All Things to All People Vol. 17
Well, it's been quite a while since I've written one of these, a fact that has not gone without remark from those of you who check the site regularly. I apologize for that. I suppose there are a combination of reasons that have kept me away from blogging. The first is that we did a little bit of remodeling at the store. A month or so ago I acquired a huge, very awesome collection of about 3,000 jazz LPs, so I added some new bins, moved things around and created some new displays to accommodate all of the jazz records. That's kept me quite busy, especially when you add in sorting and pricing all of those records (which is a project that will probably be ongoing for the next year or so).
The other reason I haven't written is that I think I've been a bit depressed. There has been a lot of heavy stuff going on in my social circle lately and at times it has kind of gotten to my head. I touched on the whole Brandon thing in the email newsletter and that definitely spun my head around super hard for a few weeks there. Thinking so much about "The No Way Years" has me doing a lot of reflecting on how my life today is different from what it was like in those years. Maybe it was just where I happened to be at in my life or maybe I was just lucky enough to be part of something truly extraordinary, but everything was just so exciting during those years. I lived for hardcore. While I did other things, it felt like the most important thing in my life was hardcore... playing in bands, putting on shows and putting out records. That fire isn't really with me as much these days. That might be because I'm older or because after running the store for three years I'm kind of burnt out, but I'm definitely lacking some fire. The other thing is that a lot of my close friends are either having or recently had children. I never really thought that I would want children and I'm still not sure that I do, but again looking at several of my friends undergoing this enormous life change has me reflecting. For most people raising children is the most important thing they will ever do. It seems like it's a sort of capstone achievement in your life. However, I've devoted my life to punk rock, and I'm increasingly questioning the wisdom of that decision. After more than a decade doing Sorry State it's certainly grown in size and scope, but as a business it's patently unsuccessful, slowly accumulating debt and always taking up more of my time and causing more stress. Maybe I'm just bad at business? I'm sure that plenty of people would consider Sorry State enormously successful, but I can't help but think about the fact that without my constant attention and without periodic infusions of cash (which more often than not come from my minuscule personal income from teaching) the whole thing would collapse within a month, and within a few months people would barely ever remember it was here.
Maybe I'm also bitter. I certainly get angry when I think about how easy life is for some people. I mean, obviously I could have it worse... I'm a white male in the United States after all. But I've never had a trust fund. I've never had a relative die and leave me a bunch of money. I've always paid my own bills. When Sorry State was planning to put out our first 12" I got a second job to pay for it. I've never not worked a full time day job for the entirety of Sorry State's existence, and I guess that after all of that time with my nose to the grindstone, I'm just tired. Tired and a bit bitter that I don't have much in the way of personal wealth or conventional achievement to show for it. Again, that's not to demean what Sorry State is, but when I look around at my friends giving birth and fucking dying it forces me to take a different perspective on what I've chosen to do with my life, and while it's been fun I can't help but think about all of the paths I didn't take.
Everything above probably reads like a melodramatic resignation letter, but it isn't. I'm not quitting. I'm just giving a bit of a voice to the little demons inside my head constantly whispering that I'm not good enough, I'm not smart enough, and that people don't like me. Now I'll get back to being myself and writing about music.
Over the past few months I have started to discover the genius of later Darkthrone. I've often spoken and written about what I call "the first album fallacy," i.e. assuming that a band's earliest stuff is their best, and in some cases only worthwhile, material. So many great bands suffer from this fallacy when, like the Stranglers or the Jam, their second, third, or fourth album is the one you really need to hear. This isn't precisely the case with Darkthrone; their first album, the death metal-oriented Soulside Journey, is widely dismissed, but their black metal albums like Under a Funeral Moon and Transylvanian Hunger are justly regarded as some of the most seminal records in the genre. However, I rarely hear people talk about their most recent material, which is brilliant.
We often assume that extreme music artists mellow with age, but such is not the case with Darkthrone. I wonder if, particularly with metal bands, part of that mellowing is a natural outgrowth of getting better at your instruments and wanting to write music that is more complex and less immediate. Maybe it's because they don't tour, but Darkthrone don't have this problem. If anything they've gotten uglier and more primitive with age. Their black metal period was so revolutionary partially because it was all blurred lines and soft edges. However, on newer records like Dark Thrones and Black Flags the seams show. You hear the band's influences crashing together in the oddest ways, full-bore Discharge-inspired hardcore awkwardly giving way to more melodic, even epic, influences from bands like Judas Priest and Mercyful Fate. Despite the fact that they've been playing together for something like 30 years now, they sound like a high school band trying to mash together their most beloved influences despite their apparent incompatibility. Early Inquisition stuff like Invoking the Majestic Throne of Satan has a similar quality about it, and it's one of my favorite little conceptual threads in the history of black metal, if not metal in general.
I should also note that my discovery of these albums is owed to my sporadic but still very much present interest in picking up cheap used CDs. I imagine the vinyl for these albums probably runs $25 or more a pop and I definitely wouldn't have taken a chance at that price, but for six or seven bucks it was well within my budget for risky musical purchases.
In my last entry I promised that I would write about Record Store Day, and while I no longer have the energy for a point by point refutation of the specious arguments against RSD, I should probably fulfill that promise and write a few words.
One of the reasons that I started a record store was because there were no record stores in my area that were precisely what I wanted a record store to be. One of the reasons that the store is still there after three years is because I recognize that there aren't enough people out there who are precisely like me to sustain the store, and I've had to recognize what works and what doesn't and focus on the former in order to keep the doors open. I've always been leery of Record Store Day as a customer, so the first few times that we participated in RSD we were only dipping our toes in the water. We basically only ordered the punk records that we would have ordered anyway even if they weren't RSD releases, all the while fielding phone call after phone call from people looking for One Direction records and Ghostbusters picture discs. Eventually we started ordering some of those types of releases, then more of them. Nowadays we order quite a lot of them, and despite what you might hear from your oh so knowledgeable local record nerd, they sell. This past RSD, our sales for Saturday and Sunday were roughly equivalent to what we do in a typical MONTH. We also make a concerted effort to sell through as much of our RSD stock as well possibly can, and by Monday morning we had only a few dozen pieces remaining out of the 500+ we had on Saturday morning.
Now, there are a number of problems with RSD. One big one is that we have to pay for almost everything up front, so it's often a budgeting nightmare to get together the cash for everything. Further compounding those problems, some distributors will ship your order up to a full month early. We have to pay when the order ships, so we're often in the position of dropping thousands of dollars for product that we can't sell for several weeks. Second, I have to place our orders several months in advance, well before these releases are announced to the general public. This makes it very difficult to gauge demand. What does and doesn't generate the most demand is consistently surprising to me... I mean who would have thought that Ghostbusters record a few years ago would have been such a thing? And, of course, there is no returning unsold product, so if you end up ordering a dud you are left holding the bill.
However, even given those issues, Record Store Day is great for Sorry State. I mean, you have to be smart. You need to order the things that your customers are actually going to buy, but that's really the only difficult part. The folks who run RSD do a great job with the other most difficult part of running a store, and that's generating interest in and demand for records. People want desperately to buy records on RSD. They come into stores looking to buy, and if you serve them well they WILL buy. Yeah, you won't see some of them until the following RSD. However, for many of them it's their first time buying a record, and if you make the experience a good one for them, they will be back. You can't please everyone, but if you work hard and play your cards right you can please a lot of people and turn a lot of people on to buying records.
To me, Record Store Day is basically the one day (though now there are two) of the year when the music industry functions like it should. The people who put out the records make something and they market it appropriately so that people want it, and then the local stores like mine try to get people to come buy it from us. It's the way that other industries work... Coke and Pepsi spend millions on developing and marketing their sodas, then your local grocery store tries to get you to buy it from them rather than the store next door. So much of running a record store is an uphill struggle. Getting people to know the store is there, convincing people that buying records is a worthwhile thing (particularly difficult given that pretty much all music is available online for free or close to it)... those are the things that I struggle with every day, but on RSD those things are taken care of and I can focus solely on getting good records and putting them in people's hands. If there were even one day a month like that my job would be criminally easy, but in the meantime I'll definitely take twice a year.
One more thing for this entry. A lot of my music listening time lately has been taken by this app / site called Mixcloud. I listen to a few podcasts, but by and large podcasts don't have actual music in them because of intellectual property rights issues. Mixcloud somehow works things out so that rights holders (theoretically, at least) get paid, but other than that it pretty much works the same as any other podcasting app or platform. There is a lot of user-generated content of questionable quality on there, but my preferred feeds are the ones that archive radio shows that originally aired on some form of real time / terrestrial radio. I've always loved radio ever since I was a kid, but the problem is that the music on the radio just sucks. However, when you have a great DJ playing great music it can be like sitting in a friend's room and having them play their favorite records for you. Mix tapes are cool and all, but I like hearing people talk between the songs as well, contextualizing things juts a little bit and increasing the human connection to the music. Here are some of my favorite Mixcloud Feeds:
My very favorite show is Damaged Goods, which just happens to be done by Sorry State's own Seth along with local Raleigh personality Matt Dunn. Seth and Matt have been doing Damaged Goods for years now and they pretty much have the format on lock. Matt controls the playlist for the first hour, focusing mostly on new releases in the garage and punk realms, then Seth takes over for the second hour and plays stuff that's similar, but he tends to focus on older and more obscure bands, as well as slightly more esoteric stuff like minimal synth and KBD punk.
The key to a good radio show is consistency... When you tune in you want to feel like you're visiting friends, so you want to know what you're getting. Seth and Matt know this and there are all sorts of little things for the regular listener, like how Matt always starts his set with a song by the Fall (and always announces it by saying ("that was a band from Manchester England called the Fall"), Seth always starts his set with a song by Billy Childish, they always change their silly DJ names several times per show, and they always do a little snarky rundown of the silly music news of the week. Listening to this show has become one of the highlights of my week and if you like a lot of the stuff we carry at SSR you'll probably like it a lot too.
30s Punks Go For It
30s Punks Go for It is a podcast hosted by Candice from Mystic Inane and Patsy, and it focuses on somewhat more obscure music and is radically freeform. There's plenty of punk, but you're just as likely to hear progressive jazz like Miles Davis or Eric Dolphy, the best of 60s psychedelia, and other weird and forward-thinking music from across the globe. I like how 30s Punks kind of dissolves the very concept of genre... so many people will only listen to hardcore or jazz or soul or whatever, but Candice does an incredible job of weaving together tracks that are radically different in many of the ways that we often think about music, but share a clear and undeniable sensibility that links them together.
The Village Subway
Another excellent show that happens to be based in Raleigh is The Village Subway, hosted by my buddy David Schwentker. Like Damaged Goods, The Village Subway airs on Little Raleigh Radio (a Raleigh-based internet streaming station), so it's recorded live but archived on Mixcloud. David's tastes seem to tend toward the garage / Total Punk end of the punk spectrum, but his playlists are usually dictated more by what artists are coming to Raleigh over the next few weeks than anything else. This is great for a Raleigh-ite trying to decide what shows are worth our time and money, but it's great even if you just want to be up to date on what the new hip punk bands are.
NTS Radio is a London-based terrestrial (I think?) station that also archives content on Mixcloud. They have a lot of well-known DJs, in particular some good celebrity DJs. My favorite of them is Henry Rollins. Now, say what you will about Henry Rollins, but at this point I think that he may have been hosting radio shows for significantly longer than he was in Black Flag, and if you ask me he's probably better at DJing than he is at fronting a band. Like 30s Punks Go for It, Rollins' show is radically eclectic, though he tends to lean a bit heavier on the classics than the obscurities that Candice favors. On the last one of his shows that I listened to, he transitioned from Coltrane into Motorhead, and it was absolutely sublime. That should tell you right there whether or not you need to listen to this show. There's also a very good metal show hosted by Fenriz from Darkthrone that you can also listen to, but I wish Fenriz talked a little more and gave you a little more to go on... most of the time he just tells you what song he just played or is about to play and leaves it at that. He definitely has great taste though.
The only criticism I have of NTS is that if you subscribe to their feed you get ALL of their shows crowding out everything else in your feed, which can be kind of frustrating. I wish I could just subscribe to Rollins's and Fenriz's monthly shows and not have to sift through the half dozen shows that they upload every single day.
Finally, another London-based terrestrial station, Soho Radio, also archives their numerous (mostly) genre-based shows with (mostly) celebrity DJs on Mixcloud. My favorite is Gary Crowley's Punk and New Wave Show, which is pretty much straight fire, focusing on '77-inspired punk and related music like mod revival, two-tone, and dub, mostly from the UK but also occasionally from the US and Europe. The only issue is that while most online radio shows that I've listened to tend to have too much music and not enough talking (I guess you don't get to be a record collector by being a huge extrovert), Crowley's show has the opposite problem... in particular, much of the show is taken up by reading aloud posts on the show's various social media feeds, which can be a bit tedious. Still, the music they play is so good that it's worth sitting through all that.
In addition to these regular feeds that I subscribe to, you also see other content pop up from time to time. For instance, when someone whose feed you follow likes an episode you also see that in your feed, so the social component can really lead you to some good stuff. That's how I found out about Rollins' show, as well as how I found out about this excellent mix of '70s punk that I'm listening to at the moment.