Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Cheap Records

I’ve been addicted to bargain bins for as long as I’ve known of them. I lost a slew of records in the early 70s, when my apartment was burglarized, but even so, I still have several hundred (vinyl) records dating from that time. It’s not just the lure of getting music for cheap; at remainder prices you can afford to buy things on impulse, just because you like the album cover, or because you vaguely remember having heard something by the artist(s) and sorta kinda remember liking them.

You don’t usually get the mega-hits in remainder bins, though the hits do show up in as used in stores devoted to that purpose (usually not at the cheapest prices, of course). Used vinyl was/is a risky purchase, since even apparently clean albums sometimes have a single, major skip somewhere. CDs are more forgiving, but the downside of that is that more people treat them badly, so used CDs often have pretty ugly surfaces and sometimes those render one or more tracks unusable. Nevertheless, there are often some tricks that can recover the track for ripping if not for straight play. The same holds true for vinyl, there being some wonder-products that clean and even repair (to a very limited extent) the surfaces.

Buying closeout records is sometimes a bit ghoulish. When MGM records failed to option Frank Zappa in 1968, Zappa formed Bizarre Productions, and a good bit of Zappa’s MGM catalog went to remainder, including Lumpy Gravy, which I bought (and then lost to the aforementioned burglary). There must have been something going on with MGM records, because all of the “Boston Sound” artists hit the cheap bins at about the same time. A while later, MGM sold out to Polydor, and another big batch of product hit the remainder shelves, including a number of Verve recordings.

When Tetragrammaton Records bit the dust, I got some Bill Cosby records, plus Steve Barron and some others. The Phillips label also had some financial difficulties, so I own a couple of copies of the classic H. P. Lovecraft II album, and it’s near the top of my list for conversion to MP3.

Realize that buying cheap records doesn’t actually save you any money; you just buy more albums with the same budget, or lack thereof, which is to say, all your disposable income. After I moved to California, I joined a taping club for a while, not so much to save money on any given record, but because the effort involved in taping put a limit on the number of albums I could get at any given time so I saved in the aggregate. The net result of that is a cache of reel-to-reel tapes of some records that are almost impossible to get elsewhere like the Handscapes by the Piano Choir, or Across the Western Ocean by John Roberts and Tony Barrand.

Amy has been involved with a non-profit organization that runs a thrift store, and from time to time a big box of cassette tapes will come in and she’ll get it cheap. One of them was amazing; it had a lot of on-air recordings from KPFA in the mid to late 80s, especially one called “Do Wop Delights” featuring 50s do wop and gospel records (again, some of them so rare as to be unique). There have also been a lot of mix tapes from various people, some of them pretty good music programming (says the conceit of one who thinks he knows). Having those tapes makes the old tape deck in my car more attractive.

There isn’t a single thing that I’ve mentioned in this essay whose purchase put money into the pocket of the recording artist or any other copyright holder. The close-outs do profit the record labels, but that’s about it. Taping clubs pretty much died from threat of lawsuits, just as Napster etc. quit the field owing to legal actions. Neither the demise of Napster nor the end of taping clubs had any real impact on the fortunes of artists, nor would the elimination of libraries assist writers (quite the opposite, as there are some books and even entire small presses that sell mainly to libraries). There are, of course, writers and musicians who’d like to charge rent every time anyone reads or plays anything of their work.

For that matter, paying full price for records benefits a limited number of people. I once had a conversation with a bass player who had just made an album. He explained that the only money anyone in the band really made on the album was from the session fees. The songwriter gets some extra juice, but everything else is water and wind.

On my side of it, if somebody makes some money out of anything I write, I’d like a taste of it. Otherwise, get a bucket and have yourself some free words. It’s a complicated dance, the conspiracy between the author and the audience, and even guys who fill stadiums probably sometimes feel like they’re dancing alone.

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