by Jeff McCord
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise around the world, the crisis is hitting everyone hard, but especially those who were already struggling to make ends meet.
Here in Austin, the mayor has issued a ‘shelter in place’ order for Travis County, which means everything is closed, save for essentials – doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores, and restaurants that have set up drive-through deliveries. For musicians and others living gig-to-gig, paycheck-to-paycheck, there’s virtually no work to be had. What happens if, on top of all that, you get sick?
Even in the best of times -which these are certainly not – musicians in crisis have reached out to the many support systems Austin offers. Reenie Collins is the Chief Executive Officer of the Health Alliance of Austin Musicians (HAAM).
“I mean, it’s just really heartbreaking,” she says. “I can’t tell you the texts and emails and calls that we’ve gotten from people. They were already devastated by the cancelation of SXSW. Folks are just really, you know, they don’t have enough to eat. They don’t know how they’re going to pay their rent, how they’re going to pay their utilities. That is not normally what HAAM does. We focus on health care and health care access and do the bigger picture items. But we just knew we had to react.”
In normal times, HAAM helps people get enrolled in the Affordable Health Care Act and helps to the tune of almost two million dollars in premium assistance. Of the estimated 7,000 to 8,000 working musicians in the area (taken from the city’s music census done a few years ago), HAAM has 2600 members.
“Musicians come to us all year long, and if we can’t get them enrolled, we help them find other resources. If you’re on insurance, you’re actually going to help have better health care access, but we work with specialty care doctors and primary medical care doctors, other charity organizations to get HAAM members and musicians help if they don’t have insurance coverage. We also have dental and vision and wellness and hearing and all kinds of services that we provide.”
“The other piece that is so critical right now, is that we’re house health navigators. Our navigators are available to talk to people in crisis in need on a real-time basis and help them figure out what they need to do to get whatever services they need.”
Yet even with all these services, business as usual won’t get the job done. Collins knows this.
“Right now, everybody’s talking about what are we going to do for musicians, what are we going to do for the music community? And there are lots of plans and lots of big talk going on. But there hasn’t been anything concrete yet because people are trying to get systems in place and figure out what they can do. What we decided to do was we actually took $20,000 immediately and put it into an emergency fund. I have a donor. I believe it’s going to be coming in shortly, that’s going to at least double that And I know that’s a drop in the bucket. But if we can get people 100 bucks of just help right now while other things are being figured out, that’s a lifeline.”
“We already have all the infrastructure in place that knows about, you know, musician’s eligibility, what their income level is. So we’re able to move pretty quickly. We are taking the funds for basic needs – HEB food cards and prescription medication and things like that – that are emergencies, so that people can at least get something in their hands.”
As HAAM expands their role, they’re partnering with other services out there. “That’s probably not going to be a long term role for us,” Collins explains, “but we’re working with MusiCares, the SIMS Foundation, Stand With Austin, the Austin Music Foundation to try to get Austin musicians some help. We’re working with anybody that we can to try to coordinate care, coordinate services and leverage all of our resources.”
“Our main concern is as this virus hits, musicians will be affected. And we know that HAAM will be right in the epicenter of that because we’re providing access to health care services. I think people are so scared about just basic needs survival that they’re not even thinking about, you know, am I sick?”
So what do you do if you’re worried you may have the virus?
“If you’ve got symptoms,” says Collins, “you need to call your doctor and talk to them. If you don’t have a doctor, we can help you find a clinic. I think people get overwhelmed and they hear that there is no testing going on. But that’s not really true. There’s not nearly enough. But for people who really have symptoms, we can help them find resources to do that.”
Collins encourages all musicians, HAAM members or not, to reach out for help.
Of course, HAAM itself has not been immune to all the challenges posed by this crisis. All their stepped-up activity comes at a time when they are working remotely (“We’re meeting with musicians online via, you know, webcams and things like that. Just trying to do what we need to do.”). They have had to cancel numerous fundraisers.
“HAAM needs your help. We have lost, just between now and May, we probably have lost $400 thousand dollars worth of donations that would have come in through our events that we had to cancel. But there are lots of ways to help. There’s a lot of stuff going online that streaming. There are all kinds of musicians that are setting up Venmo and tip jars and doing concerts from their homes. Just because you can’t go out, doesn’t mean you can’t support the music industry.”
“ I would just say be kind. Help each other. Musicians are doing stuff, but, you know, all of their sound and lighting people re challenged, all of our bartenders and venues. So I guess my big thing is we’re all going to be raising money. If you can, every little bit helps. What we can do is pull together, take this one day at a time and know that we can help and we can make a difference every day.”
By Art Levy
With the coronavirus pandemic taking hold, it’s as if someone has pulled a giant emergency brake on the U.S. music industry. Tours and live concerts through the early summer have been cancelled, drying up the main source of revenue for most musicians. Artists have gotten creative, live-streaming impromptu performances from their living rooms and passing around a virtual tip jar.
It’s a quirky invention born of necessity, as the crisis has laid bare the severe shortcomings of our current musical landscape. Over the past decade, streaming has come to completely dominate the industry and has changed compensation, ownership, even the very nature of songwriting and recording for musicians, as many trend towards shorter songs as a way to get more streams and placement on playlists. In 2019, the Recording Industry Association of America reported that streaming accounts for 80 percent of the U.S. music market, while physical and digital sales account for about 9 percent each.
But with “social distancing” and “self-isolation” entering our lexicon, does this mean we’ll all be home more, streaming more music? Maybe, but as has been frequently reported this decade, pay-per-stream business models like Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube offer an absolute pittance to the vast majority of musicians. All of these platforms pay a varying amount per stream, but what they all seem to agree on is dividing pennies into comically small numbers. According to figures published in Mashable, Spotify pays from $0.006 to $0.0084 per stream, split between rights holders (songwriters, publishers, etc.). To earn a minimum wage (federally defined as $7.25 per hour), a single artist would need almost 3.5 million streams. It would take 2 million streams on Apple Music and, incredibly, over 21.8 million streams on YouTube to reach this same threshold.
Digital artist-friendly platforms are few and far between; Bandcamp seems to be the exception to the rule. Each artist’s page includes options for their fans: you can stream, you can pay for a digital download, or you can buy physical merchandise, such as vinyl, CDs, tapes, T-shirts, and more. Crucially, there are actual dollar amounts in plain view, a not-so-subtle reminder that creative labor needs to be compensated. Bandcamp is also upfront with its fees, taking 15 percent from digital sales and 10 percent from physical sales. On Spotify, there are options to buy merch, but they’re not as obvious, with no dollar amounts advertised and seemingly no real way to incentivize the listener to open their wallets. Spotify’s merch links are also exclusively handled by Merch Bar, a third-party vendor that does not list on its website how much it takes per sale.
With artists’ touring revenue halted indefinitely, Bandcamp subsequently suspended its own profit share for 24 hours on Friday, encouraging fans to buy directly from artists. Meanwhile, it’s seemingly business as usual at the streaming giants, with little mention—on social media or in the apps themselves—of how a music fan can economically engage in the musical ecosystem. The streaming giants’ business model is based around passive listening, the culmination of music’s slow public devaluation over the past few decades. We’ve all been subtly trained to expect to receive a massive amount of music for free. Yet this pandemic calls for a more active and direct relationship between artists and fans. Paradoxically, it’s digital connection—the same disruptive force that severed music makers from controlling their work in the first place—that could be the way forward. Maybe digital tipping will become the norm now, or smaller, self-sustaining musical communities could provide more of a safety net for musicians. It’s still too early to tell, but when it comes to supporting our artists, music fans need to be just as creative.
photo by Julia Reihs/KUT
What Happens After a Pandemic and Economic Bust Wallop Austin?
By Jeff McCord
Last Thursday, I spoke with Veronica Briseño, the Director of the City of Austin Economic Development Department. At that time, there were no known cases of the COVID-19 in Austin, and our interview focused on how the city’s residents and business operators would move forward after the cancellation of SXSW, and how the local economy would fare after the loss of an estimated $350 million +. Last Thursday, the city was saying it was still safe to go out in crowds while exercising caution, and was only working to cancel gatherings of more than 2500 people.
Just days later, everything has changed. A national emergency has been declared, and even though testing is still not widely available in the US, the number of cases continues to escalate, including, as of this writing, ten presumptive cases in Austin. Nationwide, as the stock market continues to plunge, social distancing is being encouraged to prevent cases spiking and overwhelming our medical resources. Cancellation is a word seen attached to every sizable event (including every sporting and live televised event and all major tours), and students and employees are being sent home for an indefinite amount of time (including the entire KUTX staff). Businesses, (among them here in Austin, numerous clubs, the Circuit of the Americas, and Waterloo Records) are temporarily closing their doors. Schools have been closed until April 3rd. And the CDC has recommended that any gathering larger than ten people be postponed or cancelled.
Suddenly, it’s not just the entertainment industry, which relies upon high-profile events like SXSW, or the highly vulnerable ‘gig economy’ – musicians, stagehands, tour managers, equipment renters, bartenders, waiters, pedicab drivers – that are affected. The rug is slowly getting pulled out from under almost everyone. Which makes Briseño’s job even tougher.
“Our employees work very closely with the music and entertainment industry, but also with our small business community,” she told me on Thursday. “There was an immediate discussion of how can we help? We’re meeting every day to make sure we’re hitting the needs of the day. We got ourselves trained with the health department to reach out directly one on one with small businesses and talk about preventative measures that can be taken.”
I asked Briseño about Mayor Adler likening the SXSW cancellation to a tornado hitting our city, and if there would be disaster funds available for those most in need. “We’re looking at what funds could be available. I think there could be additional funds if there’s a federal declaration of a disaster. (A national emergency was declared on Friday). But we’re doing our homework right now to see what’s available.”
“We are talking about where we can point folks to in terms of rental assistance. It’s a tough conversation because affordable housing is already an issue for our city and we want to make sure that we are identifying as many tools as possible.”
“We’re going to continue to hear from people on how assistance can be provided. It’s a bit of a wait and see, but we realize that the impact is immediate, too. We’re trying to try to balance that, but we don’t want to develop a resolution too rashly either, knowing that there’s going to be additional impacts as we go through this year.”
Just days later, many of those impacts have already arrived. Both city government and its residents are scrambling at this point to figure out the next steps. In the meantime, Briseño has these suggestions.
“There’s the music and entertainment division and our small business program. We have a loan program through the small business program. And there’s our live music fund, which we’re excited about the first year that we will be administering it. That’s earmarking hotel occupancy tax for for live music opportunities. We’re working to develop those guidelines and there will be more to come on that as well. And then we have partnerships with a lot of our community organizations. And we have partnerships with organizations like People Fund (https://peoplefund.org) and Big Austin (https://www.bigaustin.org) that also provide resources in our community.”
All these are longer-term assistance programs. But these fast-moving times have shifted our thinking. What can do now to help ourselves and others?
KUTX has compiled a list of organizations set up to offer more immediate help: https://kutx.org/features/how-to-support-austin-music-when-you-cant-leave-the-house
And as things move rapidly in this pandemic, the city has website up a site to help everyone find the latest information. http://austintexas.gov/COVID19
Obviously, there is much that needs to be done to help those most in need. In the meantime, we can help by staying home as much as possible, and by ignoring the rampant misinformation out there. We all need to do our best to take care of each other.
Briseño knows this. “We realize this is unprecedented and it will be a bit of time before we fully understand the impact. We want to hear what folks are saying, what their concerns are, so that we can prepare to address them if we can.”
So do we. As events continue to evolve, how are musicians and fans in this rich music community faring? We’d love to hear from you. Reach out to us at [email protected]
(Note: Until recently, Jeff McCord was a part-time member of the SXSW programming team.)
In an age where virtually any piece of music can be played on your phone at the touch of a button, young people are buying more and more vinyl records. Why?
By Jeff McCord
Since the beginnings of recorded music, one consumer format has replaced another, each breathlessly promising a brighter future. There have always been holdouts – I have no doubt there were Edison Cylinder purists – but for the most part, music lovers have followed along in lockstep, gobbling up new technologies and trends, and never looking back.
Not any more.
Vinyl record albums were abandoned and left for dead by the record labels when CD popularity peaked in the late eighties. Yet, according to RIAA projections, 2019 vinyl sales will exceed the revenues of CDs for the first time in 33 years (once figures are in). And overwhelmingly, the buyers are under 30.
To paraphrase David Byrne, how did we get here? How is there nostalgia for something under-thirties have never known? Given vinyl’s evolution, there are no easy answers.
Disc records came along in the late 1800s. For a while, they coexisted with Edison cylinders (records were played on ‘gramophones’, to distinguish from Edison’s ‘phonographs’), but by the 1910s, discs had edged out the cylinders. Recordings were primitive, and the thick discs, initially made of shellac, grabbed noise like a magnet. The music could barely compete.
There were various sizes and speeds, but by the 1910s, the 10” 78rpm was the standard, with a limit of two minutes per side. The 12” 78, introduced in 1903, lasted a leisurely 3 ½ minutes. Initially, 78’s were sold in brown paper sleeves. The first ‘albums’ were sets of 78’s packaged with some sort of artwork.
Lots of other materials, from cardboard to plastic, were tried for discs, but it wasn’t until post- World War II that vinyl, with its durability and lower surface noise, came into common use.
After the Depression killed a false start, the 33 1/3rpm 12” long-play album finally came along for good in 1948. The 7” 45rpm debuted around the same time. It would be 1958 before the first stereo records were being sold, a format already in use on pre-recorded reel to reel tapes (yes, that was a thing, especially before the portable 8-tracks and cassettes came along).
And for decades, the vinyl album reigned. Everyone had a record collection. Record stores and stereo shops were everywhere. Equipment got more and more sophisticated. Cassettes and eight-tracks eventually became popular for cars, portable players and mixtapes (and the subject of inane music biz campaigns like ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music’). But vinyl was the mother ship, the ultimate source material. Record prices, initially in the $3 to $4 range, rose higher and higher. By 1981, Tom Petty threw a tantrum, putting his foot down over plans by his label MCA to release his Hard Promises album at a new $9.98 list price. Times were good for the music business, if not for consumers.
They were about to get even better.
Early home computers, connected to nothing except an electric outlet, were little more than glorified typewriters. Yet they were turning data into 0’s and 1’s, and it wasn’t long before that included music. The first commercial compact discs appeared in 1983. At first, early CD players were bulky and expensive, but that would soon change. The format’s promise was enormous.
CDs seemed to solve all the limitations of vinyl we had come to accept over the years. They were lighter, easier to store and transport, not prone to warping, immune to surface noise. The discs had a much wider dynamic range than records – highs went higher, lows went lower – and because they were never touched by anything other than a laser during playback, they didn’t wear out. Vinyl records were limited to about 40 minutes of music. A CD doubled that.
Record companies and retailers saw dollar signs, and from the outset, CDs prices were 1/3 higher than LPs. It didn’t matter; everyone had to have them. Waterloo Records owner John Kunz describes this time as a real “ka-ching” moment for retailers. It was. As one of Waterloo’s early employees, I saw firsthand customers lining up to buy their favorite records over again.
Early CDs, with unreadable artwork shrunk over 50% from their album counterparts, and mastered directly from vinyl, were lacking. Still, CD sales shot up as vinyl sales dropped precipitously. Pressing plants began closing, turntable manufacturers were retooling or going out of business. Throughout the nineties, as CDs improved, most new releases weren’t being manufactured on vinyl at all. People were dumping their vinyl collections wholesale.
Musicians -who always seem left with a smaller piece of the pie of each new format – and vinyl lovers didn’t think so, but these were heady times for the music business. CD sales soared, and wouldn’t slow down until the year 2000. But by then, there were fins circling in the water, and storm clouds overhead.
CD burners, which made an exact digital copy of any CD, were popular and built into many computers, allowing fans to copy CDs for their friends. In the early days of the internet, “friends” grew exponentially. Napster, the peer to peer service launched in 1999 by Shawn Fanning, allowed millions to essentially swap their digital music files for free. Artists like Metallica and Dr. Dre, along with some labels, sued over copyright infringement and shut this thievery down, but it didn’t matter. The cat was out of the bag. Numerous imitators sprung up faster than they could be found and stopped, and as internet speeds grew, and YouTube and Bit Torrents came online, the young and savvy grew up thinking that music was something you found for free online. Record and hi-fi stores slowly began to melt away.
It’s been that way for two decades now. Component stereos have gone into the attic or the trash heap. The music experience for many has come down to badly compressed music played through cheap earbuds or mono Bluetooth speakers. While a few innovative indie record stores have managed to hang on, music retail giants like Tower and Virgin shut down, and other big box stores stopped carrying CDs altogether. Since 2000, CD sales have plummeted 94%. And with no new format in place, the music industry went into a tailspin.
There have been attempts to create a digital revenue stream – Apple’s popular iTunes store (launched in 2003) and line of iPod’s was among the first. But it didn’t reverse the trend. Only in the late 2000s would the industry find another stable way to monetize music, through the advent of subscription streaming services (there are many, but the biggest, Spotify, came along in 2008). While not necessarily profitable themselves, even though only paying artists a tiny sliver of their revenue, the services’ income has managed to stabilize and even grow things business-wise.
Even with their drastic fall, CDs are still being sold, but younger music fans aren’t the ones buying them. Over the past decade, physical music sales are on an upswing. But it’s vinyl, a format left for dead in the nineties, that is leading the charge. And the buyers are predominantly under thirty.
When I first started to hear that vinyl was selling again, it made sense to me. I have a large collection [though much to my regret, I sold about half of it during the CD boom, records that would now take four times as much to buy back, even if I could find them]. But I’m not one of those who ditched my turntable and stereo. I really never stopped playing records, even when new ones were not being made. For me, it was aural muscle memory for a format I grew up with, and an association for when and where I bought my favorite albums.
Plus, I love the sound of vinyl. Battered by the ‘everything loud’ creed of modern digital mastering, the best-sounding records seem more authentic, musical and alive. I was an early adopter of the convenience of digital music and its vastly superior specs. But on a decent stereo, something seemed lost in translation.
When I was a kid, records were relatively inexpensive and easy to find at any local record store. Listening to these albums years later, I ‘m transported back to my initial excitement and discovery, to what made me so passionate about music in the first place.
But seeing the young demographics involved in the revival, it occurred to me that NONE of these reasons really explained what was going on. In a day and age where virtually everyone uses streaming services that can pull up almost any song on their phone, when two decades have gone by for many without a physical format or even a stereo, what is causing them to suddenly seek out vinyl?
Former Austinite Don Radcliffe, who owns the used record shop Ella Guru in Atlanta, has his theories. “I guess there’s some people that are doing it for the same reason that we did. You’ve got to put a little work in. You’ve got to spend money rather than just finding it for free and putting it on a hard drive, when basically all you have to do is press a button to make it go away. And some people enjoy the the the tactile part of it, the cover. Vinyl records don’t hold near as much music as a CD. So, in those 35 minutes or whatever, why did they pick those songs? Why are they sequenced that way? You know, the same dumb stuff that attracted us to it. And they read credits and they look at who produced it. What else did they produce? Or they discover some musicians on it. Jesus, this guy is awesome. What other bands was he in? The web starts getting spun a little bit and they’ve got to figure out where everything sort of fits.”
Spencer Smith, 30, who bartends and is a projectionist at the Alamo Drafthouse, has been a vinyl fan since age fifteen, when he first asked his parents for a record player. “At the time, I was listening the way most kids do, downloading from the internet, mostly illegally. I think something about the process felt kind of cheap to me. I could download a thousand records a day, but I would never really listen to them. You take a kid and put him in the middle of a candy shop. There’s no clue where to go first. Something about having the music physically and listening to every song in order really appealed to me.”
“I didn’t start collecting records until I was in college,” KUTX host Taylor Wallace, 29, confesses. “I’m from a small town and didn’t know anyone who did. My parents grew up in the CD era. This was around 2009-2010, right when it was getting popular. All my friends, and these guys I wanted to date, they all had record collections. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is a thing.’”
John Kunz recalls it being about fifteen years ago when he first started seeing a vinyl sales uptick at Waterloo. Superstar artists with clout, perhaps disappointed in declining CD sales, began demanding limited runs of vinyl – because they could. Labels obliged. Stores generally had one shot at ordering them. But their scarcity added to their appeal.
Kunz remembers the advent of Record Store Day, started by a coalition of independent record stores in 2008, as the moment while vinyl sales really began to rise. “The record labels were giving every Circuit City, Borders, Best Buy and Wal-Mart exclusive bonus tracks. And we [independent record stores] were all here saying, you shouldn’t be messing with the core product. That’s really confusing to the customer. Give them the exclusive as a digital download. But we want an exclusive release on vinyl.” [It’s a tradition that continues to this day. Record Store Day 2020 is on April 18th.]
While Austin still mourns the loss of classic record stores like Inner Sanctum and Sound Exchange, it is fortunate to have some pre-2000 survivors – Waterloo and Antone’s Records – and numerous other excellent post-2000 vinyl shops across town, several of them also offering a wide assortment vintage hi-fi gear, including End Of An Ear, Sound Gallery, and Breakaway Records.
Breakaway, which is exclusively analog, is co-owned by Gabe Vaughn and Josh LaRue.
“It’s not a lot of people;” LaRue tells me. “Many young people are music fans but only a few go down the vinyl road. Some people get the nostalgia thing – they saw their parents play records or they saw it in a movie or something.”
“And for some people, it’s an identity. I remember being younger and wanting to be about something, you know, like I’m a collector.”
Not everyone who buys vinyl is a collector. Collecting most anything never makes a lot of practical sense. [If you want to know if you’re stricken with this malady, take this simple test. Read this recent New York Times article about the Archive of Contemporary Music’s collection of three million albums needing to find a new home. If your initial thought, like mine, was “I wish I had room for that”, you’re a collector.]
Other buyers seem to be, um, more casual. All three record store owners who spoke to me told me versions of the same story. When they asked certain young vinyl buyers how they were playing their records, it turns out – they weren’t. They owned no turntable at all.
“I have a conversation on a pretty regular basis where people are, you know, buying dollar records.,” explains LaRue. “Or even more expensive records, you know, like ten-dollar, 15 dollar used records. And I’ll ask about a turntable or what they’re doing right now. And they’re like, oh, I don’t have anything. So some kind of disconnect going on there. Maybe they’re listening to them at a friend’s house or maybe it’s easier to spend 20 bucks on used records than to spend hundreds of dollars on a turntable, or 400 dollars on a system. I get that. But I don’t understand what they’re doing with the record.”
“There are some kids that are buying them just to put the artwork on the wall,” says Kunz. “Others say I just want to support that artist.”
But these are odd exceptions. For the most part, young vinyl buyers are playing and enjoying their records. On what, though, varies widely.
It’s easy to see why. Turntable manufacturers have sprung back in action in the wake of the vinyl revival. But good precision gear, like the best of today’s vinyl pressings, can be expensive. One of the things fueling the vinyl revival was the emergence of low-cost, kitschy all-in-one record players made by companies like, er, let’s call them ‘Crosbys’. [To be fair, the same company also makes high-end turntables.] And at Waterloo, where they sell the portables, they are careful to describe them to customers as “the perfect record player for your eleven-year-old’s slumber party.” Nonetheless, some buyers aren’t getting the message.
Austin musician Scott Riegel, 26, who became a vinyl enthusiast at the age of 12, describes his beginnings. “My dad grew up in the ’70s, and had a pretty decent record collection for a guy his age. He bought me this cheap, all-in-one “Crosby’ player. So I started listening to stuff on that, and then I posted about it on a forum. They started roasting me for playing records on that cheap all-in-one turntable. So I dug my dad’s stereo setup out of the attic.”
Without such treasures hidden in the attic, though, the process gets tougher. New vinyl hopefuls go from “Hey, Siri, play the Beatles” to being told about all they need to make a physical record play. “It’s understandable,” says Kunz.”They start looking at a turntable and we ask them what they’re going to be pairing it with. They don’t know what a receiver is. An amplifier. When they say they’ll be hooking it up to their A V system, you say, does it have a phono input? And they don’t know what that is. Speakers? You got to have all this stuff.”
“There are people who just buy like a pretty lousy record player because they see it at Target. And there’s no way that sounds good,” says LaRue.
Yet despite the steep learning curve, many have pulled it off and are enjoying their vinyl on good gear. LaRue sees that happening. ”It’s hard for me to know what percentage, but there’s certainly a good number of people who are looking for quality pressings of records and buying real stereo equipment to hear it on. They’re aware of and paying attention to how good it can sound.”
LaRue describes vinyl’s audible aura. “There’s a certain human error vibe that’s very relatable. You know, it’s like a lot of hip hop. After a while, they started making the beats not totally perfect. They would still use a click track and drum machines and samples and all that, but they would make beats slightly more human-sounding. And I think people, even if you don’t notice it on a conscious level, [vinyl] feels a little more natural, it feels a little groovy.”
Yet vinyl’s distinct sound, a chief reason why long-time vinyl enthusiasts have put up with storing and lugging around record collections for decades, doesn’t come up as much among younger record buyers.
“I think people have a point when they say it,” says Spencer Smith, who estimates he owns two to three hundred vinyl albums. “But I question how true that is. People say there’s better quality or it sounds warmer. I’m inclined to say that since the streaming services are so good, it’s a hard argument to make.”
It’s true that new bands and releases, in this day and age of recordings being mastered for compressed mp3’s, streaming and earbuds, don’t really shine on vinyl. Yet this seems to be primarily what’s selling at Waterloo. Kunz estimates 75 to 85% of his new music is being sold on vinyl. “When they were doing all the digital mastering to put vinyl on CD, they were using an analog master person. The reverse was true going back the other direction. It was someone that didn’t know what they were doing, and the mastering was fucking everything all up.”
LaRue hears it, too. “Now that most people listen to super-compressed digital files on earbuds, they try to make recordings sound good for that format, which is hard. A lot of music that’s recorded digitally, straight into Garageband, can sound really great, except that it’s a different type of music and a different type of recording. It’s very different from the 60s and 70s, you know? There are so few pressing plants anymore. They have so much demand. They’re getting digital files like that are just getting emailed to them. They’re doing stuff as fast as they can. And the quality control has dropped.”
“I think a lot of the appeal for me and for some young people getting into records for the first time is the stuff that was, you know, recorded and pressed in the 60s, 70s, even through a lot of the 80s, when the goal was to make it sound good on a record on a turntable. Even like early hip hop and dance, it was about deejays and clubs like with sound systems and turntables, everything was geared towards that.”
Which might explain why this era is now selling again. Don Radcliffe loves getting rare records in his store, but the 60’s and 70’s hit recordings are his go-to records for young buyers. Nestled among the new releases in Waterloo’s top vinyl sellers is Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, an album that looks exactly like it did when it was released with an $8.98 list price in 1977. It sells for $24.99. Waterloo keeps a six month supply on hand.
There’s a lot of mystery around the vinyl revival, but it does seem to be bridging generations. Parents and grandparents are gifting their kids their favorite albums, and discovery is starting all over again.
John Kunz imagines a father surprising his son or daughter, telling them “In the back of my closet, I’ve got all the Led Zeppelin records. All the Supremes records or whatever, they are owned by grandma. And suddenly grandma is not this little old lady that doesn’t know shit. She’s the coolest person on the planet. Music is doing exactly what it should do. It’s bringing people together.”
Years without physical product, with fans essentially renting music from streaming services, seems to have left listeners hungry for something more tangible. They like streaming for musical discovery, but it’s not enough.
“I like owning the album,” says Taylor Wallace, “Especially when it’s about local bands, because that’s money in their pocket. And I like shopping. It gives me another reason to go out and buy something.”
In a world of multiple entertainment options, ownership seems to be adding value back for music fans. “I think that people pay more attention,” says LaRue. “They are literally invested in it. People like going to the store and buying something that they’re into. It’s not just food and clothing. This is something they really like. ”
Hanging out in record stores used to be the path to finding new music. For some, at least, that seems to be true again. But it’s not just the buying. It’s the process itself.
Scott Riegel finds it transporting: “A nice Zen day off for me is putting on a record, hanging out with a cup of coffee. You’re listening to it and appreciating the subtleties of the sound.”
“I think the physical motions of taking a record out of a jacket, putting in on, you know, the whole process, because it’s harder,” says La Rue, “makes somebody much more focused on the music. For me, it still does. My family, everyone has Spotify and all that. And but we play records all the time. My kids pay more attention, you know, just because they pick a record out, they go to the shelf. There’s a lot more to it. It’s a deliberate physical act that takes multiple steps to hear the music.”
Whether it’s the process of obtaining or playing vinyl, one thing is clear – there is no single answer to what is driving young people to buy and play a format that began a century ago. It’s puzzling for a lot of reasons. But discovering music, bridging generations, rediscovering the value of the album, listening more intently – all are big positives for music fans, artists and the industry. And for whatever reason it is happening, everyone seems happy that it is.
I was at a party over the holidays where my friend Andy was playing records. I started discussing the vinyl revival with him and asked if he had any explanation as to why young people were turning to a format that effectively ended before they were born. Without saying a word, he walked over to his records, pulled out his copy of ZZ Top’s 1973 album Tres Hombres and opened it up. And there it was, staring me in the face. An eye-popping 24”x12” gatefold photo, a technicolor burst of cheesy tex-mex gluttony. We both just stood there grinning. Maybe it really is as simple as that.
From left to right: Little Mazarn, Jake Lloyd, Andrew Cashen
Literally hundreds of recordings are released every year in this fertile music city, and invariably, some fail to get the notice they deserve. Instead of our usual Best of 2019 list, we thought it would be fun to ask KUTXers what Austin recordings should have gotten more attention this year.
Host Mon-Thurs 5-8 pm, Fridays noon -4pm
Michael Fracasso – Big Top
Granted this 2019 album was recorded a few years back and then sat on the shelf, but it confirms that Fracasso is not only one of Austin’s most overlooked singer/songwriters but one of America’s. A collaboration with Charlie Sexton and the late George Reiff, “Big Top” should have catapulted Michael to the big time, but in a just world. any of his previous albums would also have done so.
Jesse Dayton – Mixtape Volume 1
Austin-based Dayton has worked with everyone from Waylon to Rob Zombie to Johnny Cash to X – and his covers on this release are just as eclectic. But don’t judge this disc by its, um, cover; yes he chose a Cars song but he sings it as George Jones might. And from Jackson Browne to the Clash to Gordon Lightfoot to AC/DC he puts his singular twist on all his choices.
Host Mon-Thurs 8-11 pm
Sadie & the Ladies- Let Us Make You Money EP
Infiltrating the underground scene this year, Sadie & the Ladies put out their early Strokes-emulating debut EP, putting a fresh spin on a beloved early 00’s rock sound. They may have snuck in at the end of this decade, but they’ll be stuck in everyone’s ears through the next one.
Nolan Potter’s Nightmare Band- Nightmare Forever
Keeping the glory of Prog Rock alive and well (and dense with Tolkien lore) are the dozen-or-so members of Nolan Potter’s Nightmare Band, whose instrumentation includes everything from guitars to chimes to Nolan’s flute(!). A lot of incredible music came out of Austin this year, to the point where I thought it would be impossible to pick a favorite, but Nightmare Forever swooped in last month like Gandalf on Gwaihir and gifted the world this true work of art.
Music editor, host Fridays 6-9 am
Little Mazarn – IO
There’s something mesmerizing about this duo’s bare-bones music. Treated, slow-picked banjo, saw, and other odd percussion are the only real instruments on their second album (though Will Johnson, Thor Harris and the Bad Liver’s Ralph White all put in guest appearances). Lindsey Verrill and Jeff Johnston write forlorn dark woods folk that hangs around inside your head. On songs like “Little Blue’, and “Peace Like A River”, Verrill’s vocals resonate with a haunting beauty. There are also covers of Country Willie Edwards’ “Marfa Lights” and, of all things, Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark”, which excavates the pain hidden inside this MTV favorite. In terms of 2019 Austin albums I keep going back, IO is the one.
Wurve – “Blowout”
We captured a riveting live version of this song in Studio 1A back when this Austin psych outfit was calling themselves Teevee, but this studio version from Wurve’s Memory Bleach album is even better, It begins as if the band has already been playing the song for ten minutes and doesn’t really ever let up. Furious drumming, walls of guitars, and a baited melody buried way down in the mix. In short, a brilliant textbook example of MBV-inspired shoegaze. Play it again.
AARON ‘FRESH’ KNIGHT
Host, The Breaks, The Breaks podcast
Jake Lloyd – MoonLit Mornings
While we on The Breaks play songs from the album and support it, the rest of the Austin Music scene allowed the project to fall to the wayside. If you are into Black Pumas, Leon Bridges, Los Coast, etc then there is no reason you won’t like Jake Lloyd’s sophomore album. With the lead single, “Daily Interlude” being an ode to the Austin lifestyle, the rest of the album is a soulful showcase of Lloyd’s vocal and songwriting abilities.
Music director, host – Left of the Dial, Uptown Saturday night
Andrew Cashen – Back In Texas
I think Austin slept on this album, which is a shame because when Andrew is out in front, he’s just as engaging as Sabrina Ellis (his partner in Sweet Spirit and A Giant Dog). “Paradise” is my favorite track on the record.
Speaking of Sabrina, I loved the three singles they released with Har Mar Superstar. There’s undeniable chemistry between the two and you can’t beat the ’80s-flavored cotton candy. I hope they continue to work together.
Will Johnson – Necessitarianism (Fred Merkel’s Blues)
Will’s voice has always captivated me and this song harkens back to his Centro-matic work. On first listen, this seemed one-note. Then I listened again. It rewards you with what I call sneaky layers; song elements you only get upon repeated listens.
Sanco Loop – Mars
I find this band fascinating because they merge elements that seemingly shouldn’t go together: an art-rock voice with dusty pedal steel. Frontman Peter Wagner’s voice is a howitzer that can hit numerous octaves. Cary Bowman’s pedal steel belongs to some distant, treeless mesa. When these sounds are brought together it creates an unexpected earworm.
Host, Saturdays 7am – 10am
Eimaral Sol – Sol Soliloques
Eimaral Sol’s album, Sol Soliloques fills you with love and purpose and takes you on a journey to your higher self. Not only is she aware of the universal consciousness, but she also shares her knowledge of the universe with the listener while her lyrics send them positive vibes. Her sound reminds you of the greats such as Erykah Badu and Amy Winehouse, with songs like “Sunflower” and “Systematic Transcenda,” she keeps the listener moved by her soulful vocals and beautiful energy! Sol Soliloques is not just an album, it is a spiritual guide through this thing we call life.
Torre Blake – ”Summertime Fine”
Torre Blake’s single “Summertime Fine,” pays homage to the beauty of her hometown (Austin). Her sultry vibes convince you that there is no better place to be on a perfect summer day than at the local hot spot, Barton Springs. In “Summertime Fine,” she expresses what her idea of relaxation is at one of Austin’s local crown jewels. In the end, Torre’s captivating lyrics illustrate her admiration for the Summer days in Austin, Texas; in only a way that a fellow Austinite can truly understand.
Host, Elektikos, Mon-Thurs 7-9am
Elias Haslanger & Church on Monday – For Being There
What a wonderful recording this is. Recorded right here in Austin at the Continental Club where Haslanger and his Church on Monday band are regulars. Mixed and mastered by well-known jazz pianist and master of many things, Eddie Hobizal. Released on Cherrywood Records, what else! The band features Elias on tenor sax, James Polk, organ, Daniel Durham, bass, Tommy Howard, guitar, and Scott Laningham, drums. Intimate to expansive, some worthy tracks!
Graham Reynolds – Marfa A Country & Western Big Band Suite
Lots of big band sounds, jazz, country, rock, pop, and just about whatever you can imagine. Featuring Ricky Davis and Red Volkaert. Talent oozes. This is the first part of THE MARFA TRYPTYCH, Graham Reynold’s three musical portraits of west Texas, inspired by his interest in the Texas-Mexico border population and the Chihuahuan desert landscape.
Producer – My KUTX, host Sundays 10 am- 2 pm
The Infinites – The Infinites
The Infinites are the product of dozens of small details interacting in surprising ways. On the band’s self-titled debut, Dan Le Vine’s bubbly guitar bounces off the nervy rhythm section, propelling singer Jared Leibowich’s intimate storytelling. Each song is framed like a snapshot, establishing a character and a scene before abruptly ending. There’s something subversive and honest in the way their songs glitter and die so quickly. In the Infinites’ universe, zero and infinity are bandmates.
Erika Wennerstrom – “Be Here To Love Me”
There’s a stark beauty to a lot of Townes Van Zandt’s music. The best versions of his songs tend to be acoustic and live, allowing his words to slowly unfurl and haunt the room. His pitchy singing is also part of the appeal; too much polish obscures the rough-hewn magic of the songs. Erika Wennerstrom’s version of “Be Here To Love Me” is reverent to all this, but it’s not a museum piece. She takes the desperate, darkly-funny pleading of Van Zandt’s original and blows it up to cosmic country proportions. It makes you hope Wennerstrom has more of these covers in her back pocket. It also makes you wonder what Van Zandt could’ve done with this kind of color palette.
RF Shannon – Rain On Dust
Shane Renfro, RF Shannon songwriter, was born in the Texas Panhandle and raised in the pines of East Texas. This stark contrast of scenery would eventually come to inform the minimalist brand of hazy pastoral music that he and the band creates.
Ley Line – “Oxum”
The women of Ley Line transcend language and genres to create a sound that seems to emerge from deep within the earth. Dynamic harmonies run like a current through textures of stand up bass, guitar, ukulele and percussion. Ley Line creates a global soundscape; blending rhythms and influences from Brazil, Latin America and West Africa.
Host, Saturday 2-6 pm
Gold Leather – Churl
Sometimes life is one big fat shit sandwich that takes forever to chew and even longer to digest. When it feels like this, I like to remind myself that not everything is elegant or neat, it’s absurd and chaotic–and Austin’s Gold Leather channels that liberating nihilism in its most raw form. Gold Leather are like a hellspawn formed from METZ and King Crimson and it’s just as beautiful as one can imagine.
Will Maxwell – Calm a Painter
You may know Will Maxwell from the Austin trio the Oysters, you may not know he released the most honest, unpretentious, and beautiful solo record of 2019. With the Oysters, Maxwell can obscure his tender and heartbreaking lyrics beneath sometimes ridiculous live shows (I once saw him perform in a diaper at the Hole in the Wall for chrissake), but he has nowhere to hide on his solo album Calm a Painter. Similar to writers like Raymond Carver, Maxwell’s storytelling imparts the ordinary with magic and significance in such a way that you may find yourself crying about a couch by the end of the album.
Host, This Song podcast, Saturdays 10 am-2 pm
Jackie Venson — Joy
Jackie Venson is an Austin artist who is not afraid to evolve. Venson started her musical life as a classical pianist, but switched to blues guitar after a particularly soul-crushing interaction with a teacher at the Berkley School of music. Though she started off playing the blues, she hasn’t stayed stuck in the genre. Every release has shown her add more and more influences into her work. Her 2019 record Joy is a major leap forward for the artist. You can hear some blues, yes, but she also blends pop, reggae, rock and electronic music to create a sound tha makes me excited about the artist she’s become and interested to see what the next step in her evolution will be.
Melát — After All: Episode One
I’m sure you’ve noticed that Austin R&B is on the rise, and Melát is one of the vanguards of the scene. Here July release, After All: Episode One is a collection slow burning grooves that will get even the stodgiest listener in the mood for love. And her video for “After All” is one of the most delightful visual celebrations of both Austin and the black creatives who are making some of the most interesting work the city has to offer.
Host, Mon-Thurs 12 pm – 2 pm
Church On Monday – For Being There
We don’t play much jazz during our regular programming but this album, recorded live at the intimate Continental Club Gallery, captures the excitement of eight of the band’s best recent performances from their Monday night Gallery residency which, incidentally, is now in its eighth year. Saxophonist/leader Elias Haslanger along with B-3 organist/Austin legend James Polk and guitar wiz Tommy Howard are the inspired soloists, all at the top of their game. My favorite Austin jazz album of the year.
Grupo Fantasma – American Music Vol. VII
This is perhaps my favorite Austin album of the year, overall, from this Grammy-winning juggernaut. Although we’ve played the song ”Cuidado” extensively this year, there are several other tracks that deserve your attention. My favorites include “The Wall”, a politically timely tune that features members of Ozomotli and Locos Por Juana, “Nubes” with its tropical vibe, “Let It Be” featuring Austin’s Tomar Williams and the appropriately titled scorcher, “Hot Sauce”. Caliente y muy picoso!
Host Mon-Thurs 2 pm – 5 pm
Will Cope – Denial River
From his 2010 debut Sunset Craves, to this year’s fantastically recorded and produced LP Denial River, Wil Cope has consistently manifested some of the most haunted noir-folk ennui that a wayward soul could bleed from his darkest recesses – and perhaps from a few drug-addled journeys on desert landscapes. As I’ve obsessed over before in several Austin Music Minutes, Cope pens all the heartache, broken connections and broken dreams into superbly spooky, moody odes to a lost highway of no return. And Denial River, arguably his strongest work to date, carries the magic of longtime collaborator and producer Doug Walseth at the helm, helping bring to life those otherworldly shadows inhabiting Cope’s dusky world.
The Ghost Wolves – Crooked Cop EP
Another longtime favorite of mine goes and unleashes three dirty-wicked tracks invoking the spirit of The Cramps with minimalist garage-rock/dark-punk fever, and it even gets the attention of Third Man Records. So much so that TMR releases The Ghost Wolves’ Crooked Cop EP on 7-inch vinyl – yet it’s still mystifyingly under the radar. Dynamic duo Carley and Johnny Wolf are some of the hardest-working musicians around, touring constantly throughout the world to get the word out, so there’s a growing momentum for sure. Meanwhile, sink your fangs into “Crooked Cop,” “Fist” and “Day Will Follow The Dawn” to experience the killer vibe. These Wolves are worth your while.
Host Mon-Fri 9am -12pm
Little Mazarn – IO
They fancy themselves as hillbilly psychedelia, but the Austin duo of vocalist, banjo-player Lindsey Verrill and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Johnston are partisans of the primitive folk revival but with dreamier, more atmospheric modern touches. His saw bowing, and her subtle banjoing and plaintive singing create quite a mood and it really draws you in. Makes this jaded music fan wanna go out on a Tuesday night (!) and see them at Hole in the Wall, especially when Ralph White joins them. Check out their cover of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” from their second album IO released this past May and recorded at Ramble Creek Studios here in Austin.
Live Music Booker/Producer
I’m a sucker for harmonies and this five-piece band has some Dirty Projectoresque harms. Earlier this year, the band put out several singles (including my favorite “Someone Who Can Do Both”) but took time off from playing to outfit a new recording studio. Here’s hoping a full length is coming in 2020!
Flora & Fawna – “Slow Burn”
Sometimes you wanna eat mushrooms and listen to a song over and over on repeat. Flora & Fawna’s “Slow Burn” is good for that.