Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Together Through Life

Yesterday, the world got to hear 10 new Bob Dylan songs. In my book, the world is a profoundly better place any time that happens.

What to make of Dylan's new CD, Together Through Life? It's very bluesy and with Los Lobos' David Hidalgo on accordion, there's a Tex Mex feeling to most of the songs. My favorite song upon initial listening is the jaunty "Jolene" that sounds nothing like Dolly Parton's song of the same name. Bob had to know Dolly's song exists doesn't he? And if he did, why the choice to name his heroine Jolene too? My favorite lyric? "The door is closed forever more/If indeed there ever was a door..."

Friday, January 25, 2008

R.I.P. the CD 1982-2007


Once praised for its clear, crisp audio quality but panned for its susceptibility to scratches and smudges, the compact disc passed away in 2007 after a quick but painful illness. It was 25 years old.

The final cause of death has not been determined, but friends and fans blamed digital-download sites such as iTunes and illegal file-sharing among rich kids. In addition, doctors pointed to the big record companies and mega-selling artists who put out CDs in recent years that featured only a few good songs and lots of filler.

Simon Cowell, who is also a suspect in a mass plot to ruin pop music, is being questioned by police.

The CD was preceded in death by its siblings, the cassette and 8-track tape. Its older cousin, the vinyl record, has been hanging on for two decades, with life support from nerdy audiophiles.

Conceived in 1979 by engineers at Sony and Philips, the CD first went on the market in 1982. The inaugural album was Abba's "The Visitors," which led to Jerry Falwell's accusation that it was a gay technology.

The CD survived, though, and went on to account for about 200 billion album sales worldwide.

Its success led to a record-industry heyday in the 1990s, when such substantive and high-quality artists as Garth Brooks, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, the Backstreet Boys and Ace of Base sold CDs like umbrellas during monsoon season.

"The compact disc was such a great friend," mourned Brooks, the country singer who sold about 80 million albums in the CD era, many of them at Wal-Mart. "You could pop a CD into the stereo on your pickup truck or Lear jet and let it just keep spinning and spinning."

Since 2004, CD sales have declined by one-third while digital album sales have quintupled. Last year's 19 percent slide from 2006 led doctors to finally sign off on its death notice.

"I sure am going to miss the CD," said Paul McCartney, whose Beatles are one of the last groups to refuse to sell their albums on iTunes. "On the bright side, new technology means that Beatles lovers now can buy our albums for the third or fourth time."

Memorial services have not been finalized, but Elton John has committed to singing at the funeral. In lieu of flowers, please send $17.99 to the record-store owner of your choice.

5 reasons to mourn the CD

1. No, really, they do sound better. Most MP3s feature data that's compressed for quicker downloads.

2. Remember looking at album artwork? Granted, you often needed bifocals to read the lyrics and liner notes on CDs, but at least it was something.

3. You can't throw MP3s out the window like frisbees. What are you going to do now for dramatic effect when your wife/girlfriend plays her Madonna, J. Lo or Gwen Stefani MP3s to the point of insanity?

4. Computer/electronics companies, not record companies, will soon run the music business. Compact discs were overpriced, sure, but at least they profited corporations that actually discovered and developed new artists (who then got taken for everything they were worth).

5. The CD's 74-minute max was enough. With MP3s taking over, we could face 150-minute hip-hop albums -- featuring 28 annoying skits, two good songs and four different remixes of those songs.

5 reasons to cheer its death

1. No more mad dashes to the player when the disc starts skipping. A CD skip was 20 times more annoying than a vinyl album skip. It sounded like you were back-masking a Slayer album for a hidden satanic message -- even if the CD was by the Carpenters.

2. No more cellophane wrap. Those genius scientists figured out how to cram 10,000 songs onto an iPod small enough to hold in your butt crack, but could never invent a plastic wrap on CDs that didn't take minutes to get off, dangerously heighten your blood pressure and occasionally require stitches when you resorted to scissors.

3. Those old silvery discs are great for arts and crafts projects. You can string them up as mobiles or cool doorway curtains, or even construct lawn ornaments out of them.

4. It's good for the Earth. No toxic plastic or downed trees are used in the making of digital downloads.

5. Gen-X-ers have to own up to being old. Remember how you rolled your eyes when an "old" guy said, "Man, if it ain't on vinyl, it ain't on!" You're that guy now.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

CD Sales Plummet, Leaving Retailers Spinning

By JON BREAM, Star Tribune

Like Britney Spears' reputation, CD sales declined dramatically in 2007 -- 19 percent, to be exact.

That news hits especially hard in the Twin Cities, a national hub for record distribution for a half-century. It is home to two of the industry's biggest players -- Best Buy and Target, which together account for 3 of every 10 discs sold in the United States -- but even smaller stores are singing the post-holiday CD blues.

To fight back, Best Buy and longtime local independents such as the Electric Fetus and Cheapo Discs are diversifying, adding everything from coffee shops and digital downloads to -- gasp! -- vinyl albums.

Although Best Buy did not suffer as sharp a downturn in CD sales, "We're not happy about the decline," said Jennifer Schaidler, vice president of music. "But we're going to go where the customers go."

That means Best Buy is now custom-tailoring its CD selection for each store.

"In Chicago, we have Polish and Arabic music," Schaidler said. "Latin music is a big initiative. The shopper is not going away. We also will be expanding our digital [download] initiative," a partnership with Rhapsody.com.

You don't need to know your way around an iPod to understand that digital downloads (legal or otherwise) are becoming the preferred medium for recorded music. Since 2004, digital song sales have more than quintupled while CD sales are down by one-third.

Although Best Buy is devoting more store space and advertising dollars to other products, it still carries a similar number of CDs -- at least 10,000 per store, according to Billboard -- and aggressively courts superstars for Best Buy-only discs, such as live DVDs by the Rolling Stones and Mariah Carey, or a Tom Petty documentary by Peter Bogdanovich.

Target takes a similar approach with tailored inventory and exclusives, including recent Christmas discs by young stars Taylor Swift, KT Tunstall and Elliott Yamin.

"We recognize that overall sales will likely continue to decline as digital options become more widespread, but remain committed to the business and to doing everything we can to encourage our guests to buy physical CDs," said Target spokesperson Amy von Walter. Its stores typically carry one-tenth as many CDs as a Best Buy.

Both Target and Best Buy "have done as well as expected, given the music environment," said Patricia Edwards, a retail analyst with Wentworth Hauser and Violich in Seattle. She thinks Best Buy's strategy to localize its inventory reflects a growing trend that "consumers want more and more customization."

Indie stores diversify

The decline of the CD has been tougher for stores that, unlike Target or Best Buy, focus primarily on music. Three local indie chains -- each in business since the hippie era -- are transforming themselves to make up for lost revenue.

The Electric Fetus, the granddaddy of them all, figures if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. It's adding digital downloads to its mail-order website.

Down in the Valley has expanded its non-CD merchandise (T-shirts, collectibles) by 30 percent.

Cheapo Discs is adding coffee shops to some stores. Buzz, a 1,000-square-foot coffee joint with a separate door, will take up about 9 percent of the St. Paul Cheapo and 5 percent of the Uptown Minneapolis location.

"I wish I had a crystal ball," said Cheapo owner Al Brown, who founded the three-store chain in 1972, and co-owns similar stores in six other states and Toronto. "I've got some ideas no one else is doing, [but] my ideas would have been great five years ago." His stores have always revolved around recordings -- the Uptown store has more than 100,000 -- but for the first time he will attend a national gift show this year to shop for other products.

Music store morphs into gifts

At Down in the Valley, "I'm trying to get my store known as a gift store, not a record store," said Steve Hyland, owner of the four-store chain, which has shopping-mall locations in Golden Valley, Wayzata, Maple Grove and Crystal. "Gift is what I'm going to survive on."

That might be a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, a ceramic Marilyn Monroe cookie jar or a Rocky key chain that screams "Yo, Adrienne!" CDs occupy less than half of the floor space now.

"Every month my business goes down, down, down," said Hyland, who opened his first shop in 1972. He estimates his CD sales dropped 18 percent from 2006 to 2007 and, to his surprise, DVD sales declined 10 percent.

Nationally, digital-download sales were up 45 percent in 2007. Those numbers are tough for even a diehard like Electric Fetus owner Keith Covart to ignore.

"We're working on a downloading site," said Covart, who has stores in south Minneapolis, St. Cloud and Duluth. "My heart is not in it. They still haven't beat the CD for [audio] quality."

But with his 2007 CD sales down about 18 percent in both retail and wholesale -- the Fetus also distributes CDs to about 200 indie and gift stores around the country -- Covart realizes "you've got to carry music in several formats: digital, vinyl, CD, new and used. Sales of vinyl is 10 times more than [the previous] year. High schoolers and college students are looking at vinyl more than CDs."

The Fetus, like the big-box stores, also tries to lure customers with exclusive titles -- 200 of them, such as "Ben Harper Live at the Twist and Shout," via the Coalition of Independent Music Stores.

Although Cheapo shuttered a 6-year-old store in Moorhead in November because of slow sales, none of the local indie merchants are talking about closing shop. Hyland would like to hand over his stores to his children even though he knows the future is "not good. In a few years -- maybe 10 years -- I don't think they'll have a CD or DVD product that you put in your hands."

That's because the under-25 crowd -- the iPod generation -- is hooked on downloading, not owning discs.

"My kid's got 1,000 songs in his MP3 [player]," Hyland said, "and he didn't buy any of them from me."

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719

Monday, August 7, 2006

A Dream Come True

We started all this on June 23, 1992 or 722 weeks ago (not that I'm counting). Gas was 25 cents a gallon; you could get a good cup of coffee for a nickel; and you could stand in a public line without hearing the annoying chatter of somebody on a cell phone. Al asked me if I was interested in starting up and editing a weekly newsletter for the company. He wanted a 10 page newsletter to include store information, technology and competition related news, and other tidbits that employees might find useful.

This seemed a daunting challenge but a great opportunity. Al knew that I had a journalism degree and was feeling a tad frustrated that I hadn't up to that point been able to get into the only field that I wanted to get into not counting Major League Baseball. One of the things I've long admired about Al is his ability to put people into situations to take advantage of their talents and thus giving them a better chance to succeed. That's not something that those in leadership positions often do.

My mindset at the time wasn't exactly brimming with confidence and sun. I think the best way I can convey where I was at during this time occurred during the Halloween blizzard of 1991. I was working weekends at the 80 N Snelling store and living in a small efficiency on Goodrich a few blocks off of Grand Ave. in St. Paul. The day after the storm I had a 12-8 shift and I somehow managed to plow my Honda Civic through the poorly plowed streets. The snow had continued to fall all day.

By the time my shift was over my car was buried beneath the snow. I knew snow emergencies had been called and knew that I'd never find a spot close to my efficiency. So I decided to walk home. Now this would have been quite the pleasant two or three mile walk on a spring day but since few of the sidewalks were plowed and traffic was at a standstill the easiest thing to do was to walk on the streets. I was wearing my boots but my boots were not meant to handle walking though thigh high snow drifts. By the time I got to Grand and Lexington my feet were blistering. And it was too late to turn around since it was just as far back to the store as it was to my efficiency. So I trudged on.

When I eventually made it back to my efficiency and the unhappy because it was well past his dinner time, Max the Cat, my feet were torn up and burning. I was out of breath, and my fingers and toes felt beyond cold but not quite frost bit. I also realized I faced the daunting challenge of back tracking the next morning to get my car out of the Cheapo lot. I realized I had done a stupid if not dangerous thing and I felt like if I hadn't hit rock bottom I must be pretty darn close. I also realized I couldn't keep keeping on like I was. I needed to change something, accomplish something to get myself on track. And so the following June when Al offered me the newsletter job, I was if nothing else, determined to give it my best.

Al sent me to a newsletter seminar somewhere in Minneapolis- my failing memory (722 weeks!) doesn't quite remember the exact location. I remember a small group of people (around a dozen) had signed up for the seminar and the instructor went around the room and asked why we were there. Most people said they were assigned a task of doing a newsletter for their organization and either were struggling with the startup of the publication or were struggling with keeping the publication going either because of lack of contributions or just the overwhelming task of putting out a worthwhile read.

The instructor also had us share how often we were publishing and how many pages our newsletters were supposed to be. Without exception everyone in the seminar said they were doing a monthly or a quarterly newsletter and the length of most were either one or two pages. That's when I chirped in, "I'm doing a weekly 10 page newsletter." I think I heard an audible gasp or two.

When I reported back to Al, I suggested we cut back to eight pages and he agreed. And that's what we've done ever since without missing a single week (that would be 722 for those of you scoring at home).

I was quite nervous when the first edition came out. All I could think about was what happened with the ABC TV newsmagazine 20/20 whose first show was so awful that the network immediately fired the co-hosts, Harold Hayes and Robert Hughes and replaced them with veteran broadcaster Hugh Downs. I hoped Al would give me a longer rope than that.

My goal was to create an effective publication that was fun to read, in hopes this would encourage people to contribute articles. I also set a goal of printing at least 50 percent original material and not having to rely mostly on non-Cheapo generated articles. I figured I would write every now and then, as needed, since one of the major issues I was grappling with at the time was trying to figure out the role of writing in my life and how what I wrote affected my friends and family.

It wasn't very long though when I saw that I was going to have to write a lot more than I originally had hoped. Soon I settled into taking the last page of the newsletter to write a weekly column. Through the first few years though, this notion of not wanting to write unless I had to was at the front of my mind. I never began compiling the newsletter thinking that I was going to write a column. Instead I started each Saturday evening compiling all the articles for the week and then after I was done editing stuff and laying out the pages I would realize that I was going to have to write a column to approach the 50 percent quota I had set.

Since I hadn't thought about writing until that point I never really thought about what I was going to write about. For that I relied on what I had learned in my writing classes- write about what you know. Over the years I have come to know less and less so this strategy has led to many rambling columns about essentially nothing (not that any of you must have noticed...). I really have tried to keep my whining to a minimum and there have been times over the years where something I have written has cracked me up (not that I needed further cracking).

Write what you know. It's always meant a lot to me when a reader has told me how much they liked a particular column. It means just as much when someone tells me they like when I wrote about specific things I truly love like Bob Dylan's music, Max the Cat, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sandra Bullock. (OK no one has actually told me they like my Sandra pieces but didn't you all feel the love?)

Producing a newsletter for 14+ years has probably been the hardest thing I've done in my professional life. There hasn't been a Saturday all that time where I haven't had this gripping fear of "how the heck am I going to get the newsletter done?" Thus it's also my proudest professional accomplishment that we never missed a week. I realized early on that it wasn't going to be possible given the resources and time to produce a great publication. What I decided to do instead was to be consistent and reliable. Some would call that predictable and boring. I would only counter that as I move on in life I've learned it's nice to have some things in life that you can count on being there week after week. Nothing wrong with dependability.

It hasn't exactly been a secret that one of the major inspirations keeping this publication going over the years has been Dylan's "Never Ending Tour" where Bob has essentially played close to 200 shows every year since 1988. I've always loved how Bob seemed to have come to the conclusion all those years ago that the only way to get past his past was to hit the road and perform and just keep creating something in the moment every night. As Bob continues the tour he has expanded his canvass to a new venue- his delightful XM satellite radio show, "Theme Time Radio Hour." Wow. What I have learned is that to be a writer means nothing more than being willing to write something. It isn't about angst, glamour, fame or understanding. It's just as simple as putting words to paper. That's all it takes.

When Al told me of the end of my tenure as the editor I was of course a bit sad. But truthfully part of me felt some relief as well. I essentially haven't had a weekend off in fifteen or sixteen years. Writing a column week after week has probably changed not only the way I write, but the way I think since my natural way of processing feelings and thoughts used to be to ruminate over them. Now I just get them down and out and move on.

I have so many fond memories due to the newsletter and my Cheapo employment. The first couple years of publication were produced pre-PC on a typewriter with a memory. I'd retype the submitted stories on a Sunday morning in St. Paul as I'd munch on a McDonald's breakfast burrito. I'd copy it all off next to our shrink wrap machine. Then along came the Internet that eliminated the need to re-type interesting media articles and allow me the ability to search news services throughout the world for stories I thought might be interesting to all of us. I remember all those Saturday/laundry nights busy typing away as Mr. Max was in another room, in his favorite window and he'd come on by on occasion just to check up on me and let me know what he was up to. I'll go to my grave cherishing those memories.

Since my original fear was about Hayes and Hughes it also doesn't escape me that I'm leaving this job within a year of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings ending their long tenures as the most visible journalists in the country. Not that I'm exactly in their league or even in the same sport but like them I know I've been lucky to have a job for so long that I loved doing, that also made me a better person. I'm proud of my long association with Cheapo, and proud all our company has meant to this community. This job has literally taken me around the world (to Japan) and back and I know because of that I'm much better prepared for whatever it is that comes next.

Monday, July 31, 2006

It Was Fun While it Lasted, Like Gandhi When He Fasted

Next week will be my last as the editor of this publication. So please note that if you have been kind enough to save me some work, some keystrokes by emailing your contributions to the newsletter to me, you'll soon receive instructions on what to do after next week.

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank some folks that I got to know over the years through my employment with Cheapo and who I am a much better person for our association. Most of these folks have long since moved on to other things, other places but still I hope they know how much I appreciate them.

There's Bill Seeler the man who interviewed and hired me all those years ago. Bill seemed so tired and weary (of life and of work) but he never gave less than his best and had the highest integrity. He was funnier than hell and quite the expert on all things classical.

Thanks too to Johnny Baynes, Brian Haws, Mike Nordgaard, Leah Hosmer, Stephanie Lamson, Paul Young, Fernande Rodgers, Jason Shields, Scott and Sarah Kuzma, Jennifer Stewart, Pat Wheeler, Sam Schneider, and Jeanette Brown.

Finally and foremost I have to thank Al. I've learned so much from him. He's given me opportunities that I'm not sure many people would have even considered. I respect him more than he'll ever know. I know this company will find a way to keep on keeping on. Al will see to that.

See you all next week.


Bob's Quote of the Week: "The cynic smells flowers and looks all around for a coffin."

My sister Janet gave me a jade plant when I moved out on my own after graduating from college. I still have that plant, the only one I've been able to keep alive for any amount of time. (Although to be fair for the many years I lived with Max the Cat I couldn't really have plants around. Max loved to munch on all things green and vegetarian except for my jade plant.)

This past week when I came to work (where my jade plant now resides) I discovered that most of the branches of the plant had fallen off. I'm not sure why other than perhaps the plant has gotten too big, and can't support its own weight. (Who hasn't found themselves there?).

I felt myself feeling sad that something that I've had since the late '80s might be dying on me. I've greatly neglected it over the years yet it has kept pushing on, kept growing and providing some beauty in some otherwise dreary surroundings.

This past week I also learned that for the first time in years I may not be playing softball this fall. Turns out my team was too late in signing up for our usual St. Paul fall league. The league has already filled all the nights up with teams. We tried another St. Paul league only to find that it too had already filled up. Same with Roseville. Seems like softball playing has suddenly become fashionable. When you consider how many players it takes to field a team (at least ten) its pretty remarkable that there are so many wannabe players out there in this medium sized midwestern city.

No softball. My jade plant may be on its last branches. What else could I possibly lose? And how exactly does one go about facing the end of things? Well, this frisky cowboy found himself dealing by playing his favorite song from 2006 (thus far), Paul Simon's "Outrageous." (Who would have thought that the 96 year old Simon would still be capable of writing such terrific music after all these years? Who would have thought he could still be crazy after all these years?")

The song starts out as a political rant against all the things politically wrong with this world from the exploitation of workers to the destructive human behavior causing environmental damage to the planet, to a culture that places such importance on physical beauty that the singer laments how he is now coloring his hair the color of mud. What gets me about "Outrageous" however is the chorus asking an important question. "Who's gonna love you when your looks are gone?" Simon repeats this line many times with each repetition reinforcing a real desperate revelation. Is there enough substance inside to keep us lovable when a wink of an eye, a toothy smile, a flirtatious glance no longer is part of the repertoire?

What's even better is Simon eventually answers his own question with the definitive, "God will... like he waters the flowers on your window sill." It's a sterling image.

The other thing I did from falling into a funk was to re-watch the terrific Canadian sitcom The Newsroom. The CBC show is kind of a cross between an updated Mary Tyler Moore Show and Sports Night. It's about the efforts of the staff of a news show on the Canadian public broadcasting network. The news director is a complete jackass, sexist, racist and completely clueless. He spends most of the series taking great pains to avoid making tough decisions, and fleeing responsibility for putting out a decent news show. This of course leads to more effort covering his own mistakes. The pilot episode for example features the attempts of the intern to get the show's main phone number changed; all in effort to get the news director's mother to stop calling him at work. The intern eventually justifies this request to the corporate higher ups by making up a story about how the news anchor has been getting death threats. This leads to the news anchor becoming paranoid and demanding he be given a bulletproof vest to wear during his broadcasts.

The Newsroom first season flows along like any other smartly written sitcom when all of a sudden at the end it takes a surreal turn. A story breaks about a likely nuclear meltdown of the plant in Toronto and the news director responds as if the story is to be told like a movie. He orders a copy of The China Syndrome and begins interviewing actors to play the part ofreporters and nuclear power experts.

This unexpected turn is jarring but effective. It turns the series on its head and forces you to think about the difference between what we perceive as reality and fiction and how news coverage is often guilty of blurring the lines instead of making any of it more clear.

In the end it's perhaps the best end to a TV show season I have ever seen. And although The Newsroom was to go on for a couple more seasons, had they only done the first fourteen episodes this would have to go down as a must see TV show. It's outrageous and it's jaded and it fit the mood I was in this week.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Take Me Out Of/To The Ballgame

I've been a Twins fan for upwards to 33 years now. I don't think I've ever seen them play better over an extended period of time than they have over the past month or so. Even the world champion teams of 1987 and 1991 never put together a streak like this- where the team is so thoroughly dominating in all aspects of the game- pitching, hitting, defense and strategy.

That said, I don't think I've ever been more frustrated with a Twins squad as I am the 2006 version. They find themselves nine and a half games out of first place, and four games out of the wildcard race. And the maddening thing about their place in the standings is they didn't have to be where they find themselves to be. It's all been self-inflicted.

The team was limping along when management finally decided to pull the plug on the brief (but all too long) Tony Batista, Rondell White, and Juan Castro era. The club broke out of spring training believing that those veterans were better options than younger players (with far greater upside) like Jason Kubel, Jason Bartlett, and Nick Punto. Far more puzzling (and unforgivable) was the decision to open the season with Kyle Lohse and Scott Baker in the starting rotation and Francisco Liriano in the bullpen. Manager Ron Gardenhire is now defending this decision saying that Liriano wasn't ready for starting because he spent much of the spring on the Venezuelan team in the World Baseball Classic.

This is outright bunk. Even if it meant that Liriano's first few starts were limited by a pitch count, having him out there was a far better alternative than anyone on the pitching staff not named Johan Santana. That it took into June for the team to concede this is unforgivable. If Liriano had been given four or five more starts like he should have been the Twins likely would be that much closer to the top of the division.

Liriano has been electric. He's been the key to this turnaround. When he's on the mound there is a sense of something special about to happen. When he gives up a hit you are almost shocked. He makes Santana (who is among the elite pitchers in the game) look like a lesser pitcher in comparison.

By any measure 2006 was going to be a year of transition for the franchise. Going into the season the team appeared to be on a downward path after dominating the division from 2001 to 2004. The White Sox and Indians were clearly teams that had finally passed the Twins in talent. Detroit looked like a team ready to contend as well. This was likely going to be Brad Radke's last year in the game and Torii Hunter's last year as a Twin. Prospects for the long needed new stadium seemed dim at best.

Signing Rondell White seemed smart. A career professional hitter, White seemed to fill the cleanup hole that Justin Morneau clearly wasn't ready to fill last year. And after losing Matthew LeCroy and Jacque Jones the offense that was so weak last year needed some experience and personnel changes to make it more productive.

But if this year was the start of another rebuiding phase the decision to start the season with Castro at short and not Bartlett, and Kubel only given a nominal look before being sent to the minors was confusing at best, stupid at worst. It was time to see what these two could do and it was also time to give both of them the chance to learn at the Major League level so some of the growing pains could be endured this season rather than further down the road.

The season isn't over but to expect this team to continue on this torrid pace is unrealistic. To giveaway two and a half months while floundering along is what makes this season so frustrating. If the team is to somehow make the playoffs you gotta love our chances given that Santana and Liriano will be given four starts in any seven game series. If we don't make it, you can blame it on some boneheaded decisions, some of the worst in the team's history.