May 31, 2003

Return to Central

In case you were wondering, the records made it out here just fine -- packed, loaded, moved and unloaded with the help of my friends. Sitting in a new apartment, 3000 miles from home, (still) surrounded by boxes, with a strange skyline staring back at me and clean air wafting through my windows... it's a bit much to adjust to, as much as I'm enjoying it.

So you'll have to excuse me for not updating this here site lately, though I think I'm starting to get back into the swing of things. There are certainly enough great shows coming up in the next few weeks. (Yes, in Seattle!)

Another thing that's happened recently, though a much tinier one: hitting newsstands now is the new Bitch magazine featuring an article for which I was interviewed. It's an article on female record collectors, one of a series of pieces as part of their themed "Obsessions" issue. The text of the article isn't online (just buy the mag, k?), but below is the first part of the interviewer's questions, along with the full text of the answers I sent. If you ever wanted to know what initially stoked my music collecting obsession, read on.

1) Describe your early experiences with music. How did you start collecting? What were some of the first record you ever bought? How has your taste in music evolved?

My parents were never into rock music, so I didn't grow up listening to the Beatles like a lot of my peers with baby boomer-age parents (mine are a bit older than that). I remember listening to kids' classics like The Muppet Movie soundtrack, Free to Be You and Me... but also Tchaikovsky, John Phillip Sousa marches and bluegrass.

So I was largely unaware of popular music until around age 10, when I was sent to a sleepaway summer camp. My camp counselor played a mix tape of hit music from that summer (1983) all the time -- "1999" by Prince, "Fascination" by the Human League -- so those were burned into my head by the time I left, and I started listening to Top 40 radio on a regular basis.

While the collecting bug didn't hit full force for me until middle of high school, there were signs early on. It wasn't enough for me to get all of Duran Duran's albums; I needed the import-only 7" single with the poster sleeve, or the Canadian single version of "Skin Trade" with the banned sleeve. I sought out copies of UK music magazines like Star Hits, which I bought and read religiously, as they tended to cover not only Duran Duran but other British bands that were part of the same wave of music.

But a turning point for me, the thing that shifted me away from Top 40 music to a more artist-based fandom, was when I first heard Crowded House on the radio. This was circa '86 or '87, around the time of their first album. I loved the first two singles ("Don't Dream It's Over" and "Something So Strong"), and they were hits, so they were played on the radio and the videos played on MTV all the time.

But then the third single, "World Where You Live" was released. I heard it maybe two or three times on the radio before it pretty much disappeared. This bothered me to no end -- hey, I liked that song! In fact, I liked it best of the three. Well, I guess I was going to have to go out and actually BUY the album, something I'd always been loathe to do, since it seemed like such a big risk to spend that much money for ten songs after only having heard two or maybe three of them.

So I bought the album (my first compact disc, as my father had just gotten a CD player), and I loved the whole thing. I started reading more about the band in my music magazines, where I discovered that two-thirds of Crowded House used to be in a band called Split Enz. This led me to buy a Split Enz best-of comp, which I also loved.

But the biggest musical leap for me was when a friend bought me a copy of the first Split Enz album, Mental Notes. He and his family were going into the city (Boston) and was planning on stopping at Tower Records, so I'd asked him to buy any Split Enz record he could find, as I'd not been able to find anything other than that comp at the chain record stores in our Boston suburb. He brought back that record (a vinyl LP!), and I listened to it... it was very weird, very different from the pure pop Enz tunes I was used to. But it grew on me. So that opened my ears quite a bit to music that was maybe less immediately accessible.

After my revelation about good music not always being played on the radio (shocker!), I began to listen local alternative music radio station WFNX around the time I started high school. Favorites of mine at that time were The Church and Robyn Hitchcock. After buying latest releases "Starfish" and "Globe of Frogs" (respectively), I likewise delved into each band's (significantly large) back catalogs. Hearing the Soft Boys for the first time was almost as big a surprise as that first Split Enz album, but in a totally different way. I'd bought some import 12" EP on pink vinyl, and it was incredibly bizarre and noisy to me at the time (still is, actually!), with inscrutable lyrics about "Wading Through Your Ventilator" (huh?).

The next major turning point for me, though, was discovering the existence of a local music scene. This was the late 80s, and bands like the Pixies and Throwing Muses were breaking big on the radio, with songs like "Gigantic" and "Dizzy" being played over and over in regular rotation. I tuned into the local music programs on both WFNX and college radio stations for more and found out about all sorts of other bands that I'd never had any idea existed.

When WFNX announced it was sponsoring a free, outdoor concert featuring local bands, I took the train into the city with a friend to check it out. All of the bands were playing in the loading dock of the Harvard Coop, which I thought was funny. The first band on was Galaxie 500, who I liked to much that I summoned up my courage enough to go up to Dean Wareham after their set to ask their names and tell them I was going to write a review of the show for my high school newspaper.

From that point on, I was going into Boston to see shows whenever I could, taping each station's local radio show each week and making mix tapes from that, looking up band members' names in the phone book to call them and request an interview or request a review copy of their record... I sometimes can't believe how persistent I was -- I was only 15 or 16 when I started doing this! And of course I got kicked out of plenty of rock clubs (age minimum in Boston was 21, based on the drinking age). But I found one or two sympathetic club owners to whom I was able to successfully plead my case, that I was only interested in the music, not drinking.

Then I started working at a used record store in Boston at age 17, and that opened up an entirely new world of music to me. Hearing Television and Big Star for the first time... hearing "Cattle and Cane" by the Go-Betweens, then all of Before Hollywood, which completely blew me away (it's still my favorite album)... devouring mix tapes made for me by a co-worker featuring all of these and many more bands all entirely new to me.

At that point my tastes were more or less cemented, though I've found as I've aged that I'm getting into the louder stuff more. Records by bands like the Hot Snakes and Enon, which are probably in my year 2000 Top Five... I'd have summarily ignored those in years past. Guess it took awhile for my ears to get beyond their initial pure pop training.

2) To what extent is music a part of you life? Do you play it as well as collect it? What prompted you to start a web site devoted to music? To include a library of 45s?

Music is absolutely a big part of my life, and it always has been. At various points in my life I've been a college radio DJ, a music journalist (briefly) and have worked at a record label. While I no longer have any professional involvement in the music world, I still buy lots of records and go to shows on a regular basis. I'd stopped paying attention to new music for a few years there, but this past year I've gotten back up to speed.

I suppose it was my renewed interest in new music that prompted me to re-launch my web site, Nonstop Pop. Up until June of this year, it had been dormant, consisting of a collection of old one-off music mini-sites I'd created over the past six years. But as I got more excited about some of the new records I was hearing, I wanted to tell people about it. I was also beginning to dig into my collection and listen to records I hadn't heard in awhile, as part of the process of converting songs from my vinyl to MP3 in order to play them on my new iPod. I'd been reading various weblogs online for awhile, and it just seemed natural to use that format to reinvigorate my site. Just the modern equivalent of a fanzine, something I'd briefly tried in the early 90s -- fun, but a lot of work to put together a printed publication!

My other site, cyclespersecond, started out purely as an experiment, simply an online version of the record database I'd created. I first got the the idea of cataloging my 7" singles back in 1993, when I had a weekly radio show on a local college station. I used to play almost all records from my own collection, so every week I'd go through my own library of records and pull those I wanted to play. This was easy for the LPs and CDs, which I had stored in bookcases. But all my singles were in cardboard boxes which I kept stacked on the very top of the bookcases, so each week I had to get out my stepladder and pull each box down in order to look through them. I was already pretty into computers (I had one of those early, ten-pound laptops with the tiny screen), so I decided to create a database of my singles so I could virtually flip through my collection and only pull down the boxes I needed based on the records I'd selected.

Putting the collection online was a natural progression, as I began creating web sites, first for fun and then as part of my full-time job. I set up that site as a learning project, to better familiarize myself with Perl and my web server. Originally I'd wanted to expand the concept of the site to feature rare songs from my collection of singles, songs that had never been issued on CD or elsewhere. I digitized a number of songs and put those up, but it turned out to be too time-consuming to do on a regular basis. One day I would like to resurrect that feature, though, maybe this time with streaming MP3s.

3) What, if any, are the particular types of music you collect? About how many records would you estimate you own? Do you have a preferred format (45, 33, 78)?

My primary area of interest, both as a listener and collector, is probably post-punk, in the broadest sense. Independently-produced arty punk and pop from 1978 onward. I'm also a big fan of the output of specific labels, such as Rough Trade (1978-1985-ish), the 80s output of New Zealand label Flying Nun Records, and everything ever released by the original incarnation of Scottish label Postcard Records in the late 70s/early 80s.

I once counted how many records I had, based on the approximate number per shelf in my bookcases, but I've long since forgotten what that number was. If I were to include all the LPs, 7" singles, CDs, pre-recorded cassettes (and the odd 8-track tape)... I'd say around 10,000 total. I know I have over 3,000 7" singles alone.

The 7" (or 45) is easily my favorite format. It's cheap, portable, and easily customizable -- colored vinyl, inserts, fold-out sleeves, picture discs. The 7" single was also a key medium for the kind of music I collect in that most of the landmark musical artifacts from the punk or post-punk era are 7"es. Creating one didn't require the resources or commitment that an album did, and a lot of bands only had one or two great songs anway, so you could get the best of a band's output that way. I also collect 45 record boxes from the 60s and 70s, the kind with the lift-up lid and handle. Like the 45 itself, the boxes are both practical and aesthetically-pleasing -- my favorites have 60s op-art patterns on them.

4) How would you characterize you relationship with music?

I'm an avid music listener, consumer, supporter. It's an important glue that has helped create and cement friendships, provide inspiration and pleasure on a daily basis.

(Part I of II -- to be continued)

Posted by nstop at May 31, 2003 04:57 AM


hi n-stop :)

Posted by: ron on May 31, 2003 07:43 PM

About frigging time. Congratulations on your new love; we're wishing you the best.

Posted by: TMFTML on June 1, 2003 05:41 PM

I listened to [rock] music earlier than most of my peers, but I never thought of it as collecting. I just thought of it as finding more stuff by artists I liked. I don't even know that I thought of it as collecting after I had more CDs and records than most of my friends.

I'd never heard of Trouser Press or really read any magazines or 'zines on the subject. I got all my information from reading liner notes and finding other bands mentioned, listening to the (suspect) opinions of local college radio DJs and seeing unknown opening acts at shows.

By the time I was in college, I knew plenty of people who really collected in the sense you're describing. Indeed, most of them were male. I could talk to them about music, and I did fit in with them even though I didn't know (or care much about) a lot of the obscure details of bands I didn't necessarily like much. Mostly I could talk to them because they did for the most part know the stuff I listened to even if I didn't know everything they did. There were others like me too.

If the categorization, historical and unimportant minutiae aspect of collection is typically male (which I think it is) and you are one of the exceptions as portrayed in Bitch, then is the haphazard way that many music fans like me wind up with large, disjointed collections of "music I just like" the feminine take on it? I know I have met more women than men who will tell me that some historically significant album isn't worth owning because they simply wouldn't listen to it.

I'm not asking to make a point. I'm asking to start a damn discussion.

Posted by: martin on June 8, 2003 08:55 PM

I didn't initially think of my music-buying as "collecting" either, even though I got started at a much later age than you. I'm not sure exactly when I started viewing my increasingly large stack of vinyl and CDs as a something that I was proud of as a whole, a collection I wanted to continue to build upon.

But I know that part of the collecting mentality stemmed from the realization that music I liked and wanted to buy wasn't always to be found in the local record store, or even the bigger stores in the city. For example, after my young self read up a bit on Split Enz, I learned they had seven or more previous albums. But why didn't Tower Records have more than a few? Hence the introduction of the concept of "out of print." So while I continued to seek out music by bands I liked, I'd also take a chance on something that was more tenuously linked, but less likely to be found on the next trip to the store. Yes, even if the music was not necessarily as good. (Hell, I didn't always let bad reviews scare me off.)

As for male vs. female styles of collecting...

I think the emphasis on categorization and history isn't so much "male" as simply academic, like trying to master a subject. Some people think that's boring, but I was always fascinated by details, even, yes, the "unimportant minutiae." Because, taken together, all those little elements add up to something greater that enhances my understanding and appreciation of the music I listen to.

But I guess my approach to non-rock music is more "female," because I enjoy listening to those records but don't feel the desire to dig much deeper. Or maybe I already have too many damn musical styles I'm paying attention to.

Posted by: nstop on June 12, 2003 01:49 AM

I think I'm using "male" here slightly differently than you are and in a context where it does mean more "academic" and specifically mastering it.

And I didn't mean to imply that "female" meant not having a desire to "dig much deeper."

I think I was intentionally doing the thing where the psychological question is "do more males have the male way of looking at things or is it not actually gender-related?" Loaded question, I know. Heheh.

Most people I know do both to different degrees... Like they even have the shit albums by the bands they like because they simply want a complete set, sometimes including the sideprojects, etc. and sometimes tangential labelmates or sideproject bandmates, etc., etc.

Posted by: martin on June 12, 2003 09:19 PM

In his errors a man is true to type. Observe the errors and you will know the man.

Posted by: La Battaglia Juliana on May 19, 2004 07:33 PM

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