Not Just the Ticket — #42, The Sugarcubes, April 24, 1992

The Sugarcubes, Wiltern

Then-current album: Stick Around for Joy

Opening act: Cracker

Back of ticket ad: And once again KLSX. I wonder if their programmers were dimly thinking “Wait, SHOULD we play that new Pearl Jam song?” around this time.

The sign of the times about this ticket hit me only after I took a second look at it — ‘A Non-Smoking Venue.’ Eighteen years really is a long time (and as someone who loved it so very, very much when the smoking ban kicked in at bars and clubs a few years later, I had to have highly appreciated that mention at the time, or at least went, “Oh good,” even though I’d already been there before a few times).

In the meantime, Iceland! Or a few people from there.

Talking about the Sugarcubes or Björk actually requires me going back in time a bit, since I’m pretty sure — maybe even entirely sure, the more I think about it — that the Sugarcubes were the first band I bought an album by strictly due to the power of the press, without hearing a note of their music. Until 1987 or 1988 or so, my exposure to music was strictly through the straightforward means of hearing a band or musician on the radio or seeing them perform on TV or seeing their video. So I already had some sort of incentive or means of judgment at hand — I didn’t buy albums willy-nilly, they were expensive, took up a lot of my allowance, though I did pick up twelve inch singles a little more regularly. All of which is tendentiously obvious to note but, again, consider how far along we’ve all now gone.

1988 was the breakthrough year of getting my first CD player and moving into the second phase of getting into music big time, while I started paying more attention the various magazines and things around. I forget exactly which issue of Rolling Stone it was, but there was a feature later in the year — I think shortly before I went to UCLA — on this band called the Sugarcubes, of which I knew nothing. I didn’t follow the UK press at all, I had never heard of them, I didn’t know anything about the connections to bands like Crass, the sonic similarities others had heard via the Fall and the Cocteau Twins (neither of whom I knew at all either). I just read this article and thought, “Huh, well, they’re featured in here, I guess that must mean they’re good, they sound kinda interesting.”

Simple enough, that process.

I remember scratching my head a lot at Life’s Too Good when I first listened to it — I was happy too, mind you, it had a lot of songs on the disc, something like five bonus tracks. (My blissful ignorance of things like compiling B-sides for reissues or overseas releases was also in full effect.) But it did click after a listen or two, songs like “Birthday,” like “Deus,” “Blue Eyed Pop,” more besides. Björk was a key reason — much more than Einar — but the music was good, strange, slippery, at once familiar and strange. It was, in retrospect, a very important peek into where things were going to go with me, but I didn’t treat or sense it as such, I just thought it was this fun album by a new band that had apparently come out of nowhere.

I never caught them on tour then — not unless you count their SNL live performance, which you shouldn’t, but you should count it as amazing TV — and Here Today Tomorrow Next Week honestly passed me by, I kept meaning to get it but I kept finding other new things I wanted to hear more. Meantime, the band kept cropping up in odd places for me — I took a class on Icelandic sagas at UCLA, taught by a great professor, Jesse Byock, who mentioned his frequent visits to the country for his research. A little curious, I mentioned the Sugarcubes to him at one point as this band I’d heard about and liked — his response: “Oh yeah, I know a few folks in the band, they’re friendly people!” Iceland really is that small.

The Sugarcubes then seemed to disappear for a bit in a welter of side-projects and one-offs — Björk notably turning up on vocals for 808 State, perhaps the clear move forward toward where her solo career would begin — but then in late 1991 interviews started happening and a new album was mentioned and Stick Around for Joy came out in early 1992 and I really like “Hit” a lot as well as “Gold” and “Chihuahua” and other songs and hey! I was all into them again. Not that I ever wasn’t but at the same time, I’d gone from just-on-the-verge-of-going-to-college to a-few-months-from-graduation and instant nostalgia or something like that. (Was it? Not sure.)

So ending up at the Wiltern for this show was something that wasn’t merely a good idea, it was a great idea — the word that this was their last album hadn’t been circulated yet (maybe it hadn’t even been decided on) and I was just up to catching show after show. 24 hours after the Wedding Present and the Poster Children I was up in the loge at the Wiltern about to see just what antics Einar would really get up to onstage, if any.

But first, Cracker. Arguably I could have switched out Camper Van Beethoven in a lot of my story and the question of time having passed and it would work just as well; I had first heard of them around the same time as I’d heard of the Sugarcubes thanks to them ending up on a major label with Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, though I ended up reasonably appreciating them more than outright loving them during those years. Then they broke up and that seemed to be that but then, thanks to timing and the accident of history or whatever it was, when David Lowery came back with his new band it was Alternative Nation Time! They were still a year plus away from “Low” being all over the radio but “Teenage Angst,” a well-timed choice of title if ever there was one, got plenty of airplay anyway. So they took the stage and…that’s about all I remember, really. They went over well, they played the hit that they had and there were cheers from various folks throughout. Never saw them again but they were there on tour and in the charts, kicking around for a lot of those years, so hey, more power to ya.

The Sugarcubes I remember rather the more clearly. In fact I have a distinct memory of some of the stage lights on the floor lighting up behind some of the musicians, partially because my angle in the loge meant I could see them go off and on pretty easily. Björk was in fine form, Einar was, well, Einar, they kicked it off with “Gold” and they were great. I feel glad to have caught them neither quite in swan song mode nor totally ‘the new thing’ — they were playing the biggest spots they ever would in America (when not opening for U2, admittedly), the crowd was plenty passionate and everything seems celebratory in the mind’s eye, a sense of ‘hey, they’re back and it’s fun! and Einar’s still crazy!’

I don’t recall him completely wigging out or anything, but I have a cryptic memory of some sort of flailing dance or the like while Björk mostly chilled or grooved. This seems appropriate. Besides most of the new album and a slew of the older songs, the one song that I definitely recall was the final one of the encore, something that remains one of my favorite one-off moments on a stage.

I don’t know how he was introduced, but either Björk or Einar said a brief something about him and then lo and behold, the mighty El Vez appeared in all his finery, accompanied by two lovely ladies in equally swank gear. I had never seen the good man perform but I certainly knew who he was and I was amazed — even more so when it came to the song that they did, “Blue Eyed Pop.” Hearing the Sugarcubes do that wonderful, very danceable bit of slithery pop/funk/whatever you want to call it while El Vez did various mariachi vocal yodels felt just superb.

They couldn’t top that, so they didn’t, and that was the end of the show. Never have seen Björk since then all that time back, though I’m an irregular enough follower of her music. It’s a good memory to have, an icon pre-solo icon, having fun on stage with Elvis’s greatest fan and a guy who inspired Michael Myers to create Sprockets. Good times.

Some March and April 2010 AMG reviews

Another overall batch to link to here:

Not Just the Ticket — #41, The Wedding Present, April 23 1992

The Wedding Present, Whisky

Then-current album: Seamonsters/Hit Parade 1

Opening act: Poster Children

Back of ticket ad: trying to imagine the alternate world were KLSX would have played the Wedding Present is rather hard to do.

And back after some time off for EMP and recuperation thereafter and general work stuff and and and. I actually think I needed the extended break a bit!

Meanwhile, the Weddoes. Was there ever a band so hated by its target press audience?

Which sounds extreme. But at the time, reading through the various mentions in Melody Maker, it seemed that nobody there liked the Wedding Present. NOBODY. Not a goddamn soul, except for Dave Jennings, who I think wrote in a cover story about them in early 1992 about how he seemed like he was alone against a horde. David Gedge and company had then just started their own version of a blog project, one single for every month of the year, an original on the A-side and a cover on the flip. They were just a couple of years shy of having been around for a decade’s worth of recording and everyone’s reaction to them at that point in the press seemed to be a combination of frustration, annoyance and ‘oh god why are you doing that and why are you even trying.’ It was an interesting lesson in…I hate to say groupthink, but even so.

Even Everett True’s review of the first Hit Parade collection that appeared later in June, drawing together the first set of singles, was ambivalent at best, though it seemed like he was mostly annoyed with the band sounding like…well, themselves. Which is kinda weird. But a slightly more telling note could be found in the fact that he also grudgingly admitted that the band had been astoundingly ahead of the curve at one point — when they first worked with Steve Albini a couple of years previously on the Brassneck EP, they’d recorded a song that their then-guitarist Peter Solowka had brought to them via an obscure EP he’d picked up. The result: a cover of “Box Elder MO,” one of the earliest songs by Pavement, well before their own sudden explosion into popularity in 1992.

Writing about this now, in a year where there’s the Pavement reunion and the Wedding Present touring America doing the album-straight-through tour gambit (in this case Bizarro), makes everything feel timely enough, I suppose, but I’m placing myself back a bit more in time thinking about how I heard about the Wedding Present and early impressions and context, if any. Nothing sticks, to be honest — there had to have been a ‘oh that’s a pretty cool name’ reaction on my part somewhere (and it is a cool name, still is — it suggests something very un-rock, still), and somehow I pieced together a sense about how they were this really fast (a lot of the time) and very prolific band and they seemed to have a ton of releases and so forth. Also, that the lead singer had a pretty gruff voice.

Where I think something clicked had to do with a review at KLA by my friend Eric J. — who I’ve mentioned before, and who I should say is the mighty Eric J. Lawrence, KCRW stalwart for many years now. Eric had worked a music director and manager and the like at KLA — I think he was the general manager that year, pretty sure — and he had a very good gift for reviews for fellow DJs to refer to. I remember he was the guy who called all our of attention to Ween when their first album came out, he had figured out early on that Blur were going to thrive beyond the demi-baggy/shoegaze associations they were first associated with, and in the thick of Nirvana’s impact he wrote up a review on our copy of the American release of Seamonsters, also produced by Albini, basically saying that this had all that Nevermind could offer sonically, but better. So that definitely caught my eye, by default.

Seamonsters ended up being one of my favorite albums of the whole decade — I haven’t listened to it in about a decade, unsurprisingly, but I locked into it early and often (and it’s one reason why the current tour isn’t totally firing me up — above and beyond my whole problem with the tour-an-album conceit, it’s not the album I like best anyway!). But as with so many of the shows at that time, it wasn’t a case of breathless anticipation, more like “Well here we go!” and off we went — and that feeling was further heightened by the fact that this was one of three shows in a row I was attending that week. More than anything I’m sure I was questioning my stamina (but only slightly — when you’re 21, this is not something you spend that much reflection on).

So the Whisky once more, and once more I’m not sure who I was with but two to one says that Eric had to be among that number. I do know that when we came in another band who I had just gotten to know about, and who also had an Albini connection, was kicking up things entertainingly on stage. The Poster Children also became definite favorites of mine throughout the rest of the decade, not least because, like the computer geeks they so happily identified themselves as, they took to the Internet early, had tour diaries and fan comments and more going through their websites, designed their own various games and programs and basically held true to themselves as much as they could during their stint on a major label.

Of course, nobility in purpose isn’t always the sign of good music (would that it were so), but that wasn’t a worry here, and more than anything I remember bright lights, big smiles and just having a blast. They were there to entertain us, themselves, whoever was around, and they were doing so with their own alternately thick-and-blasting and crisp-and-spiky and more arrangements (more often than not in the space of any one individual song) — still kills me that they weren’t more famous in the end, they were too good for the world, I suppose, and it wasn’t because they didn’t try to break through. They did, they just didn’t want to sell their souls while they were at it. (And they’re still kicking around doing what they do — really, go say hi.)

The Wedding Present’s main set is even more dim in the memory, I know it happened but I don’t remember much about it at all aside from where I was in the audience facing the stage…not quite dead center twenty feet away, but not that far removed from that spot either. I seem to remember Gedge was off to my left a bit. Pretty positive they started with “Dalliance,” could be wrong, but if they did it’s a hell of an opener — it starts Seamonsters on a dramatic, angry note and would have started the show similarly, a rough burn of a song.

And from there into various things, “Brassneck” was played, “Kennedy,” more from Seamonsters, they had to have dipped into at least some of the new singles, possibly “California” even though it hadn’t been released yet just because, well, it was called “California” after all. I do remember one thing that didn’t surprise me but that did make me happy — Gedge announcing before the final song something like “Just a quick note, as some of you know — we don’t do encores.” I’d heard about this before and frankly was already plenty tired of the ‘leave-then-come-back’ rote response of encores in general at shows — I’m even more tired of it now. So seeing a band happily trash this was completely fine by me.

Of course, I’m sure hoping they still don’t do encores — that would be a bad thing to backtrack on.

Italian lettuce soup

Italian lettuce soup

Or so it is said. Whether or not this really is such a recipe from Italy — and I like to think it is — it was very tasty and just what I needed, a soothing soup given my nagging cough/chest cold or whatever it is, but one that was light rather than heavy now that the weather is starting to turn some more. The recipe can be found tons of different places; this one is the one I went with.

Gardening update from last Friday

A couple of weeks along and things are coming along well — when I arrived with Y and her kids, I recorded this video:

Then some work was done, followed by some new photos, including:

The rose bushes


A rose

Artichokes and roses

And final thoughts on the EMP Pop Conference 2010

Because, without wanting to sound impatient or ungrateful, it really is time to look ahead to other things! Seeing what so many fellow attendees have been doing via their Twitter feeds makes me feel a bit slack in comparison. Then again, the one truly bad thing about the conference this year was whoever inadvertantly brought the bug that went around — I know at least three other people who got hit with it, and personally I’ve had a fairly blah week dealing with a combination of laryngitis and chest cold and more besides — so I’m not going to let myself feel pressured to do too much when I’d rather just take it easy!

First off, though, two obvious things to note — first, to give thanks to everyone involved, especially Eric and Ann, the eternal prime movers. Second, here’s the updated notes I took from the presentations, with formatting fixed, links added and other additions and tweaking done to make everything more of an overall useful archive:

All further thoughts and observations welcomed!

I think the prime feeling I had as the weekend went on was of a sense of closure, largely due to the fact that the conference will, for the first time next year, not be held in Seattle — while the EMP will be the prime sponsor still of the whole thing, next year’s Pop Conference is due to be held at UCLA, the following year’s at NYU, and then back to Seattle in three years’ time. Admittedly on a purely selfish level I’m more than happy with next year’s conference being held just an hour away by car — easier to get to and to return from, for a start! But having grown used to spending a few days in mid-April in Seattle catching up with many people, above all else being my good friend Mackro, it’s going to seem strange not to go there next time around. Seattle is and remains a wonderful city and I look forward to my next visit, whenever it is (and which will definitely be sooner than three years from now!), and in a weird way not having the conference to take up much of my time next time through can mean a more leisurely trip anchored around enjoying the city as it is.

For that reason, building off my previous post, it wasn’t merely a thrill to get to present at this year’s conference, but also a sense that I got to do in its home, for lack of a better term. This observed, there is much about the EMP as a venue that’s both a joy and — I think many people would agree with me here — a frustration. I say this not to be ungrateful but simply because there’s no such thing as perfection. I remember the first year I did obsessive blogging on the conference I discovered that, whether due to the building’s construction or the quality of the network at the time, it was nearly impossible to access the AT&T network at many points in the building itself, while the EMP’s own guest wi-fi program didn’t work for me at all. It’s never been a problem since, so it’s not like things are static, but it’s an instance of how sometimes the best of intentions can be tripped up by reality. Still, it is now very familiar to me as a venue through and through — I was almost scared how quickly I remembered where everything was — and not having that at UCLA beyond the hazy outlines of my undergrad days will be an initial challenge.

Meantime, there’s always the fact that one can’t see every panel that looks interesting, just due to the logistics of the conference — this will likely never change, and there are always regrets. For me, not being able to see Christine Balance and Alexandra Vazquez present was the result a simple enough situation — they were presenting at the same time I was, so I could hardly duck out and see them! But there were many other presentations that caught the eye and as always one must choose as one can.

In a discussion on Sunday at lunch after the conference wrapped up, a local friend, Robert, mentioned that to him the conference, while still jam packed with many excellent ideas and presentations, had been less inspiring in terms of chasing down new songs and new groups this year in comparison to previous years. He enjoyed it as per usual but I could see how he thought that, though I found the balance towards larger ideas, or repurposing of familiar figures and songs to new ends, to be a good tradeoff. At the same time, everyone’s conference is different in the end, based on what one sees, and I learned more about a variety of figures than some but certainly less than others.

There was one thing that was definitely different for me this year, though, and that was a lack of mental exhaustion, for lack of a better term. I think this can be taken two ways — on the one hand, so many of the previous conferences had been in serious intellectual overdrive that one’s head could spin, where I felt a day or two was needed simply to digest every observation that came along. On the other hand, it wasn’t that this conference was no less creative and whip-smart with ideas, but I felt better able to ride the flow of this one in all, perhaps helped by a sense of familiarity with many presenters and what they would cover. As ever I did my best to balance that out with unfamiliar names and topics where possible — there is no point is simply relying on the tried and true, as where else would one get surprises? — but things seemed to move very well and then ease down just so into the final night and following morning. (That get-together at the Solo Bar was actually a really great Saturday night all around, social but not hectic!)

If there’s a constant question, it was one that I’ve seen a number of Seattlites say before and which some said again — “Where’s everyone else in this town?” It wasn’t that there weren’t local attendees at the conference, but they always seem to be fewer and far between in comparison to the rest of us swinging into town. I’m hoping that the pattern won’t repeat at UCLA, if only because I could imagine any number of people wanting to make use of the resource that is the conference who haven’t been able to make it to Seattle themselves yet.

But all this said and done — as ever, just a blast to see and chat with so many people again, and to finally meet others at long last like Chuck Eddy. Renewing friendships face to face is always a key joy no matter the context and without wishing to sound either soppy or overly tribal there is definitely a sense at the conference that I’m among ‘my’ peers to a large degree, at least in the arena I’m most well known for. At this point I have memories of everything from chatting with Ann and Evie and others at the Rendezvous bar in downtown well after midnight about family and luck to chilling over margaritas with Mackro and Andy and Lisa Jane on an easy afternoon, and much more. The notes I took and the papers and articles I may yet read that came out of this all have their place, but those are the images that’ll stick with me the most.

Roll on next year! Now if I can just get this darn bug I have to give up the ghost and go away. Anyway, more garden, food and of course Not Just the Ticket stuff soon to come…

Video and text of my EMP Pop Conference 2010 presentation, “The Listener as Electronic Librarian”

Hi there!

And why not a glamour shot, as such?

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere (and probably bored a lot of people to death about), going to the EMP Pop Conference each year is a treat in and of itself — meeting up with old friends, making new ones, getting to see my good friend Mackro and more besides. But I admit that I really, really wanted to present at one of them as well — and I’ve tried, several times! So getting the nod this year was both a thrill and a bit of wish fulfillment. (And I should say again, of course, much thanks to the committee for accepting my pitch!)

I also admit I hoped I would have a good crowd at my panel — why not a full audience, after all? And I say this having covered panels and presentations where the audience members can be counted on two hands — that happened with more than a few presentations I saw this year, while I missed others with that amount that sounded amazing. So on that front we lucked out — looked like every seat was full, plus other folks standing or sitting around the edges of the Learning Labs. I’m under no illusions why our panel’s audience was so packed — our anchor presenters, Douglas Wolk and Tim Quirk, are longtime veterans of the Conference, each having presented some of the most well-received entries in past years — and Nick Minichino and I both felt like the party crashers, especially when Conference cofounder Eric Weisbard ended up moderating the panel after Tim Lawrence was unfortunately stuck in London given the volcano ash problems affecting Europe. But we did our best!

I feel in reviewing the video that my nerves do show — I think I rushed the delivery a bit, and more than once use the podium less as a place to rest my hands and more to give me something to grip on to. That said what could have been the most nervous moment — Douglas’s revelation that the story I was citing him about turned out to be one he made up, as he hilariously stage-whispered — was actually one of the most hilarious and memorable, and I loved it. You can’t plan stuff like that! I also enjoyed the question and answer session later in the panel — a few questions were directed to me specifically and allowed me to touch on some things I couldn’t have included in the presentation as it stood. (Tim also offered a good thought on Gracenote in response to my mention of it before beginning his own presentation, which I should have written down somewhere!)

I kindly received many specific compliments after the panel concluded, both in person and via other comments elsewhere, and I do thank everyone for them. But the best compliments were that the panel as a whole was strong, and I had to agree — I think there were a lot of interrelated issues much on everyone’s mind. Chris Estey’s blog coverage for KEXP on the day (scroll ahead to the TMI panel coverage), while focusing on Douglas’s and Tim’s presentations for the first two paragraphs, explores a bit of that tension in the third paragraph; there are other angles that could be mentioned. Chuck Eddy in his question brought up the issue — in response to my own rather suspicious (or to use Chuck’s word, cynical) take on the Eichler piece in my presentation — that there is something potentially lost if access is indeed too easy and too immediate, that music really simply might not mean as much. I’ve heard variations of this thought from other writers and musicians I know and respect, and while I disagree with it, it’s something worth engaging with more.

Which is good because my piece is meant to open up conversations and suggest ideas. It was an interesting exercise all in all, and I’d like to think of it as an ‘of its time’ piece, something that may well be severely outdated sooner than I think — then again, perhaps not. I don’t claim any deep revelations, but hopefully there is something here of interest for the general reader as well as those whose interests cover music, information science or the two in concert.

I should also say that many people offered up thoughts and ideas that ended up in the paper, among others, I have to thank jaymc and dad a on ILM and Maura J. in particular, while various fellow UCI library employees (most of whom were actual librarians!) as well as Prof. Stephen Franklin from the campus’s ICS department heard me present an earlier version of the paper; their critiques and suggestions were invaluable. Finally, of course, I wouldn’t have a video record of the presentation were it not for the kindness of the inestimable Jacki M.

The text follows the video clips; as per YouTube’s usual practice, the presentation was split to allow each clip to go under the ten minute limit. All feedback happily welcomed, and thanks for checking it out! Final overall EMP 2010 thoughts to be posted tomorrow.

In a discussion on the Internet site I Love Music, or ILM for short, one participant recently asked his fellow board members for assistance with an Erykah Badu song title:

“so what is jump up in the air actually called:
“jump up in the air and stay there”
“jump up in the air (and stay there)”
“jump up in the air (stay there)””

He followed up that request with a further comment:

“it’s when i ask questions like those that i reflect on how last.fm has ruined my life”

His request and comment is a perfect summary of the kind of position that we, collectively if conditionally, now find ourselves in. We are a group shaped by access to technology and the time and interest spent on those things we consider most dear. We possess the knowledge – conscious or implied – that we are no longer simply listeners of music, or even consumers of it in a previously understood sense. Using technological resources only recently developed, we are collators of information, we are identifiers of sound, we are resources of reference.

In a recent piece for Paste magazine, “Listening to My Life: Lost in the Shuffle,” Maura Johnston pointed to this state with her characteristically well-observed ambivalence:

“…as much as I’ve become used to clicking through my library over the past few months, this transformation of music into something post-physical freaks me out. There was value in music having a physical presence—even those records that you’d only pull out for very specific reasons reminded you of their existence during a routine house-cleaning. Now it’s easy for songs to get lost in the shuffle. The labeling can be faulty; the artist’s name could be in a weird nether-region of the library that you never scroll through.”

As did the ILM user, Johnston touches on the issue of correct naming, to which I will return. Yet even more telling is her use of a common word twice within the course of the paragraph, a word that appears at the top of the lefthand column in every standard iTunes window. She speaks of her collection not as a collection, but as her library. And as she has her library, she has her self-chosen role as the curator of that collection – as the librarian.

We are all librarians now. It does not matter if we have a formal degree, we nonetheless are librarians, electronic librarians, or to use a more current term for the field, we are all information scientists in an online world. As noted, this state is conditional – it is based on everything from access to cheap energy and technology to the availability of information infrastructure to the economics of personal time, it seems permanent without actually being permanent. Yet here we are, in a world where those born at the start of this millennium will never have not known Google, iTunes, YouTube, Twitter. The names of these companies and products are not as important as the assumptions and the tools they provide, everything they encompass, the new baselines of experiences that have been created.

It is hardly something new that we are librarians or experts on collections in general – the physical objects generated which captured performances, from the original wax cylinders forward, were over time seen less as novelty, more as something that could possess a longer-term value. If you wanted to know what it was that you had heard and wanted to return to it, you had to organize and be able to search for it. But it is important to note that the original time of this historical moment itself saw the codification of the home book library as a key status symbol – something that a middle-class household had to possess. It is one of the greatest legacies of the European Victorian age, and remains a powerful one to this day – think of the lingering appeal via advertisements that some in my age group or older may remember about needing to have a good set of encyclopedias at home, reference books, great novels.

The development of recorded audio provided a new extension of the impulse. Using America alone as an example, within a few decades the idea of the quality record collection was commonplace, with labels and marketers attending to new canons, from the classical tradition to jazz to Broadway musicals and from there into the archives of rock, soul, funk, metal, dub, hip-hop, the list continues. The record shelves of my youth, filled with vinyl by my parents, was no less important a possession – a presumed necessity – than the books on the walls. By the time I started my own collection of CDs, I was working within a well understood approach – and the groundwork was already being created for the upending of it all via the Internet and modern computing.

For myself, I’ve found riding this wave to be absolutely fascinating, worth the trip, but this is far from a universal feeling. Johnston’s piece is one example of this ambivalence. In a piece last December in the Boston Globe, “Untouchable,” Jeremy Eichler vented more directly. At one point his complaint was familiar – and incomplete:

“For a real collector, the hunt to find an object can at once take on the dimensions of sport, art, and life’s quest. Even a casual music lover can appreciate the feeling of working hard to track down a particular recording, thumbing through the bins, or scouring the holdings of used-music stores.

“Today’s increasingly preferred mode of acquiring music – downloading – is a surreally effortless activity. A few clicks of the mouse, and, as if some cosmic spigot has been opened, the music pours onto your hard drive. If you are converting a large CD collection, there are services that will do the entire thing for you. It has become, in some senses, too easy.”

The language in this would require endless unpacking to be studied in thorough detail – starting with the third word, ‘real.’ But I instead call your attention to what is absent in this passage, and what has often been absent in similarly phrased stories over these last few years – the step before the search. What do his idealized real collector and his presumably deeply unreal computer user need before their searches? They need to know what they are looking for. How do they know what they are looking for? What information do they have to hand? How do they use that information? Is that information easily gathered? And is it accurate – and will it lead them to what they want to find, or hope they might find?

These are the questions that dominate the work of librarians, of information scientists. For some decades in this computer era a cliché has been, per Canadian writer Bruce Sterling’s endlessly referred-to (and nearly always redacted) phrase “Information wants to be free.” A more aspirational reworking would surely be “Information wants to be found.” We are here to talk about information that presumably wants to be found, the musical creation that its creators want people to hear. Per Dr. Seuss, if the Whos that lived on Horton the Elephant’s puffball had to shout “We are here!” as loud as they could to avoid being destroyed, the musicians of the world must shout all the louder – or, if not shout, at least find a way to see that others can find their way back to them. It is the eternal problem that any and all artists, have – to capture the attention. To be found.

In 1998 in the online journal Hermenaut, Chris Fujiwara’s essay “Disintermediated!” addressed what has proved to be a series of relevant issues for the current state of research in general, though his focus was literary rather than musical. To quote a concern that has essentially come true:

“Claims have been made that the Internet, with its potential to link together unlimited stocks of digitally represented knowledge, will disintermediate the library and the university, both subject to the fatal disadvantages of spatial location and world-time.”

What do people use to search for music in the present day? Do they use the Library of Congress, or their local libraries? These are options, but clearly not the most popular ones. Instead people can use retailers, sellers like Amazon and Apple, who employ their own staff to work with artists and labels to catalog material – but they are not the only sources. Not in the world of last.fm, of Wikipedia, of YouTube, of Discogs.com, of eternal Google queries. The contributors there may take their cues from those ‘formal’ sources, or be obsessive cataloguers themselves – or they may not be.

On ILM, the same poster whose quote was noted at the start of this presentation said elsewhere that a fellow poster had once observed “our brave new digital future sometimes feels a lot like unpaid data entry work.” It is work approached by each person as they choose to approach it, there is no formal ‘training’ in place, and there will likely never be.

What are the consequences of this? Consider where the potential for error can be introduced in this sequence of events: a song is released to the world, via a livestream, via a radio debut that’s immediately ripped, it does not matter. Is there a date of its uploading? Its recording? Is that provided? Should the artist provide it? Should the label, if the artist is signed? Is it a live version? Is it a demo version? A mixtape version? Are there guest artists? Are they new, do we know who they are? Is it definitely different from a formally released version? Will it ever be formally released?

For all that there are multiplicities at work, there’s also simplicities that can create massive consequences. Consider the story of Gracenote, formerly the Compact Disc Data Base or CDDB. This site has become the de facto 800 pound gorilla of digital music information, designed to collate and present correct mp3 ID tags, an automated process – a CD is read by a computer, it is matched with an entry at Gracenote and the information is sent back to one’s own computer. However, each individual disc must be entered into the system at some point – and often it’s down to whoever gets around to it first, one anonymous listener out of the entire world.

Consider how the potential for error has also appeared over time as first promo CDs and then mp3 promo releases are sent out to the world, quite often without a Gracenote entry or without the ID tags in the mp3s to identify the tracks. This leaves it to the music writer or the radio DJ or someone similar to do the work that arguably should have been done by the person or group releasing the album or song – as perhaps some of us have thought with a sigh, contemplating an unlisted thirty-track various artists compilation.

This question of error is therefore of paramount importance. If he’ll allow my indulgence in pointing it out, my fellow panelist Douglas Wolk has written on an example of this problem before for the July/August 2008 issue of The Believer – having acquired a copy of Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns’ Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu, he entered the data into iTunes and submitted it to Gracenote, as the site returned no match with the disc. At the time of writing, he had never found a copy of it since, and the tracklisting he submitted via iTunes has since been borrowed and reproduced many times – each time containing an error he had introduced to that track listing. The ‘real’ tracklisting has now been subsumed completely by the erroneous one.

Closer to home, back around 2000 or so my good friend Mackro and I completed something we had been working towards for years – a collation of the out of print EPs by the UK band Disco Inferno. As it happened, I was the person who submitted a tracklisting for this collation, titled The Five EPs, to Gracenote. In doing so, I made a noteworthy mistake – based on the order in which the song titles appeared, front and back, on the second EP’s CD cover, I assumed that the third song of the compilation was “From the Devil to the Deep Blue Sea” and the fourth was “A Rock to Cling To.” Over time, as copies of my CDR began to circulate widely, questions were raised about this, finally confirmed by Brian when he found a copy of the original vinyl single, but first indicated by the fact that what I thought was the song “From the Devil to the Deep Blue Sea” actually contained the lyric ‘a rock to cling to.’ I had switched the song titles. The error in identification can and still has cropped up over time, and even the just-announced formal release of this collection will likely not stop this error from recurring.

These kind of issues are not simply academic or of limited interest. Consider this section from a recent story in the LA Times about SoundExchange, the nonprofit organization created by Congress in 2001 to deliver royalty payments based on digital streaming online and elsewhere:

“…at any given time, about 25% of the money SoundExchange gets from online music services such as Pandora, XM Radio and Last.fm can’t be distributed because the artists can’t be tracked down, [noted] John Simson, SoundExchange’s executive director.

“The problem stems from what Simson calls “bad data.” Music services have been required by law since 2001 to send royalty payments to SoundExchange for the songs they stream online. But they often provide scant details. Stations routinely get promotional discs in the mail that aren’t properly labeled, so the performers often go uncredited. Other times, music services keep sloppy records of the songs they play. Some tunes, for example, are titled “Unknown” and performed by “Various Artists.”

“”We have this inside joke [said Simson] that if you want to make millions in the music business, just form a record label called Unknown and a band called Various Artists, and before you’ve even recorded a track, you can collect millions of dollars.””

This would only be amusing if there were not consequences – but given the history of the music business when it comes to an uncompensated artist, whose work provides a living for everyone else involved but the performer or songwriter him or herself, often it’s not funny in the slightest.

There are many signs that more is being demanded and expected, as the digital music world reaches a level of, to use a slightly loaded term, maturity. On the level of business alone, as just noted, compelling reasons are clear when it comes to providing correct information. Meanwhile, when web services like Shazam can analyze a song one hears and give you full information about it back, it seems a perfect solution exists – except that such a service, like Gracenote, relies on a database that by definition is never fixed nor universal.

That may well be the eternal stumbling block – the idea that there’s always going to be more information out there to catalog and describe, perhaps too much information at heart. There is always ‘more’ music, new, old, constantly produced, discovered, out in the world, being made for the world. More than one library professional I’ve spoken with has said, with a wry smile, that this current situation is a way for general members of the public to sense just what it is that goes into library work, that sense of commitment – of professionalism – that requires careful attention, accuracy, focus, and a similar realization that the work is never truly done. That it started before they were born – and will continue after they’re gone.

Keeping this in mind, I should say my discussion hasn’t really been about music. Not entirely. It never was. It never could be. It’s about those points I raised at the start – about access, about ability, about what could be found. Music is the reason we are here, it’s why I’m talking to you, it’s our particular realm. But we are not simply creatures responding to notes and nothing else.

So many of the positive dreams and clichés of futurist visions have come true, however haphazardly, however unexpectedly. The instant access to ‘everything’ via a device in your hand. That we have an imperfect world of inequity and injustice rather than a perfect one is just as much of a commonplace, and the real tragedy of time and existence. However much greater the opportunities, life daily reminds us of the losses, the limitations – that there is so much unfairness of things, enough to make you scream in anger at those who refuse to see it.

Then why, out of all the concerns one should be aware of in this world, why a call to be more self-conscious about ourselves as the electronic librarians, the archivists, the markers of ‘art’ as we define it? We all create more knowledge than may ever possibly be used by any one person, and yet it is there now. We provide the help to the person in the first step in the search so they may progress to the second. We provide the tools for the future, the signposts, the way to get to that thing that was written, recorded, whatever, for someone to encounter, to consider, to be inspired by – and not simply musically.

That was always what a library did, what a librarian did. We all now have that role. And there is now so much more we can do, to contribute and to give back, each in our ways.

In doing this, we inspire the future by enabling the present. The rest will follow.

Thank you.

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