Does it really matter that there hasn’t been a platinum-selling album in 2014?

Category: Blog — Tags: , , — @ 1:03 pm October 21, 2014

recordsby Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

By now we’ve all seen the Facebook posts that point to articles declaring that not a single album has sold more than a million copies so far this year. The Forbes‘ version doesn’t point any fingers. Instead, it’s usual the person who posted the article that blames streaming (i.e. Spotify) for the downward sales spiral.

First off, it’s only October. We’ve got the entire Christmas season ahead of us. Second of all, the authors seem to forget that Taylor Swift has a record on deck to be released this year. Swift’s latest LP, 1989,  will most certainly go platinum in 2014.

But in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter that a flavor-of-the-month pop act hasn’t moved a million copies of their bland-ola music to the great unwashed? Who cares if Beyonce only sold 3/4 of a million copies instead of a million? Does it matter that Adele hasn’t pulled the industry out of its perceived “slump” by releasing an album this year? What does any of this have to do with people who like good music or to your run-of-the-mill indie band? Do mid-sized indie labels care?

The only people who might be shaking in their boots are folks who run record stores, say someone like Mike Fratt, the general manager of Homer’s. So I asked Fratt if the lack of a million seller so far this year matters.

“Does it matter? Well, for online journalists who are all digital, maybe it’s some kind of victory in their ever-present need to bash physical music,” Fratt said. “We’ve been hearing for 15 years that record stores will go out of business. Tired narrative.”

Fratt reiterated that a couple late-2013 releases will likely end up selling a million copies before year’s end. He also pointed to the Swift album, Lorde’s latest, Luke Bryan and Sam Smith releases as possible platinum contenders.

Instead of dwelling on the dark side, Fratt pointed to the continued resurgence of vinyl.

“Vinyl is likely to (sell) over 10 million units this year,” Fratt said. “After a new reporting service to rival Soundscan finally debuts late this year or early next year, we’ll find out vinyl is actually closer to 15 million units annually as Soundscan only pulls data from 61 indie stores. 61! Look at the Record Store Day web site. There are 1,200 listed.”

Fratt said overall business is down 13 percent, but indie stores are only down 2 percent. “The real number is indies are up 2 percent,” he said. “Heck, even our CD biz is up this year.”

Indie sector market share is growing as well, up from 9 percent from a decade ago to 13.5 percent today, Fratt said, and more likely somewhere around 17 percent.

So what about those who say streaming is killing the music business? Fratt said sales of digital downloads are feeling the brunt of the Spotify effect.

“Digital is struggling as more adopt streaming,” Fratt said. “Streaming, as you have written, is the new radio. Data supports that heavy streamers are also very active buyers of physical. We see it every day. But, just like vibrant radio from the ’70s caused many not to buy music because they could listen every day, there is a quantity of streamers that only stream. Those that subscribe, pay for streaming, are even more active purchasers.”

For what it’s worth, I’ve purchased more music so far this year than any post-CD era year, and almost all of it is on vinyl. The packaging, the experience of vinyl albums are special to me, and I believe that’s the case for most serious music fans.

Does that mean that vinyl is the cavalry that will save the industry? No. But I believe there always will be a market for music and music-related “hard assets,” such as vinyl and CDs, if only to support the “collectors market.” People who buy Taylor Swift or Adele records aren’t part of that collectors market, and I have no doubt that if it wasn’t this year that it would be 2016 (Adele’s new one comes out in 2015) when we finally go without a having platinum-selling record by a vanilla-flavored pop star. And it won’t make a bit of difference to anyone.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2014 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

Lazy-i

Are record collectors the same as comic book collectors? (in the column); Jake Bellows tonight…

Category: Blog,Column,Interviews — Tags: , , , , — @ 1:56 pm January 9, 2014

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

In this week’s column, a discussion about 2013 music sales and industry trends with Mike Fratt, general manager of Homer’s Records. While national album sales were down, Homer’s enjoyed a double-digit increase in business vs. 2012. Read about it in this week’s issue of The Reader or online right here at thereader.com. Or, since the column is centered on music, you can read it below…

Vinyl Sales Help Homer’s Buck Industry Trend

by Tim McMahan

After spending the last two weeks writing about the current state and predicted future of the music industry, it’s time for a dose of reality in the form of the 2013 Nielsen SoundScan numbers.

Billboard Magazine reported last week that album sales suffered an 8.4 percent decline in 2013, CD sales declined 14.5 percent, even digital music sales declined last year for the first time since the iTunes store swung wide its online doors in 2003. Digital track sales fell 5.7 percent, while digital album sales fell 0.1 percent, all according to SoundScan.

The Billboard story said industry executives concede that “ad-supported and paid subscription services were indeed cannibalizing digital sales.” Call it the Spotify effect. Those same execs went on to say growth in streaming revenue offset the decline in digital sales.

But what about brick-and-mortar? That’s where Mike Fratt comes in. Fratt is the General Manager and buyer at independent record store Homer’s Music, 1210 Howard St. In the face of all the doom and gloom, Fratt said 2013 was a good year for Homer’s.

“Sales were up 10 percent, vinyl was again a big driver, up 40 percent for the year,” Fratt said. “DVDs, gift, accessory and lifestyle sales were also up.” It’s a trend that began in 2010. But it wasn’t all good news for Homer’s. Fratt said CDs saw their first sales decline at his store since 2009, slipping 3 percent.

So is it time to go all-in with vinyl? Not so fast. According to SoundScan, vinyl sales indeed rose from 4.55 million in 2012 to 6 million last year, but that’s only enough to make vinyl 2 percent of all U.S. album sales. CDs are still king of the mountain commanding a whopping 57.2 percent of the market, while digital albums sales comprised 40.6 percent.

Still, Fratt says Homer’s business plan is to continue to focus on vinyl and lifestyle/gift items. “We embarked on a project to replace all our vinyl browsers in 2013 to increase space efficiency and improve merchandising of 7-inch singles,” Fratt said.

In addition, Homers will continue to broaden its CD selection. “We have been adding new distributors that stock imports, budget and rarities,” Fratt said. “Despite potential declining sales (in CDs), customers will still expect a large selection.”

Fratt said streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora actually have driven his sales numbers. Customers often come into his store asking to buy an album that’s streaming on their phone.

He said overall, consumers’ buying habits are shifting. “As mall music stores have disappeared and mass merchants (Target, Walmart, Best Buy) reduce selection to below 1,000 different titles, music buyers are forced online to buy CDs,” he said. “This has also helped the indies.” Billboard reported that indie merchants as a whole saw a nearly 12 percent decline in album sales last year. Fratt said that number was wrong, and closer to a 5 percent decline.

“Right now, SoundScan only pulls sales data from about 60 indies nationwide and attempts to determine total national sales for indies,” he said. “Record Store Day website lists 1,000 stores in the U.S.” Fratt thinks vinyl sales were probably closer to 10 million last year. We won’t know the real numbers until a new media company begins tracking physical and digital sales this year.

I told Fratt I noticed another shift in consumer buying. More and more, record buyers are following a model similar to comic book collectors — they’re buying vinyl and limited edition hard product based on collect-ability (and maybe investment).

I speak from personal experience, as both a record and comic book collector. There is certain vinyl I collect just because I want to own it — Factory Records stuff, early copies of Smiths albums with unique cover art, for example. These are albums I probably will only listen to once, but will display in my house or just want to have. If I want to listen to the actual music, I listen to a digital version.

The amazingly successful Record Store Day in some ways supports my idea — it’s a great way for collectors to find and buy cool collectible limited-edition pieces. But I wonder how many people who buy rare or limited edition stuff actually play the recordings, especially if the music is already available online via Spotify?

The old arguments about purchasing physical seem to be dying away. The “need for a back-up” argument will disappear when people become familiar/comfortable with cloud computing. The “inferior audio quality” argument will eventually fade when technology provides a better, flawless audio file type (which is inevitable). Spotify gives access to nearly everything now, and if you’re a paying user (as I am) you can even listen when you’re away from a wi-fi/cellular connection.

So why buy hard assets like vinyl? Because you want to own it. You collect it. It’s finite. It’s physical in a world where fewer and fewer entertainment options involve physical things. If the above is true, than records stores will become like comic shops. Maybe they already are?

“Collectors certainly make up a strong customer group for us and play a large roll in RSD, but vinyl has become so big, it draws all kinds of customers, both casual and hard-core collector, young and old,” Fratt replied.

He said cloud computing, streaming and cars with internet will impact how people collect and access music, but early adopters (like me) remain a minority. “Over the last few years I’ve read that CD is dead, is dying and will be gone. Yet it is still 60 percent of album sales. So, a lot of people are still buying CDs to listen to and load onto their phone or PC.

“Vinyl is a fad,” Fratt added. “Yet, even a recent iPhone commercial started with the image of a record spinning on a turntable only to have an iPhone set down next to it. It’s 10 million new (vinyl albums) being bought (per year) and another 30 million used trading hands. Somebody’s playing this stuff, not just collecting.

“Collecting occurs in so many categories anymore. What you’re saying is not untrue. I think only a small minority sees it the way you do. Right now. We’ll see how that evolves. Ask me again next year.” I’m sure I will.

Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

First published in The Reader, Jan. 8, 2014. Copyright © 2014 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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Tonight at Pageturners Lounge, 5004 Dodge Street, it’s a homecoming of sorts for Nebraska’s favorite wandering musical soul, Jake Bellows. On a brief tour through the Midwest, Jake is taking a evening between gigs to play a show in his hometown. If you have yet to check out Pageturners (and I haven’t, even though it’s been open for more than a year) tonight might be the perfect opportunity. The show is free and starts at 9:30.

Also tonight, Lincoln blues rock guy Josh Hoyer and his band The Shadowboxers are playing at The 21st Saloon, located way the fuck out on 4727 96th St. (south of L on 96th). This is their International Blues Challenge send-off show before they head to Memphis for a battle royale. $10, 6 p.m.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2014 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

Lazy-i

Prepping for Record Store Day (Saturday); the house project pt. 3 (in the column)…

Category: Blog — Tags: , , — @ 12:57 pm April 18, 2013

Record Store Dayby Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

Record Store Day is Saturday. This Saturday. All the usual local shops will be participating (except, of course, for The Antiquarium, which no longer exists). Mike Fratt, who runs Homer’s, said his shop is going “all in” this year.

“We ordered about 45 percent more product compared to last year so we have a lot of product,” he said. “Well into the tens of thousands of dollars worth. We have 20 to 40 of a number of items, so we are really well stocked.”

Some things are heavily allocated, like offerings from Dave Matthews, Moby/Mark Lanegan, Sigur Ros, “so we have only a few of these,” he said. Some items were region specific, meaning primarily for the Southeast, and those items were pressed in very small quantities. Homer’s might not have those.

“Of the 350 or so titles, we probably have 325ish,” Fratt said. “As for the rest of the store, we are stocked in new vinyl and CDs at a level we have not been in almost 10 years.” He said the staff is struggling trying to find places to put all of it. While you’re in the store, check out the new custom-built vinyl browsers.

The store opens at 10 a.m., and rock band Pretty & Nice will perform for those of you who are standing in line at 9. Fratt says they’ll be doling out coffee and donuts for you greedy bastards who get there before the shotgun start.

If you’re into this, it’s worth your time to check out recordstoreday.com and see what’s going to be offered. The releases that caught my attention include a Big Star double 12-inch, Brian Eno releases, new stuff by Bowie, a Husker Du 7-inch, that Moby/Mark Lanegan release, and whatever’s being released by Pulp. Sounds like numbers will be tight on all those items, which means I’ll probably be SOL as there’s no way I’ll be down there by 10 a.m.

I told Fratt that this has to be exciting for he and his staff, like Christmas in April. “Yes, bigger than Christmas,” he said. Ho Ho Ho…

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In this week’s column, Pt. 3 of The Project series, wherein I discuss a homeowner’s trepidation about letting go of his past. It’s in this week’s issue of The Reader and online right here.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2013 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

Lazy-i

2012 sales report: The Compact Disc is Alive and Well (for now); Icky Blossoms tour diary; sun sets on Sun Settings tonight…

Category: Column — Tags: , , — @ 1:54 pm January 10, 2013

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

My column in The Reader this week focuses on 2012 album sales and includes an interview with Mike Fratt who runs Homer’s Records. I typically don’t include my Reader column here at lazy-i.com, but make exceptions for music-focused commentary (such as this). You can also read the column online at thereader.com right here, or in print in this week’s issue (on stands now):

Over the Edge: The Compact Disc is Alive and Well (for now)

Billboard Magazine last week presented the final music sales numbers for 2012, and it appears to be filled with woe for the future of the compact disc.

The CD, which first became commercially available in 1982, has seen a steady decline first with the emergence of Napster (the first effective mp3 distribution device) in 1999 and then with the launch of Apple’s iTunes (and the invention of the iPod) in 2001 that made downloading digital music files “legitimate.”

But despite the constant heralding of its demise, the compact disc continues to survive, though its pulse weakens ever-so-slightly year after year. Case in point: Billboard reported that for the Year of Our Lord 2012, the sales of physical CDs (according to Nielsen SoundScan) were down a whopping 13 percent compared to 2011, reflecting a decline in U.S. album sales of 4 percent to 315.96 million from 330.57 million in 2011.

While CD sales continued to flounder, digital album downloads continued to increase their share of the overall album sales pie with a 14 percent gain to a record 117.68 million. Says Billboard, 37 percent of all albums sold in 2012 were downloads, up from 31 percent in 2011. For the first time in January 2012, digital surpassed physical with 50.3 percent of all music sales.

You might be scratching your head thinking, “Gee, 315 million albums seems like a lot to me.” Contrast that number with 2001, when Nielsen SoundScan reported CD album sales of 712 million. We’re talking a nearly 50 percent decline in album sales (of any format) in 11 years. It begs the question: Are people listening to less music or simply buying less music because they’re either 1) stealing it or 2) getting it from “free” sources, which could include anything from websites to free streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify?

For a local perspective, we turn (as we always do) to Mike Fratt, general manager and head buyer at Homer’s Records. Fratt said what’s driving the decline in sales over the past two years is the “huge reduction in (physical inventory) and square feet devoted to music retail at mass merchants” like Best Buy and Target.

“This is driving many people to online stores like Amazon,” Fratt said. “Non-traditional sales (online stores, non-music retail, non-mass merchant) biz was way up again this year. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to make up the difference, as many consumers think (record) labels have stopped making CDs. We heard that comment a lot this holiday season.”

In fact, there are no plans to abandon compact disc production before the end of this decade, Fratt said. NARM (not the North American Registry of Midwives but the National Association of Recording Merchants) and the record labels project that sales of compact discs will remain an important part of the total retail music business through the next five years.

The big box stores’ retreat from music sales would seem to be boon for stand-alone record shops. Unfortunately, the shift came too late for many. According to The Wall Street Journal, the number of physical record stores dropped 77 percent between 2000 and 2010 and is expected to decline another 11.6 percent by 2016. HMV, Tower Records, Sam Goody’s and Virgin have all gone the way of the dinosaur.

Meanwhile, there are still about 2,000 independent music stores like Homer’s, according to the Huffington Post. And their sales are growing. Fratt said Homer’s CD sales were up last year in both dollars and units.

“Being up in dollars is significant because the average price of a CD has fallen to nearly $10 as labels have radically reduced prices in the last two years,” Fratt said. “We now have a quarter of our CD inventory below $8 and a third below $10.”

Fratt said music lovers who want to buy an entire album’s worth of music still choose physical over digital 65 percent of the time. “New music (digital sales) is driven by songs,” Fratt said. “Very much like the ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s when 45 rpm’s drove the business before albums took off.”

But the other life blood for independent record stores is vinyl — that’s right, those old-fashioned records that you play with a record player, the format that everyone shoveled dirt over when the CD emerged as the medium of choice in the ‘90s.

For the fifth consecutive year, more vinyl albums were sold than in any other year since SoundScan launched in 1991, reported Billboard. In 2012, 4.55 million vinyl LPs were sold — up 18 percent compared to 2011’s then-record haul of 3.87 million. And 67 percent of those vinyl albums were purchased at independent music stores.

“While some indies are reporting lower CD sales for 2012, everyone was up in vinyl again,” Fratt said, adding that vinyl was “huge at Christmas, but was up all year long.”

So with all this in mind, when was the last time you bought a CD or a vinyl album?

Maybe even more important: When was the last time you printed out a photo you took with your cell phone? When was the last time you printed a letter or clipped a newspaper article? When was the last time you burned a DVD of a home movie? These were all activities we used to do regularly when we felt we needed a physical backup of our digital memories for fear that our computer hard drives would crash and we’d lose it all.

Today we have backups of everything, and backups of backups that reside in the mystical “cloud.”  We’re becoming confident that our digital memories are secure (whether they are or not) and are throwing away the backups, clearing out the clutter, selling back our compact discs.

More than anything, it’s this new confidence in digital security that could kill off the compact disc once and for all as we begin to walk the digital tightrope without a net.

 

Some additional thoughts….

Fratt says that vinyl now represents almost 20 percent of Homer’s sales, and that they’re looking at building new fixtures to hold more vinyl product in the same space. As for labels going “digital only,” Fratt said a record label is more likely to go out of business before going that route. “There are still infrastructure costs associated with digital,” he said. “It is not cheaper to be digital-only.”

In addition to that, I’m not sure why a label would want to go “digital only.” I guess it would still control licensing and get a portion of the download revenue. But why would an artist want to be on a digital-only record label? The label maybe would pay for an album’s recording costs (studio time, producer) and help with promoting the album. The label also could help sell the artist’s publishing rights to television, movies and Madison Avenue. Certainly there’s cache to being associated with a brand like Saddle Creek, Sub Pop or Matador. Plus the artist could leverage the label’s connections for booking, tour management, etc.

Beyond that, I don’t know. These days a bands can record and release their own material digitally rather cheaply, but what good is having a record available for download if no one knows it exists?

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If you ever wondered what kind of hi-jinx bands get into on the road, read Icky Blossoms’ tour diary, written by the frontwoman Sarah Bohling, who proves if the rock and roll thing doesn’t work out she can always have a successful career as a writer (or strip club owner). The article is right here at Paste.com.

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Tonight at The House of Loom Chris Aponick presents Wintertime Beach Party with bands Sun Settings and Dads. This will be the last-ever performance by Sun Settings, according to the band’s Facebook page:

It has been decided that we took Sun Settings to an end. Over the last year we did some Big things and we would like to take the next step and do even bigger things. Since everybody has different opinions, the best thing we can do is disband and move on to form new ideas. Don’t worry though there will be NEW NEW NEW things from the members of sun setting…

Come bid them adieu tonight at House of Loom. The show starts at 9 p.m. and is absolutely free. More info here, including apparel suggestions.

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Lazy-i Best of 2012

Lazy-i Best of 2012

It’s winding down, folks. Only a few short days left to enter to win a copy of the Lazy-i Best of 2012 compilation CD. The collection includes songs by The Intelligence, Simon Joyner, Ladyfinger, Twin Shadow, Ember Schrag, Tame Impala, Paul Banks, Cat Power and a ton more.  The full track listing is here (scroll to the bottom). To enter the drawing send an email with your name and mailing address to tim.mcmahan@gmail.comHurry! Deadline is Jan. 15.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2013 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

Lazy-i

Homer’s, Lips score big at Record Store Day (but not according to Soundscan); Live Review: The Drums, Craft Spells; Dim Light tonight…

Category: Blog,Interviews,Reviews — Tags: , , , , — @ 1:08 pm May 2, 2012
The Drums at The Waiting Room, May 1, 2012.

The Drums at The Waiting Room, May 1, 2012.

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

Just how big was Record Store Day last weekend for Homer’s. Let’s just say sales were at “historic” levels, said Homer’s General Manager Mike Fratt. “We are extremely thankful for all the customer support and all the excitement they create,” he said. “It’s very enjoyable to see fans come out in such large numbers.”

RSD has become a marketing phenomenon of unequaled proportions. The only thing you can compare it to is, say, Black Friday or when Apple launches a new iPhone. It’s huge, not only for Homer’s but for every independent record store in the country. “But with that comes considerable risk as purchases of RSD exclusive product can amount to tens of thousands of dollars, and it’s all sold one way. No returns,” Fratt said. “It is amazing how big an event Record Store Day has become, and it continues to spread internationally. Europe, Asia, South America, Australia. And the indies did this. It dominates Google trends in the week prior, is covered by all major media, and generates positive karma for music and the music business.”

To give you an idea of the enormity for Homer’s: “We brought in more product this year than the last three years combined,” Fratt said. “(It) freaked us out how much we bought, but it turned out well. We sold 66 percent of what we brought in, and have been able to reload on some titles we sold out of since then.”

Among the huge sellers was The Flaming Lips’ Heady LP, which Fratt said not only sold out quickly in Omaha, but sold enough copies that it would have charted in the top 40 on the Billboard charts, and we’re talking about a vinyl release. The key phrase in the last sentence is “would have,” because Fratt said Soundscan somehow didn’t properly report sales on RSD.

“Soundscan showed many cities reported none (of the Lips record) sold (including in Omaha), although we sold all 30 of ours,” Fratt said. “In LA, Soundscan showed just 183 sold when all stores there reported selling all they had, which would have sent the number into the hundreds. Soundscan showed sales in Detroit of negative 400.” Yeah, you read that right.

“Not only did it damage reporting on the three or four titles that would have hit the charts, it also ends up unreporting total impact of RSD, by probably enough to push overall weekly sales up another percent or two — a significant achievement on the part of the indie sector.”

It’s a fuck-up literally of national proportions at a time when the record industry — and indie music stores — can ill afford one. But was Soundscan’s misreporting just a one-time thing or a symptom of a systemic problem? Fratt said the indie music coalition is meeting in LA next week to address the problem. “We are not only concerned about RSD, but ongoing reporting errors,” Fratt said. “Could this loss of reporting move the total national year to date sales up 1 or 2 percent? That is significant if true. No one really knows yet.”

Regardless, there’s no denying that last weekend was wildly successful. Cold hard cash does not lie. “The Indie Retail community saw a 40% increase from last week,” Fratt said. “The overall business conditions were up 3% from last week – which is cool because mass merchants were about even and digital scans were down about 4%.” If that isn’t proof that vinyl is making an impact, nothing is.

While I have your attention, Fratt wanted to pass along some upcoming special events at his store, including in-store performances by My Darkest Days on May 22 and Tech n9ne on May 27, along with listening parties for Beach House and Best Coast May 14 and Sigor Ros May 28.

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Craft Spells at The Waiting Room, May 1, 2012.

Craft Spells at The Waiting Room, May 1, 2012.

Briefly… I am a sucker for ’80s electronic music a la Factory Records bands such as Joy Division and New Order. So last night’s show at The Waiting Room clearly was right up my alley.

Opening band Part Time set the mood with a micro-set that lasted less than a half hour. So shortcthat it was hard to absorb what they were doing on stage. Add to that the fact that they seemed to just want to get it over with didn’t help matters.

They were followed by Craft Spells, who sounded like, well, a cross between New Order and Joy Division. It was all there in the oh so familiar guitar lines, synth parts and up-tempo rhythm section that was straight off of Brotherhood. It’s one thing to be derivative of a style, it’s another to wholly embody it. There’s no question what these guys were trying to do, and they did it well, though I couldn’t tell you a word of what the frontman was mumbling into the microphone during their short set. I can tell you they were the best band on stage last night.

Here I was thinking I might get home by 11, but The Drums put on a long, if not adventureless, performance. With a sound that undoubtedly has its origins in the ’80s, it hinted at something slightly more modern (as in The Strokes). Blond frontman Jonny Pierce spent most of the set sashaying around the darkened stage vocally emulating Bono. In fact, their music tried to harken back to very early U2, but lacked that band’s anthemic hubris.

Watching Pierce skip and sway through his set without engaging the audience made me remember what made Bono such an incredible frontman back in U2’s glory days — he brought his audience along with him on every song. He was mesmerizing, nearly confrontational, determined to make everyone in the audience care about what he was singing about. Pierce could have been singing words out of a telephone book, which is a shame because The Drums lyrics deserve more effort than that.

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Snake Island headlines a show tonight at The Waiting Room with Lightning Bug, Dim Light and  Swamp Walk. $5, 9 p.m.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2012 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

Lazy-i

Column 338: Homer’s GM talks Orchard Plaza closure, future; Watching the Train Wreck tonight…

Category: Blog,Column,Interviews — Tags: , — @ 12:45 pm August 25, 2011

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

Homer's logo

It all comes down to one question: Why should people buy recorded music at Homer’s Records or any other independent record store rather than order it online?

“In 2011, it’s a 50-50 split between digital and physical,” said Homer’s General Manager Mike Fratt, referring to a music market split between digital music files and physical CDs and vinyl. “If people choose to buy a full album, almost 75 percent of the time they choose to buy a physical version. Fidelity has something to do with it; also, it’s the ultimate backup.”

Then Fratt gave what I believe is the real reason to shop at record stores: “I think going to a record store is an enjoyable experience, like going to a book store or a comic book store,” he said. “There’s a type of discovery that occurs in a record store that cannot be replicated online.”

No number of reasons, however, was enough to save Homer’s Orchard Plaza location at 2457 South 132nd St. Originally opened at Bel Air Plaza in 1975, the store moved to Orchard Plaza in 1980. Fratt, who began his Homer’s career in the warehouse in 1978, managed the Orchard Plaza store for five years before transferring to the Old Market location, and eventually into the head office in ’91. In its heyday, Homer’s boasted a worldwide chain of six stores. Today Fratt finds himself working out of a small office tucked away off the sales floor of the Old Market store, soon to be the chain’s sole survivor.

Last Friday Fratt sent out an announcement that the Orchard Plaza store will close Sept. 10. “Quite frankly, we’re surprised we made it this long with two locations in Omaha,” he said in the press release. “When we surveyed the future landscape in 2006 we assumed we would be at one location per city by 2010. Most of our indie record store brethren in the Coalition of Independent Music Stores are down to one solid location per city.” He added that the 132nd & Center area is “losing its oomph as a strong retail sector, and Homer’s was not willing to risk moving the store with the hopes of finding an audience.”

Fratt confirmed the obvious reason for the closure via a phone call Sunday. The store was losing money. “The store’s long-term lease ran out at the beginning of 2010,” he said. “We looked at the numbers and it wasn’t quite under break even. We did a one-year lease, and as we neared the end of 2010, we were still right on the edge. So we did a 90-day lease, then another 90 then a 60. Now the store is below break even.”

He said some but not all of the Orchard Plaza staff will go to work at the Old Market Homer’s, where sales are actually up for the year. “And we’re very optimistic about the next 10 years.”

Next 10 years?

“All of our indie brethren all feeling challenged, there’s no question about it,” Fratt said. “For us, the unit sales in CDs has pretty much leveled off at the Old Market location. We’re not giving ground. Part of the reason has to do with the declining price point — we have a huge bin, literally thousands of artists, whose music sells for $7.99. That’s why catalog sales are fairly robust.” Sales of new releases, however, are down slightly, he said.

“The second issue is vinyl,” he added. “It’s been huge, and a large part of our business, and it keeps growing.” Though he’s referring primarily to used vinyl, new-release vinyl sales also have stepped up. Other revenue comes from selling used product on Amazon Marketplace (Homer’s closed its Web store two years ago).

Asked what the music industry needs to do to keep independent stores alive, Fratt said a few trading partners are allowing them to buy at a lower price and hold the product four to six months before paying for it. “Hopefully by that time we’ve turned it and can pay it off,” he said. A new distribution model could involve selling new music on consignment, though there are some accounting challenges to overcome. “It could be something of a game changer.”

Fratt still contends that the biggest threat to independent record stores wasn’t digital downloads, but the giant box stores like Best Buy, Wal Mart and Target. “Target now offers fewer than 1,000 titles,” he said. “Best Buy shuttered its operations and now contracts it out. Borders is exiting the market.”

He said in addition to leaning on its used record sales, the Old Market store is “recommitting to gifts,” offering merchandise other than recorded music to all those folks wandering up and down Howard St. after dinner.

“But overall, it’s about catalog, which is what built this company in the ’70s and ’80s,” Fratt said.

“There’s a quantity of people still purchasing physical. Not everyone has a home computer — 20 percent of people don’t have broadband and never will,” he said. “Physical is not going away, no matter how much people want to bitch about it. It isn’t. I think we’ve got 10 years, easily.”

In the end, it all comes down to that original question: Why should people buy music at a record store instead of online? As long as Fratt continues to have an answer, Homer’s will be around.

* * *

Tonight, Cramps-inspired Lawrence band The Spook Lights returns to O’Leaver’s with Snake Island! and Watching the Train Wreck. $5, 9:30 p.m. What the heck, it’s Thursday.

* * *

Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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And then there was one: Homer’s Music turns 40; Orchard Plaza location to close…

Category: Blog — Tags: , — @ 5:08 pm August 19, 2011

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

This press release was just received from Mike Fratt, general manager of Homer’s. It speaks for itself. More later after I get a chance to interview Mike. But for now, here’s the press release in its entirety:

Homer's logoStarting on September 1st, Homer’s Music will begin its 40th anniversary celebration, marking four decades as a locally-owned business and its status as one of the nation’s leading independent record stores.

The celebration will be bittersweet, as Homer’s will also be closing its Orchard Plaza location, 2457 South 132nd St.. Orchard Plaza’s final day of operations will be September 10th, according to Homer’s Music general manager Mike Fratt.

The 40th anniversary celebration marks the opening of the first Homer’s, the downtown Old Market location, which started operations in 1971. Homer’s is one of the two remaining original businesses that started the Old Market in the early 1970s.

“Quite frankly, we’re surprised we made it this long with two locations in Omaha. When we surveyed the future landscape in 2006 we assumed we would be at one location per city by 2010.” Fratt explained. “Most of our indie record store brethren in the Coalition of Independent Music Stores are down to one solid location per city.”

Homer’s started with an Old Market location at 415 S. 11th St, moving around the area over its 40-year-run, before settling back in at 1210 Howard St. in October 2009. The 1210 Howard location was a previously housed Homer’s for several years in the early 1980s.

“The Old Market location is doing well and sales are up for the year.” Fratt said, “And we are very optimistic about the next 10 years. Mass merchant big box retailers have radically ramped down their commitment to music and this has benefitted Homers. Used CD, DVD and LP sales are robust, Record Store Day has been a game changer and physical sales remain strong due to reduced retail prices”

Vanguard Recording artists Viva Voce will perform at Homers Old Market Tuesday,  September 13th at 7pm. This will be the band’s only area appearance in support of their new album, The Future Will Destroy You.

With sales of music split evenly between digital and physical the predicted demise of record stores has been overplayed and recent trends nationally point to a bottoming out of declining sales led by record breaking sales of Adele’s “21”, Lady Gaga, the Jay-Z and Kanye West collaboration and upcoming releases from Lady Antebellum, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Lil Wayne.

“The 132nd & Center area is losing it’s oomph as a strong retail sector,” Fratt explained, “and Homers was not willing to risk moving the store with the hopes of finding an audience. Our landlord, Slosburg, has been super to work with and it’s a large part of the reason we lasted this long at Orchard.”

There will ongoing sales at the Orchard Plaza store, as it prepares to wrap up its lease at that location. “We have thousands of used CDs at $1 each and thousands of used LPs at half price and more at $1 each.

Homers is a Nebraska owned and operated independent music retail store specializing in buying and selling new and used CDs, DVDs, and LPs. Consistently named Omaha’s best music retailer in any metro-based poll Homers is a member of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores and a founding member of Record Store Day. Homers is loacted in the Old Market at 1210 Howard and online at www.homersmusic.com

* * *

Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

 

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Column 317: Record Store Day (April 16) is all about the vinyl; Dave Dondero, Franz Nicolay, Bret Vovk tonight…

Category: Blog,Column,Interviews — Tags: , , , , — @ 12:54 pm April 7, 2011

Record Store Day 2011Column 317: Hot Wax Holiday

Locals indies celebrate Record Store Day April 16

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

We had time to kill before the 7:45 show at Aksarben Cinema, and having already grabbed a bite to eat decided for reasons of proximity to walk through Kohl’s Department Store, whose overly ambitious catchphrase is “Expect Great Things.” As I was strolling down one of the fluorescent-bright main aisles, somewhere between the jewelry counter and “notions,” I nearly stumbled over a stack of turntables smack-dab in the middle of the floor, marked $70 each.

And I thought to myself, well, there really is no reason for any right-headed music fan to not buy vinyl now. If a place like Kohl’s, the very essence of mid-American retail homogeneity, sells turntables (and for $70), all excuses have flown out the window.

I tell you this as a precursor to heralding that Record Store Day is a week from Saturday — April 16. Begun a mere three years ago as a “celebration of the unique culture surrounding over 700 independently owned record stores in the USA” Record Store Day has become something of a holiday for collectors of music, whether it be released on vinyl or not. In Omaha, it’s celebrated by The Antiquarium, Drastic Plastic and the largest of the bunch, Homer’s Records.

“It reconnects music fans with music stores,” said Homer’s general manager Mike Fratt. “After consumer habits (were) shifted away from music stores over the last 15 years by aggressive mass merchants, this gives indie stores an opportunity to level the playing field and generate loyalty.”

If anything, Record Store Day is a reminder of what record stores used to be — way stations on the road to artistic maturity where fans discovered new music, new ideas, new possibilities that they never would have discovered on their own or on the radio. At their very core were the “record store guys,” whose job was to ask what you were into, and then point you in the direction of something you may not have considered of even heard of. It was from a Homer’s record store guy that I first discovered The Pixies, way before they became one of the most influential bands of the late-’80s early-90s.

All that, of course, was before the Internet, which while making music immediately accessible to just about everyone, also has effectively taken away most of the magic and mystery behind record collecting, while systematically crippling the industry.

But I digress.

What started as a niche concept in ’08 has turned into a full-blown industry bonanza for record stores, labels and artists. “Just about any big name has a piece for RSD this year,” Fratt said, “from Lady Gaga to the Rolling Stones, from Syd Barrett to Rush.”

And why not? When you consider that vinyl sales have nearly tripled since ’07, to 3 million units sold in 2010, you can see why major labels are beginning to get into the act, though Fratt said almost 90 percent of vinyl sales have been from indie label offerings.

He said among the highlights for RSD this year are an AC/DC 7-inch, a “test pressing” of Big Star’s Third, a pink 10-inch from Kate Bush, a 12-inch of a new Fleet Foxes tune, a Jimi Hendrix 7-inch and a Nirvana 12-inch that reissues tunes of covers previously only released in Australia years ago. “Rush has a 7-inch, as does Pearl Jam, and Ryan Adams has a double 7-inch package,” Fratt said. It’s not just vinyl. The Decemberists recorded an in-store performance at Bull Moose (an indie store in Maine), which is one of a few CD offerings this year.

“The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen both have 7-inch releases, and the Flaming Lips collect their first five albums into an LP box set,” Fratt said. “The Lips LPs no longer are available separately, so this should be a big demand — albeit expensive — item.”

He added that Warner Brothers Records has put together four, colored-vinyl split 7-inch singles that feature a different band on each side performing the same tune. “So, Green Day records a Husker Du classic with Husker’s version on the other side” Fratt said. “The others include Jenny & Johnny with Gram Parsons & Emmy Lou Harris, Mastodon with ZZ Top, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers with the Ramones.”

Hot stuff, and all in very limited supply. Fratt said with product available on a first-come basis, expect long lines at both the Old Market and Orchard Plaza stores. Both locations also will host special performances in the afternoon, including School of Rock out at Orchard, and a handful of DJ’s downtown (including, believe it or not, yours truly at 3 p.m.).

The Antiquarium, home of Omaha’s punk and indie music scene, also is getting in on the RSD action with limited-edition vinyl releases from a handful of larger indie labels, including Matador, Sub Pop and Merge. While you’re there, check out their large selection of used vinyl and locally produced sides from such labels like Speed! Nebraska, who’s been been carrying the vinyl torch since the mid-’90s.

So mark April 16 on your calendar, go to recordstoreday.com for more details, and get ready to celebrate vinyl. And remember, Record Store Day doesn’t have to be just one day a year.

* * *

So again, Record Store Day isn’t this Saturday, it’s next Saturday. And yes, you read that right, I will be DJ-ing at the Old Market Homer’s at 3 p.m. that day, though I wouldn’t call what I’ll be doing “DJ-ing” in the Brent Crampton/Kobrakyle sense of the word. Fratt simply asked if I’d like to come down and spin some music for an hour, so if you’re there, you’ll hear some of my old and new faves. Omaha World-Herald music guy Kevin Coffey also will be taking over the turntable for an hour, along with DJ Kobrakyle and the international winner of the Belle & Sebastian essay contest, John Ficenac. Fun!

* * *

The hot show of the evening is Omaha adopted son Dave Dondero at Slowdown Jr. Dave’s lastest, Pre-Existing Condition, was released on Ghostmeat earlier this year. Pitchfork gave it a 6.0. I have not heard the disc, but gotta believe it rates higher than that with normal people. Maybe Dave was docked by PF because of his long-standing association with Nebraska and Saddle Creek. Also on the bill is former Hold Steady keyboard player Franz Nicolay. $10, 9 p.m.

Also tonight, Bret Vovk is playing at The Barley Street either as The Ghost of Bret Vovk or simply Bret Vovk (as the Barley Street website has it listed). You may remember Vovk from Underwater Dream Machine. Opening is the appetizingly named Parasite Diet. $5, 9 p.m.

* * *

Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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Column 309: Bright Eyes, The People’s Key reviewed; where will it chart?; Interpol tonight…

Category: Blog,Column,Reviews — Tags: , , , , , — @ 1:42 pm February 9, 2011

Column 309: Here it comes, that heavy love…

CD Review: Bright Eyes, The People’s Key

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

Bright Eyes, The People's Key (Saddle Creek, 2011)

Bright Eyes, The People's Key (Saddle Creek, 2011)

Bright Eyes’ new album, The People’s Key, comes out Feb. 15 on Saddle Creek Records. Conor Oberst’s publicist tells me that the band, which had just started rehearsals, has put all press inquiries on hold for the time being. Maybe when Bright Eyes gets ready for his June 4 show at WestFair we’ll get Conor’s perspective on the album, but until then, you’ll have to settle for mine in this review.

NPR.org, who has been streaming the album in its entirety for the past few weeks, came right out of the gate declaring it the “best record Bright Eyes has ever made. In fact, it’s the best record the band’s frontman, Conor Oberst, has ever been a part of.” Only time will prove if NPR is right, though I don’t know how you could declare any album as being an artist’s “best.” It might be your favorite, but “best”? Come on…

I will say this: I like The People’s Key much more than Oberst’s last solo album and his Monsters of Folk material, and that’s somewhat concerning to me as I’ve always said that all this talk about this being “Bright Eyes final album,” was pure silliness since Bright Eyes at its core is Oberst. However, there’s no denying that Oberst is a different man when it comes to Bright Eyes. From both a musical and lyrical standpoint, Bright Eyes records just hold together better, like reading a great novel as compared to a collection of short stories. The thematic essence of Bright Eyes albums is more consistent and, well, satisfying than what he’s produced under his solo banner.

The album keeps with the Bright Eyes tradition of starting with a spoken-word audio clip. For Cassadaga, Bright Eyes’ last album, it featured a (presumably) big-haired southern woman talking about spiritual centers that attract “believers,” like the Florida town the album was named after. This time it’s “Shamanic” vocalist Denny Brewer of the band Refried Icecream doing an L. Ron Hubbard-esque spiel about spaceships and lizard men at the beginning of the world. Brewer occasionally sticks his head in between songs, sounding like Will Ferrell imitating Harry Caray. For long-time fans, this eccentric touch is part of what you come to a Bright Eyes album for, though later on you’ll find yourself figuring out ways to cut out those opening two and a half minutes so you can get right to the first song.

In this case, that song is “Firewall,” a simple melody draped in dread built upon a sinister, circular electric guitar line. Oberst spits out his vision of talking ravens and artificial theme parks before getting to his own artificial reality and his escape from it via jump ropes and slit wrists. Breaching the “firewall” opens the melody to the glorious heavens, before it comes back down.

If there’s a theme that ties the album together its Oberst’s dwelling on the inevitability of death. Every song has an allusion to death or dying, a theme approached now with resignation, though it’s something (based on earlier Bright Eyes material) that Oberst figured out long ago.

That theme is most obvious on the album’s ultimate downer number, “Ladder Song,” with its subtle opening lines:

No one knows where the ladder goes

You’re gonna lose what you love the most

You’re not alone in anything

You’re not unique in dying

Mournful piano and Conor at his most quivering. In the old days, this would have been a song about a broken heart or a strung-out night spent in Manhattan. My how things change as you get older. And unlike, say, Prince’s song about a ladder, there’s no salvation or hope at the end of this one. About to turn 31, Conor seems too young to be dwelling on death, but then again, there were those who wondered if he’d even live to see 30.

The People’s Key might be Bright Eyes’ most consistent album from a songcraft perspective. There is a straightforward quality here that is undeniable; everything seems self-contained, pulled together and kept from going on tangents. The end product is an even line from beginning to end. Predictable, and for a lot of music-goers, that can be very satisfying.

But there is something missing. On every other Bright Eyes album, there was one perfect moment that jumped off the disc, unique and demanding a rewind, the perfect song for the mix tape. From I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning it was “Lua.” From Cassadaga it was “I Must Belong Somewhere.” From Lifted, it was “Nothing Gets Crossed Out” and “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” and “Bowl of Oranges” and  “You. Will. You. Will? You. Will? You. Will?” and “Waste of Paint” — a song that you can’t turn off or skip over after it’s begun.

I’ve been listening to this album for a couple weeks and that song hasn’t jumped up and waved its arms at me yet. Maybe it will later, I don’t know. Maybe it’s more than I should expect.

That’s the thing about Bright Eyes albums. Those of us who have followed the band since the days when Conor wore glasses expect every release to be a masterpiece. And maybe that’s what separates Oberst’s solo work from his Bright Eyes efforts — that he and cohorts Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott also approach each album as if it were something more than just a collection of songs.

Time will tell if The People’s Key was a just a collection of songs or a “masterpiece” or a “best” or just a favorite. Right now it’s just a good album.

* * *

So my rating for The People’s Key is a firm “Yes.” Let me echo Omaha World Herald music guy King Kevin Coffey and ask, “Will it top the Billboard charts when it’s released next week?” I don’t see much standing it its way. There are new ones coming out by Sonic Youth (Hey, MAHA, now there’s a band to consider), P.J. Harvey, Mogwai and Drive-By Truckers, none of which are a threat to Conor and Co.

It doesn’t take much anymore to top the charts. Decemberist’s awesome The King Is Dead was a Billboard No. 1 only needing to move 94,000 copies during its debut week to mount the summit. It helps when the mp3 download is only $7.99 at Amazon (or in Arcade Fire’s case, as low as $3.99 during its release week). How low will The People’s Key be offered on Amazon (or iTunes)? If it’s a $3.99 download, look out.

But what do I know about the music business? When it comes to these sorts of discussions, I always turn to Mike Fratt, who runs Homer’s Records. Mike is more skeptical. He doesn’t think The People’s Key will top the charts. “Because the Soundscan week includes the Valentine’s weekend (historically a good week for music sales) and the week post-Grammys (2/13) I don’t think Bright Eyes will hit No. 1,” Fratt said. “I do think it will achieve top 5, but at a lower number than 2007’s Cassadega.”

He thinks Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons, Eminem, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry all will chart higher than People’s Key, helped along by Grammy performances. “Looking at this week’s Soundscan, Conor & Co. may have to generate at least 30 to 35(000) to make top 5,” Fratt said. “I’d be surprised if they make that, although the album sounds good.”

Cassadaga logged in at No. 4 on the Billboard charts with first-week sales at just slightly north of 58,000. And 11,000 of those sales were digital downloads — around 19 percent. If Amazon offers The People’s Key at $3.99, you could see downloads grab a bigger percentage this time ’round.

Fratt predicts total first-week sales to be around 27,000, and he hopes a ton of those are bought at Homer’s, where they’re guaranteeing the album will be in stock through Feb. 27. “We bought a lot, but if we run out (Saddle Creek) will drop some off vs. us having to reorder through ADA or a one stop.  CD = $9.99  LP = $19.99! through 2/27.” Get your ass to Homer’s, people.

* * *

Pitchfork reported yesterday that Titus Andronicus has been added to a few Bright Eyes dates, which should make for an entertaining evening considering how Titus frontman Patrick Stickles’s vocals are forever being compared to Conor Oberst’s vocals. Here’s what Stickles told me last September when I asked him about the Oberst comprisons:

“I’ll tell you because you rep the Omaha readership,” Stickles said. “I think it’s a little short-sighted. The constant comparisons to anyone gets old, even if it’s Jesus Christ. Doesn’t everyone want to be themselves? Don’t we all want to blaze our own trail, though I know this is rock and roll, and there’s not too much under the sun? But it seems kind of like, uh, cheapening slightly to say that if you’ve heard one guy you can pretty much guess what this guy is going to sound like. After awhile it feels like a feedback loop, a house of mirrors, like sometimes (reviewers) get these things to sound so similar that I’m reading reviews of other reviews. But maybe that’s me being a self-righteous, entitled type. Even if it were true, is it helpful? Who’s to say? It’s not in my control. As I put my art out into the world, it’s out of my hands. History will judge.”

It will indeed.

* * *

It’s going to be cold outside but oh so hot inside The Slowdown tonight for Interpol. Opening is School of Seven Bells, who came through The Waiting Room last September. Here’s the review from that show:

The best moments came when guitarist Benjamin Curtis was allowed to run wild run free. His tone was amazing; it reminded me of every great soaring guitar solo of ’80s post-New Wave/dream rock era. The Deheza sisters sounded like what you’d imagine Azure Ray would sound like fronting a dance band. Unfortunately, too often the vocals were buried in the mix and sounded limp, like an afterthought. As with the opener, the sound would have benefited from more bottom end (no bass again). The 70 or 80 people on hand spent the night huddled by the stage, but few if any danced, except for one girl who spent the evening with her arms in the air. Maybe that’s why they didn’t come out for an encore after their 45 minute set concluded. A pity. I could have listened to them for another hour.

Get there early and get out of the cold. See you at the show…

* * *

Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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