Tag: vinyl

The Slow Listening Revolution

It’s an Ever-faster-moving, Information-brain-cluttering, Clean-off-our-desktops-in-favor-of the-cloud-inhabiting (we all know it…), Free-music-streaming, Thousands-of-songs-on-a-small iPod-or-mobile-phone-or-tiny-zip-drive, Cloud-platform-storing World.

And then there are 12-inch vinyl records that are bulky and expensive. Musicians making money from record sales is a thing of the past because people don’t buy music anymore. So why would any musician—especially an independent musician with little money and in her (questionably) right mind—ever consider releasing music in a format that is both expensive to make and which yields little to no return? I self-released my first solo record on 180-gram vinyl with full-color artwork 11 months ago. So far the net loss stands at about $1,300. And it was worth every penny.

Like hundreds of thousands of artists before me, I had a painful breakup that inspired music. As I looked for a record company and a producer to assist me in releasing this new music, I came upon two people who would play a crucial role. Christian Fulghum, an old friend and owner of a (then) prolific indie label in Seattle called Fin Records, and the producer Kramer (Mark Kramer of Low, Galaxie 500, Bongwater, Will Oldham, etc. fame). At our first business meeting, after Christian had already heard the music and agreed to finance and release it, I suggested a vinyl release (this was 2013, a bit pre-neo-vinyl explosion). He suggested starting with a digital download and a CD, and if people responded to the music (a.k.a. “bought it”), we could talk about pressing vinyl. It was just too expensive an endeavor for a first solo album. We proceeded to talk to artists about CD covers, finally choosing collage artist Tim Silbaugh of Swell Pictures Design. Christian loved the idea of Kramer producing the record.

Kramer and I met through an introductory email from a mutual friend and we began corresponding, immediately appreciating each other’s dry sarcasm, enthusiasm over music, and love for books. He also liked my music. Kramer lives in Florida and I reside in Seattle, so I knew one of us would have to travel. We scheduled a winter recording session, and so of course it made sense for me to go to Florida. I packed my sunscreen and guitar. (Little did I know it would be colder in northern Florida in January than it was in Seattle.)

Kramer and I set up residence in an empty house on the outskirts of St. Augustine, a soon-to-be home that my brother and sister-in-law had recently purchased but hadn’t furnished or lived in yet. Kramer and I spent our first day setting up the recording studio in a back bedroom, then purchased things like forks, plates, a cutting board, tea kettle, food… Through the week we spent all day and night working, but when he was fiddling with computers and all things techy, I sketched out my idea for the cover. I had clear imaginings of how the artwork should look, and I was excited to work with a visual artist who could make it a reality. There was a period of a few months between our two recording sessions when I oversaw the artwork with Tim in Seattle while plotting the next steps in the recording. When we returned to St. Augustine to finish up the record, I fine-tuned the artwork through phone calls and emails with Tim. Kramer and I mixed the music together and he mastered it for CD. All done. Not so fast. Nearly without warning, and due to the fact that no one was buying music, Fin Records folded up shop mere weeks before the scheduled release of Element 115 (Uup). I was left holding digital masters. The artwork hadn’t been paid for yet. I had a European CD tour booked but no CD, no record company, no tour support, and no money. I was heartbroken. A few days, several anxiety attacks, and many martinis later I had the audacity to decide to go on tour anyway, and reconsider my initial idea: vinyl.

Why vinyl? Commitment. In this mid-second decade of the 21st century, music is being taken for granted on a collective scale. An entire generation of music listeners will never pay for music, nor do they believe that they should. The long form music medium has taken a back seat to song culture, yet the average person only listens to a song for approximately 24 seconds before deciding if it’s worth their time to continue to listen. I ponder the substantive value of something that our capitalistic, corporate-model culture places on “free.” When we can listen to a whole song, or usually only 24 seconds of a song without paying for it, do we really value the music? I wonder if we listeners are as committed to music as we were pre-internet? I really like the internet, so these words are in no way a complaint or indictment, but merely observation.

As a child of the ’70s, I loooovvved records. While still in school and living at home, I worked at a small local record store lined wall-to-wall with vinyl records. My boss handed me my pay in cash on Fridays and I turned it right over to him in exchange for the records that I’d coveted through the week after wandering through the bins, plotting their entry into my library: older jazz releases, like Coltrane and Monk; rock records by Zappa, King Crimson, The Ramones, Led Zeppelin, and Kate Bush; my initiation to Philip Glass and Steve Reich… I remember that there were only about five or fewer new releases per month that were exciting to me.

I got home each Friday and immediately entered my bedroom, closed the door, and began the weekend ritual. I picked up the first new acquisition and peeled the cellophane off of the cover. I slid the record out of its sleeve and carefully moved it between my hands to feel the weight of it, always impressed if it wasn’t floppy. (At some point record companies invested less in the weight of the vinyl and they got floppy.) I smelled the record. I placed it on my turntable and cleaned it. I cleaned the stylus. I carefully placed the needle onto the vinyl. I moved across the room, took my place on the large pillows on the floor, and listened. I studied the artwork. Read the liner notes. Studied the musicians’ names and the studio it was recorded at. Read the lyrics. When Side A was over, I got up, flipped the record over, and sat back down. And listened to Side B. It was a chosen, collaborative world. It felt intimate. Most often I would give that entire record another listen before moving to the next one. I wanted to hear every detail of the music. I often copied the record on to a high fidelity—sometimes metal—cassette tape so I could play it in my car. I had three different styluses, and my records were color-coded. One stylus was for the garage sale records or ones that I played until scratches were audible. Another stylus was for the every day records in good condition. And the third stylus was for the Japanese pressings and rare items. (I think now they might call this behavior O.C.D.)

A black and photo photo of Gretta Harley sitting on the floor examining a pile of LPs; a turntable with an LP on it is in back of her.

Photo by Angela Castañeda

Listening to records was a commitment. That kind of intentional listening and studying music was life school. That same commitment transferred to my piano practice, my school studies, and relationship with people. When I became a composer, that skill, that ability to commit to and focus on, was an essential component of my work. As an educator, I often see a lack of commitment to music activities in my students. In fact, I see a lot of impatience when a piece of music isn’t learned immediately. I try to share my thoughts on how much time a piece of music can take to learn, and how to practice, and stay focused. Some get it. Many feel the need to move on to the next piece before nearly perfecting it—if it gets that far. Most of these students beat themselves up because it takes too long to understand a piece of music, and so therefore they must not be good at it. I don’t relate. I understand, but it’s just not how music ever was for me. Music represents a commitment to life. A deep understanding of something takes time. And the journey is fascinating.

So, after I stopped drinking those many martinis post-record label folding, I realized I needed money to get this record out in the way that I initially envisioned it. I could have released the record on the internet, but that just seemed to not honor the particular music I had made. This thought in no way diminishes the music that is self-released on the internet. It is a fantastic, accessible platform that enables musicians to share music. But I felt that by releasing this particular music– a song cycle– in the full-length vinyl medium, I was asking the listener to slow down and intentionally listen.

[the internet] is a fantastic, accessible platform that enables musicians to share music. But I felt that by releasing this particular music– a song cycle– in the full-length vinyl medium, I was asking the listener to slow down and intentionally listen

The internet, in addition to providing a sharing platform for music, also provides artists with a new way of generating income and startup money for their projects. I had already paid out of pocket for my own CDs through a manufacturing company so I could take CDs on that European tour (sans artwork). I came back to the States and created a crowdfunding campaign called “The Slow Listening Revolution” where I challenged fans and supporters to a slow attention listening commitment.

The crowdfunding campaign was successful, and I was able to pay Tim his initial bid and to re-format the artwork for vinyl. Kramer made minor adjustments to the master. I asked friends and acquaintances a lot of questions about the various logistics of making vinyl, learning many things including that more than 23 minutes of music per side diminishes sonic quality. And that 180-gram vinyl produces higher fidelity than a floppier product. (Speaking of fidelity, there are all sorts of other considerations and conversations worth having about the tastes and quality of sound between digital and vinyl. Maybe for another day…) My decision to produce a vinyl record was a manifestation of a dream. It was a tangible commitment to my own vision of this music. And I felt in control, somewhat, by asking the listener to slow down and take it in without distraction.

When several heavy boxes of records were delivered to my 600-square-foot apartment on a dolly, my racing heart nearly obstructed my voice instructing the delivery dude to place the boxes on a space of floor I had cleared for their hopefully short residence. I opened one box to find five smaller boxes arranged vertically. I took out one, grabbed scissors to break open the seal, and uncovered a stack of ten shrink-wrapped 12” vinyl records covered in bubble wrap. I picked up one and turned it over and over, marveling at the colors and the arrangement of images I had painstakingly obsessed over (even overwhelming poor Mr. Silbaugh, who I drove crazy). I do believe I may have jumped with joy. I unwrapped the cellophane. I slid the sleeve out from the envelope. I turned it over and over in my hands, marveling at the sleeve design and bright colors. I peeled the record out from the sleeve and felt the weight of the record. It didn’t flop. I read the details of the label: date, copyright, catalog number, song titles. I placed the record on the turntable. I cleaned the record. I cleaned the stylus. I carefully placed the stylus on the record. I moved across the room, sat down with the cover and the sleeve, and listened.

Gretta Harley standing on a street corner seemingly hailing a taxi.

Gretta Harley (Photo by Michael Profitt)

Gretta Harley is a composer, songwriter, and music educator raised in New York and living in Seattle since 1990. She co-wrote a rock music play called These Streets about women of the grunge era that played to sold out houses in Seattle in 2013 for which she earned a music award nomination, and was named “One of 50 Women Who Rock” by the Seattle Weekly. Last year she released her first solo album on her own label, Mettle Records. She is planning the second record of a trilogy with producer Kramer.

New Music on Vinyl: Everybody Loves It, But It Doesn’t Make Much Sense

Dj Turntable On Vinyl Background

The vinyl resurgence should be great for new music, right? After all, who buys records in 2015? Nerds. Curious, acquisitive types. People with a thing for the timeless artifact. Those who are willing to seek out sounds beyond those that the streaming services are ready to deliver right to their earbuds. And the very fact that some music lovers are spending their money on physical editions of music after more than a decade of gorging on ones and zeros has to be good news for people who sell music, doesn’t it?

As so often in life, the answer is complex, but not encouraging. Everybody loves vinyl, but it doesn’t really make financial sense.

It’s an agonizing problem, because vinyl is booming. In 2014, sales of new LPs jumped 52 percent from the year before, and sales in the first quarter of 2015 spiked 53 percent from the same period last year. Sales of new vinyl still only make up about 7 percent of album sales overall, but it’s the only format where album sales are still growing, as streaming continues to shred the market for physical music.

There is a cadre of record buyers for whom new music titles constitute sweet finds—or at least older new music does. Just four or five years ago, used albums by composers from the 20th-century avant-garde might have gone straight into the dollar bin, according to Cory Feierman, manager of Academy Records Annex in Brooklyn. * Now they can fetch big bucks. Robert Ashley albums, for example, sell well, and quickly, Feierman says. New vinyl reissues of mid-century electro-acoustic figures such as Pierre Schaeffer dot bins, and then disappear.

And new music labels are releasing new vinyl, too. Founded in 1982, Innova Records has been around long enough to have issued its first releases on LP and then watched as vinyl gave way to the compact disc. “There was a long gap in time before our next vinyl project was produced,” says Chris Campbell, operations director at Innova. “Over 20 years, in fact.” New Amsterdam Records started out in 2008 as a label offering CDs and digital downloads, but it started doing LPs for certain titles in 2013. “We started printing vinyl because we had fans requesting it regularly, and our musicians wanted to see their albums on vinyl,” says label manager Michael Hammond. (Both Campbell and Hammond are composers, and both have issued their own music on vinyl.)

But of Innova’s more than 500 releases to date, only nine are currently available on LP. New Amsterdam has released 73 recordings in less than a decade of operation, but it has only released 10 of those on LP so far.

browsing records

Uncool as CDs may be to a swath of music consumers these days, they retain certain advantages over vinyl. Analog purists can talk about ineffable “warmth” all they like, but CDs reproduce perfect digital sound every time across a far wider frequency range. (Despite all the clucking about the inevitable decay of the compact disc, the majority of CDs produced in the ‘80s, near the dawn of the format, still play just fine.) They also can offer up to 80 minutes of uninterrupted playing time—about double what the two sides of an LP will hold with reasonable audio fidelity—and obviate the need to break up a longer piece of music across more than one side, or more than one record.

And as quiet as it’s kept, CDs still sell, as do digital downloads. And when they do sell, they’re profitable.

Vinyl, on the other hand, is a finicky, expensive boondoggle from a practical standpoint. The grooves that give vinyl its sound, and its soul, must be physically produced and replicated, and “it’s a bit fussy in terms of how it’s made, how it’s cut,” Campbell says. From mastering the recording to creating a stamper to pressing copies, “there are myriad places along the way where it can go wrong,” he adds, and all those steps add up in time and cost, even if they all go right. The boom in vinyl has meant that the few working pressing plants—literal relics in a digital age—are forever backed up, leading to long lead times and unpredictable delays.

All of which contributes to a ratio of cost to benefit that vinyl loses to CDs or downloads “hands down,” according to Hammond. Producing a CD costs maybe $1.50 per unit. Producing an LP in a typical small-label 500-copy run can cost $6 or more per LP. Vinyl weighs more, and is thus more expensive to ship, and it gets damaged in shipment more easily than CDs. “And if it doesn’t sell, then you have giant boxes of records sitting around your warehouse!” Hammond says.

Every small label feels these pains right now. Innova operates as a nonprofit, but jazz label Pi Recordings does not. Pi co-founders Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang have only pressed two titles on vinyl to date, strictly because of concerns over cost versus profit. “Our wholesale profit margin is over $6 on CD sales, and maybe $2 at best for vinyl,” Wang says. “After you pay the artists their royalties, there is literally no profit left.” Since most artists still create albums with CD length in mind, issuing an LP version that sounds decent means making a double album, which makes the pressing far more likely to lose money than make any.

There is one bright spot to selling LPs, according to Rosner. Stores can return CDs that don’t sell for credit with their distributor, and those unsold copies eventually find their way back to labels, but “stores cannot return vinyl,” Rosner says. If LPs can be sold to distributors or stores, no big boxes of records will find their way home again to haunt the label’s warehouse.

But first labels have to sell their LPs, and niche music on a niche format tends to move slowly. Academy Records in Manhattan still stocks mostly CDs with only a handful of new titles on LP. Asked about top-selling new music titles on new vinyl, manager Frank Vogl cites a recent recording of Morton Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus released by Austrian vinyl-only label God Records. It sold four copies in a month.

Mode Records still has LP copies of the first recordings it released in 1984. The label embraced CDs when they came along, and it continues to release titles on digital formats to this day, but it has yet to take up vinyl again. Founder Brian Brandt says he loves vinyl, personally, and doesn’t rule out releasing LPs again in the future, but it’s hard to get around the fact that “it doesn’t actually make financial sense.”

Brandt adds that the rise of streaming and the erosion of paid downloads and physical media sales represent a far bigger dilemma than to press or not to press. “Something has to give soon, because at the rate things are going, many independent labels will not survive this economic downturn in music sales,” he says. “And, unlike other depressions in the music business that I’ve experienced over 30-plus years of doing this, I don’t see any light at the end of this economic tunnel. Vinyl is unlikely to be the answer to that problem.”

Still, there are ways in which it appears vinyl does make sense for new music, if you squint. After all, the LP has returned at this late date in part because it’s a somewhat unwieldy physical product—larger and heavier than a CD, more fragile and particular, more of an objet d’art than a mere unit sold. In a world of data steams, “vinyl is a way to frame up the value of music,” says Campbell.

An LP still has a collectible, almost fetishistic value that a CD just doesn’t for many at this point. It carries a particularly strong appeal at the merch table, according to Hammond. A number of variables go into the decision to press vinyl, he says, and one of them is “whether or not the artist will be playing a lot of shows—vinyl sells at concerts.”

Rrose performing James Tenney

Rrose performing James Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion in New York, and the cover of his recording of the work.

Contemporary composition can sell pretty well in certain circumstances. Earlier this year, Further Records released an LP of two recordings (studio and live) of James Tenney’s piece Having Never Written a Note for Percussion and sold out of its 500-copy run within months. The label specializes in electronic music, and sales were fueled no doubt by label followers and by fans of the performer, a techno producer/DJ known as Rrose, a.k.a. Seth Horvitz, who earned an MFA in electronic music from Mills College. In addition to distributing copies to record stores through the usual channels, the label took orders, and pre-orders, through Bandcamp, the current standard for one-to-one music sales. On a more bootstrapping front, crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and the rest could also offer the potential for composers to solicit presales for, and fund production of, vinyl releases.

While selling records is important, it can’t be the only consideration for composers, performers, or even the labels themselves—especially since new music has never been a huge seller in any format. “My experience is that, from a business perspective, running a record label in 2015 in general doesn’t make sense, no matter what format you’re selling,” Hammond jokes.

CDs and downloads may make more money, but “vinyl as a format has an undeniable and lasting appeal,” he continues. “The historicity, the charm, the ritual of removing a record from the sleeve, flipping it over, looking at the artwork.”

And in the end, composers don’t do what they do for short-term gain. They’re making art, ideally, music meant to outlast listening formats, and even lifespans. At Innova, composers themselves pay for vinyl pressings, and the reasons they do so vary. “Some of it is marketplace-driven,” Campbell says. “Some artists know that their audience would love to sit and listen to a needle go through grooves. Some of it is purely for the joy of creating a kind of art object. How beautiful! Motivations and driving factors can be more than just the bottom line.”

* At the writer’s request, this sentence has been updated. See discussion here.

Lee Gardner

Lee Gardner has been writing about music and film for more than 25 years. He is the former editor of Baltimore City Paper, and is currently a senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Sounds Heard: Things You Already Know

It’s always exciting to find a “new” favorite piece of music or music maker, and when a genre’s emphasis is on the innovative, that perhaps lays the foundations for a particularly blinkered focus. I almost passed up the three discs below for that reason, because while they were new, I had covered these artists in some measure before and felt obliged to keep my ears moving. But then I heard Kamala Sakaram in her interview this month suggesting that there is so much to be gained by digging past the premiere, and I decided to apply that to my listening.

Once this idea slapped me in the face, Chris Campbell‘s Things You Already Know (poetically appropriate, no?) metaphorically hit the other cheek. In this case this was not music I already knew but rather Campbell playing around (as he explains in his CD or vinyl-accompanying note to the listener) with dialog across his own internal and external realities. While much music might be traced in one way or another to a similar root motivation, here the work wears its intention on its CD sleeve and it led me to consume the tracks as a sort of tour though the composer’s aural memory palace, several doors left temptingly unlocked and the drawers open for ready snooping. With the assistance of musicians drawn from various genre specialties in the Twin Cities and a colorful collection of unusual and/or processed instrumental timbres, it’s a rewarding journey—particularly Water Variations, with its exotic string instrument collection. Campbell himself sits at the piano at key points offering reflective commentary until the listener is beckoned to peek behind the next swaying curtain.

David T. Little’s Haunt of Last Nightfall was stuck in my head for nearly a month after our Spotlight interview, and it has taken up residence there yet again in anticipation of the commercial release of a recording on New Amsterdam (out today!). It’s not always comfortable sonic material to host in one’s ear. The history which Little explores through the music—the massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador in December 1981—draws on a full palette of extreme content stretching from horror to prayer. What particularly impresses me about this piece, however, is how rich and gripping an emotional experience Little, Third Coast Percussion, and guest musicians Eileen Mack, Mellissa Hughes, Andrew McKenna Lee, and Toby Driver are able to conjure—particularly in the percussion-only sections the work offers. A visceral reaction to a driving electric guitar is perhaps not an experience to brush aside, but it’s the timbral interplay of the various percussion sounds that bring a remarkable exploration of the events to light and one that won’t easily be shaken even after the last sounds fade.

Saxophonist Aaron Irwin is a bandleader whose projects sometimes catch my ear even before I realize his name is attached, but they tend to stick around in the rotation long enough for me to do my liner note research and get my credits straight. His latest release, Ordinary Lives, is sure to take up similar residence. In addition to Irwin on alto, this outing features Danny Fox (piano, Fender Rhodes), Sebastian Noelle (guitar), Thomson Kneeland (bass), and Greg Ritchie (drums), and the men are clearly well at home in one another’s company. The tracks are filled with too-easy-to-eat hooks, seductive gestures, and, well, regular injections of joyful lick playing that neatly keep things from getting tedious and ruining the party. It’s a warm and welcoming recording that quickly rewards attention.