I’ve had a subscription to Magnet for a long time. Over the years, I’ve also subscribed to Option, Rolling Stone, SPIN, Volume, CMJ, Alternative Press, The Big Takeover, Raygun and a few others that slip my mind at the moment. The only two I still get at home are RS and Magnet. Like the sampler, Magnet also is beginning to outlive its usefulness, thanks to the Internet. But I’ll keep my subscription as long as they keep printing it…
Column 181: Audio Polarity
Remembering the glory days of the Magnet sampler.
It’s been a slow week with little to report so humor me for a few moments as I rasp romantically on the past and point out yet another way that discovering new music has changed forever, thanks to the Internet.
The journey up to the family farm in Fort Calhoun is 20 minutes of over-hill-and-dell driving. For the trip this past Independence Day, I brought along a CD that arrived in the mail the prior day with the latest copy of Magnet magazine.
Magnet, for those of you who aren’t obsessed with college music, used to be the bible of indie rock, the arbiter of all things good in the indie music world, a saddle-stitched signpost that revealed the latest and greatest music that you’d never get a chance to hear on your radio if you lived in a backwards town like Omaha, where the only thing on the FM dial is Freedom Rock and screamo goon metal.
Magnet was the Pitchfork of the late ’90s. Getting into the pages of Magnet was like getting into Rolling Stone. Actually, if you were in an indie band, it was even better, because people who read Rolling Stone could give two shits about indie music. Magnet readers, however, were the laser-targeted demographic of every indie band. A good review in Magnet meant CD sales. A feature in Magnet meant you probably were already a well-established band that had toured the U.S. a couple times. Making the cover of Magnet put you on the same league as Elliott Smith, Guided by Voices and PJ Harvey — the next step was either signing to a major label or breaking up (or going solo).
Like the College Music Journal and the pre-metal version of Alternative Press, Magnet began to mail free sampler CDs to its subscribers, adding real-life Technicolor to their reading material. Look, you can describe music all you want, but no written word can capture the actual audio experience. And back in the ’90s, getting a free CD was big deal, a substantial bonus. My how things have changed.
The first Magnet sampler was issued sometime around 1996 or ’97. I’m not sure of the exact date because there’s no date on the generic cardboard CD sleeve which I hold in my hand. Glancing at the band list is a head-jerk trip back through time. Vol. 1 included Knapsack, Cranes, Ex-Action Figures, Danielson Family, Dots Will Echo and Number One Cup. Things got even better with Vol. 2, which came out a month or so later: Walt Mink, Beth Orton, Novocaine and a little-known Omaha band by the name of Commander Venus — the track, “Jeans TV,” also was the opener for their one and only full-length, Uneventful Vacation, released not on Saddle Creek Records, but on Thick Records. Inclusion of the track on the Magnet sampler was probably the band’s biggest exposure to that point.
It was through Magnet sampler CDs that I discovered artists like The Wrens (“Pretty OK” from Vol. 4), Caustic Resin (“Once and Only” from Vol. 5), Eels (“Last Stop: This Town” from Vol. 5), Cobra Verde (“One Step Away from Myself” from Vol. 8) and Pinback (“Tripoli” from Vol. 10). Where else were you going to hear bands like Radar Bros. (“Open Ocean Sailing” from Vol. 9) and Enon (“Believo!” from Vol. 10)?
Sure, there were plenty of duds on each volume. But it wasn’t as if the editors of Magnet were painstakingly selecting the tracks themselves. Labels paid to have their bands included on the sampler, and it wasn’t cheap. But it was an effective way to get your band heard before they climbed into the van and hit the road. So for every Tom Waits (“Chocolate Jesus”) and Friends of Dean Martinez (“Ethchlorvynol”) there were duds by Marky Ramone and the Intruders, The Fly Seville and Garmarna. It didn’t matter. You made a note of the best songs, and then checked to see if The Antiquarium or Drastic Plastic had a copy of the full length. In my case, I used my computer to send something called an “e-mail” to the label, and lo and behold, they usually sent back a promo copy. Being a music critic had its privileges.
I know what you’re thinking — the Internet was very much alive in 1998 (in fact, ’98 was the year that I launched Lazy-i.com). But bands and labels had yet to fully embrace the technology. There was no such thing as MySpace. Today, there’s too much MySpace. Free music doesn’t mean anything to anyone anymore, and bands and labels certainly don’t need to look toward old-fangled technology like a compilation CD to get their music heard. Or do they?
As we drove through Washington County last Friday, we listened to Magnet New Music Sampler Vol. 49, with Teresa giving thumbs up or thumbs down as we skipped through forgetful tracks by Victorian Halls, The Fervor, Rachael Sage, Hopeless, Mr. Gnome and 15 other bands I’ll never hear again. Teresa’s thumb stayed firmly pointed in the downward direction.
Except for track No. 10, a quiet, clever folk song by a band with the unfortunate name of The Boy Bathing called “The Questions Simple.” We went back and listened to the song again. It was pretty good. The next day I went online to find out more about the band and listened to a few songs on their MySpace page. And I thought to myself, how else would I ever have found these guys? Not by aimlessly clicking through millions of MySpace pages. Certainly, not on my radio. In an era when free music has become the norm, the sampler CD — as a medium — still has a few years left in it. Let’s hope the same can be said for publications like Magnet.
You may or may not have heard that The Good Life is opening for Feist at this Saturday’s concert in Memorial Park, which I predict will have a higher attendance than normal due to the storm that wiped out the .38 Special/Kool and the Gang concert a couple weeks ago. People who would have never gone to this will just to get their fix of free outdoor entertainment. The Good Life also will be playing a warm-up show at The Barley St. Tavern the evening before the park show. Barley St. has a capacity of, what, around 75? Expect this $5 show to sell out quick. You can get your tix here, for now. Unfortunately, it’s the same night as the Son Ambulance CD release show at Slowdown Jr. More on that show tomorrow…
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