Seattle used to hang on the periphery of the music business, as a place where bands occasionally broke out, as a convenient place to begin or end a national tour, as a classic midsized secondary market—half college town, half hidden treasure. That began changing around the turn of the '90s, particularly (but not exclusively) in the wake of the Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Alice in Chains/Soundgarden juggernaut. But in 2005, Seattle is not only a strikingly diverse musical place, it's also at the very heart of the industry. Sub Pop, Barsuk, and other indie labels flourish. The tech industry, always important to the biz and never more so than now, thrives here (even if Apple, the canniest marketer/manufacturer of music-related gizmos—hello, iPod—doesn't). Venues are aplenty, there's no shortage of new talent at any given time, and you're as liable to bump into an internationally renowned techno producer at your local tavern as you are a member of an up-and-coming garage band. It's a great time and a great place to be a music fan.
And all of it is increasingly up for grabs.
This isn't to say it's going anywhere. It's just that it's difficult to say exactly where it's going. Use-other-clichés-please "music will survive no matter what" foofaraw aside, how we receive it is important, and so is how those systems are transforming before our eyes. Which isn't to call this survey—or, more accurately, these five mini-surveys—anything like a definitive overview. It's more like a snapshot of the way a few things of interest are shifting. As you'll see, there's plenty to chew on, from a coffee giant maneuvering into music's most profitable mainstream—the compact disc—to the fact that the CD itself is threatened with extinction. What does it all mean? That music—the most basic (and maybe deepest) pleasure available to anyone with ears—is anything but basic. Especially in Seattle. Especially in 2005.
1. Starbucks is taking over the record industry.
Media Bars are in 45 Starbucks with only 9,000 to go!
Once upon a time, coffeehouses were places where people went to hear music. Java joints were the home of the late '50s and early '60s folk revival, and when you went to see Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, or Phil Ochs, you were more likely to throw back an espresso than a Heineken while watching them.
In that sense, it's perfectly logical that Starbucks is the biggest comer in music retail over the past half-decade. For one thing, there are more of them than there are of most music chains. Right now, Musicland Inc., which owns Sam Goody and Suncoast Motion Picture Company, operates 900 shops worldwide. Starbucks has 10 times that number. (Sometimes it feels like it has 10 times that number on any given city block, but I digress.) So distribution, always a hobgoblin of indie retail even in the Internet age, is taken care of. It then follows that Hear Music, Starbucks' compact disc subsidiary, does well. It specializes in various-artists compilations like the Artist's Choice series, mixes compiled by the likes of Lucinda Williams, Joni Mitchell, the Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Sheryl Crow that regularly sell in the healthy five figures. It's not multiplatinum, but for an indie label—especially an indie label that's one tentacle on a corporate coffee giant—it's plenty healthy. Just ask Sub Pop, which has built its business on albums that regularly do about as well and have put the company in the black, with its employees receiving iPods as bonuses this past Christmas.
There's no word yet on what Hear's employees will get next holiday, but they should expect something decent. The reason is one of the label's first all-original, single-artist discs: Ray Charles' final album, Genius Loves Company, featuring duets with other big names, was already the label's biggest-ever seller when it won eight Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, two weeks ago. If the example of Norah Jones, who similarly swept the Grammys two years ago (not to mention compiling her own Artist's Choice last year) is any indication, Genius Loves Company will do quite a bit better in the awards' aftermath. Before her Grammy win, Jones' Come Away With Me had sold 4 million copies in the 11 months leading up to the awards; afterward, its sales doubled in half the time. Charles could conceivably do even better: Before the Grammys, Genius Loves Company had sold slightly fewer than 600,000 copies at both Starbucks and in more traditional retail outlets.
How did this happen? As with most things Starbucks, very cannily. Hear Music has been around since 1990 but hadn't made much noise until Starbucks bought it in 1999. Soon, its themed compilations began attracting notice; if its sensibility leaned toward the cozy, well-bred, and traditional, its titles were done with evident care, by people who kept their ears open. A record snob (like, say, myself) might not have much truck with Hear titles like Blue Note Blend (classic jazz) or Ambient Luxe (trip-hop), but record snobs aren't the only ones who buy coffee in obscene numbers. And when the rest of Starbucks' customers wanted to know who sang the song that was playing while the barista prepared their vanilla lattes, the clerk only had to point to the CDs standing in front of the register. Point-of-sale impact: immediate. After all, nobody goes to the record store unless they're planning to buy records. By catering exclusively to impulse shoppers, Starbucks created the most successful cross-marketing venture to hit the music business since MTV.
Now they're going even further. Several Starbucks shops—30 in Austin, Texas, and 15 in Seattle—have recently added the Hear Music Media Bar, a "virtual record store" that allows customers to create their own mix-CDs on the spot. This is hardly revolutionary; as several commentators (and friends) have noted, it's basically a gloss on Personics, the make-your-own-cassette booths that briefly dotted Sam Goody and Tower stores in the late '80s, and let's not forget the ever-popular iTunes Music Store, which at 99 cents a track is a better deal than the Media Bar, whose base rate is $8.99 for seven songs and 99 cents each for tracks eight and up.
Though some commentators—most notably, Esquire's Andy Langer—are impressed with the Media Bar, the try I recently gave the one at Starbucks on Capitol Hill (1600 E. Olive Way) was long-winded and tedious. I found the machine slow and unresponsive (a common problem with touch screens), and while I could preview my selections in full via streaming, a definite improvement on the 30-second blips the iTunes Store offers, the catalog's interface lacked dynamics: If I suddenly got an idea for the kind of cross-style juxtaposition (say, indie rockers Luna into rappers the Fugees) that inveterate mix makers live for, I had to return to the main menu, find the correct genre, touch the correct letter the artist was filed under, etc. It's the kind of thing you can do in less than half the time on iTunes (where you can search by any number of criteria) or within your own collection (assuming you know where everything is). The other problem I had with the Media Bar is a more specialized one—namely, after an hour and a half of rooting around, I had only filled one-third of the disc before calling it quits and going to dinner. Most of what was available that interested me I already owned. Such, apparently, are the perils of record snobdom.
Still, what was striking about the Media Bar was one of its comparatively undersold aspects: If you come across an album in its catalog, you can purchase it in full. You won't get the jewel case or the full booklet you would from buying the same album at Sam Goody or Easy Street. But people were accustomed to living with music sans packaging long before the MP3 emerged—what serious fan doesn't pack a CD wallet for trips, leaving the cases at home?—and it's easy to imagine that future generations will come to see cover art and liner notes as an optional extra, like a concert T-shirt or a poster, rather than intrinsic to the music itself. If it's successful, the Media Bar will only accelerate that process.
And here's what should have retailers shook if they aren't already: Starbucks still has at least 8,955 more outlets to install the suckers in. If they do, they won't just be a music- industry player—they may very well become the game. MICHAELANGELO MATOS
2. Paul Allen is pulling out of KEXP. And no, that's not as drastic as it sounds.
Losing Paul Allen but gaining a new lineup: KEXP DJs (from left) Kevin Cole, John Richards, and Cheryl Waters.
Last month, there was a major shake-up at Seattle nonprofit alternative music station KEXP (90.3 FM). Kevin Cole, the station's program director, took over the 2 to 6 p.m. weekday slot, replacing Amanda Wilde, who left the station in early January; Stevie Zoom's 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. slot was given to Cheryl Waters, with Zoom moving to 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Mondays and Tuesdays and noon to 3 p.m. on Sundays. Immediately, the questions began among loyal listeners: What was going on? And what did this mean for the station, which was already facing the pullout of financial aid from Paul Allen at the end of the year? Was KEXP losing its edge? Or even—gulp—on the verge of collapse?
Not quite. "People in Seattle are suspect of something that's going to change— of light rail or getting a new park," says Courtney Miller, KEXP's marketing director (and a former Seattle Weekly staffer). "And they're finding that [the station] didn't change. KEXP is very beloved; so was KCMU, and people were suspicious when it changed over to KEXP."
Miller emphasizes that both Waters and Cole are station veterans—Waters has been with them 11 years, Cole nearly six; he previously worked at two alt-rock stations in Minneapolis, including REV-105, whose DJ-driven playlists and loose vibe closely mirrored that of KEXP. Mixing alt-rock staples (Sleater-Kinney, the Flaming Lips) and alt-friendly hip-hop (the Roots) and electronica (Thievery Corporation) with newer artists like Keren Ann and local acts like Spanish for 100 and Math and Physics club, as well as live, in-studio performances, KEXP is a leading model for postcollege programming.
"Kevin and Cheryl have been doing a tremendous job on the air," Miller says. "We felt it was time to move them into prime-time slots." With Cole, she says, "The results are already being felt. We receive many positive e-mails on a daily basis regarding the changes."
As for Allen's involvement, Miller says, "[He] has generously supported the station, including seed money over three years to support the development of our operations and programming. The goal is financial self-reliance by Dec. 31, 2005. The good news is that our listeners—which make up the largest source of our income—have done a terrific job in supporting the station. Community support from foundations and underwriters has grown significantly, too. We expect to be only 5 percent away from financial self-sufficiency during this last year." Allen's subsidy, she notes, will provide less than 4 percent of the station's operating budget. "Essentially, this year we are standing on our own two feet. I think the community doesn't realize that so much. For our pledge drive, we raised more money than we had projected."
It's not difficult to imagine why. For one thing, they're nearly as much an Internet presence as a local one. According to the figures Miller provides, roughly 17 percent of KEXP's audience streams its broadcasts from the Web (www.kexp.org), and it's safe to guess that a hefty chunk of them do so from outside Seattle. "You make a good product, people come to it," says Miller, "but it's the way it's presented, too— our streaming is excellent, and we have features nobody else has." That's one reason the station is able to sponsor out- of-town shows like The Village Voice's Siren Festival in Coney Island last year, or the Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tenn., this coming June. "We know there is a demand for what KEXP delivers nationally and internationally. That being said, KEXP is definitely and strongly Seattle-centric." MICHAELANGELO MATOS
3. The sweaty human touch of that live show you saw last week? You have the Internet to thank for it.
One need only reference the second of Bright Eyes frontwaif Conor Oberst's two new albums, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, for a duly poetic take on the compact disc's fate in the wake of the MP3 tsunami. But has the information superhighway's increasingly vast influence over the way we hear music really alleviated the behind-the-scenes blood, sweat, and tears that make live shows a reality? I conducted an informal, exploratory e-mail poll with a few prominent local bookers and talent buyers to find out.
Brian Foss, who books for downtown punk staple Funhouse, first hooked up with veteran jokester and hip-hop godfather Blowfly via popular online friend-finding site Myspace (www.myspace.com), but he recognizes plain old e-mail as the greatest facilitator. "It's much easier to e-mail out a band's Web page link than to send out hard copies of a band's music. I have been told a number of times by a number of people that they wouldn't have come to a particular show if it wasn't for their ability to check out the band's Web page.
"I will also say that if I had to book shows the 'old-fashioned way'—i.e., via the phone and snail mail—it sure as hell wouldn't be as much fun. Not only is e-mail easier to do in the sense that I can make sure I'm understood and I understand what everyone wants and what all the bands sound like, but it also leaves an immediate record of my conversations. I can easily go back through my saved e-mails and see what dates I've got filled."
"It would affect me more if I didn't have a shitty dial-up connection," counters Jason Josephes, booker at U District tavern Blue Moon, which features free rock shows every weekend. "However, sometimes if my curiosity is piqued, yeah, I'll take the time to download at least a snippet of a song. And here's something on a related note: More bands should go for some sort of streaming audio as opposed to download(s). If I don't get instant gratification, you won't, either."
Shannon Stewart of all-ages indie haven VERA Project looks at it from more of a gambler's perspective. "Bands can put up music for free in a few places on the Internet, so I can find it and see what people think about it," she says. "I think it equalizes things a bit. I've booked more emerging bands because of it. Also, there's the phenomenon of how bands can blow up overnight now, so it's sometimes harder to know what's going to be hot by the time a show rolls around if you book it two to three months in advance. I'm interested to know if the immediacy of circulation balances out the [financial] loss from file sharing. My theory would be that it does to some extent."
In a similar effort to catch lightning in a bottle, Katie Goldberg of Element, one of Belltown's newest dance meccas, employs fan sites like Clubvibes (www.clubvibes.com) and NorthwestTekno (www.nwtekno.org). "My initial thought is there is a larger emphasis on online media and message boards/ forums," she says. "One of the most important things in establishing a successful venue is listening to the fans. We want to make sure that Element is bringing them the music they desire. The 'digital revolution' makes it easier to stay on top of trends and feedback, while building buzz and momentum for upcoming shows."
Foss sums it up best: "All these things are just tools, and if I don't deliver in the 'real world' what I promise in cyberspace, then everything is just digital masturbation, you know?" ANDREW BONAZELLI
4. Even if Starbucks does take over the record business, it may not be for long, because the CD is dead.
And it's not a matter of if, but when. I couldn't be happier.
Ever since I bought Darkness on the Edge of Town and Quadrophenia, my first two compact discs, two decades ago, I have pined for the day when CDs would disappear. Having grown up plopping down $7 for fresh vinyl only to have the price of most musical releases jump to $14 (and now even higher) pissed me off. Sure, CDs were easy to tote around and store and maintain, but they also sounded like crap—the sound was too cold and compressed, somehow. Gone, too, was all the cool album artwork.
But, like most other American listeners, I was stuck with the silvery discs until something better came along. That time is pretty close to now. Subscribe to Rhapsody and you can stream thousands of full albums over your computer for a small monthly fee. And digital music files have gone from the world of extralegal PTP Internet trading to dedicated download sites like iTunes that you can replay, with some limits, on your computer and iPod or pass along to friends. You pay 99 cents and you own a track; store it on your hard drive and listen to it through a set of powered speakers, or put it on an MP3 player and listen to it through headphones. Simple. Last year, Apple sold 8 million iPods—and that's just the beginning.
But the best part of this really has nothing to do with things becoming more convenient. It has everything to do with leveling the playing field for small and indie record labels, which have traditionally been squeezed out of retail space and just don't have the scratch to do full-on promo blitzes like the majors do. Videos are damned expensive to produce, and there's almost no guarantee MTV will play them anyway. So for years indies have had to rely on word of mouth and goodwill to build a buzz around their bands. That's great if you are the Postal Service (Sub Pop reports 3 million downloads of their single "Such Great Heights") or Sleater-Kinney, but it sucks if you are Dillinger 4.
Now, indies like Sub Pop can post MP3s on their Web sites (a few tracks per band), spread the word through networking sites like myspace.com, let MP3 blog sites such as Fluxblog (www.fluxblog.org) post links, and then let nature take its course, says Dean Hudson, Sub Pop's director of new media.
How powerful free downloads are at pushing listeners to go to iTunes and buy the rest of the album is hard to say at this point.
"It's an open playing field," says Hudson. "We just make things as available as possible in the hopes that people will buy it." PHILIP DAWDY
5. Still, we'll always have vinyl—even if analog is up for grabs.
Sub Poppers Andy Kotowitz (left) and Dean Whitmore sell vinyl to people who look at music as an activity.
In my house there are two turntables. Both were made in the mid-'70s; both feature manual, architecturally skeletal tonearms; when the record is over, it's necessary to pick up the delicate hook on the side of the stylus cartridge and move it back to the arm base. Not that I always remember to do that. On more than one occasion, I have come home after work to find the stylus bumping back and forth in the empty space at the end of a record. A more modern, automatic player would be easier to deal with, sure, but the pleasure of listening to vinyl records has nothing to do with ease.
"Vinyl is for people who look at listening to music as an activity, those who are into music for sport," says Andy Kotowitz, sales director of Sub Pop Records. Dropping the stylus into the millimeters of quiet, hissing space before your favorite track is the exact opposite action of setting your iPod or Discman on shuffle—I know because there are two of each of those in my house as well. It isn't that one format is absolutely, across-the-board better than the other, especially when you take into account that what you're hearing is as much format as who recorded the music and how. They may feel as different as night and day, but unless you've got superhuman ears and a superior stereo system playing superbly recorded music, there's a good chance you won't even be able to hear the difference between digital and analog.
Take, for instance, Oh, Inverted World, the popular Sub Pop record by the Shins, from 2001. "James [Mercer] recorded that on his PC with Tool Ed Pro," says Phil Ek, the local indie-rock engineer who produced the record, "which is basically like recording with the technology of a crappy video game." Nevertheless, the record was hailed as a warm, lo-fi masterpiece—a modern companion to great albums by the Beach Boys and early Pink Floyd. Mercer must have ace microphones.
"For the average [musician] in his bedroom, getting the sounds to 'tape' is more important than whether that tape is really tape or just zeros and ones," says Scott Soriano, a friend of mine from Sacramento who runs a used-book and -record store as well as an independent label whose roster includes a few Seattle bands. "Looking at it through a DIY lens, digital gives even more people the opportunity to be creative on 'tape,'" says Soriano. But as both he and Sub Pop direct sales associate Dean Whitmore point out, the democratizing effects of digital recording have also resulted in what they see as a glut of crappy music.
"I think the most important and yet overlooked thing about vinyl is the time restraints imposed by the medium," says Whitmore. Where CDs have room for upward of 80 minutes of music, a piece of vinyl holds about 45. All of art is about editing, and when you're making an LP, you're forced to make tougher decisions about what to keep and what to lose. If you're posting MP3s to your Web site, you can keep everything. How American.
Although at the end of 2004, it looked like Quantegy, the Alabama company responsible for producing most of the audio tape used in reel-to-reel analog recordings, was going to shut down its factory, that hasn't actually happened—and besides, although the news caused a real spike in fear, no one really thought the closure would be enough to kill tape and analog for good. Cassette tapes, after all, are still mass-produced; those bedroom recording artists still have the four-track—that is, if they can be coaxed away from their laptops.
If anything is going to be phased out, CDs are in the most danger. "The record companies have been looking to replace the CD in the future, mostly so they can resell all the music they resold when they switched from vinyl to CDs. Downloads offer that opportunity, and at no manufacturing cost," says Soriano.
"Certainly from a job-security standpoint, the idea of reselling old music on new platforms sounds like a bonanza," says Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman. Then again, Poneman says, "Records look better, smell better, feel better, and, of course, often sound better—or at least different." In 2004, his label released 13 albums; only two of them were released on CD only—and one of those was a David Cross comedy release. "The surest benefit of all of the new devices and services is the exposure that they're providing all sorts of folks to all sorts of music."
Still, Kotowitz reports that the number of stores with room to warehouse vinyl is dwindling. "If you're pressing vinyl, you're relying pretty much solely on indie stores to make it worth your while," he says. Luckily Seattle's indie stores are ardent record fans. With Sonic Boom's new vinyl basement, Jive Time's second location on Capitol Hill, Easy Street's recent expansions, and the handful of really good used shops in town, around here, at least, vinyl isn't going anywhere. LAURA CASSIDY