Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Welcome to the Modern Day Record Store

I grew up in a small city, not one which had many opportunities for the record buyer.

I bought my first real records at the Goodwill Store. They were 78s and I had a player which made them sound to my young ears like a million dollars. Of course, back then all turntables still had variable speeds which allowed them to rotate at 33⅓, 45 or 78 rpm. Some would even play spoken word records at 16 rpm.

Fast forward to 1967 when I arrived at UT-Austin and found the record stores which then were up and down Guadalupe Street, known as “the drag.” Seraphims and Victrolas regularly sold 3 for $10 and my record collection began to put on considerable heft. By the time I moved to San Antonio I already owned 100s of records and then I met Ron Moore. Of course, he discounted records when he could and guided me into heretofore uncharted waters. My collection grew into the 1000s of LP records.

Part of this collection moved to Mexico with me for 6 years, while I continued to collect whenever I could. When the Mexico City Philharmonic, with which I was playing, went for consecutive weekend concerts at the United Nations and then Kennedy Center, I looked like a pack animal as I returned through customs at the Mexico City airport. I had no idea how I would explain the stacks of records I had bought in New York City, nor the new turntable which was packed into a billowing outer pocket on my horn case. Sweat beaded on my forehead as the line snaked through the customs inspectors. Suddenly the orchestra manager came out of the supervisor’s office and signaled members of the orchestra to follow him. We effectively bypassed customs, with an immense sigh of relief.

Back in San Antonio, I started that painful transition we have most all had to make, replacing our collections with the more convenient and somewhat more durable compact disc. There was a golden age of reissues and we in San Antonio were fortunate to have several good resources for continuing to build our collections. But as many of you know, there is no such thing now as a real record store in San Antonio, I mean one which has massive stockpiles of classical and opera and jazz recordings. Something called the internet took over and Amazon dot com, in particular, grew into a giant marketplace. We thought the future had arrived. Little did we know that only a few years later we would be buying most of our recordings online as digital downloads. Welcome to the brave new world of the 21st Century record store.

Many fear technology. I embrace it. Let me give you a little primer on music downloads, hopefully calming your fears and reservations. We all need to know how to do it. There is no brick and mortar Sound Warehouse in our future. The biggest seller of recordings is now iTunes, the service invented by the same folks who gave us the iPod. I use iTunes with regularity, but also give a fair share of my business to eMusic dot com. You can even, and I do, purchase and download music from Walmart.

iTunes is the biggest player and also has the best user interface. It’s still an imperfect system. You can spend hours searching and still not finding what you want. On the other hand, iTunes has a pretty good catalog of classical recordings, and some of them even download with digital (pdf) track listings and program notes. To the credit of iTunes, their classical offerings have grown markedly in the three or four years I have been buying from them. In order to purchase from iTunes, you will have to download and install on your computer the iTunes software. This will enable you to shop at the iTunes store online, make your purchases and then download the music to your hard drive. I find iTunes to be a quite good interface, a sort of computer jukebox, great if you want to listen to the music while sitting at your computer. The iTunes interface also enables you to download music from your computer onto your iPod or other MP3 listening device and will even locate and play most of the other music on your computer, including music purchased from iTunes’ competitors.

Once you have acquired music from iTunes, there are many options. You can listen while you work at other computer projects, while you shop for more music, or you can play a handcrafted playlist as music for a party. There are many, many options for taking your music with you wherever you go. No more cassette tapes or boxes of compact discs, though if you choose you can make a CD copy of the music which will play on a standard player or in your car. But mostly you will love the portability of an iPod, especially if you spend a lot of time in the car or, as in my case, you are an avid runner or walker.

iTunes’ pricing is changing as you read this. For a long time there was pretty much a flat rate of 99 cents per track, or “song” as each unit is known. Longer classical tracks generally can’t be bought separately. They have to be purchased with the album, traditionally priced at $9.99. As I say, there is more competition these days and this has forced iTunes to reduce prices here and there. But still, as a general rule, “songs” will cost between 89 and 99 cents and albums will be anywhere from $7-$10.

Contrast this with eMusic, where you sign on for monthly subscriptions. These range from 30 tracks for $10, 50 tracks for $15, to 75 for $20. Classical music shoppers can find some real bargains here since a 15-20 minute movement of a symphony counts as one track. The downside is buying short works, such as Debussy Preludes, which range in length from 2 to 5 minutes. By the time you download an entire album, you will have used up over 20 of your tracks. I guess that’s still better than paying $9.99 for the album at iTunes, but it leaves you painfully short on further eMusic downloads for the month.

eMusic has a download manager, but it is not nearly as smooth an operator as iTunes. In fact, it offers to open your newly purchased eMusic tracks in iTunes, but beware the web which this creates, for it just may bog everything down hopelessly. Similarly, eMusic’s online interface is on the clunky side, though with patience you can usually find what you are looking for, assuming it is offered by eMusic. eMusic calls itself the alternative to iTunes and, frankly, I would be lost without the both of them. Don’t expect to find Deutsche Gramophone recordings or Sony on eMusic. But you will find most of the Bis catalog and a wealth of Chandos recordings. If you are looking for independents, eMusic is your place. As an added enticement, you can sign up for a free trial of eMusic which allows you one week to look it over and download 25 tracks for free. Just remember to cancel your trial subscription at the end of the week or your credit card will be billed for a month’s membership.

There are many other online sellers of downloadable music. You can shop at Walmart, where tracks generally sell for 89 cents, or you can do your browsing and downloading directly from Chandos and some of the other European labels by sending your computer to theclassicalshop.net. Many more online shops will try and many will fail, but for the most part once you become comfortable with the concept that this is how we will buy our music in the 21st Century, you will find the shopping experience quite enjoyable. There’s no traffic of the automotive kind, though you should give yourself the advantage of a reliable computer and a fast internet connection in order to avoid online congestion.

That’s it! Don’t fret. If your fingers still stumble when they encounter a computer keyboard, or you think a mouse is a four-legged rodent (well, they are!), employ a computer-wise friend to help you negotiate this brave new world. Otherwise, it will only leave you frustrated in the dust of this ever moving technology.

James Baker


Anonymous said...

Readers may also want to check the University of California at Santa Barbara's thousands of mp3's of cylinder recordings; the mp3's can be found at http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/index.php

Gary G. Sarli said...

The Gardner Museum has posted a set of about 50 podcasts of the concerts held in their Tapestry Room. These can be found at: