In case the next decade goes all 2012 on our asses: part one

Not licensed pharmacists

Lately, every music writer from scores of media sources has been talking until they’re breathless about four small words that take on stratospheric proportions in some peoples’ minds: Best. Of. The. Decade.  And it would be very easy, rather enticingly so, to peruse through my iTunes library, pick out my favorite albums, and chime in from my tiny soapbox.

Some music outlets have presented trends of the past decade, like technologies that have revolutionized the way casual and devout fans attach themselves to artists. There’s a lot to discuss in that arena. That’s evidenced in the fact that I couldn’t get through my first paragraph without mentioning iTunes.

Frankly, I don’t have the time to offer a thoughtful essay on every topic pertinent to musical sounds and shifts of the decade even though I could, as could many other scholars and shills, some in much better form than me. For that reason, a list seems to be an easy format. Bullet points without the jumbled snarl of footnotes and rebuttals to encumber them would certainly cater to my already hectic holiday schedule. Basketball and football, in the same months! It’s madness! But another unexpected hurtle that I came across as I started to explore this buzzing, rich area of discourse is that there’s truly so much to say about music from this decade. You could jot down a handful of items, but if you’re paying any attention at all, you’ll probably have way more to add. Then by the time you get up to help yourself to a beer, you’ve composed something that looks like your notes from your ancient Chinese history lecture.

I don’t want to subject anyone to my horrendous written take on Lao Tzu and the Bronze Age. Instead of an outline, I’ll offer some thoughts on certain ideas that got a lot of mileage in the aughts, if only because of their absence. Plus, I still plan to pay some respect to a few of my favorite songs and artists from the last nine years. This is a music blog, after all.

Where Have All the Labels Gone?

When I saw Ted Leo and the Pharmacists at the Great American Music Hall, they headlined at a Lookout Records showcase. It was, to use the parlance of the time, the shit. Representatives from the label passed out bright yellow bags full of bumper stickers, fliers, a still-handy tape cutter for CDs, and two compilation albums on which to test the handy cutter. One woman working a booth sized me up, proclaimed “You look like a teacher,” and gave me a shirt that bore the assertion that Corporate Radio Still Sucks. The label celebrated the people at the concert as much as everyone in the audience cheered in response to the bands. I proudly pulled my new shirt over the dress I was wearing and moved right to the foot of the stage. I never do that, even though it’s just about impossible for me to see anything if I don’t position myself there.

It helped that the main act’s set was one of the most exciting concerts at which I had ever been present. Bay Area bands such as the Oranges Band and Communiqué opened with gusto. Then Ted Leo proved why critics refer to him as the hardest working man in indie rock. He beat the top of his skull with a tambourine during “The Ballad of the Sin Eater.” He erupted into falsetto as exuberantly as most people tear into bags of Doritos. He made the music hall full of calculatingly decorated San Francisco cool kids shake it like preschoolers.

Some things haven’t changed since that 2003 show. Corporate radio is still alive, albeit barely, and sucking just as much as ever. Ted Leo tours as rigorously as he did at the start of the aughts. This December, he’ll follow a sold-out show at the Bowery in New York City with stops in Spain and the UK.

But time hasn’t been as benevolent towards other things from that night. That T-shirt is long gone, probably a casualty of a hasty trip to Goodwill or car theft. Sadly, Lookout Records hasn’t weathered the decade well either. Last April, the head of Little Type Mailorder, the label’s online sales distributor, passed away. All sales through the Lookout website have ceased. But that was the most recent episode in a series of bad luck. There was the notorious reverse-no-backsies move by Green Day in 2005 when the band pulled their EPs and two full-length albums off the Lookout catalog. Operation Ivy did the same in 2006.

While those losses took place, the role and relevance of all record labels were put into a tailspin as file-sharing made it easy for listeners to discard careful studies of a label’s offerings in favor of cherry-picking singles. It’s tempting to latch onto the image of some tightly-suited fat cat in a corporate high-rise office pounding a meaty fist onto his desk as he curses all the kids with their computers and decides which person’s dream to exploit next. It’s difficult to remember the point when a record label served as a base, how the label helped navigate listeners through various artists’ work before Amazon or Pandora or iLike took the reins. No one should forget the contributions to modern music culture of such labels as Kill Rock Stars, Matador, Merge, and the recently beleaguered Touch and Go, who released Ted Leo’s last record.

You can’t disparage the ease of access not only to music, but to information about the music that interests you. Maybe it’s in that electrically charged space that ushers interest into the world, the distance between the short girl in the front row and the band on the stage making her dance, where both big and small labels should be paying the most attention.

  • “Timorous Me” ~ Ted Leo and the Pharmacists ~ The Tyranny of Distance ~ Lookout

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