Tag Archives: vinyl records

Fred Mills: The Economics of Rock Criticism

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Ever wonder why reviewers do what they do when they are actually LOSING money on the deal? (First in a series, collect them all.)

By Fred Mills, Blurt Editor

Lately our writers and staffers have been doing an outstanding job with their record, concert and book reviews, and you may have noticed that some of those reviews have been posting as Features initially (prior to be archived in the respective Reviews sections). They get a bit more attention that way, and since they’re not getting paid for their reviews, it allows me to thank them for occasionally putting in the extra time and sweat to make a review a bit more special.  Plus, while it’s sometimes because the artist in question is relatively high profile and we can potentially grab a few extra eyeballs, it can also be because I just feel the artist being reviewed deserves to be spotlighted.

There’s a related wrinkle to all this. Can we agree that no one is getting rich reviewing records these days? Worse, with even the most DIY of labels moving to digital promotional platforms, eschewing hard copy promos for lo-res MP3s or, worse, horrible sounding digital streams, one could argue that we reviewers now find ourselves in the curious position of PAYING THE LABELS for the privilege of writing about their artists and clients.

Don’t believe me? Let’s do the math. Assume, as a base, that a reviewer spends 90 minutes listening to a 45-minute album twice before sitting down to write. Then assume he/she puts in another 90 minutes’ minimum to write, proof, revise and finalize a review. Could be more, could be less, depending on the record. Some reviews practically write themselves because their merits (in the case of a great rec) and deficits (for lemons) are so blindingly obvious. Plus, regarding the lemon contingent, who wants to waste an hour and a half on, I dunno, a John Mayer or (insert whatever is displaying on the Pitchfork home page at any given moment) when you could be out shooting hoops, tending the garden, or banging some hot rock critic groupie. Hey, it happens!

At any rate, now we’re up to three hours. Let’s say a reasonable hourly wage is $15. You’ve just racked up $45 worth of time and sweat equity. Except there’s no equity, because you were reviewing digital files. And if you actually want to keep the album, you’ll probably want to burn it to a CDR, print out some artwork or at least tracklisting, and insert both into a jewel case. That’s at least another buck for the disc, the printer paper, and the ink used printing it. (The writer will NOT have to purchase a jewel case, luckily, because he’s already got boxes and boxes of empties, the result of tossing the discs from the shittier titles among the hard copy promos he got. Well, that’s where the latest John Mayer promo I received went.) Not to mention, I dunno, another 10 minutes spent downloading, organizing, burning, and printing; which, at $15 per hour, or 25 cents per minute, is another $2.50 worth of work you are not getting paid for. We’re at $48.50 now.

I’m tempted to put a dollar value on the amount of time it takes to send the link to the review out in an email to the label or publicist who sent you the digital files – compounded, let us not forget, by the subsequent, inevitable, deluge of emails from same, who, following a cursory “thank you” proceeds to start badgering, er, I mean, pitching all those other artists/clients currently with projects they want to publicize. But that would be mean-spirited of me.

So let me just return to my original premise: by virtue of that $48.50 that he did NOT get paid, the writer has essentially PAID THE LABEL for letting him review the record. And there’s not even an ACTUAL RECORD to show for his trouble – just a bunch of shitty-sounding MP3s clogging up the hard drive, and a CDR copy of the album that may or may not actually play in the future, depending on what CD player is being used. (You wouldn’t believe the number of promo CDRs I get that will play on one player but not on another, especially my car player, as I often preview promos while driving to and from my day job, or while vacationing.)

$48.50: extrapolate that figure across the course of a year, during which any writer worth his or her salt will “spend” at least 50 times. Usually more.

When BLURT became a volunteer operation, I was already aware of all this, but I hadn’t quite “monetized” the notion. Once I started thinking about it, I realized that (a) only a schmuck would review a digital file unless a finished hard copy of the album is also part of the picture when it is ready at the label; (b) those labels that do make it their usual policy to send out hard copies should be acknowledged and thanked, even if the writer can’t necessarily reciprocate with a review (there might be just too damn many promos that have come in around the same time, or the writer simply can’t place a review with a media outlet – I have the deepest admiration for our writers like Lee Zimmerman, Michael Toland and Bill Kopp who somehow are able to crank out scores of reviews practically on a weekly basis; unfortunately, superhumans such as they are a dwindling race); and (c) if a label goes the extra mile and actually SENDS A VINYL COPY OF THE RECORD, you can damn well bet that I’m gonna make that a priority review if at all possible, because the cost of the hard goods and postage for gifting a reviewer with an LP is not negligible… did I mention that COLORED VINYL GETS THE SUPER-DUPER PRIORITY as well?

Anyhow, by way of a semi-digression here, and just to “circle back” (my favorite publicity rep phrase) to the topic at the start of this rant, today at BLURT we posted an extended review of “Blood & Treasure” by Pat Todd & The Rankoutsiders, issued by the Hound Gawd! Records label. Todd of course once fronted the legendary The Lazy Cowgirls. Longtime contributor Barry StVitus penned the review, and we published it in Features, along with some choice audio samples and a killer live clip of the band from this past April. Why? Because, well, Pat Fucking Todd.

Plus, as suggested a moment ago, it will get way more exposure at the top of the home page rather than semi-buried down “below the fold” in the Reviews section. Oh, and because Barry’s a damn good writer, and he puts forth the kind of effort that deserves to be recognized. As do all my writers at BLURT: thanks to every goddam one of you. What’s that saying? Oh yeah – you complete me. Uh…

In all seriousness, we rock writers do this for the fun and the love of the music, not necessarily for the acclaim (right….) or simply to get paid. Well, that and the free records. But as you may recall, those “free records” can sometimes be illusory and actually put you in the hole.

At any rate, by my way of thinking, we at BLURT might as well take that fun when we can get it, and write about the stuff we really care about, and not fret about some weird flavor-of-the-moment Pitchfork shit for 20 year old hipsters and their crappy-sounding earbuds. (Hey you kids, get off my freakin’ lawn!) There’s a lot to be said for supporting the artists who make our lives just a little less grey, and in particular, artists like Pat Todd who have been doing it for as long as I can remember. At this stage in the game, loyalty counts for a lot, you know?

Thanks for listening. Now I must go. I have to start sending out a lot of $48.50 invoices…. HERE is the link, incidentally, to that Todd review and accompanying music samples that set me off in the first place.

 

Fred Mills: VNYL Pt. 2 – For the 2nd Round, the Subscription Service Ups Its Game

VNYL

Second time’s the charm, eh folks? In our latest shipment, the arrival of choice LPs from the esteemed Fat Possum, Ubiquity and Glassnote labels—including a just-released album—suggests that the VNYL folks heard the withering criticisms and realized they had to do it right this time around. Guess what? They succeeded! (Go HERE to read Part 1, “Love Will Find a Way: The VNYL Subscription Service Blows It?”)

BY FRED MILLS

I’m almost tempted to publish just the header and subhead and be done with my latest, second report on the VNYL record subscription service (motto: “Join the record club of your dreams”). For my above description pretty much summarizes in full what happened with the second installment of my three-shipment subscription, which I initiated back in the early spring by pledging to the startup’s Kickstarter campaign.

To recap briefly: recall that a couple of months ago I wrote about my first shipment, which yielded a trio of aesthetically moldy (if, condition-wise, clean, shiny, and mold/scratch-free) slabs of ‘70s drek, namely Worlds Away by soft-rockers Pablo Cruise, Hydra by the ever-pompous, eternally sterile Toto, and Make Love to the Music by Leon Russell (along with wife Mary Russell) at a point in his career when he most assuredly was not The Master Of Space And Time. These were, put charitably, 99 cent bargain bin titles, the kind that BLURT’s sister business, Raleigh-Durham’s Schoolkids Records, can’t even move during half-off sales. In that report I also provided some background and context for how VNYL operates and included details and anecdotes from other media outlets and frustrated subscribers; my conclusion wasn’t necessarily as harsh as some of the others, many of whom flatly stated they thought the club was a scam, but I did point out that in the wake of a fairly appealing Kickstarter campaign, the ultimate execution was a huge misfire and a public relations disaster.

VNYL 1st

“While I am still interested to see what my next two VNYL shipments will yield,” I wrote at the time, “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.”

Sharp-eyed readers will also recall that after I posted a shortened account of my experience to the popular Steve Hoffman forums, the response to my post ultimately yielded a message board thread that ran for well over a month—and still generates comments to this day. Translation: it’s a topic that was not only resonated with the entire Hoffman community of record and audio geeks, it also generated the type of sputtering outrage and withering sarcasm generally saved for, I dunno, Justin Bieber (or, in an earlier era, Courtney Love). Concurrently, Stereogum had also taken a look at the matter in an article titled “VNYL Sliding: Why The ‘Netflix For Vinyl’ Service Is Such A Mess” and the consensus over there wasn’t much rosier. Worse, for VNYL at least, the comments section at the actual VNYL Kickstarter page was overflowing with frustration, with more than one angry backer indicating they had filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau.

***

Needless to say, I was simultaneously dreading and looking forward to my second shipment. But as I had signed up via the Kickstarter campaign, you could say my check had already been cashed, so I sat back and waited. And waited. And waited…

The first shipment had arrived on May 13, but by July 2 nothing else had arrived. During that time frame I had moved so, while my mail was being forwarded, I realized I should update my address with VNYL and then inquire—politely—about the delay. Lo and behold, I received a reply in less than 24 hours, impressive for any business’s customer service relations department, letting me know that they got the address update, but that I had not yet selected the “vibes” category for my second shipment—clearly my mistake. I immediately logged in at http://my.vnyl.org and made the selection of “#poolparty” for my vibes, having already taken a test run with #work for the initial shipment. Then I sat back and waited. And waited. And…

By July 24 nothing had arrived so I emailed the same staffer who had been so prompt with my earlier inquiry, and received the following reply, also in less than 24 hours: “Hi Fred – We apologize for the delay on that! One of our team members actually did a special order for your second Kickstarter order for you, and it’s taking a little longer to come in than we anticipated. It should be shipping out next week. I think you’re really going to love the shipment and I promise it will be worth the wait!”

Fair enough. But interestingly, one of the aforementioned Kickstarter backers’ comments had stood out. Posted on July 3, it read, in part, “I have experienced [a delay] but I sent them and e-mail asking why was it taking so long, politely. The response i got is they have so much of a demand there is a little backlog in the category that you might of chosen.” Hmm…. Perhaps, just perhaps, this time around VNYL was going to be a bit more professional with its “curation” process, and rather than just grab some bargain bin junk they had lying around to send out, they were actually going to eyeball the members’ profiles (which included likes and dislikes as well as a suggestion that we provide them links to, say, our personal Spotify playlists), and from there come up with a reasonable selection. With that in mind, my curiosity was piqued. So I sat back once again and waited…

***

Somewhere in the middle of all this I received two additional emails from VNYL, on separate days, both essentially canned memos sent from the main hello@vnyl.org email address rather than personally drafted by a staffer. The first one, sent in early July, announced that “Your VNYL trial is about to end.” Say what? At that point I’ve only received one shipment, and they’re telling me the trial is about over? Well, I’m guessing that due to the canned nature of the email, it was simply synched to the roughly three-month time frame that the original Kickstarter agreement laid out, so that didn’t really worry me. It was just a standard notification.

What DID get my attention, and keep it, was the second canned email that showed up a couple of weeks later telling me the credit card they had on file was about to expire and I needed to update my billing information. Ha! Well, sorry folks, but I’m going to hold off just a bit on that until I’ve gotten all three shipments guaranteed to me in the Kickstarter agreement—and the credit card situation better not cause any delays or hiccups in my receiving the shipments. Now I know what you are thinking: since I stated in my previous report that when I originally heard about VNYL I decided to pledge during the campaign as much out of curiosity as sensing that there might be an interesting story here for BLURT, maybe I preemptively registered a card I knew would be no good if they subsequently tried to bill me. That’s not the case, however; I just used the card I always use for online shopping, and it was purely by chance that it was set to expire at the end of July. It was only after the fact that I heard of several instances when members did get charged without their authorizations. That duly noted, the lapsed conspiracy theorist in me did briefly consider the possibility that if VNYL has burned through all that Kickstarter funding as well as the money that came in from early subscribers—VNYL also opened a brick and mortar store in Venice, Calif., which couldn’t have been a small expense—then they would need to keep the cash flow moving if they wanted to purchase reasonably attractive product and not bargain bin junk to send out to subscribers. But I’m the kind of person that likes to give folks the benefit of the doubt, so I just didn’t worry about the credit card deal (nor, incidentally, have I registered a new one at VNYL yet).

***

Yesterday was August 17 and my latest VNYL box arrived via media mail, postmarked August 11. I knew it was en route because that same day I got an email announcing it had been shipped. Below you can see the results (extra points if you can identify the logo on the shirt I’m wearing):

Jackson Scott – Melbourne (2013, Fat Possum) hashtag #poolparty $16.99 retail/$12.99 cost

Various Artists Rewind! 5: Original Classics, Re-worked and Rewound Vol.5 (2006, Ubiquity) $15.99 retail/$11.25 cost

Son Lux Bones (2015, Glassnote) $17.99 retail/$12.74 cost

The cost and retail listed are taken from the Alliance Entertainment (AEC) website; AEC is probably the largest distributor of CDs, LPs and DVDs in the US, selling both major label and indie product, and while the cost price is usually somewhat higher than it would be if a store ordered from Sony, Universal or WEA (or, in the case of indie records, directly from the indie labels), with its huge selection and two-day shipping, it’s probably the main distributor for the majority of stores here in the States so the prices are representative (There are other indie distributors around the country as well but none with the same depth of catalog.) The actual retail prices in stores, which are based on the manufacturers’ suggested list prices, will vary depending on their policies—for example, a lot of $16.99 albums might ultimately be priced in their bins at $17.99 or even $18.99. Profit margins are ridiculously thin for vinyl. And it’s non-returnable, too.

All in all, not a bad haul, eh? I think the three titles speak for themselves: sealed, pristine new pieces, not promos or cutouts and definitely not bargain bin leftovers. As I said in my video, the Jackson Scott record didn’t knock me out when I heard it a couple of years ago, but it’s still not a dog. And as I have always dug titles on the Ubiquity label, I am eager to spin the 2-LP Rewind!, what with its eclectic roster of funk and downtempo DJs and musicians serving up an even more eclectic selection of covers, among them Nuspirit Helsinki tackling Led Zep’s “No Quarter,” The Randy Watson Experience (aka ?uestlove and friends) covering Sting’s “Be Still My Waiting Heart” and Danish duo Owusu & Hannibal for—get this—Beach Boys classic “Caroline No.” Regarding the Son Lux platter: I was definitely already a fan and I had definitely not heard the album because it’s not even two months old yet, having been released in late June! Toto, we’re not in moldy ‘70s territory anymore.

VNYL 2nd

As with the previous shipment there was a nice note enclosed from my personal curator, Teal, and it suggested that she did indeed eyeball my VNYL profile to see how she might line up the records with my tastes. “Saw you listen to Little Richard on Spotify,” she wrote, “so think you’ll really enjoy Rewind! 5, an amazing soul compilation… Gave you Son Lux, a post-rock project and rally promising up and comer.” (I had listed post-rock among my “likes” on my profile.)

Big salute to you this time, Teal, and hope there are no hard feelings from my comments a few months ago. I’m not going to be stingy with my kudos here, either, and plan to report back to some of the same correspondents and outlets that I interacted with for my initial commentary. Admittedly, while I’m definitely not eating my words from before—they remain accurate, I believe, and where I engaged in speculation I clearly labeled it as such—I am choosing to believe, for the time being at least, that Round #1 represented an extreme case of growing pains, and for Round #2 the VNYL crew made a concerted effort to up their game, and succeeded.

But Round #3 looms, and I am about to head over to my VNYL account to select my #vibes for it. Leaning towards either #lazysunday or #danceparty this time. What will I get in the mail in (hopefully) another month? Well, that recent deluxe box for the reissue of the Stones’ Sticky Fingers sure seems mighty appealing, hint-hint. But who knows? As the saying goes… to be continued…

 ***

Fred Mills is the editor of BLURT. Extra thanks to Elijah Mills for the camera work. There will be a #poolparty in your honor very soon, bruh.

Tim Hinely: 15 Questions For… Saint Marie Records

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And… here’s the third installment in the BLURT series in which we profile cool independent record labels. What are the criteria for inclusion in the “cool” category? Hey, ’cos we say they are cool, that’s what! We’re making the rules around here, kids. Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment, coming soon. Meanwhile, go HERE for entry #1, Slumberland Records, and HERE for #2, 12XU..

BY TIM HINELY

Wyatt Parkins takes his shoegaze seriously. Very seriously. As you’ll read below this Texan began his label, Saint Marie Records, just a few years ago, but has amassed a hefty amount of releases in that short time span. This isn’t just American stuff, either — he scans the globe looking for bands that can hop on fuzz pedals with delight. Just recently he’s released records by groups like Seasurfer, Jetman Jet Team, Children Of The Stones and plenty more. Read the interview then go to his website and check out some releases as the label is definitely making its mark.

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BLURT: When did the label form/what was your original inspiration?
In early 2011, we announced the label, but it had been in the works for almost a year. I guess the music I am into and a few labels were my biggest influences in starting Saint Marie. I knew I wanted to start a label for some time, but I figured it was still going to be in the distant future. But the stars just aligned, and we went for it.
Who designed your logo? Do you only have one?

I did the logo after many attempts and failures to come up with something I felt represented the name and its namesake. The name comes from a Piano Magic song/EP. Piano Magic had been a huge influence on me. I had been friends with Glen Johnson of Piano Magic for at least a decade at the time, so it just made sense. We would later release a record by Piano Magic, which was hugely exciting for me and is still one of the biggest highlights of the label’s existence.


Just one logo but there are several variations of it. What was most important to me was to make sure it scaled well so it would look good on a CD or vinyl record spine. The teardrop logo does this very well. The original image I had in mind was a silhouette of a saint’s face (basically a nun) with a teardrop, but I just stopped at the teardrop.

smr_logo_text_large_black(3)

 

What was your first release?

Patrik Torrson – At The Line Of The Border. He is actually a huge part of the reason why we decided to go ahead and start the label when we did. He had released the record digitally only, and I felt strongly that it needed a physical release. He agreed, and the rest is history.

SMR001 - Patrik Torsson (Wallet) - At The Line
Were there any label(s) that inspired you to want to release records?

Yes, absolutely! 4AD, Creation Records, Ghostly, Captured Tracks, Graveface, Club AC30, Clairecords just to name a few. I personally know the owners of last two mentioned, and they have been a huge help over the years in label-related matters.
What difficulties did you realize come with running a label?

The biggest headache is just managing the accounting portion of the label, especially as we release more and more records. We’ve recently converted to a new transaction-based system that has greatly improved this process. PR can also be a huge headache, but also gets better with each release. There are still a few of the biggest music sites that refuse to pay us any attention even though I strongly believe we are releasing some of the best records in our respective genres. Physical inventory management is somewhat difficult as well as the number of releases grows, but an offsite storage site has helped a ton.
If there is one band, current or present, you could release a record by, who would it be?

Slowdive, no question, although there are several very close runners up: Lush, Pale Saints,
Cocteau Twins, Locust, School Of Seven Bells… just to name a few.

 

What has been your best seller to date?
Without double-checking, I would have to say Trespassers Williams’ Cast. In fact, the CD itself is out of print and can only be purchased digitally or used via various outlets.

Trespassers William - Cast
Are you a recording/touring musician yourself, and if so, do you use your label as an outlet for getting your stuff out to the public?

No, not at all. I work in Information Technology, 9-5 and manage the label in my time outside of that. I play guitar but never find time to do it since starting the label. I have two kids, a wife, Saint Marie, a PR firm ‘Gas Pedal PR,’ and a music blog ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’.. .so not sure I could fit in a “creating my own music”. I do, however, handle much of the artwork for the label and have even created several videos for the artists on the roster.
What are your thoughts on having a presence at the major conventions like SXSW, CMJ, etc. Have you done them before and if not, would you like to?

Some of our bands have been showcasing artist at SXSW, but there has not been a Saint Marie showcase as of yet. Maybe one of these days we will do something about that. Hopefully, we will have the opportunity to do the same for CMJ as well.
Does your label use and/or have a presence on any of the social media sites?

Yes, we are very active on Facebook and Twitter.

Have digital sales been significant or nominal?

I believe roughly 50% of our sales have been digital, which is very significant, but we always prefer physical sales. Without digital sales, we would probably not exist, so we have a love/hate relationship with digital.
What are your feelings on vinyl? Have you always offered your releases on vinyl?

Many of our releases are available on vinyl. We hope to get to a point where all releases are available on vinyl. So far, it just has not been cost effective to do so.
What is your personal favorite format to release music?

The vinyl format has the most appeal to me now that digital exists for portability. For me, the vinyl and digital partnership is perfect, but vinyl is definitely my preferred format.
What new(er) labels these days have captured your attention?

Club AC30, Deep Space Recordings, NoYes, Moon Sounds, Marshall Teller, Neon Sigh, Second Language and Secret Furry Hole.
Do you accept unsolicited demos?

Reluctantly, yes… I say this because 99% of the ones we receive are not right for the label, and that is putting it nicely. 😉

 

Contact:
Wyatt E. Parkins
Saint Marie Records
Fort Worth, TX | Seattle, WA | Los Angeles, CA
www.saintmarierecords.com
wyatt@saintmarierecords.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Saint-Marie-Records/164080190305178?ref=hl

Twitter: https://twitter.com/StMarieRecords