Unreasonable Gripes

Posted on May 24, 2014 by psu

I probably picked up the record collecting bug from my dad. When I was growing up the sight of his cabinet of LPs was a constant in our house. All of the music was Classical. I’m pretty sure what my dad would say about this would be something like what he said about only reading the New York Times: “After you have had the best, nothing else really measures up”.

For me the bug lay dormant during my school years, but I started making my own collection while in graduate school, around the time people started dumping all their old LPs for CDs. LPs were cheap, and graduate students like cheap things. I bought a few hundred mostly used LPs during my graduate school years, pouring over mail order lists (Amazon would not exist for another 5 or 10 years) and the occasional record store. It was great fun.

Eventually, of course, I got into CDs, and at some point I also discovered a small niche publication called American Record Guide. ARG had more appeal to me than the other more major publications (Fanfare in the U.S. and Gramophone in U.K.) because it seemed more straightforward and less commercial. It also had a distinct voice and a slightly crazy editor.

I received the magazine for about 10 years (at which point my music buying had slowed to the point where it didn’t seem worth it). During this time my overwhelming memory of trying to buy the music that I learned about in ARG went something like this:

  1. Wow, this CD that they are reviewing of a small European Orchestra with a relatively unknown conductor performing some obscure late 19th century work sounds really interesting!

  2. Drive to record store.

  3. If record store is not the Boston Tower records (or the old For the Record store in Amherst), go home disappointed because the CD is not in the two or three bins of Classical music because it was not recorded by Bernstein on Columbia, Karajan on DG, or Neville Marriner on Phillips.

Once in a while I’d get to the Tower records with my list of two or three dozen disks to look for. I’d find most of them and have to pick five to take home.

I had the same experience when I branched out into classic (1950s and 60s, Blue Note, etc) and modern jazz.

My music buying hiatus started around the time Apple released the first iPod. It continued through the years that music retailing shifted from Tower records and the like to the iTunes store. In those early iTunes years I pretty much ignored the music store. To me it felt like the mainstream record stores of old: a lot of stock in the popular genres, but not much in the niches that interested me. I continued to buy the occasional set of CDs at that new store on the Intertubes: amazon.com.

But, something happened this year that has made me realize that everything is different. At some point early in the year I happened to surf past the American Record Guide web site and I noticed that they had started to allow subscribers to receive PDFs of their current issues. This meant that I’d be able to read them on my iPad, and search them on my Mac. Great!

I instantly signed up for a couple of years, and bought some back issues containing updated overviews of basic repertoire. The overviews are my favorite part of this magazine. They are a large compilation of reviews that cover various well known parts of the repertoire. The subject of an overview might be the Shostakovich symphonies. In about 20 pages of text, they will break down a couple dozen of the hundreds of available recordings, and give you a good start as to where to start looking. The value of an overview like this can’t be overstated. This is because the market in classical recordings is paradoxical in that even though it is tiny compared to almost all of the other musical genres, the number of available recordings for popular pieces is ludicrously large. This puts the potential buyer in something of a quandary. On the one hand, you can dig through decades of archival reviews of every record that has ever been made. On the other hand, you can buy something like The Penguin Guide and get a couple of pages of text for the major work you might be interested in. Neither situation is ideal. This is why ARG is so great. They manage to be in-depth without being overwhelming.

Anyway, a few weeks later I got my first PDF. First, the editor is still nuts. But I guess that was expected. Second, every single recording mentioned in the magazine was available on the iTunes store.

Here is a list of a few examples that I saved on my wish list:

  1. Niche instrumental collections: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/simply-velvet/id576180039 (Mozart arias on tuba!).

  2. Crazy avant-garde voice recordings: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/mouthpieces/id808550057

  3. Straight up basic repertoire: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/schubert-string-quintet/id696915084.

  4. Giant reissues that used to be horrendously expensive: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/schubert-lieder-die-schone/id372144838.

  5. Obscure chamber music by people you’ve never heard of: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/jolivet-chamber-music-for/id718568435.

The list goes on and on. It’s amazing. The only thing that’s missing is a link in the PDF to take you right from the reader to the iTunes store (or Spotify) so that you can sample the sound right there and then to figure out whether you like it or not.

And yet, as much as this encapsulates everything you would want from the modern music buying experience, there is one disquieting aspect to it: there is so much on the store that sometimes it’s almost impossible to tell one recording from another.

Consider the Schubert songs link above. Compare that one with this one: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/schubert-complete-lieder-dietrich/id101798380.

Now tell me from only the information on the store what the difference is between those two recordings.

You can’t.

It turns out that both of these sets are in fact the reissues of the same recordings, which Fisher-Dieskau made in the 70s. The second set is an earlier reissue from the early 2000s. The first set came out more recently at a lower price and with no liner notes (in the CD set). iTunes gives you a bit of the clue that this is what is going on, but to really find out you need to dig around at amazon.com or, god forbid, the DG web site.

The situation is much worse for jazz recordings, because many classic jazz records were made a long time ago and have been reissued and re-packaged endlessly since then. Also, the copyright on many of the records has expired in Europe, so you have the secondary problem of strange pirate labels releasing unlicensed stuff of unknown origin.

At this point I would normally pull out an example from the archives of Duke Ellington, my favorite classic jazz performer. But he has too much. So let’s consider Louis Armstrong instead.

In the 1920s, Armstrong made what would become some iconic small-group jazz recordings with a set of groups that we collectively call the “Hot Fives” and “Hot Sevens”. If you search for these recordings in iTunes, you get a lot of choices.

  1. The standard set from Columbia/CBS/Sony: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/the-hot-fives-vol.-1/id187929384

  2. A different standard set also from Sony: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/complete-hot-five-hot-seven/id293785416

  3. A much cheaper set from some outfit you have never heard of: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/louis-armstrong-hot-fives/id728644362

And so on. The situation is similar if you search for particular tunes. There are around 40 separate tracks for “A Monday Date” for example. How do these sets differ? How were they produced? When did the production happen? Are they based on the same masters? There is no way to know.

For example, the store won’t tell you that those cheap sets come from a Russian label called “Lilith” records that rips other recordings and releases them unlicensed. The store will also not tell you about the relatively complicated history behind all the reissues of this material. Back in the day at least the record or CD jacket would tell you a little something. But now you don’t really even get that.

Luckily, there are crazy people on the Internet who know these things. Consider this history of the Hot Fives/Sevens recordings. From this information, I ended up getting the JSP boxed set. But just to show how crazy the situation is, over at CD Universe they claim that you can get a download of the JSP set (which you can’t). But if you click on the MP3 link, it takes you to a download of a completely different reissue (another one from Sony).

Many older classical recordings have similar issues, especially in the back catalog. Want to get the early Bernstein Mahler 2 with the NYPhil rather than the later one? You better know what you are doing, because the information at the iTunes store is pretty bare.

To me the current state of music retailing is an interesting paradox. On the one hand, more music is more available than ever before. I’d have never thought that I could go from reading an article about a crazy Icelandic avant garde composer to downloading his music in about 45 seconds. In addition, having downloaded the music, it is simply miraculous that it is then available to me almost anywhere on earth. All I need is a network connection.

On the other hand, if you don’t have an exact way to identify the recording that you are after, it’s nearly impossible to find the item from the information available at the store. iTunes and Amazon don’t even let you search by the labels’ own serial numbers, as far as I can tell.

Browsing for music (and books) is also essentially dead. This means that randomly running across something great that you might not have been interested in 30 seconds ago hardly ever happens. It would be essentially impossible for me to come across (say) “The College Graduate” by Kanye West at random on the iTunes store, or Amazon … but there it was on Record Store day in a bin near Talking Heads, so I bought it because of the great big cover photo.

I wonder why the online stores have not hired curators, like the music students who used to run the Classical section at the Boston Tower Records, to provide all of this auxiliary information to potential buyers. Amazon and iTunes do a bit of this, but there is hardly anything outside the promotion of the big pop titles that people are going to find themselves anyway.

Why not contract with some outfit like American Record Guide to provide in depth editorial notes on all of the back catalog? Why not provide overviews of the well known records, or histories of all the reissues along with discographies, artist bios, and so on? Why leave the poor music buyer to dig this stuff up her own at the whim of the Internet?

Online music stores are a mostly great experience, but they have so much more potential. As it is, a metric ton of the history of recorded music is just sitting out there getting lost in plain sight because no one has the required information to go and find it.