Everything new is old again

levon helm in central park, originally uploaded by daniel arnold!.

One of things I find most valuable and satisfying about blogging is throwing together some half-baked thoughts on whatever is on my mind, and then watching as people come in to elaborate, to affirm or to disagree, and most importantly to make trivial musings seem relevant…

Witness my recent blatherings on the dissolution of the music industry, which attracted a number of thoughtful comments, including this one from Richard:

I had a shock today that brought the digital revolution home. We went down to A&B Sound here in Victoria, the goto place for vinyl in 1971, cassettes in the 80’s and CD’s ever since they hit that affordable price point in 199- something.

The whole second floor full of treasures is closed. They’ve shoe horned stock into part of the main floor, but it looks depressingly like HMV in terms of selection.

We were looking for Dirt farmer by Levon Helm but no luck and no special orders either. This is sad, they always had more stock and knowledge than anyone else.

It’s how the sharp end of bittorrent and amazon.com look on the street.

There are a lot of sad stories in the broken businesses and broken dreams at the bottom of the distribution chain, and it’s not just digitization but consolidation that’s to blame — I worked for a smart but struggling independent bookstore as it dwindled out of existence in the mid-nineties, and shudder with empathy at the empty shelves and the haunted, desperate looks of retailers that flavours a lot of culture shopping these days.

Richard’s specific example is provocative for me. One of my all-time favorite music books is Levon Helm’s This Wheel’s On Fire, it really is a wonderful read that covers huge swaths of American cultural and musical history. The book is perhaps best-known for its harsh portrayal of Robbie Robertson, who among other things is accused of conspiring with various music business scumbags to rip off the other Band members of songwriting credits and royalties, cutting them off from the money generated by their records. (If this is true, it makes a lot of sense that Robertson is now primarily occupied as a record company executive himself.)

Whether or not you believe Helm’s account, the old media narrative of musicians and money is depressingly familiar. What makes the story of Levon Helm a little more interesting is recent history, and how well he seems to have adapted to the new reality. His main source of income derives from regular Midnight Rambles, which are intimate gatherings mixing spontaneous music and potluck dinners hosted at his home/studio in Woodstock, NY. He’s also got a pretty decent website selling wares in various formats. From the press interviews I’ve read, Helm says this DIY approach is the first to provide him with a steady living in years.

As an aside, the fact that this record store couldn’t even bring Dirt Farmer in on a special order suggests a certain cluelessness. A quick Google search brought up links to both direct orders and Amazon — even with a 40% markup the clerk should have been able to say, “we can bring it in for 20 bucks,” which I suspect Richard would have accepted.

And yes, it looks like you can snag Dirt Farmer on BitTorrent networks (I searched but didn’t download), or get most of it track-by-track via the Skreemr method I outlined in my previous post. It sounds like a pretty good record, I have a lot of affection for Levon and I might buy it… too bad it isn’t on vinyl, I would order it via our (seemingly thriving) neighborhood record store.

Here are a couple teasers from Levon’s new record:

@import url(http://skreemr.com/styles/embed.css);

Levon Helm – Feelin’ good
Found at skreemr.com
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Levon Helm – False Hearted Lover Blues
Found at skreemr.com

Levon sounds downright amazing for a 67 year old guy who fought through throat cancer not so long ago.

It occurs to me that based on recent posts Abject Learning is in danger of morphing into a music blog. Suits me…

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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3 Responses to Everything new is old again

  1. Gardner says:

    No complaints here, either.

    Levon rocks. I really do need to read this book. His commentary on “The Last Waltz” DVD was just great. And levon us not forget his masterful supporting performance in the immortal “The Right Stuff.”

  2. Brian says:

    Wow, based on how how he describes The Last Waltz in his book, I’m surprised he contributed to the DVD. He was pretty bitter about how it was made, and suggested it was used to as something of a diversion to trick the group into signing shady contracts…

    He was great in The Right Stuff (I especially liked his narration), and a good actor elsewhere. He even had a pretty decent turn on SCTV: https://youtube.com/watch?v=8I_HtqAQAjo

  3. Duncan says:

    The goto place for vinyl in Victoria is now Ditch Records, one of the finest music shops in western Canada. It’s on Johnson St, just off of Douglas. I was there last weekend and was forced (I had no choice!) to buy five records.

    In Levon Helm news, he was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday. Worth checking out:

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