Friday, June 12, 2009

The state of the industry and the state of The Beatles

This week I was at the annual NARM (National Association Of Recording Merchandisers) conference in San Diego. I haven’t been in a few years and was full of anxiety about what it would be like in the increasingly digital era we find ourselves in. I wondered whether anyone would be there and what the mood would be. It turned out it would be one of the more productive NARMs I’ve been to. I found the labels and distribution companies somewhat more open-minded about dealing with independent retail than they have been in a while. Money seems to be tight for everyone, but that makes for a creative atmosphere. Part of that creativity is being manifested in the unbelievable resurgence of vinyl. There was a lot of talk about it, and I feel confident that the format is going to enjoy an even bigger resurgence, and that the quality will continue to improve, making it THE premier format it rightfully is.

I appeared on a panel with the Chief Executive Officer of The American Booksellers Association, Oren Teicher who was very interesting and thought provoking. I am already thrilled to be next door to one of the best bookstores in the country - The Tattered Cover - and I have been starting to really get into this whole concept of buying locally and avoiding chains or monolithic national companies that ship money out of state and limit the intellectual and artistic choices we have. I hope to become more and more involved in my local community as an individual and a businessman, and being on this panel sharpened my desire quite a bit.

As always at these conventions, the real fun happens late night in the private rooms of the store-owners. This year, my friend Eric Levin of the great independent store Criminal Records in Atlanta arranged for us to have some crazy multi-hundred thousand dollar sound system in a room where we could really listen to stuff. Part of it was an amazing turntable that retails for over 50 thousand dollars. Various people brought rare records to play and labels got the chance to play us some cool new stuff on vinyl. By far the highlight for me though came on the final night when some of the folks from Capitol Records brought in a CD under lock and key. It contained 13 samples of the new re-mastered Beatles albums played back-to-back with the old ones so that we could really hear the difference. That was followed by three of the new versions in their entirety. I cannot express fully what a profound experience this was. It was really big on many different levels. First off, it reminded us all how absolutely elemental The Beatles are to our understanding of modern popular music. They are the standard by which all other bands are held in terms of how that band effected society and in the music they actually made. Some of the effects on society were out of their hands and a product of the times but there is no getting around the fact that STILL, The Beatles’ music stands the test of time. It is forward sounding and beautiful - even today. There is both a highly evolved quality to it and a precious innocence that we will not see the likes of again.

So how did they sound? It is almost a crime that it is 2009 and we are still living with the original masters from the first generation of CDs. Technologically, things have progressed light years from where they were at the dawn of CD and the care that has obviously been poured into these releases reflects the best that the format has to offer. On the early songs that were compared to newer ones it was startling. The songs went from a one dimensional wallpaper effect to a deep, resonant, immersive sound. The guitars crackled and every nuance of George Martin’s thoughtful production and engineering was in the correct place and it sounded remarkably like, well, a great vinyl recording. The songs were presented in chronological order, and as the band approaches the psychedelic era, with Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s etc. the recordings became deeper, more resonant, and more and more exciting. There were probably thirty people in the room, and the feeling of growing excitement was palpable. With each hi-hat snap or lush three-part vocal harmony people were literally gasping. We were all anticipating the full songs at the end. "Tomorrow Never Knows" has always been a personal favorite, and has been embraced universally as a psych classic. It was a crushing experience to hear on this stereo in that quality. When the insectoid-like backward-masked guitar solo squirted out of the speakers you would have sworn a 300 pound day-glow mosquito had just flown by. It was AMAZING. Ditto, the opening guitar figure on "Something." Harrison’s tone had such warmth and presence it seemed like he had to be in the room. At the end there was a moment of silence before the whole room burst into joyous applause. I somewhat drunkenly stood up and made an impromptu speech that went something like this;

“If we can accurately convey to our customers the aural ecstasy of hearing this incredible music, and even more importantly, the significance of doing so in a room with other people, and the social implications of that…we will all have jobs for a long time.”

Drunk or not, I really believe that. The experience was so much more for the fact that we were experiencing it together, with the music washing over us in the optimal auditory setting. Sound matters, the society of others matters in the appreciation of that sound, and that is a fact that is becoming lost in torrent of instant gratification modern consumers face every day. Perhaps waiting so long for this moment made it that much sweeter. Either way, be prepared to replace your Beatles albums one last time. Also, there will be vinyl versions later in the year. My unquenchable love for music has its roots and greatest love in the music of The Beatles. They have been one of the most satisfying constants in my life since childhood, and this listening session really brought into focus what it all means to me. I hope you are as excited by their release on September Ninth as I am.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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Straight to the point, Any interest in selling Twist and Shout?

Rick Humphreys