No Answers, Only Questions

Finding myself in the Northwest on business, I reckoned I'd grab some Seattle dim sum with my nephew before heading my rental car south on I-5 to visit old friends in Oregon. "You live here," I said to Sean. "What are the good radio stations?"

"I have no clue," he said. "I never listen to the radio."

What My nephew lives in Seattle because he's getting a doctorate in ethnomusicology at the University of Washington. I know he loves music—heck, he practically eats, breathes, and dreams music. "So how do you hear new music?"

"Mostly, I don't," Sean said. "My friends burn me CDs or DVDs with J-pop, sometimes." (Sean spent his early childhood in Japan, where he acquired a taste for Japanese girl-group pop.) "The only time I listen to popular music is when I'm multitasking. If I listen to classical music, like Bach, it is whole-heartedly and attentively, but I don't get a lot of time for that now that I'm closing in on my dissertation. I don't even watch movies, because that's two hours I'd have to spend doing only one thing."

"What about your non–music-major friends—do they listen to music much?"

"All the time. They all have 60GB iPods and 250GB hard drives filled with songs and videos, and they listen constantly—at the gym, on the subway, in their cars, and walking around the campus. This puzzles me. I have no idea how people can listen to that much music."

Actually, it doesn't sound to me as though they do listen—it sounds more like masking than music.

Things sure were different when I got to Rick and Carol's, in Portland. They're old friends from the late 1970s, when we worked together at a regional chain of record stores—kindred souls, but folks I've only sporadically communicated with for the last 30 years.

We sat down with a few bottles of Rick's superb homebrewed IPA, and he cued up a CD. The Oregon downpour was immediately banished by the sounds of sunny California surf music—played, naturally enough, by the Whys, two Japanese girls barely taller than the Ventures-model Mosrite guitars they wield so well.

"Where'd you hear this?"

"We were hanging out at the CD table at a Pollo del Mar concert a few weeks ago, picking up their latest recording, and Ferenc Dobronyi [the band's guitarist] said we'd probably like this, so I ordered it from the Whys' website," Rick said.

Yes, even with two daughters in college, Rick and Carol still hear live music a few times a month—and they buy many of their discs directly from the bands they follow, or from their websites. They like that personal connection, and they like supporting the musicians by paying them for their music. Later that night I played "Dirty Water," from Buddy and Julie Miller (CD, Hightone 8135). Carol started diddyboppin' to it and Rick disappeared for a few minutes. When he returned, he announced, "I found that online at Amazon for $12, so I ordered the new Ziggy Marley for [daughter] Micaella to get the free shipping."

After listening to music-industry pundits pontificate about slumping record sales, failing record stores, and disappearing markets, it was nice to be among music lovers again. And as I hung out with my old friends, I began to wonder if all the tales of doom and gloom were accurate.

I don't doubt for a minute that record labels and stores have had a rough time of it, but is that really what the record industry is? There no longer seems to be a single entity identifiable as "the record-buying public." Oh, there are still passionate music buyers, but most of us have abandoned the traditional system of music distribution. Out of a hundred or so records Rick and Carol played during my visit, I suspect that those two discs purchased from Amazon may be the only ones counted by the industry's marketing associations. That probably means the other 98 will never appear in RIAA statistics or SoundScan charts or Big Four balance sheets.

But does that mean that recordings aren't being bought?

No, but it probably means that they don't count—not in any way that the record industry would acknowledge. That probably means that we'll continue to hear tales of doom and gloom even as we audiophiles and music lovers scramble to find the time and funds to buy all the recordings we want to buy. Can we expect the industry to wake up and start treating us as its core constituency?

Don't be silly. The labels know we're going to continue buying—they're interested only in harvesting the far larger potential audience of passive music consumers out there. That was the real logic (if that's the word) behind SACD and DVD-Audio—not those formats' higher resolution, but a chance to sell the core catalog all over again, and in a locked-down, piracy-protected format to boot.

Instead of higher rez, the majors have now decided to give us dynamically compressed, um, product that's as shoddily conceived and performed as it is produced. Not surprisingly, the labels are having a problem giving it away. Well, no—they're having a problem selling it.

I'm not even optimistic enough to propose a boycott. As satisfying as it would be to suggest that audiophiles "think local" and purchase only from their favorite musicians and the few labels that produce high-quality pressings and well-recorded music, I'm worried that, if we all went away, the major labels wouldn't even notice.

So what do we do? I don't have the answer, but I sure have a question: Record industry, we're your dream audience—we actually buy music—and we're right where we've always been, searching for something worth buying. Where the heck did you go?