This has always been the conundrum of being an audiophile: Are you in it for the gear or for the music? And while it's perfectly acceptable, even preferable, to choose both, for many the choice is stark.
For Yves Beauvais, who has now lived and worked in the worlds of music and high end audio, and whose website for his vintage-gear business, Vintage Vacuum Audio, bears the above statement, the answer is simple.
"Most of the people I sell gear to, we never talk about music," Beauvais says from his home in Memphis, Tennessee. "You go to audiophile newsgroups, Audiokarma.com, and no one ever speaks about music. AudiophilesI hate that term, by the way; I am not an audiophile, I am a music loveraudiophiles don't like music. They like audio.
"I'm a firm believer in psychoacoustics: If you think it sounds better, it sounds better. You have a zip cord and you replace it with a $2000 cable'Oh, it sounds so much better!' Does it? Have you compared? Can you tell the difference? Side by side, can you pick the $2000 cable from the zip cord? Of course it sounds betteryou just spent two grand, it better sound better.
"The gear is important, but the issue is, can you dance to it? Does it move you? Is it emotional?"
Beauvais is one of a very small flock of rare birds who have worked at the highest levels of the major-label record businessin his case, Atlantic Recordsand who now live and work in the rarefied world of high-end audio. As anyone knows who's ever bought an LP pressed by a major label in the 1970s, high-end audio and the majors are often mutually exclusiveyet for Beauvais, a fan of the States who settled here permanently in the 1980s, interest in gear and music began almost simultaneously.
Now 53, Beauvais was born and raised in Paris. His father, a rare-book dealer, encouraged his son's love of music by allowing him to hang a poster of Beethoven in his pre-teen bedroom. "I had no interest in pop music until I heard Leonard Cohen on the radio, who led me to Bob Dylan. My interest in American music came from lyrics more than music. At that time I was learning English, and within five years I spoke it quite fluently, unusually well for a French high school student. Most of my English I learned from American pop or folk music, mostly singer-songwritersDylan, Cohen, etc. I became a big fan of Loudon Wainwright III, whose writing, I think, is as good as any in terms of words. But a lot of my vocabulary . . . I would pull entire sentences from Dylan songs. I must have sounded very odd, you know?"
"In my childhood, my first record player, my first tape recorder, any piece of gear I had, the minute I brought it home from the store, I would have to open it up to see what was inside. I was always a tinkerer. And I was always interested to look at circuitry. One of the key moments, at three or four years old, I remember my father had one of those tabletop tube radios. It was an old Telefunken. It took a while to warm up. I remember clearly, there was a program about birdsongs, and I was very curious to look inside to see where the birds were. I think it's kind of a central moment: There's sound coming from this box. What's inside the box? The magic of sound. I've always been very interested in sound recording."
After participating in a student-exchange program that gave him his first taste of America with a summer spent in Boston in 1975, Beauvais returned the following year and visited his sister, who was working as an au pair in New York City. "Within minutes, I knew I would live there. A week after I finished college [in France], I had a one-way ticket to the US, with the intention to work in the record business."
It took Beauvais a couple years of scuffling to find a gig at one of his favorite sources of American music, Atlantic Records. Surprises awaited him there, including one that confirms something long suspected about the record business:
"I moved to this country from France, in love with American music, dying to work for a record label or as a recording engineer. But I remember my first day at Atlantic, and I was terrified because I thought I'd be surrounded by walking encyclopedias of American music. As it turns out, I would say that 60% of the staff of major labels do not even like music. It's crazy. The majority of my colleagues were lovely people who just had a job. They could have worked for an insurance company or a bankit was just a nine-to-five gig for them."
After holding a series of lesser jobsincluding staff writer, producing artist bios and press releases at Atlantic's headquarters at 75 Rockefeller PlazaBeauvais made his move. Amazingly, almost nothing about his improbable story could be repeated today. In this business, the jobs he held no longer exist.
"I realized that when the CD format was introduced, Atlantic had no reissue, no catalog departmentthere was no one in charge of curating their catalog on CD, or even before, on vinyl. It was very strange. They were interested, as all major labels are, in making hits. Every now and then our European affiliates would do, like, a Ray Charles greatest hits, but there was no one in New York at the headquarters who, on a full-time basis, curated this goldmine that, in my opinion, was underused. So I wrote a proposal to Doug Morris, who was president at the timeAhmet [Ertegun] was chairmana one-page memo. So he calls me down to his office and says, 'I looked at your sheet of paper, and you're a young guy. Why would you want to bother with that old shit?'"
Given the green light by Morris, Beauvais launched a reissue program that began with the first Led Zeppelin boxed set (what he now calls "the big orange thing"). Single-disc reissues of nearly the entire Otis Redding catalog, and multi-disc sets of Yes, Ray Charles, and more Zep, followed.
"I made millions of dollars [for Atlantic]. I was not only making very nice money for them, but also combining many of my interests. I loved American music, and also I love writing. I was able to hire some of the country's finest writers to write liner notes, like Robert Palmer and Nick Tosches, who wrote killer liner notes for the Clovers' boxed setfolks of that caliber. Editing their copy was bewildering. Palmer's copy, there wasn't a comma out of placesix months late, but the shit he sent me was so clean it was mind-blowing."
Beauvais also began learning how to remaster older recordings, working hands-on with mastering engineers like Ted Jensen in New York and Joe Gastwirt in Los Angeles, and, whenever possible, with master tapes instead of copies. The young whiz kid was in heaven.
"I spent five years doing that. It was the greatest job I ever had . . . learning remastering with Otis Redding or Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin. And speaking to Ahmet Ertegun every day. And Jerry Wexler on the telephone. And having conversations with Ray Charles. And Led Zeppelin, the three of them in a room. I was still a kid. I still think of myself as a kid, but back them I was 28, 29 years old. It was very cool. A wonderful education. And complete creative freedom, because with reissues you can't lose money. Even if you sell 5000 copies, you still make the company 20 grand. I'll never be as happy as I was during those years."
All good things must end. In 1992, Rhino Records became Time Warner's official reissue arm, leaving Beauvais more or less out of a job. Ahmet Ertegun, whom Beauvais considers his mentor, provided his young protégé with an out.
"He called me into his office and said, 'I want to start a jazz label again and I want you to run it.' Nesuhi [Ertegun] had done jazz for Atlantic, and I think [Ahmet] felt some kind of nostalgia that he had neglected jazz, his first love in music and his brother's main love. I told him, 'No, I'm not interested.' Jazz is a ghetto. Jazz people like jazz only. They think it's the only music, the greatest musicperiod! While I love pre-war jazz and postOrnette [Coleman] free jazz, I was never a big contemporary, what they call smooth jazz, fan at all. It's not even jazz. And I have a big problem with a lot of bebop. When jazz lost its dance purposes, lost its popular appeal and became a music by musicians for musicians, I lose interest. At that time, there were basically two movements in jazz: smooth jazz, which is basically pop music or easy listening, and the Young Lions movement, which was a bunch of guys wearing suits playing their grandparents' music.
"So I said this to Ahmet, and he said, 'Just think about it.' A week later, he called and said, 'Have you thought about it?' And I said, 'Yes, I told youI'm not interested.' He said, 'I want you to do it anyway.' I said, 'Well, I still don't want to do it.' The third time he calledand you can't say no to Ahmet three times, he's very charming, very convincinghe said, 'You don't have to sign just jazz; you can sign other stuff, as long as we have a jazz presence.'"
Beauvais took Ertegun's offer of freedom seriously, signing such angular, acquired-taste talents as bipolar Texas singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston. Something of a legend in American indie and underground circles in the early 1990s, Johnston is famous for several things, beginning with his songs, which are either charming, compelling tunes or tossed-off dreck. Kurt Cobain was photographed wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the distinctive frog cover art of Johnston's 1983 album, Hi, How Are You. Most shocking is the tale of Johnston's psychotic episode while traveling in small airplane piloted by his father. When Johnston threw the plane's keys out the window, his father was forced to make a crash landing in which, remarkably, neither was hurt. Johnston's 1994 Atlantic debut, Fun, produced by Butthole Surfer Paul Leary, was a commercial failure, and Atlantic dropped the difficult-to-work-with artist in 1996. Johnston is infamous among audiophiles for being ridiculously lo- or no-fi. Beauvais remains famous (or infamous) for being Johnston's truest believer.
"At the time, there was this great quote from the Seattle Weekly," Beauvais says with obvious relish: "'We don't know who's crazier, Daniel Johnston or the guy who signed him to Atlantic.' The Atlantic record was way past his peak in terms of creativity and ability. The idea was to present the record as a record, and not put the focus on 'It's a freak show!" Rather, he's a very important American artist. It's just like Van Gogh. The Van Gogh myth is that he's a crazy painter. No, he's a great painter; he happened to have issues in his life. But the work speaks for itself.
"In spite of the illness, this guy's a fucking musical geniusin my opinion, as great as Hank Williams. It sounds crazy to say that, but I really believe that. His home recordings remain by far his finest work. One day he will be looked upon like Robert Johnson, Hank Williamsone of those great treasures of American music."
This brings Beauvais to memories of Ahmet Ertegun's theory of artists and repertoire (A&R). "Ahmet was dead set against following your heart. There are really two schools of A&R-ing. The first is, you sign what you love, you sign what you know is great, because it turns you on when you listen to it. You have what Lester Bangs called 'a hard-on of the heart' when you listen to it. And that was Jerry Wexler's approach. Ahmet's was sign what you know is going to sell. With the money you make from the records you sell, you go to the record store and buy the records you love.