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Tuesday, Jan 10, 2006

I’m always surprised at those restaurants and barber shops and doctors’ offices that have coat racks where you are expected to hang your jacket, far away from where you will actually be sitting and with no one in charge of keeping an eye on it. The coat-check scheme extorts a tip for precisely that sort of protection, but these untended coat racks and closets harken to a past era, quaint and small-townish, when the public trust was such that one would’t hesitate to hang your jacket properly and politely in its given place, as though you had gone to visit one of your friends’ homes when you went to the Glendale Diner or the Country Place tavern. I don’t use them, but I’m touched by them and their promise of universal trust. Public space could once be designed with such honor-system practices in place to provide social order; it is implicit in the way things were laid out and in the infrastructure of shared terrain, and one still encounters the traces of that regime in those regions that have remain uncorporatized. Nevertheless we bring the distrusting mentality brought on by corporate/anonymous space with us: You’ll find me huddled in my parka in the restaurant, trying not to spill more coffee on it. Or I’ll be putting my coat on in the narrow aisle and brushing the arms of it against unsuspecting patrons as they are trying to drink theirs.


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Tuesday, Jan 10, 2006

Craigslist is a strange information ecosystem: it’s a place where strangers reach out to one another to offer free washing machines or spare rooms or anal sex. I don’t look at it very often, but I am always fascinated by the stuff people are giving away for free, and the stipulations they sometimes put on it (must be a mother in need; must provide transportation; must take all of the issues in my Maxim collection). The stipulations are just a further development of the impulse that drives one to list something to give away rather than simply putting it in the trash. Because one bought something in the first place, one invests it with value that one then hates to see wasted or destroyed. “If I bought it, it must be worth something”—the objects take on ego value, and throwing the stuff away would be like killing a part of yourself. But on the other hand, purging ourselves of unnecessary things is one of the great joys of living in an affluent, materialistic society, almost as pleasurable as acquiring luxury goods in the first place. Perhaps it’s generational and geographical to a degree (tiny NYC apartments), but most everyone I know longs to get rid of stuff, to streamline their lives, to get rid of the consumerist barnacles that have attached to their lives so as to better use the things that are “really essential.” Thus we become preoccupied with the cyclical waxing and waning of our possessions, and we try to recruit others to share our primary fascination with our collection of junk by offering them some of it for free.


Of course if one has more time and energy, one can introduce market forces into the ebb and flow of one’s belongings by turning one’s life into a permanent yard sale, auctioning items perpetually on eBay (to some degree Craigslist’s evil cousin). This allows the market to affirm the value of the things you no longer want but once did, it puts a price tag on that memory and allows you to let go of the material thing to which that price is attached. Someone on eBay pays the ransom, and you’ve happily shed one more barnacle without having to feel like you were ever a sucker along the way, buying something you didn’t really need. The Craigslist giveaway earns you a different peace of mind, that you have somehow transcended money; you paid in the stuff you’ve shed for that feeling of being nonmaterialistic, outside economics. (But there is no “outside” of economics, as all behavior can be thought of in terms of incentives.)


The giveaways may also be an attempt to build community, to invoke an ethos of sharing in the face of the dominant ethos of hoarding and competitive acquisition. At some levels it may even turn into a potlatch of competitive giving—you’re giving a toaster away? Well, I’ll give a microwave. Giving something away can serve as a pretense for meeting someone, a good faith gesture that invites reciprocation, but that runs counter to the ideology that true friendship is gratutitous, coming with no strings attached. But still, it seems liberating to stop piling the mountain of goods between ourselves and other people and begin to dismantle it by giving that stuff away. Too bad it just piles up somewhere else.


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Monday, Jan 9, 2006

I’m not sure if I am the exception or the rule, but as I was organizing the music on my computer into some semblance of order, trying to sort it by decade (so I don’t have to scroll through 250 songs from the Complete Hank Williams and another 250 songs from the Roy Rogers collection or the Trojan reggae boxed sets every time I want to look for something to play), I realized that I don’t have any idea what any of the bands I have filed under “2000s rock” look like. For a moment I thought that maybe I was representative of the future, where free-flowing digitized music data signals the end of image-conscious pseudo-bands and the marketing of records by the amount of makeup the musicians wear. But then I returned to earth and realized that I’m almost certainly in the minority on this. I’d be happy if I never saw another semi-bearded 20-something holding a guitar ever again—if that’s what indie rockers even look like anymore—but many people consume the image along with the music and would feel gypped if all the bands became anonymous. And since I don’t go see rock shows, I have nothing invested in a band looking or acting interesting (hence I can listen to Wilco). But when I used to go out to see music, I used to be the first one complaining about the dismal lack of showmanship and charisma in most acts and yearn for Darkness-like spectacle and absurdity. I hated the idea of approachable, regular-guy rock stars and yearned for what I remembered from my youth, when rock stars equalled larger-than-life lunatics like Paul Stanley shouting his head off or Freddie Mercury in a spandex checkered bodysuit—in other words, people who could have no place in this world off of a stage. If rock stars seemed like someone who would hang out with me, then they were pretty lousy rock stars—the point is to live something extreme and decadent through them so you can go on with your ordinary, productive and comfort filled life. It means enjoying a vicarious evening of chaos so you don’t have to actually live in a filthy apartment with a dung-encrusted toilet and a carpet dense with cigarette ash and spilled beer, like the one the Brian Jonestown Massacre appeared to inhabit in Dig. The point is that pop music is an avenue for vicarious experience, and therefore the music is often secondary to the implied lifestyle of the “musicians” involved. So it makes no sense for me to pine for image-free rock, no matter how blinkered and band-blind my peculiar manner of acquiring music makes me. When you are no longer interested in the fantasies that go along with listening to pop, but you are still drawn to music, you probably at that point begin listening to virtuosic performances and classical music on NPR. Where does that leave me, then—what do I get out of these bands with no image cluttering my hard drive? Honestly, not much; I can barely tell them apart,a nd they leave no impression on me other than to remind me of bands I’ve already liked intensely in the past, reminding me to go back and listen to them—meaning digging through the piles of CDs collecting dust and ripping it afresh.


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Monday, Jan 9, 2006

After I do my yearly round-up of best music journalism, I always find out later on about material I missed out on.  Sometimes, it’s good that things were missed: as Bob O’Connor points out, Dan Aquilante of the New York Post has some howlers in terms of fact checking.  Sometimes, it’s bad that I missed some things: while Alex Ross was gratified that I picked some classical articles, he was a a little let down that I didn’t chose him or anyone else from the New Yorker.  It’s a shame because he happens to be one of my favorite writers.  Also, I feel bad for anyone who writes for my zine: for obvious reasons of nepotism, I can’t include their work for me on the list.


But if there’s anyone I really have to apologize to, it’s the writers we usually don’t think about.  After doing this list for four years, something occurred to me.  Almost all of the material I was finding came from only two countries: America and England.  One reason is obviously language barriers but that doesn’t help out Canadian or Australian writers who usually get overlooked also.  The fact of the matter is that even when journalism comes outside of the Anglo-America axis and is translated into English, it usually never makes it into our cultural dialog.  That’s a loss not just for some excellent writers around the world but also for all of us in the West who won’t get to see and absorb their fine work.


One impetus to this discovery came from writers that I’d been working with at my zine.  They come from Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Ireland, the Caribbean, the Netherlands, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.  They were all fine writers and deserved more recognition.  It just didn’t seem fair that they weren’t part of our cultural dialog because they didn’t happen to live in the ‘right’ country.


Sometimes complaining about a problem is a good impetus to get it solved.  If you’re brave or foolish enough, taking a further step to try to solve the problem is another option.  So, rather than just complaining about this, I want to try to do something.  Why not have an anthology of music journalism from around the world?  Since the U.S./U.K. is already badly over-represented in this realm, let’s hear from the great writers in other countries and learn from their perspective.  Let’s hear what they have to say.  I think we’ll all be the richer for expanding the horizon of conversation past the usual corridors.


As writer/editor/broadcaster Ed Ward warned me though, this is biting off a lot.  This is the kind of thing that would take years to do well (for now, I think it would be best to be open to time periods and genres covered, though I might have to narrow this later).  But if I learned one thing from doing reissues, these things do take time and a lot of patience is required- the DNA reissue alone was about five years in the making.  I’d been thinking about this for a while and just decided that there was no reason to put off doing it.  It’ll be a struggle for sure but in the end, I think it’ll be worth it (especially if I can convince a former Spin editor to be a collaborator).  In any case, I’m sure I’ll have some entertaining stories to report here about the process.  In the end, isn’t that the least we all can hope for?


This is just in the formative stages now but if you have suggestions or want to point out any good writers or articles that might be approrpriate for this, please let me know.


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Friday, Jan 6, 2006

Because we are not in the habit of haggling (a happenstance greatly advantageous to retailers), we have the tendency to think there is a sound objective reason that goods are priced the way they are, that there is some relation to what they cost to make and distribute. But that assumption, though comforting when we are the heat of acquistiveness, as it assures us that we aren’t being taken for a ride, is in the end extremely naive, as prices depend not on costs but on what the customer is willing to pay. Affluent customers, because they don’t need to count every penny of their disposible income and perhaps because they are most abstracted from the real cost of things, are easy targets for this kind of margin padding.


Tim Harford explores this phenomenon in regard to notorious price-inflaters Starbucks in this Slate article, which also features some helpful hints at how to get your coffee money’s worth. He points out that the “short cappuccino” is optimal milk to espresso beverage, but it is rarely advertised or even featured on the menu because it sells cheaper than the venti monstrosities the company earns most of its profits with. Harford attributes this to Starbucks aggressive pursuit of “price-blind customers,” the free-spending sybarites who have helped the company build its coffee empire. “The difficulty is that if some of your products are cheap, you may lose money from customers who would willingly have paid more. So, businesses try to discourage their more lavish customers from trading down by making their cheap products look or sound unattractive, or, in the case of Starbucks, making the cheap product invisible. The British supermarket Tesco has a ‘value’ line of products with infamously ugly packaging, not because good designers are unavailable but because the supermarket wants to scare away customers who would willingly spend more. ‘The bottom end of any market tends to get distorted,’ says McManus. “The more market power firms have, the less attractive they make the cheaper products.’ ” That means that as the mom-and-pop coffee shops are bullied out of business by Starbucks, Starbucks can make their cheap but better cappucinos more and more invisible to their own customers, steering them toward more wasteful product. And as supermarkets eliminate small groceries, they can make their generic brands seem like so many turds on the bottom shelf while encouraging shoppers to buy inflated brand-name goods.


This same principle extends into attempts to embarass customers for asking for cheaper goods or pursuing promised discounts or using coupons and so on. If clerks are slow in processing these promises, other customers will do the embarassing for them, growing impatient in lengthening lines as managers are summoned and register keys are futilely punched in searching for the means to actually take the 10 percent off as advertised.


The point is that retailers knowingly subdivide their customers into classes (and RFID tags should only make this easier) and they try to make their little class system meaningful to consumers with petty instances of preferential treatment that cost nothing when compared to the bigger profit margins they earn on these first-class dupes. They hope you’ll resent the other customers when you are forced to worry about what they’ll think when you complicate things at the checkout, rather than resenting the retailers themselves. But if the retailer is the only game in town, directing resentment at it won’t accompish much—that’s just one of the perks of monopoly.


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