It’s an Ever-faster-moving, Information-brain-cluttering, Clean-off-our-desktops-in-favor-of the-cloud-inhabiting (we all know it…), Free-music-streaming, Thousands-of-songs-on-a-small iPod-or-mobile-phone-or-tiny-zip-drive, Cloud-platform-storing World.
And then there are 12-inch vinyl records that are bulky and expensive. Musicians making money from record sales is a thing of the past because people don’t buy music anymore. So why would any musician—especially an independent musician with little money and in her (questionably) right mind—ever consider releasing music in a format that is both expensive to make and which yields little to no return? I self-released my first solo record on 180-gram vinyl with full-color artwork 11 months ago. So far the net loss stands at about $1,300. And it was worth every penny.
Like hundreds of thousands of artists before me, I had a painful breakup that inspired music. As I looked for a record company and a producer to assist me in releasing this new music, I came upon two people who would play a crucial role. Christian Fulghum, an old friend and owner of a (then) prolific indie label in Seattle called Fin Records, and the producer Kramer (Mark Kramer of Low, Galaxie 500, Bongwater, Will Oldham, etc. fame). At our first business meeting, after Christian had already heard the music and agreed to finance and release it, I suggested a vinyl release (this was 2013, a bit pre-neo-vinyl explosion). He suggested starting with a digital download and a CD, and if people responded to the music (a.k.a. “bought it”), we could talk about pressing vinyl. It was just too expensive an endeavor for a first solo album. We proceeded to talk to artists about CD covers, finally choosing collage artist Tim Silbaugh of Swell Pictures Design. Christian loved the idea of Kramer producing the record.
Kramer and I met through an introductory email from a mutual friend and we began corresponding, immediately appreciating each other’s dry sarcasm, enthusiasm over music, and love for books. He also liked my music. Kramer lives in Florida and I reside in Seattle, so I knew one of us would have to travel. We scheduled a winter recording session, and so of course it made sense for me to go to Florida. I packed my sunscreen and guitar. (Little did I know it would be colder in northern Florida in January than it was in Seattle.)
Kramer and I set up residence in an empty house on the outskirts of St. Augustine, a soon-to-be home that my brother and sister-in-law had recently purchased but hadn’t furnished or lived in yet. Kramer and I spent our first day setting up the recording studio in a back bedroom, then purchased things like forks, plates, a cutting board, tea kettle, food… Through the week we spent all day and night working, but when he was fiddling with computers and all things techy, I sketched out my idea for the cover. I had clear imaginings of how the artwork should look, and I was excited to work with a visual artist who could make it a reality. There was a period of a few months between our two recording sessions when I oversaw the artwork with Tim in Seattle while plotting the next steps in the recording. When we returned to St. Augustine to finish up the record, I fine-tuned the artwork through phone calls and emails with Tim. Kramer and I mixed the music together and he mastered it for CD. All done. Not so fast. Nearly without warning, and due to the fact that no one was buying music, Fin Records folded up shop mere weeks before the scheduled release of Element 115 (Uup). I was left holding digital masters. The artwork hadn’t been paid for yet. I had a European CD tour booked but no CD, no record company, no tour support, and no money. I was heartbroken. A few days, several anxiety attacks, and many martinis later I had the audacity to decide to go on tour anyway, and reconsider my initial idea: vinyl.
Why vinyl? Commitment. In this mid-second decade of the 21st century, music is being taken for granted on a collective scale. An entire generation of music listeners will never pay for music, nor do they believe that they should. The long form music medium has taken a back seat to song culture, yet the average person only listens to a song for approximately 24 seconds before deciding if it’s worth their time to continue to listen. I ponder the substantive value of something that our capitalistic, corporate-model culture places on “free.” When we can listen to a whole song, or usually only 24 seconds of a song without paying for it, do we really value the music? I wonder if we listeners are as committed to music as we were pre-internet? I really like the internet, so these words are in no way a complaint or indictment, but merely observation.
As a child of the ’70s, I loooovvved records. While still in school and living at home, I worked at a small local record store lined wall-to-wall with vinyl records. My boss handed me my pay in cash on Fridays and I turned it right over to him in exchange for the records that I’d coveted through the week after wandering through the bins, plotting their entry into my library: older jazz releases, like Coltrane and Monk; rock records by Zappa, King Crimson, The Ramones, Led Zeppelin, and Kate Bush; my initiation to Philip Glass and Steve Reich… I remember that there were only about five or fewer new releases per month that were exciting to me.
I got home each Friday and immediately entered my bedroom, closed the door, and began the weekend ritual. I picked up the first new acquisition and peeled the cellophane off of the cover. I slid the record out of its sleeve and carefully moved it between my hands to feel the weight of it, always impressed if it wasn’t floppy. (At some point record companies invested less in the weight of the vinyl and they got floppy.) I smelled the record. I placed it on my turntable and cleaned it. I cleaned the stylus. I carefully placed the needle onto the vinyl. I moved across the room, took my place on the large pillows on the floor, and listened. I studied the artwork. Read the liner notes. Studied the musicians’ names and the studio it was recorded at. Read the lyrics. When Side A was over, I got up, flipped the record over, and sat back down. And listened to Side B. It was a chosen, collaborative world. It felt intimate. Most often I would give that entire record another listen before moving to the next one. I wanted to hear every detail of the music. I often copied the record on to a high fidelity—sometimes metal—cassette tape so I could play it in my car. I had three different styluses, and my records were color-coded. One stylus was for the garage sale records or ones that I played until scratches were audible. Another stylus was for the every day records in good condition. And the third stylus was for the Japanese pressings and rare items. (I think now they might call this behavior O.C.D.)
Listening to records was a commitment. That kind of intentional listening and studying music was life school. That same commitment transferred to my piano practice, my school studies, and relationship with people. When I became a composer, that skill, that ability to commit to and focus on, was an essential component of my work. As an educator, I often see a lack of commitment to music activities in my students. In fact, I see a lot of impatience when a piece of music isn’t learned immediately. I try to share my thoughts on how much time a piece of music can take to learn, and how to practice, and stay focused. Some get it. Many feel the need to move on to the next piece before nearly perfecting it—if it gets that far. Most of these students beat themselves up because it takes too long to understand a piece of music, and so therefore they must not be good at it. I don’t relate. I understand, but it’s just not how music ever was for me. Music represents a commitment to life. A deep understanding of something takes time. And the journey is fascinating.
So, after I stopped drinking those many martinis post-record label folding, I realized I needed money to get this record out in the way that I initially envisioned it. I could have released the record on the internet, but that just seemed to not honor the particular music I had made. This thought in no way diminishes the music that is self-released on the internet. It is a fantastic, accessible platform that enables musicians to share music. But I felt that by releasing this particular music– a song cycle– in the full-length vinyl medium, I was asking the listener to slow down and intentionally listen.
The internet, in addition to providing a sharing platform for music, also provides artists with a new way of generating income and startup money for their projects. I had already paid out of pocket for my own CDs through a manufacturing company so I could take CDs on that European tour (sans artwork). I came back to the States and created a crowdfunding campaign called “The Slow Listening Revolution” where I challenged fans and supporters to a slow attention listening commitment.
The crowdfunding campaign was successful, and I was able to pay Tim his initial bid and to re-format the artwork for vinyl. Kramer made minor adjustments to the master. I asked friends and acquaintances a lot of questions about the various logistics of making vinyl, learning many things including that more than 23 minutes of music per side diminishes sonic quality. And that 180-gram vinyl produces higher fidelity than a floppier product. (Speaking of fidelity, there are all sorts of other considerations and conversations worth having about the tastes and quality of sound between digital and vinyl. Maybe for another day…) My decision to produce a vinyl record was a manifestation of a dream. It was a tangible commitment to my own vision of this music. And I felt in control, somewhat, by asking the listener to slow down and take it in without distraction.
When several heavy boxes of records were delivered to my 600-square-foot apartment on a dolly, my racing heart nearly obstructed my voice instructing the delivery dude to place the boxes on a space of floor I had cleared for their hopefully short residence. I opened one box to find five smaller boxes arranged vertically. I took out one, grabbed scissors to break open the seal, and uncovered a stack of ten shrink-wrapped 12” vinyl records covered in bubble wrap. I picked up one and turned it over and over, marveling at the colors and the arrangement of images I had painstakingly obsessed over (even overwhelming poor Mr. Silbaugh, who I drove crazy). I do believe I may have jumped with joy. I unwrapped the cellophane. I slid the sleeve out from the envelope. I turned it over and over in my hands, marveling at the sleeve design and bright colors. I peeled the record out from the sleeve and felt the weight of the record. It didn’t flop. I read the details of the label: date, copyright, catalog number, song titles. I placed the record on the turntable. I cleaned the record. I cleaned the stylus. I carefully placed the stylus on the record. I moved across the room, sat down with the cover and the sleeve, and listened.
Gretta Harley is a composer, songwriter, and music educator raised in New York and living in Seattle since 1990. She co-wrote a rock music play called These Streets about women of the grunge era that played to sold out houses in Seattle in 2013 for which she earned a music award nomination, and was named “One of 50 Women Who Rock” by the Seattle Weekly. Last year she released her first solo album on her own label, Mettle Records. She is planning the second record of a trilogy with producer Kramer.