The Jazz.com Blog
April 24, 2008 · 9 comments
A few days ago, jazz.com published Mark Saleski's comments on Record Store Day, an event drummed up by bricks-&-mortar CD retailers who are trying to reverse their declining fortunes. Mark lamented the gradual disappearance of these traditional purveyors of jazz music. Now Alan Kurtz, jazz.com's resident curmudgeon, offers a rebuttal. Readers are invited to share their own views by adding their comments or emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org. T.G.
On April 17, editor-in-chief Ted Gioia announced that Jazz.com had published its 2,000th track review. As the author of 600 such reviews and editor of 550 by other contributors, I take particular satisfaction in this milestone. But it is merely the latest of many in our 4-month-old web site's ambitious trek "to cover the full extent of the art form," as Ted puts it, with track-by-track reviews, each including "a link for fast (and legal) downloading." Nowhere is Jazz.com's uniqueness more evident than in our music reviews, which serve online consumers in a way that no other jazz web site even attempts.
So you can imagine my chagrin when, scarcely two days later, Jazz.com's Best Jazz Links on the Web redirected our visitors to a music blog that urged everyone "to celebrate the first ever Record Store Day" on April 19. Record Store Day! How retro can you get? This contrivance, explained stereogum.com, was the brainstorm of "a number of independent store owners who hoped to remind us that because most folks download their sounds today … a lot of record stores are going under." (emphasis added)
Within hours, Jazz.com's Mark Saleski joined the chorus, lamenting the decline of record stores and decrying Internet music delivery services. To Mr. Saleski, Record Store Day underscores what's "missing from the online retail world: knowledge and culture." Knowledge resides in the record store staff. There is "no substitute for a store clerk who has spent years mining the Coltrane vaults." And Saleski's notion of culture? Why, that would be "the feeling of sifting through the bins with a group of like-minded people." As Saleski sees it, the alternative to record stores is bleak. "A future where people never leave their houses seems like no future at all." By this reasoning, Jazz.com is part of the problem, not the solution. After all, our track-by-track music reviews—75 of which Mr. Saleski himself has deigned to write—are aimed expressly at consumers of Internet music delivery services.
Surprisingly (to me, at least), Mark Saleski is not alone in biting the hand that feeds him. Marc Myers, who has contributed 25 reviews to Jazz.com, launched a similar jeremiad on his own daily blog. While conceding that downloads provide "portability and instant access to music at rock-bottom prices, without the burden of shelf storage," Myers warns that "with convenience comes compromise—namely the virtual death of album-cover art, liner notes and that little thing called 'hold-a-bility.'" Gloomily, Myers adds: "By any measure, downloading is a pretty sexless act and medium. … Lots of jazz albums are just a click away. One, two, three: you own it." Mr. Myers, lest we forget, is complaining about this!
Don't get me wrong. A little whining now and then from my colleagues doesn't bother me. However, it's one thing to bewail the fate of outmoded business models, but quite another to impugn newer models that have gained traction precisely because they better appeal to consumers.
And bear in mind, consumers are not bemoaning the demise of record stores. Industry insiders are. Consider, for example, Record Store Day's Official Website. Among over 100 artists singing the praises of record stores are Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, and DJ Jazzy Jeff. (Notwithstanding the last named, the closest anyone in this list gets to jazz is Norah Jones.) Even on a separate Public Quotes page, the testimonials are almost entirely from industry insiders, including executives, musicians, DJs, journalists, a fellow who fashions portraits of musicians out of their old vinyl LPs, a store manager, and a former store employee.
Polling such people is like asking refinery workers whether or not they're in favor of gas stations. Naturally the folks who turn crude oil into price-gouging gasoline at the pump will vote Aye. Their livelihood depends on it.
Significantly, among the Official Website's Public Quotes, only a couple are from actual consumers. Of these, one is especially telling. A woman recounts purchasing "a great import punk DVD" from a record store around 1990. When she gave it to her boyfriend for Christmas, they discovered it was "a Loudon Wainwright video—not what we expected!" She duly returned the item, whereupon the store promised to replace it. Unfortunately, the punk DVD proved as hard to find as Loudon Wainwright's cover of The Sex Pistols' Greatest Hits. "Fast forward to 1995," the customer advises, "and a package arrived in the mail. It was the video!" Far from being dismayed that it had taken five years, the customer was thrilled, concluding: "Now that's the ultimate in customer service!" It this weren't so funny, it would be sad.
Personally, I always detested brick-&-mortar record stores, and haven't set foot in one for years. I found the independents as inhospitable as large chain outlets were bland. The littler stores, typically with black-lighted satanic décor, always had small bins so crammed with overpriced merchandise that I could neither browse nor find anything. And worse, they invariably played rap, reggae or heavy metal albums nonstop WITH THE VOLUME CRANKED UP TO 11 so that I literally had to wear earplugs, and even then could only suffer it briefly. Shopping was an endurance test that I miss not in the least.
And as for the specious argument that customers could count on sage advice from the scruffy, surly, devil-worshipping salesman glowering from behind the checkout counter stocked with rolling papers and other drug paraphernalia—why, that's just asinine. Jazz.com reviews are infinitely better informed than those guys, and dapper to boot.
Once, in Houston, removing my earplugs as I exited a store, I overheard an arriving customer tell the clerk she liked the piano player on Kind of Blue. When she asked for something similar, the clerk recommended George Winston. That hyperventilating coot who bolted from the store, blathering obscenities and lurching headlong into lower Westheimer traffic, was yours truly.
Pity the poor record stores? I say good riddance to them, one and all.
This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.