The Record Industry is Dead.
Lately I’ve been all about embracing change. But here’s one I’m still having a lot of trouble with: the impending death of the music industry as I know it.
I still enjoy going to my local record store every week, and picking up physical copies of new releases. But my breed is slowly dying out. Tuesdays at a record store used to be a spiritual, communal experience. Now it’s deader than the eight-track in there every week. The die-hards, clinging to a time when albums weren’t leaked to the Internet weeks before release date, and not paying for music was called “stealing,” are all like me: older, obsessive fans looking back with nostalgia at a simpler time.
But that time is all but gone. I’m thankful for my record store, still soldiering on (and surviving on sales of vinyl, a format also deemed dead some years ago). I’m grateful I still have a place to go and talk with fellow music fans – personal interaction remains an essential part of my process, taking recommendations from people and listening to their thoughts on the new stuff. But I don’t know how much longer this little world will survive.
What has me shaking my head like this? The news that for the past two weeks, Billboard’s charts saw a pair of consecutive records: the two lowest-selling number one albums in SoundScan history. First Taylor Swift’s Speak Now notched up 52,000 sales in its sixth week, which isn’t bad for an album that has been out for a month and a half. But then Cake’s Showroom of Compassion topped the chart with just 44,000 copies in its debut week. Cage the Elephant ended up at number two with 39,000 copies.
A year ago the same week, Hope for Haiti Now debuted in the number-one spot with 171,000 copies sold. We’ve sunk this far in a year. It’s not surprising to me that Cake’s album (seven years in the making, mediocre as all get-out) didn’t sell well. But that it still topped the charts with 44,000 sales… that’s astonishing. And it’s hard to ignore the big problem at the center here: everyone who wanted Showroom of Compassion, but didn’t want to pay for it, could have had it weeks before its release. Same goes for every album on Billboard’s list.
I had a revealing conversation with a younger friend recently. He’s a member of several online music-sharing communities, ones that are set up in other countries to avoid copyright laws. He takes whatever he wants without paying for it, and in fact will download popular albums he doesn’t want, just to seed them back to the community. He gets points, you see, for sharing things that more people want to download. He has every album I’ve bought this year, and every album I plan to buy for the next few weeks, sitting on his hard drive.
This is the future, ladies and gentlemen. Recorded music is worth nothing. It’s shared and traded without payment, without context, and without thought. The collateral damage is not just to the record companies, who have been slow to react to this new world. It’s to small record stores, and therefore to communities. I don’t mean to stand on a soapbox here – I’m certainly skirting the law when I make mix CDs for friends. But I will miss local record stores. I will miss physical CDs. I will miss the interconnected experience of buying a disc, tearing off the shrink wrap, reading the liner notes, and talking about it with other music fans, all of whom have come to our local store to experience the same thing.
This is why I love Record Store Day and other attempts to save the local stores. This is why I keep shelling out for compact discs, a format that has already been passed by. Musicians are starting to think of recordings as loss leaders, as free samples to generate interest in the live shows. As an old fart who loves recorded music, and who loves the communities that spring up around it, this scares and saddens me.
But the change is coming. The change is here. Like the newspaper industry, the music industry will likely not survive this, at least in its current form. The old will be swept away in a digital tide. I don’t know what the next world will look like, but I hope I can find a place in it. I just doubt that place will be as nice as my local record store.
Iron and Wine is Dead.
I admit, I have a hard time with change.
Musically speaking, I’m a paradox. I say I love it when artists flip their own scripts, bringing in different styles and influences. But whenever a musician I love does this, I’m honestly scared. I can only imagine how I would have reacted to pre-release news of Revolver in 1966. Sitars? Backwards recording? Songs about singing birds and yellow submarines? What happened to my lovable, singable Beatles? I’d have been sweating that record.
I can’t say Iron and Wine is one of my favorite artists. But I can say this: Sam Beam has been all about embracing change, and it’s been fascinating to watch him evolve. The problem with his rapid development is that he’s off to new places so quickly that he rarely leaves time to enjoy the places he’s been. Every Iron and Wine album has been different from the last, and the new one, Kiss Each Other Clean, is so different from the other three that it almost sounds like the work of a different act entirely.
The thing is, I liked the places Sam Beam has been. Okay, 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle is no masterpiece – it’s a home-recorded slab of folksy, woodsy ditties, played on acoustic guitar and little else. Beam’s voice, weak at the best of times, is layered atop itself to give the illusion of strength. It’s a strange album, and it gives up all it has to offer within its first few tracks.
But its follow-up, Our Endless Numbered Days, is absolutely gorgeous. Beam sticks with the acoustic, but records it cleanly this time, and adds subtle percussion. It is here that you can really hear Beam’s gift for lyrics, and pick up on his fascination with spirituality: “She’s chosen to believe in the hymns her mother sings, Sunday pulls its children from their piles of fallen leaves…” It’s a remarkable album that just gets better as I get older.
And Beam will probably never make another one like it. Four years ago, he released The Shepherd’s Dog, a deliriously-produced, noisy, hypnotic, blues-inflected soundscape of an album. It was as bold a statement of intent as any artist has ever laid down: I’m not going back, Beam was saying. Enjoy this, because it’s where I’m headed. Though I liked The Shepherd’s Dog, more for its sound than its songs, I found myself missing the painful beauty of Our Endless Numbered Days. This was a new beast.
I almost feel like Sam Beam has been influenced here by Mark Hollis, who took Talk Talk from a fine synth-pop act into deeper, more challenging waters, without caring what anyone thought. Sam Beam is clearly a restless artist, moving forward without holding anyone’s hand. As idiosyncratic as The Shepherd’s Dog is, his new music sounds nothing like it. He’s left it behind again, and by the sound of things, he’s never coming back.
Long Live Iron and Wine.
So was it worth it? Mostly, yes.
Kiss Each Other Clean (love that title) is a gigantic-sounding record that still manages to be intimate and powerful. Before hearing it, I was worried that Beam’s concepts had grown beyond his relatively simple songs, and the album doesn’t fully alleviate these fears. But I think Beam understands his strengths, and uses the massive production at his disposal here to paper over his weaknesses.
Take the leadoff track, for example. If you were to play “Walking Far From Home” on piano or guitar, it would be terribly boring – four chords, the same melody repeated over and over. But Beam uses synthesizers, electronic drums, chimes and an arresting vocal arrangement to keep things interesting. It is, at once, his smallest and hugest song, and it sets the tone for this fascinating record right off the bat. But even with all that, it doesn’t stop me from noticing how thin the actual melody is.
Beam described Kiss Each Other Clean as 1970s AM radio fodder, and he’s not kidding. I’ll be very surprised if the indie cognoscenti embrace the lite-funk of “Me and Lazarus,” with its squonking saxophone solos, or the Still Crazy-era Paul Simon vibe of “Tree By the River,” all electric pianos and sweet harmonies. Neither of these songs sound like anything Sam Beam has done – in fact, you have to go to track five, “Half Moon,” to hear anything that resembles the Iron and Wine of old.
But once you get past how jarring it all is, this record is quite lovely. “Tree By the River” is a low-key pop delight, the kind of thing Neil Diamond may have sung in his heyday, right on down to the restrained guitar break. “Time isn’t kind or unkind, you liked to say, but I wonder to who, and what you’re saying today,” Beam sings, in a voice that has never been stronger. In fact, Beam’s newfound vocal prowess is one of the first things you’ll notice about this record. It’s like he took years of lessons between albums, and they did him wonders.
From first note to last, Beam piles on the sound. “Monkeys Uptown” does The Shepherd’s Dog several better, taking a dirge that would have fit on that record and dressing it up in robot drums and piercing electric guitars. Listen closely for the Stevie Wonder-style clavinet adding to the din before the end. “Rabbit Will Run” slathers synths over a repetitive marimba line, as Beam sings through an effects board. And then the whistles come in. The song is no great shakes, but the sound is astonishing. After that, it’s refreshing to fall into the quiet beauty of “Godless Brother in Love,” a song that truly shows off how far Beam’s voice has come.
But I often found myself wishing that the melodies were strong enough to match the sheer amount of work spent on the sonics. The lyrics are, as always, fantastic, Beam upping both the spiritual content and the profanity. (My favorite convergence of the two: “When the curtain rose, the crowd was blown away while the lion and the lamb kept fucking in the back row…”) The songs, however, are simple things. They get more complex as the album goes along – “Godless Brother” really is heartbreakingly beautiful, and the funkadelic “Big Burned Hand” is superb – but never soar like the production does.
That is, until the final track. “Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me” is a seven-minute tour de force that, all by itself, justifies Beam’s restlessness. Beginning with an afrobeat foundation and a swinging horn section, Beam takes us on a progressive-jazz-funk ride, before abruptly switching gears a few minutes in. The second half of the song is a slow build of electric guitars and harmonies, Beam telling the future over and over: “We will become the rising sun, we will become the damage done, we will become the river’s sway, we will become the love we made…” It’s simply perfect.
Like all major changes, Kiss Each Other Clean will take some getting used to. It is, at minimum, a bold and brash step forward for a guy becoming known for them. Sam Beam rarely stays in the same place for very long, so it remains to be seen if this newly-funky tone-color explosion will be his default mode for a while, or if he’s already off to other pastures. But the record he’s left us this time is an often-mesmerizing, strangely-danceable affair, full of piercing lyrics and surprising choices. At times, it’s transcendent, and it all but makes me forget where he’s been.
That’s the best compliment I can give an artist like Beam: I want to listen to this, instead of his old stuff. I want to embrace the change. Iron and Wine is dead. Long live Iron and Wine.
Next week, a few things I didn’t get to yet, like Amanda Palmer, Corinne Bailey Rae and Pearl Jam. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.