Above photo via Drag City / by Brent Stewart
By Fred Mills
Presumably most indie rock fans got the sad news about Silver Jews’ mainman David Berman‘s passing on August 7; the cause of death has officially been listed as suicide, and it followed a history on Berman’s part of substance abuse, a couple of overdoses, and a 2003 suicide attempt. More recently, his marriage had dissolved and he was apparently experiencing deep financial issues.
I’ll leave the pop-culture analysis and biographical summaries to other outlets. What caught my attention today, however, was a tendency among some music fans to play the exploitation card against presumed (in their minds, at least) music retail gouging – as if they had never heard of or imagined an artist whose passing prompted sudden and renewed sales of his/her catalog. I will charitably view that opinion as “naive,” but to broadly paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson, I will also less charitably retort.
Allow me to add a potentially-received-as-cynical note: Welcome to real life, music lovers. This has been going on since Brutus shivved Caesar. To telescope down to the micro-level: why don’t we now also dump on Dave’s record label – I met him a couple of times, and he was a first-class dude, full disclosure, and I also mourn our loss – for not shutting down all product orders that are undoubtedly coming in at the moment? Or demand that they not accept money from streaming services that are having a major bump on Berman music?
It is the CONSUMERS who drive the demand, and therefore the prices. Commerce continues apace, regardless of what happens elsewhere in the biosphere. So by a certain twisted logic, maybe we should be going on a major rant against all the Silver Jews fans who suddenly want to get their fix when they got the news. Hey, what were they and their wallets doing during Dave’s lifetime, huh?
Here, let me very clear: he knew he had a very devoted fanbase. But he sure wasn’t on track to join the 1% from that fanbase’s support. Over the years I have voiced the opinion, in so many contexts and publications that I can’t even begin to remember, that the time to let an artist know you care and you respect him/her and you are looking forward to the next creation is NOW. Not after the fact. Ask me sometime how many heroes and heroines I’ve lost over the years and wished I had simply mailed in a fan letter, or, more recently, posted to their social media an expression of support, prior to their passing. As the visionaries of This Mortal Coil once pointed out so sagely and prophetically: “It’ll end in tears.”
I will add that I am 1 million percent against exploiting that $$$ exploitation dynamic, and I say that as a periodic record store employee or manager who was on the sales floor when the news of John Lennon’s assassination and Kurt Cobain’s suicide broke. We sure as hell didn’t say, “Hey, let’s jack these already-high album list prices and make a few extra hundred bucks by noon…” When you’ve been in the music industry as long as I have, you will have seen so many tragically premature shufflings off of the planet that you will reflexively say to yourself, “Well, i guess he/she’s gonna be back on the Billboard charts next week.”
But I am realistic: there will always be people who are engaged with commerce who, sensing an opportunity to make a few extra hundred bucks by noon, will go for it. I repeat: Welcome to real life, music lovers. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking records by a musician, autographs by a Kennedy, or scraps of a tunic originally worn by Caesar.
Now, I have no idea which music retailers are apparently being monitored by the Grief Police, or what their prices were before/after the news broke. What I would suggest, however, is that before making a blanket judgment, know what you’re talking about. In this instance, it would involve analyzing a number of complex marketplace dynamics… oh, and also the ability to read minds.
Just to bring it down to a more personal level: I had a pair of Silver Jews CDs that I’d listed online ages ago, and by the time I heard Dave had passed, those discs had sold hours earlier. One was relatively rare already. Were I so inclined, I probably could have claimed some b.s. like “sorry, cannot locate!” or “my co-worker wanted me to let him grab it and I had not yet had the chance to remove it from the store.” And then, of course, monitor the going prices, and re-list sometime soon in my store at a sweet spot, laughing all the way to the bank.
Obviously I didn’t. In fact, I had a wonderful conversation with a kid who clearly adored Dave’s music, and told him I was happy these could find find a good home with a fan. But that’s just me. Anybody who assumes that every collector, buyer, seller, mortician, etc. – and, let’s be very clear, capitalist – on the planet feels bound to act similarly is destined for a lot of disappointments once they get out of their parents’ basement.
None of this is intended to come across as cynical or uncaring. But I’ve seen this movie many, many times before. The rest of you will too, eventually.
David Berman, rest in peace. You brought a lot of joy to our civilization.