that anecdote and he got a huge laugh from it – and he genuinely seemed to appreciate getting praise for his work over the years and “12 Dreams” in particular. “We did know it was special, yes,” he replied to me, ever the fanboy, asking a lot of obvious questions along with a few pretty insightful ones (if I do say so myself), when I asked him did he know it was a different kind of record when they had finished it, given that the original lineup would split very soon afterwards.

Randy died tragically in ’97 while saving his young son from a riptide off the Hawaiian coast, and I bawled when I got the news, having by that time scooped up every available Spirit record and California solo recs and well into a live tape collecting habit. I still miss him terribly, and “12 Dreams,” with key tracks like “Nature’s Way,” “Nothing to Hide,” and “Morning Will Come,” has never been too far from my heart.

Day 4 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.

DJ ShadowEndtroducing (Mo’ Wax, 1996)

“The music’s coming through me”… it sure went through me, too. Sometimes a measure of a record’s timelessness is how many reissues it has undergone, and in the case of Shadow’s epochal debut, with Discogs.com listing in excess of 40 iterations, one supposes that’s a pretty strong argument. And even if you have gone for the deluxe/expanded versions, which admittedly yielded all manner of crucial-listening proximate material, remixes, reimaginings, etc., the original 1996 release is THE one to own, and THE one for unadulterated listening.

I was working at Zia Record Exchange in Tucson at the time of its release, and as the store’s import buyer, had already caught the buzz on DJ Shadow, and I subsequently ordered heavily on any imports and singles the album yielded – “What Does Your Soul Look Like” remains a stone classic of the nebulous genre known at the time as trip-hop.

Soon enough I found myself on the telephone interviewing the artist for Magnet magazine, and rather than suffer through a conversation with an obvious sampling/hip-hop neophyte (that would be me), Shadow patiently discussed his motivations and inspirations, and even a few of his methods. At one point he asked me about record stores in Tucson, and he audibly became excited when I told him about a nearby store that was 95% vinyl, one that even had a special “invite only” vinyl inner sanctum for pre-approved customers. I have no doubt that he went crate-digging in Tucson the next time he came through Arizona.

The album as a whole is soulful, nebulous, psychedelic as fuck, and amazing music to listen to barreling down the highway – a perfect road-tripping album. A few years ago Magnet had me, a former editor and contributor to the magazine, contribute to a feature on the greatest albums of the ‘90s: My choice was, no question, “Endtroducing,” and it remains my selection to this day. I’m Fred Mills, and I approved this message.

Day 5 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.

The WhoLive at Leeds (1970, Decca/Track)

Another entry from the 1970-72 period that was so influential upon a young Fred Mills, stuck in a tiny North Carolina nowheresville and counting the months until he might be able to ship off to college. People will debate endlessly over WHAT IS THE GREATEST EVER LIVE ROCK ALBUM: Is it the Allman’s “Fillmore East”? The Stones’ “Ya-Ya’s”? MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams”? Nirvana’s “Unplugged”? Cheap Trick’s “Budokan”? FRAMPTON FUCKING COMES ALIVE?!? (I’ve always been mildly offended that Humble Pie’s “Rockin’ the Fillmore” doesn’t regularly make these lists, but I digress…)

Live at Leeds” is obviously “THE” greatest—there’s no comparison, no live platter as viscerally thrilling, as brick-in-face immediate, as GENUINELY live (e.g., no post-production “sweetening in the mix” going on). The original single LP still wields a hypnotic power over yours truly, just like it did in 1970 to my teenage brain. Since then, a number of expanded iterations have been released—the bootleggers, naturally, beat the band’s official label to the punch—primarily in order to showcase the “Tommy” portion of the Leeds concert that was not originally included. All versions are must-hear, a point I made in a 2,500-word review for Goldmine Magazine in 2001, on the occasion of the release of MCA’s 2-CD expanded reissue. But you still owe it to yourself to experience the record as it was originally intended, from the track sequencing to the duly noted, intermittent, crackling sounds in the audio to the memorabilia-stuffed sleeve (which was designed to mimic classic bootleg LP sleeves like the Stones title mentioned above and Dylan’s “Great White Wonder.”

Within a year of the release of “Leeds” I would finally get to see the Who in concert, in Charlotte NC touring behind “Who’s Next.” A decent chunk of “Leeds” material was still in the band’s setlist, and the show remains in my all-time Top Ten concerts… hmmm…. NO ONE on FB has ever thought about starting THAT tagging meme, right?


Day 6 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.

SidewindersWitchdoctor / Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall (1989 & 1990, Mammoth/RCA)

I’m cheating somewhat by listing two albums here. But (a) they are, indeed, of a piece, to such a degree that I sometimes find myself having a hard time remembering exactly which song goes on which album; and (b) for a long time I carried around a c90 cassette in my car that had both albums on it. The Tucson band played so-called “desert rock” – a mélange of garage and power pop with occasional classic rock leanings (think Tom Petty meets Neil Young), and infused with primal energy and some of the most pristine melodies you could get this side of Neil Diamond. It’s not a coincidence that one of their best tunes was a cover of “Solitary Man.”

By 1990 I was deeply in love with Tucson bands, thanks to discovering them via English zine Bucketful of Brains, and subsequently writing about them myself in US zine The Bob and elsewhere. By 1992 I was LIVING in Tucson, subsequently meeting and hanging out with members of the Sidewinders, River Roses, Giant Sand (including future Calexico members), Naked Prey, Al Perry & the Cattle, Rainer & Das Combo, and more. (I was a few years away from meeting this awesome Arizona band called The Beat Angels, but all in due time…) Admittedly, the grass is always greener from afar, and when I did move to Arizona and eased my way into the local music scene, some of my idealism dissipated as I realized dope really had its grip on some otherwise brilliant, talented folks and it undercut their mojo.

But even though I moved back to NC after a 10-year run in Tucson, the place permanently holds a special place in my heart. In fact, it was the Sidewinders song “Get Out of that Town” that started the love affair: One night, when my wife and I were looking at places we might want to move to, having started to burn out on Charlotte, we were literally on the verge of throwing darts at a map of the US. Pouring another glass of wine for each of us, I cued up the Sidewinders, and the aforementioned song began to play: “Get out of that shopping mall,” sang the band, “C’mon down here!” And while they were referring specifically to Arizonans getting out of Phoenix and relocating to the far more culturally progressive Tucson, the fact that we North Carolinians had been slogging away working at malls for way too long made the song seem personalized for us. Two vacations and one Mayflower moving truck to Tucson later, we arrived on July 5, 1992. The heat that first month or so just about did me in, but with the Sidewinders and some of those other bands I mentioned, I knew I’d be able to make it.

 

Day 7 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.

Patti Smith Horses (1975, Arista)

This is a no-brainer. Not only did she revolutionize the whole notion of “women in rock” – in the process demolishing the earlier objectification “chicks in rock” – Patti subverted the so-called feminine “ideal,” which of course had been a patriarchal construct. In the process, she became a hero to both females and, dare I say it, males (including this one). Put another way, she grabbed the baton passed to her from the likes of Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Joan Jett from the Runaways, and the Millington Sisters from Fanny, and outpaced all the subsequent rock ‘n’ roll  competition.

“Horses” itself was revolutionary, from its surreal poetry and pointed sexuality to its punk/garage musicality and invocations of an earlier rock ‘n’ roll era. I must have played it 6 times in a row the day I brought it home from the store – I still own my original copy, and it’s hopelessly battered (thank you, Record Store Day, for the 180gm reissue a few years ago).

I communed with Patti twice, in significant fashion. The first time was when the band came to Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill for the Radio Ethiopia tour, and I managed to ease my way into the stage crew by simply showing up at soundcheck and offering my services. Naturally I grabbed a few opportunities to get autographs and yak with the bandmembers. One abiding memory is of some fellow students gathering outside the venue to listen to soundcheck, a couple of them clutching gifts for Patti, and she instructed the security to let them in and allow them to stay (it was a general admission show I think). A classy lady who cares very much about “the people.” She walks it like she talks it.

The other time was not long after my mom died, a phone interview for a Goldmine Magazine cover story. Ironically, I conducted it from my mom’s house while I was living there in my home town for a few months to get it cleared out and cleaned up and ready for sale. I told her how I’d had 1996’s “Gone Again” with me during a summer beach vacation that also turned out to be the last time I’d be able to spend extended quality time with Mama – and how, ever since, I’ve associated that album with those memories. “I hope they are good memories,” Patti murmured, noting that one key through-line of the album for her was the notion of loss and how we process it. She added, “Sometimes, the role of the artist is to provide a shoulder for the rest of us to lean on when we most need it.”

Thank you, Patti, for offering that shoulder when I needed it.

Day 8 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.

Joe Strummer & the MescalerosGlobal A-Go-Go (2001, Hellcat)

This FB exercise is technically about albums that “made an impact” on me, and not an all-time Top Ten list; for the latter, my list would probably change every year, whereas here I’ve been talking about stuff closer to Desert Island Disc territory. The second Strummer/Mescaleros album certainly qualifies, and not simply because it has some kickass music on it while also showing off Joe’s more eclectic impulses as well as his democratic approach to fronting a band.

Prior to its release I had a CDR promo of the album from Hellcat as I was preparing a couple of stories on Joe, one of them for the Phoenix New Times (I interviewed him over the phone from England in advance of some Southwest and West Coast shows; at this point we had given birth to our son in early 2001 so we’d moved back from AZ to NC to be closer to family, but I was still writing for a couple of weeklies in the region… ah, the good old days of freelancing, when you could actually make a credible living as a music writer…). I had also arranged to interview in person in NYC, where the band was going to appear at Irving Plaza the same week as the CMJ convention; this was to be a cover story for Magnet Magazine. So the morning of my flight north had arrived, my bags were packed – along with my Strummer notes – and sitting beside the front door. Then the phone rang, and it was my wife’s sister: “Turn on the TV fast.”

This was the morning of 9/11. You know the rest. Needless to say, my plans changed instantly.

(I would still get my NYC sojourn, a month later, as Strummer’s original date was cancelled and rescheduled. And I’d still write my cover story, even winding up in Dick Rude’s Strummer doc “Let’s Rock Again,” which included footage of the band onstage and backstage at Irving Plaza. Strummer was awesome. We talked about 9/11 a little, too, and it clearly had shaken him as well.)

But for the time being, the psychic discombobulation of 9/11 was profound, and intense. We decided to get away from TV and news reports for a few days and rented a cabin near Asheville, about 4 hours away from my hometown where we’d been living. The only media we consumed on the trip were newspapers and WNCW-FM, a community station out of nearby Spindale with a heavy Americana focus. Not a talk or news station. And as it turns out, the just-released Mescaleros album had gone into heavy rotation on WNCW, so it basically became my de facto soundtrack for the mountain trip.

To this day, I associated the songs on the record, and Joe in general, with 9/11, all the shock and horror and grief… and the deep, abiding sense of relief and love I took from knowing that I had been with my wife and kid, and not on a flight to NYC, when the towers fell. Those feelings of relief and love, and a kind of mental smile, are what I still experience when I listen to “Global A-Go-Go.” What a gift. Thanks, Joe.

 

 

Day 9 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.

The SlitsCut (1979, Island Records)

Like all of the other entries I’ve been writing about, this album has a significance for me that goes far beyond the music. Of that music: released during the punk explosion, its blazing blend of rock and dub was unlike anything else I’d been listening to, and it quickly went into heavy rotation on the Mills stereo. That the nude cover itself was outrageous goes without saying, a bold feminist statement intended to both shock – it wasn’t every day you’d see three attractive young females standing topless and deliberately de-prettifying themselves so overtly; this was not a strip club mud wrestling depiction, in other words – and teach. I’m pretty sure more than a few record stores sold it in a paper bag, or at least with paper across the breasts. I like to call this record, “How I learned to stop worrying and love the dub.”

Cut to late 2004, and I’m on the phone to the Slits’ Ari Up. A slightly expanded CD of “Cut” was about to be released in the US, so I was doing a story for Harp Magazine on the record and the band. She was utterly delightful, with a great memory for detail, a self-deprecating sense of personal pride, and comfortable in her own skin and with her legacy, which certainly wasn’t a huge as, say, her peers in the Clash or the Pistols, but she knew that the Slits had been pretty damn influential, and an inspiration to female rockers operating in a male-centric music business. One memorable portion of the conversation involved her recounting some of the harassment she’d experienced as a woman, particularly a woman who “invited” abuse by being deliberately in-your-face, visually.

She even teased me a little when we talked about the LP sleeve and I mentioned that I’d had it up on my wall across from my desk: “You haven’t said yet how good I look on my website,” she giggled, referring to her current musical activities. I think I mumbled something about downloading photos off her website to hang beside the Slits album, and her throaty laughter told me she was pleased that she could still work her charms on a hapless male journalist.

A few years later I would interview her again about her solo projects, and she was just as much fun a conversationalist; I’d also get to see her performed with a reunited Slits during SXSW one year. She passed away, sadly, in late 2010, following a battle with cancer.

I’ll never forget that wicked laugh of hers, and I have hopes that now, in the #metoo era, a new generation of young female artists will discover her and her music and draw inspiration from it.

 

Day 10 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.

[TIE] U2The Unforgettable Fire (1984, Island) / Dream SyndicateMedicine Show (1984, A&M

Obviously I’m cheating here for my final entry by listing two. But my mid-’80s memories are indelibly inked with these two classics, and they continue to inform my emotions and ideals to this day.

“I got a Page One story buried in my yard”:@ The Dream Syndicate‘s second full-length hit me with a psychic immediacy I didn’t anticipate, for as powerful as its predecessor, “The Days of Wine and Roses,” was, this -to me, at least – marked a quantum leap in both the songwriting of frontman Steve Wynn and the collective group’s ability to remain true to its Amerindie ethos and its willingness to step into the void and embrace the potential of mass appeal. (We can all thank R.E.M. for laying down that particular blueprint…)

To this day, both the smouldering noir-rock narrative “Burn” and psych-skronk epic “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” bring me to my knees, and with last year’s return to the record bins by the band, accompanied by extensive touring, it’s clear from that Wynn understands that he and his band have created a legacy as meaningful as any rock band you’d care to mention. And what a timeless album he and his compadres crafted. I feel honored to have seen the Dream Syndicate in its prime and touring behind the record, and even more chuffed to have interviewed Wynn when it finally got remastered and reissued on CD, a free-wheeling conversation that detailed the lead-up to, the making of, and the aftermath surround “Medicine Show.” (Read it here: http://blurtonline.com/…/scene-crime-steve-wynn-dream-synd…/ ) There’s not a bad record in the D.S. or Wynn solo catalog, and the group has become a contemporary force unto itself with 2017’s “How Did I Find Myself Here.” But “Medicine Show” is in a league all its own. Front-page news, indeed.

U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire” has a specific Mills backstory I’ve told many times, so just go here ( http://blurtonline.com/feature/joshua-tree-u2/ ) to read it in case you are so inclined. In a nutshell, the 1984 album came out at a time when I was neck-deep in publishing a U2 zine called U2/USA, and as the band hadn’t quite gone mega in the U.S. just yet – that would come with in 1987, with “The Joshua Tree” – little publications such as ours were still able to enjoy access (and in our case, occasional unlimited access) to the U2 extended family. Sitting alone in an Atlanta arena dressing room with Bono one night, after the concert, and passing a bottle of wine back and forth while conducting an interview, is one of those “tell the grandchildren…” stories that a lot of my fellow rock journalists will no doubt identify with.

This isn’t about that. Rather, “TUF“‘s spiritual and emotional impact upon me at the time is what I remember the most. It opened a lot of possibilities within me, the kind that I want to think led me on a search on how to become a better person and how to care about the world beyond my little self-centered bubble. I realize that’s a ridiculous cliché, and I probably never genuinely lived up to that type of lofty ideal; it’s not like I suddenly got religion (although I would experience some moments in the album’s aftermath that I can only describe as “metaphysical”), or that I suddenly became a die-hard activist (although since January of 2017, I have gradually found myself renewing certain social vows I took three decades prior, and remembering why I took them), or even that I suddenly surrendered all my vices and proceeded to live a life on the straight and narrow (don’t get me started). But because the album arrived at the proverbial time and place, and as I was approaching a crossroads of sorts in my own life, I associate it with a period of learning and renewal for me.

Rock ‘n’ roll can be a catalyst for change, after all. It’s not just dope, guns, and fucking in the street.

 

Fred Mills: That Vinyl Goldrush? Don’t Cash Those Checks Just Yet…

vinyl

Thanks to ill-informed dialogue from Kim Komando and other consumer tech gurus, any monkey with a typewriter, er, box of moldy old LPs thinks he/she is on the eBay road to riches. Guess what? You’ve been duped.  BLURT’s helpful hint: check “completed listings.”

BY FRED MILLS

It’s a familiar scenario these days: some mainstream media outlet publishes yet another article about the current resurgence—“explosion” is the occasional term, and not without total merit; see below—of vinyl, and suddenly the hinterlands are alive with the sound of (vinyl-borne) music, wherein every Johnny, Judy and Aunt Marge within earshot gets the proverbial dollar signs in their peepers because they just remembered that somewhere in their basement, attic, tool shed or rent-in-arrears storage unit they’ve got a dusty, beat-up, poorly-packed, climate-challenged box of Johnny Mathis, Mitch Miller and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass LPs they’d totally forgotten about.

Here’s a preemptive tip, folks: run, don’t walk, to the nearest trash bin with that load. (Emphasis load.) I’ve done it plenty of times, particularly over the course of the past 3 years while I toiled at a small but successful North Carolina independent record store. I mean, seriously: who are you gonna believe, someone who’s actually in the business of buying and selling a commercial product who willingly dumpstered hundreds of pieces of that product, or some self-styled personal tech maven with a radio show who claims she’s got the inside track on how to turn those dust-gathering antiques into cold hard cash?

Sigh. I should have guessed which one you’d pick. But hopefully you are at a stop light, reading this on your smartphone, and will see the light before THE light changes, then turn around, go back home, and put that box of LPs out by the curb. Or drop by the Goodwill store if it’s on your route.

Kim

Now, I have nothing against radio personality Kim Komando (not a made up name, although that bleached ‘do is remarkably Real Housewives-esque), who is billed as “host of an American talk radio program based on the popularity of smartphones, televisions, tablets, personal computers, the use of the Internet, and the complexities of buying and using all forms of consumer electronics.” Fair enough. We probably need more tutorials in the media, not less, given how dense the average consumer tends to be. Still, that old saying stick with what you know does come to mind from time to time when listening to her or reading her editorials in the print and online media. Because when she doesn’t stick with what she knows and ventures into foreign territory, the fact that she has a pretty significant audience that’s earnest but naïve means that she can create a monster in the space of a single missive. Which means, in turn, that she can also create a ton of problems for those of us out here in analog land.

Such is the case with a recent, and borderline klueless, Komando kolumn, “Old items collecting dust could net eBay cash,” published in USA Today this past week. In it, she returns to a topic beloved by all, the value of your old crap at eBay. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, although with eBay now 20 years old and counting one supposes that anybody who is just now discovering the online marketplace has been living in a cave with a dial-up modem and a clock-flashing Betamax for company. Those old Beanie Babies your granddaughter forgot about and left at your house some time ago? Dang, Marge, they just might be worth their weight in plastic pellets nowadays, so get off that telephone so’s we can plug our computer in and get online to check them out!

In the USA Today column (recycled from her online posting earlier in the month, by the way; the daily newspaper is rarely ahead of the curve when it comes to popular culture), Komando proposes you peruse your old stash of videotapes, iPods and vinyl records because there just might be gold in them there boxes. Of the first, well, that’s probably a judgment call. True, a lot of out-of-print material still has yet to be released on DVD or Blu-ray, but one supposes that the first line of attack might be to scare up an old VHS deck that’s in good working condition in order to determine whether or not that Black Diamond Edition of The Little Mermaid you hung onto will still actually play. There’s a pretty good chance it won’t, given the finite lifespan of videotapes, a little factoid that Komando konveniently forgot to mention in her column. “Prices… vary wildly based on condition, version and how many you’re offering,” she adds, almost as an afterthought. Now I’m not saying that a “rare” VHS tape can’t have glitches repaired, but the bottom line is that if the magnetic tape is stretched, flaking and otherwise just worn out, it’s worthless. (Nobody “bakes” VHS tapes to restore them. The Little Mermaid is not a Jimi Hendrix outtakes reel.)

Regarding iPods, well, there are so many for sale on eBay right now, of every possible generation/iteration and of varying conditions (some have original boxes, earbuds, USB connectors, etc.; some are loose and scratched), that it’s impossible to get a reading on precise values. This is a common experience on eBay, of course, and speaking as someone who has bought and sold on eBay for about 15 years now, all I can tell you is that (1) do your research before buying OR selling on eBay; (2) always check the “completed listings” function rather than what people are trying to get for their swag, because if one guy wants 50 bucks for an item but the same one has routinely been selling for 20, then that item is only worth 20 bucks, capice?; and (3) check the sellers’ ratings to get a sense of whether or not they actually know what they are doing and will treat you, the customer, with respect.

(Aside: after reading Komando’s iPod screed I did momentarily see dollar signs in my eyes over my kid’s old iPod Shuffle (silver; 2009 3rd gen; 4gb capacity; original box, earbuds and USB connector). Then I saw that it is currently changing hands for between $17 and $22, which in all honesty just ain’t worth the hassle of listing, selling and shipping. I’ll keep it instead, fully charged, in case the apocalypse hits and I want to spend my last 18 hours listening to a bunch of Clash and Springsteen live bootlegs on “random.”)

But Komando’s “informed” tutorial on vinyl records is what simultaneously angered and alarmed me. Go HERE to read her original column at her Komando.com website. In it she pretty much tells Grandma Marge, Uncle Lester and Feebleminded Cousin Ralph that they are on the verge of hitting the lottery if they’ll only drag that box out of the attic and brush a little of the dust off:

“Depending on the record or collection, you can make some serious money. User “albertjukebox” is selling his collection of 13,000 high-quality records for $278,000. Of course, you probably don’t have a collection quite that large, and he’s probably not going to get that price.

“Still, if you have a rare early record, say from the ’30s or ’40s, you can list it for $10,000 or more. An original or otherwise noteworthy record of a famous artist like Nirvana, Pink Floyd, or the Beatles, can list for several thousand. You might have a set of albums from Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones or someone other artist that together could be worth a bundle. Even if you don’t think an album or collection is worth anything, it’s still not a bad idea to post them.

“Just glancing down the list of high-priced albums for sale, there are plenty from obscure artists and genres you wouldn’t expect would sell. You never know what some collector or fan might be dying to get their hands on.”

Oh sweet jeezus. Hey Kim, guess what? You had them at “list it for $10,000.” And that’s ALL they heard. After that, it was just white noise buzzing in their ears as they mentally tallied their future bank balances.

While I am no longer at the record store due to having recently moved across the state, I am still active on eBay and buying private record collections on occasion. In addition, I am in regular contact with fellow dealers and a number of record store owners and employees, and the near-unanimous consensus is that articles like Komando’s do NOT help at all—in fact, they undermine our collective business by reducing it to a simple old = valuable formula, which as any dealer of antiques or vintage cars will tell you is a recipe for disaster if that’s your only guideline.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a tutorial on how to buy and sell used vinyl. Smarter and more experienced guys than me have written entire books on the subject. And in all fairness to Komando, she did include one caveat at the end of her vinyl screed, my point #(1): “Just be sure you do a little research first.” Indeed, that should be your mantra if you decide to get into the used wax business. Wait, I didn’t copy her entire sentence: she also wrote “so you don’t charge too little.” Oh gawd. Too little. “Okay, Marge, let’s see if we can get $10,999 for that Blind Melon Chitlin’ rekkird from 1932 over there in that box… did you ever find the cover for it?”

Here’s what happens when well-meaning-but-clueless consumer gurus put a bunch of poorly-phrased information out to the public: that public in turn responds with a bunch of clueless, poorly-executed actions. I absolutely, positively, 100% guarantee you that the very morning the September 16 issue of USA Today hit newsstands and mailboxes, within an hour independent record stores across America started getting phonecalls from Marge, Lester and Ralph—or, perhaps, their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters and caretakers—inquiring about their desire to turn those boxes of battered LPs into cold hard cash. Here’s the phonecall that every record retailer dreads:

Them: “I’ve got a box of old records that I found after cleaning out my late Grandma Marge’s attic…”

Us: “What kind of records do you have?”

Them [eagerly]:“Well, they are REALLY old!”

Us [hesitantly]: “Uhh, um… what are some of the records you have?”

Them [triumphantly]: “Well, it’s a LOT of records. They are really old. I read in USA Today that old records are really selling well again. Your store buys old records, right?”

Us [trapped]: “Ahhhhh… yes. It depends. Could you tell me just a few of the records you have?”

Them [bothered]: “I’ll have to go get the box. Hold on a minute, this phone cord won’t stretch that far… [long pause, sound of a box being pushed across the floor] Okay, umm, here is a Johnny Mathis, love that young man! Also Perry Como, Barbra Streisand… and, oh yes, Herb Albert and his Tee-ju-wanna Brass…”

Us [hopefully]: “For Herb Al-PERT, do you have “Whipped Cream and Other Delights?”

Them [confused]: “What was that?”

Us: “Never mind. Do you have any first generation iPods you want to get rid of?”

***

I rest my case. Honestly, Kim, while I know you are populist to a fault, every time a vinyl-related article like yours is published, it simultaneously distorts the realities of the record market (which in turn, sets unduly high expectations among the public) and makes the jobs of the folks who actually have a stake in keeping the market stable and prosperous more difficult.

Put another way, in language you might understand: yes, there is a vinyl explosion currently going on, but with pie-in-the-sky reports and loaded lingo such as yours, there is also a bubble being created. Everyone knows what happens with bubbles: they pop. (If you need to, refer to “tech” and “housing” from years gone by, just to refresh yourself.) But it’s unnecessary. We collectors, fans, dealers and just plain maniacs have been doing great all along, and everyone has been pretty happy, whether we traffic on eBay, Discogs, GEMM or the so-called “dark web” (that’s where you can find Prince and Jeff Buckley bootlegs, FYI).

To summarize: Please. Stop. Now.

Admittedly, once in awhile a retailer or dealer does indeed unearth a genuine nugget, so the general rule of thumb is to at least take a quick look at the person’s box of junk. Coming a copy of the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today with the butcher cover is the exception rather than the rule, however. The screening process on the phone outlined above—if during the conversation they don’t can’t a single artist that has value, you gently inform them that the collection is probably not going to net them anything—has proven to be pretty effective, saving the retailer time and saving the customer the hassle of hauling the box down to the store. It’s worth noting that if they come away thinking they’ve wasted their time and energy, they blame the retailer and figure that he really doesn’t know jack about records after all. You don’t want to insult a customer, even unintentionally, because they will go home, get on Yelp, and complain about how rude and ignorant you are.

Of course, some folks simply refuse to believe you when you tell them that every pre-‘70s collection is going to have Johnny Mathis and Herb Alpert in it, or (if you’re feeling kinda sadistic that day) that anybody who might have wanted a Perry Como album is probably dead by now. Sometimes you also have to tell them that while they have a few nice pieces in the collection they are just too beat up to sell, which generates a response bordering in incredulity: “But it’s a BEATLES record! Beatles records are VALUABLE!” “Um, sorry ma’am, but that Sgt. Pepper’s you have there is missing the inserts, the spine has been shredded by cats, and the actual record looks like it was used as practice for a pumpkin carving contest.” Translation: they still don’t believe you, they still decide you’re a dummy, and they still get on Yelp. You can’t win.

Now let’s be clear: we are in the middle of what most folks will agree is an unprecedented vinyl revival. Some speculate that the same thing has happened or will happen with cassettes, but that’s confusing a retro/hipster fad with an actual trend. Cassettes are an inferior audio format—more so than even VHS tapes. (Don’t even get me started on the so-called 8-Track Revival.) Whereas vinyl was never truly supplanted by each new format iteration, and it never actually lost its audience. The reason no one was buying new LPs was because they weren’t being manufactured, so of course they weren’t shopping in record stores any more. Dealers in used vinyl continued to do decent business because there were still tons of collectors out there. Granted, it wasn’t always enough to justify staying in business, which in addition to the disappearance of new wax is why a lot of retailers closed up shop in the ‘90s and ‘00s.

But vinyl never went away, and in fact it did continue to be made by specialty labels and never-say-die indies. It’s just that now all the labels, including the mega-monoliths like Universal, Sony and WEA, have realized that for some bizarre reason, people want new vinyl again, both as new releases and as reissues. So naturally they are going to jump back into the game, hoping to recoup at least partially in the face of the dip in revenue wrought by digital streaming, in the process jacking up prices, which has had the ancillary effect of causing the prices of used records to rise, and… can you spell B-U-B-B-L-E?

Aw hell, vinyl also never lost its charm—it’s a lotta fun to collect, to sell, to trade, to covet. The current explosion may have been kickstarted (term used metaphorically) by hipsters, but it was bolstered by longtime fans who’d previously been frustrated they couldn’t find anything except at inflated eBay prices and who now are thrilled they can make that weekly trek down to the record store and resume their hunting. Things will crest and plateau off, and there will be an inevitable “correction” in the market (to use an Economics term) and a decline of some sort, but as vinyl has endured all these years, so too will it continue to endure. Viva le wax!

But please, Kim Komando & Co., no more stories about $10,000 records being discovered in the attic. You’re just fucking things up.

Fred Mills: VNYL Pt.1 – Did the New Subscription Service Blow It?

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Would YOU pay $12 a pop for crap albums from Toto, Pablo Cruise and Leon & Mary Russell? Ye olde editor engages a hip new subscription service that promises “hand-curated vinyl records” to its eager—and apparently young/newbie—clientele. (Additional reading: Stereogum’s “Why The ‘Netflix For Vinyl’ Service Is Such A Mess”)

BY FRED MILLS, Blurt Editor

Like many of you, the BLURT braintrust was excited—or, after reading the fine print, at least optimistically enthused—by the January news that a new record subscription service was preparing to launch in a couple of months, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, which would adopt some of the (wildly successful) Netflix model features —but utilizing used vinyl LPs instead of DVDs, and instead of subscribers making their own choices, have their albums picked (“curated,” in today’s misnomer-strewn parlance) by employees of the service. The classic Sub Pop Singles Club and the Vinyl Me, Please services were also cited as inspirations.

Dubbed, somewhat minus-a-vowel cutesily/trendily VNYL (motto: “hand-curated vinyl records delivered to your door”), the service, founded by software/app developer Nick Alt, promised early backers that they would receive their initial shipments in February and the general public in March. As Rolling Stone reported at the time,

For a monthly fee, members of the just-launched venture VNYL can choose from a list of categories, called “#Vibes,” and receive records in the mail much in the same way they used to receive Twin Peaks Season 1 DVDs at home before streaming services. Although it is not set up like Netflix, in the sense that members select the records they want, VNYL still caters to subscribers. Once a member has selected a hash tag classification (#lazysunday or #danceparty, for instance) the company will send three albums curated to fit the “vibe” by the VNYL staff. The service costs $15 a month and allows members to spend as much time with the records as they would like, keeping the ones they love and sending the duds back using pre-paid shipping. The cost of keeping an album will run between $8 to $12.”

Founder Alt added, “The real magic that I can bring to this is the community aspect. People who listen to vinyl are not connected [the way online users are] unless they go to a record store, so why can’t we bridge that for people who are really into listening to vinyl.”

Fair enough. Yours truly — who has passionately collected vinyl records since the late ‘60s, from LPs to 45s to 78s to even the stray 5” single or flexidisc (ask me sometime about the 10” flexi of Australian indie bands I curated, er, compiled in the ‘80s for rock mag The Bob) — quickly became a backer of the Kickstarter campaign for VNYL, not only feeling seduced by the possibilities but also sensing a great story about what it means to be a collector and lover of records. I pledged, put in my credit card info, then sat back and waited, having been guaranteed three free months’ worth of records (translation: nine LPs), after which I could maintain my official subscription or cancel any time.

As an aside, there’s a good discussion about the numerous online record sub services currently operating over at The Record Collectors Guild. Titled, succinctly, “Review of Vinyl Subscription Services,” it’s mostly positive in tone, basically describing VNYL, Prescribed Vinyl, Feedbands, Vinyl Me Please and Turntable Kitchen in terms of what you get for your dough. It also hands out praise for the brick and mortar record stores that still exist, enthusing, “Enter a museum of 12″ square canvases displaying amazing artworks, each unique to the album they represent. Have a funny conversation with the cynical hipster latte sipping record store employee. Learn something, share something, find new music, re-discover old goodies, buy a brand new record, or buy 5 obscure used ones, it’s all part of the experience.”

***

Part of that experience: Alt mentioned magic. Ask any practicing magician, and he’ll tell you that “magic” comprises a series of illusions that feed off observers’ need or willingness to believe what they are seeing or being told, irrespective of the objective facts.

It was May 13 of this year and my first box from VNYL arrived, postmarked April 29 and shipped via Media Mail from Venice, Calif. (The full address: 1136 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice CA 90291-3314.) If you are doing the math, you have probably noticed that there’s been a slight delay from the original estimation of when backers and charter subscribers would receive their initial shipments. Intriguingly, in looking at my account profile at VNYL now, it says that I joined on April 5, but it was in early January that I made my Kickstarter pledge. But that’s no problem: the VNYL folks have kept all of us regularly updated, including at least one notification of a slight delay. So far, so good.

Worth noting: backers received an email indicating they needed to officially register and fill out a brief online questionnaire about our musical tastes in order that the VNYL staff might better “curate” our selections—for example, what categories of music we did and did not like, or the URL of our Spotify account/playlist or similar streaming services we utilize. The former was easy enough, and I faithfully documented my likes, which include indie and alternative rock, punk, classic rock, blues, singer-songwriter and more, but not classical, opera, rap and several others. The streaming-service question, however, was pointless: I don’t have a Spotify account for myself, only one that I maintain for BLURT. For that matter I don’t even need a streaming service: I have 10,000 friggin’ records in my collection and another 5,000 CDs. (Full disclosure: I’m in the process of dumping the CDs because their value is rapidly declining; nowadays you can barely get 50 cents a pop for ‘em. Meanwhile, the LPs and 45s are appreciating at roughly the same rate. Hey, Bob Lefsetz, maybe you have a blog post about this soon, hmmm?) And each time I tried to ignore that section of the questionnaire I was blocked from proceeding farther, so finally I just plugged in the URL for BLURT’s Spotify list so I could be done with it.

Canned Heat cookbook

I remained optimistic, and I had checked a box that suggested my initial VNYL three-LP shipment could fall under the general category of #work—I think other categories were #lazysaturday, #danceparty, #betweenthesheets and, uh, #cooking. The latter momentarily made me think of that album Canned Heat Cookbook that I used to own, and how cool it might be to have it again, but because I do most of my listening here at work—oh, did I mention that BLURT shares offices with Raleigh, NC, record store Schoolkids Records, and that I am spinning platters all day long?—it made sense to select that “work” hashtag for my category of preferred LPs for my first shipment.

“Magic” is clearly a relative term. I suppose you could charitably say that my first VNYL batch of goodies made me feel like being on the receiving end of a slick Three-card Monte operation.

Allow me to detail what I just tugged from my pink-interior VNYL box (displayed at the top and below), which also included a nice note from my personal hand-curator, Teal, who had affixed a photo of her smiling for the camera and clutching my records: “Hey Fred, Hope you like the records I chose for you. Love this Pablo Cruise album. Enjoy! – Teal”

 

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Pablo Cruise – Worlds Away (1978, A&M); hashtag #work, $12 value)

Toto – Hydra (1974, Columbia) ditto

Leon & Mary Russell – Make Love to the Music (1977, Paradise) ditto

 

Did you get that? Toto, Leon/Mary Russell, and Pablo Fucking Cruise. Gee, thanks, Teal.

If there is a single record store owner out there reading this right now who has any of the above listed albums in stock and they are NOT in the 99-cent bins, please tell me. Recall that I myself work in a record store, and I have worked in record stores on and off for, cumulatively speaking, nearly 20 years, for extended stints during the ‘70s, the ‘90s and, of course, the past three years during the contemporary vinyl explosion. So I know a little about vinyl. But—Lefsetz mode on here—VNYL values them at $12 apiece, at least that’s what a sticker on each plastic sleeve indicates. Jesus. There’s not a person on the planet who would pay that much for ‘em. They are titles we can barely give away at our store, sitting there in the junk bins alongside the Dan Fogelberg, Loggins & Messina, Poco, George Benson and Eddie Money albums. For $12, we have Dylan, Stones, Neil Young, Reprise-era Kinks, DEVO and the stray early Elvis Costello albums.

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Now let’s be fair: back in the day there were undoubtedly folks who cherished those LPs. The Pablo Cruise album even featured the mega-hit “Love Will Find A Way”; although the Toto album, the band’s second, was a relative flop, commercially speaking (chart monster Toto IV was still three years away), and by the time Leon Russell’s record was released, the songwriter’s hitmaking days were long behind him.

(Caveat emptor: that bassline in the Pablo Cruise song will stick in your head and keep you awake at 4:30 a.m. unless you immediately play some Twisted Sister after it finishes.)

But while each artist had its share of devoted fans, they’ve all since moved on, and it’s unfortunate but true that none of those albums have stood the proverbial test of time. Records from the same general era by, I dunno, Led Zep, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, KISS, Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell have, however, and proof resides right here in my record store: when I get in used records by those artists, they don’t stay in the bins for long (Zep and Floyd are typically gone within 24 hours, in fact). See my above comments about our 99-cent bin….

Pink Floyd

As a side note, I will mention that the records were in outstanding condition, both the sleeves and the actual vinyl. That’s a plus, although it should be a given that VNYL won’t send out platters that look like they’ve been trashed, or that are excessively noisy or even skip.

Bottom line: while I am still interested to see what my next two VNYL shipments will yield, this initial installment in the series is not all that encouraging. In fact, it reminds me of that old Monty Python skit about Australian table wines: this is a shipment with a message, and the message is “beware.” In 2015, nobody is going to their local record store and looking for records by Pablo Cruise, Toto and Leon & Mary Russell, much less willing to pay twelve freakin’ dollars for a copy. I posted a shortened account of my experience to the popular Steve Hoffman forums; below is typical of the numerous comments made.

 

Ha, well….I thought the idea was odd anyway.

Well, it’s not like first impressions count, or anything.

My guess is VNYL owns a record store a found a new way to get rid of that old, dusty stock.

I can only imagine weeks of dollar bin raids but who knows.

 

Indeed, if VNYL expects to make its subscription business a success, it’s going to have to do a lot better than trawl bargain bins and hit thrift stores in search of “product” for the subscribers. (Intriguingly, on the VNYL Twitter page the following info has been added: “New record store at 1136 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice CA.”) It will also have to conduct some serious seminars in “hand curation” for its employees in charge of making selections for customers. Otherwise the negative word-of-mouth is gonna kill ‘em.

Strike one, VNYL. Three strikes, and yer out. To be… continued?

***

POSTSCRIPT: Literally as we were preparing this article to post, the good folks over at Stereogum published their own piece entitled “VNYL Sliding: Why The ‘Netflix For Vinyl’ Service Is Such A Mess”. In it, writer Michael Nelson made some observations similar to ours, particularly along the lines of my 99-cent-bin complaints:

“VNYL subscriber Rob Baird talked to Stereogum for this story. For his #vibe, Baird told us, he chose the hashtag #lazysaturday, ‘based on [VNYL’s] Spotify playlist, which contained artists like Iron & Wine, Jack Johnson, Sufjan Stevens, Father John Misty, and Norah Jones, who I listen to regularly and are part of my record collection.’ Baird also shared with us a link to his Discogs profile. This not only helps to give you, the reader, an idea what he listens to; it was ostensibly consulted by VNYL personnel in order to help hand-curate musical selections based on his #vibe…. His first VNYL shipment included old releases from Jefferson Airplane, Dan Fogelberg, and England Dan & John Ford Coley.”

A number of the reader comments following the story took a similar tack, like this one:

“Damn! I thought this sounded like a cool idea and almost signed up. I ultimately decided to cheap out – and now I am so glad I did. I make enough questionable vintage record purchases without needing to pay $24 a month to get Pablo Cruise, Neil Diamond, and Kenny Loggins delivered to my door.”

Most of the Stereogum story, however, concerned an entirely different matter, that of whether or not VNYL would be violating the Record Rental Amendment Of 1984. It appears that VNYL became aware of this at some point and had to make some small changes in its operating model in order not to run afoul of the law. Writer Nelson delves pretty handily into this and it’s well-worth reading carefully.

He also talked with founder Nick Alt directly, who discussed that as well as some of the complaints that were starting to come in from subscribers. Among his quotes:

“VNYL was Kickstarted as a ‘Hand Curated Music Discovery’ project. I wanted to prove you could build the best human-curated music platform there is. After the campaign, I reached out to all our Kickstarter backers and asked them to fill out a questionnaire about VNYL and their own music experiences. I was really curious — what were they listening to? What genres do they like? What don’t they like? We’re all being sold these digital streaming services, but VNYL is about doing something anti-algorithm and focused on how people experience and actually listen to music.

“I also asked members why they backed VNYL. The vast majority (over 80%) chose to back us because they wanted to grow their vinyl collection, try a human curated service, and because they wanted to support vinyl as a medium. For a majority of our backers, the Netflix rental model just wasn’t the draw and actually created the most apprehension. Since we’re constantly making decisions around what the best user experience is for VNYL, it made sense to us to allow our backers and future members keep records they receive from us and pay us no additional costs…

“It fucking sucks when we disappoint our members. We honestly feel incredibly sad when a member doesn’t like what we sent. That sucks for them and also for us. It’s like you just spent all this time planning out what you think is an awesome surprise gift idea for someone and then they can’t mask the look of disappointment when they open it up right in front of you. It’s completely deflating. Unfortunately, this comes with the territory of being a human curated service.

“With time, VNYL will only improve. As shitty as it feels when someone doesn’t like our choices, when we do get it right, it’s a total rush. There’s nothing more rewarding for me or our curators when we see someone tweet or Instagram their open box of vinyl and are debating which one to spin first.”

Well, only “time” will tell, Nick. But judging from the growing snowball that is the court of public opinion, there’s not a whole lot of time to improve and “get it right.” Remember what I said about “negative word of mouth” at the end of my original article? It’s already started, and in a big way.

UPDATE, 5/16: Watch this video that Stereogum found by a, shall we say, less than pleased VNYL subscriber posted about his #danceparty selections:

UPDATE, 5/20: Another unhappy backer has posted a story about his experience at The Faculty of Thinking Blog. The writer’s conclusion: “VNYL charges $24 a month for 3 records via mail currently valued at less than $3 a record. Most of what you receive is not great and will feel more like a yard sale or goodwill or dollar bin find. If you’re into it, cool. You cannot return these records if you don’t like them. Very little about what you include in your profile, musical taste or “vibe” will influence what records you get. The records chosen are “hand curated” and possibly even with care, but from an extremely limited and low quality pool. There is nowhere to see the list of records that your selections are being curated from. Absolutely not worth the subscription unless you are trying to build a novelty library of quality over quantity. You are losing money in this current build.”

UPDATE, 5/20: Here is the first (to my knowledge) complaint about VNYL filed with California’s Better Business Bureau. It reads, in part: “When VNYL initiated a Kickstarter campaign (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/nickalt/vnyl-hand-curated-vinyl-records/video_share) in December 2014, it billed itself as the “Netflix of LPs.” As described by magazine Rolling Stone (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/new-record-service-vnyl-distributes-lps-like-netflix-20150109), VNYL offered a subscription service that: allows member to select a hash tag classification (#lazysunday or #danceparty, for instance). Once completed, “the company will send three albums curated to fit the ‘vibe’ by the VNYL staff. The service costs $15 a month and allows members to spend as much time with the records as they would like, keeping the ones they love and sending the duds back using pre-paid shipping. The cost of keeping an album will run between $8 to $12.” I participated in the Kickstarter campaign and chose 3 months of service in late December 2015.On or about March 25, I tried to select vibes that had been promised on the Kickstarter campaign. I found that at least two vibes, #gamenight and #rainyday, were not being offered as promised. Nick Alt, creator and owner, noted that those vibes might be added at a later date. On April 25, I contacted Nick Alt again after receiving three albums that were not to my taste. They arrived with no prepaid return envelope, and I asked him how I could best return them. I also asked him to cancel my membership. He did not respond to repeated emails and Facebook queries until May 9th. His response, in part: “Those records yours to keep for no cost…but you dont have to do anything to get them back to us.”At this stage, I feel like the Kickstarter campaign was a bait and switch, an opportunity for VNYL to collect money and use it to open a brick and mortar record store as opposed to service members properly.Mine is not the only complaint.”

Fred Mills: Open Letter to Bob Lefsetz about Record Stores

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In which ye old Blurt editor fantasizes about 12″ vinyl records and the sweet young things who covet them….

June 9, 2014

Dear Bob – It’s your buddy Fred again. How goes it? In your latest “Lefsetz Letter” post (“David Carr’s Article,” June 9, about NYT writer Carr’s “Free Music, At Least While It Lasts” story and “the outbreak of free”), you very astutely summarize where we’ve been and where we are; no arguments on my part there. But near the end, when you namecheck some of today’s dinosaurs (printers, travel agents, etc.) you take what I feel is a somewhat gratuitous—and ill-informed—swipe at record stores writing, sarcastically, “While we’re at it, let’s bring back record stores.”

I’m going to go out on a limb here and presume that while you’re a staunch anti-nostalgist you still harbor fond memories of hanging out in and shopping at record stores back in the day, back when a lot of your boomer-fave bands like the Eagles were making vinyl LPs and a young Bob Lefsetz could be found flipping through the bins in the aisles of a favorite local shop while those timeless chords of “Take It Easy” blasted from the store’s stereo… and out of the corner of your eye you spotted a pretty girl over in the other aisle also flipping through the bins and also grooving to the tune so you screwed up your courage to wander over to her and, using the mutual musical connection as an ice breaker, asked her what her name was.

lefsetz

Wait—don’t hit “delete” just yet, Bob. I’m also going to go out on a limb here and presume that you and I are pretty close to the same age (I’m 56), and since the above scenario, or a similar one, probably unfolded for me a few times back in the day as well, we’ve got a few shared experiences that might make for an interesting conversation someday. (I am what you’d call an “occasional nostalgist” but don’t hold that against me. I’ve also got a 13-year old kid so part of my job as a parent is to make sure I don’t forget what it was like to be young.)

Back to the record store thing. Putting the stores into the dinosaur category is, I think, to consciously avoid actually going into one in 2014 to check out the dynamic therein. A lot of them have disappeared over the past two decades, and they ain’t coming back. Quite a few, though, hung in there, some of them literally by the proverbial skin of their… you know. As I may have noted in past emails, I’ve been working at an independent record store (Schoolkids Records, Raleigh NC – about to celebrate its 40th anniversary, in fact) for the past two years, and while no one here harbors any illusions about things returning to anything remotely resembling the Nineties Normal of the pre-download era goldrush (although the raging success of the annual Record Store Day vinyl-centric event is, in fact, encouraging) there is a definite sense here that everything old is becoming new again.

Our store (and for the most part all of the other stores in the US who are part of our Coalition of Independent Music Stores, which has been in place for years now) doesn’t exactly operate from a position of nostalgia, but what we ARE trying to do is restore the notion of a record store being a place to come and hang out, meet friends, hell, bring the whole family (it happens), geek out on this or that band/record (and I do mean records: new and used vinyl comprised nearly 80% of our sales), get your OWN band’s record/CD/tape placed in the bins via consignment, and yeah, maybe even screw up the courage to wander over to that pretty girl in the other aisle and make a comment about the music that’s playing over the store stereo. I mean, some things are eternal and don’t need fixin’, you know?

Schoolkids

As a semi-relevant aside: at least once a day I see my teenage self in the store. It’s uncanny, Bob; here’s this geeky kid, might be a guy or it might be a girl, and they definitely look like 2014 kids, but it’s still ME some four decades hence, out there in the bins, feeding what’s potentially going to turn into a lifelong obsession with music. That’s me, in the early ‘70s, discovering my first used record store, or a store with a huge stash of UK imports and a box of bootlegs under the counter, or even a store where one of the employees stops what he’s doing to patiently help me find some weird-ass obscure band and doesn’t treat me like I’m some weird-ass geeky kid.

At our store we have tried to modernize within reason, of course. To that end we have free Wi-Fi so you can check your email, a big stuffed couch and a few chairs for lounging, a centrally-placed stage where we host live shows every early Friday and Saturday evening, and even a bar with 6 local drafts on tap (soft drinks and agua as well). We also jettisoned the “cranky old burned-out clerk behind the counter” model in favor of… well, since I’m the resident “old clerk” we actually just jettisoned the “cranky” and “burned out” components ‘cos I really enjoy being the clerk behind the counter, honest. Hell, I make it my mission to go up to every kid under 10 who comes in with a parent and hand him or her one of our store stickers (it’s a kind of demented fish logo, go figure), because I’ve never met a kid under 10 who does NOT like getting a free sticker and because I’ve never met a parent anywhere who does NOT like seeing a smile on their kid’s face. We are all about making people feel welcome here at our store and, oh by the way, we are all about giving a little kid a good feeling about our store because that’s gonna be a regular customer here in 5-10 years’ time.

My rather long-winded point is this: nobody’s trying to “bring back” record stores or trying to cling to some outdated or dead business model. We’re just trying to show people that they have an option they might not have realized has been here (at least in some cities) all along, right under their noses. A record store is — I risk sounding like the gone-native proselytizer here, but bear with me — way more than just a place to spend your money on music. If that was all a record store is, everyone would be happy just going to Best Buy. (Whoops, Best Buy has shifted all their music floor space to smartphones now. Never mind.) It’s a gathering spot, a public square, a nexus of interactions and social transactions and even the occasional teenage mating dance. Some folks stick around for a couple of hours or more. Everyone is welcome, and everyone has a good time.

It’s a beautiful thing Bob, and I would like to personally invite you to swing by some Saturday afternoon if you are ever in the vicinity and — not to get all hippie on you — enjoy the vibe. The first Bell’s Ale is on the house.

Viva le vinyl,

Fred Mills / Raleigh NC

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Link to Lefsetz’ Original Blog Entry That Prompted My Response: http://lefsetz.com/wordpress/

UPDATE 6/10: Apropos of nothing – okay, okay, I’m being disingenuous; it’s fucking apropos – the Autumn Defense and Yep Roc filmed a series of testimonials about records and record stores last fall at Schoolkids (our old location, prior to moving). Watch a clip, below, or check it out over at YouTube.