Taking Music to the Dump
Joe Ely tells the story of picking up a hitch hiker in West Texas forty years ago. The guy climbed in the truck and they started talking. Come to find out, the guy is a musician. Next thing you know, he opens his back pack and pulls out a handful of record albums—that have his own face on them. Ely was stunned, even though he’d been playing music out for years. “I’d never really met anybody that had actually made a record before,” he says. No, back then records were phenomena, like celestial occurrences—eclipses, comets, shooting stars and such.
* * *
This week I drove to the Wakulla County dump…….
……and heaved into the recycle bin all 389 (I counted them) remaining copies of the first CD I ever made. (Is it ironic that the record was titled “Down Here in The County”?)
Three days before I had listened to a track from that recording being played on Tampa’s WMNF. And I had cringed.
It was terrible; I was terrible. How/why had I ever sent that thing sailing out into the universe? What the hell was I thinking?
My vocal, which was way too high in the mix, was flat and strained. Phrasing was awkward. Guitar parts were cliché. Drum parts were thumpy. The whole thing was hurried and clumsy sounding, and wrought with sandpaper compression and amateurish design. How did I not know then, what I (presume to) know now? How could I have ever thought that was any good?
It was one of those personal, land-fill-sort-of moments. I had not intended to share it. But I bring it up now as backdrop to the back-flash I had there at the dump, while trying to divest myself of my blemished musical past. What re-occurred to me were echoes of the conclusions I heard spilled at last months Americana Conference—in pithy, bumper sticker epithets— as to the dribbley state of revenue streams in the music business. I’m talking dire record sales, pathetic door receipts, etc. etc. etc. Boy howdy, was there ever plenty of blame to go around, with everybody—from fat record labels to ethically challenged music stealing youth—getting tossed a hot potato, as did, of course, the regrettably less anthropomorphic E-con-o-my. (Funny, huh, how the movie industry somehow thrived in the Great Depression of the 1930’s)
What I didn’t hear, and this came to me as I glared down in the dumpster at duplications of my silly-ass Photoshopped face on the CD covers, was that part of the reason it has become so difficult these days to sell records and get the public to come to shows, is that ever since the whole shebang went D.I.Y. there has been one huge and God-awful tsunami surge of bad damn music (e.g. what I was presently submitting to a new life as lawn furniture) being recorded and vomited on the lap of the public. God bless ‘em. I have now concluded that they’re just crying ‘uncle.’
Sure, bad records are nothing new. Even by great artists. (I refer you Bob Dylan’s “Self Portrait.”) But let’s all admit that the sludge has gotten thick out there. And the public has become overwhelmed with trying to slog through it. Still, I didn’t hear any artists blaming themselves or getting blamed for anything at the conference. But I’m thinking now WE are the real problem.
The fellow Joe Ely picked up was, of course, Townes Van Zandt, on his way home from record making in California.