Column 210: Cleaning out the cupboard…

Category: Blog — @ 3:42 am February 20, 2009

Work has kept me from posting today’s entry until this late hour. Hey, a guy’s got to make a buck, right?

Column 210: Unheard Melodies
A critic’s guilt upon spring cleaning.

I had to clean out my office over the weekend, or at least begin to clean it out. Endless clutter is one of the by-products of being a music critic.

As I’ve said before: I got involved in writing about music for one reason and one reason alone: To get free CDs. When I started writing reviews over 20 years ago, compact discs were still sort of a novelty. Working my way through college at Kmart, I remember flipping through the bins of albums and seeing the racks of cassette tapes, but CDs had only just begun to arrive, displayed in large cardboard boxes, which later were replaced by impenetrable plastic containers. The odd, oblong contraptions were designed to prevent thieves from sticking discs down their pants, but they also kept buyers from getting their CDs opened after they got home. I remember struggling with a pair of industrial-strength scissors desperately trying to cut through the thick plastic CD holders, often cutting my hand in the process. I once had the brilliant idea of melting the container with a lighter only to have it catch on fire along with my copy of Billy Idol’s Whiplash Smile.

In the late ’80s, record labels had just begun mailing CDs to music writers, and getting a compact disc for free was a real treat. Vinyl records seemed old-fashioned and junky, but free CDs, well they just had to be quality or the label wouldn’t have wasted the money making them, right? Funny how times have changed. Now I can’t imagine anything more valuable than finding a box in the mail filled with free promotional vinyl albums and 45s.

Getting free CDs also was the driving force behind creating back in ’98. And just a few short months after the website’s launch, I began to reap the harvest. CDs magically began arriving in my mailbox, one or two per week like prizes awarded for my writing. I eagerly tore open the envelopes to reveal these little presents before neatly stacking them next to my stereo. It didn’t matter that only one out of 10 was actually worth listening to, my collection was growing.

By the time Omaha became recognized as the center of the indie music world (in around 2001), I was getting three or four CDs in the mail every day. My cup quickly runneth over. Soon, the dining room table was littered with stacks of unopened manila envelopes, to the annoyance of Teresa who would eventually gather up an armful and drop them in my office to await the tedious task of opening and cataloging each on the website.

The envelopes themselves became a screening device. Opened first were packages from recognizable labels — Matador, Merge, SubPop, Saddle Creek, Secretly Canadian, YepRock, Caulfield, Homestead, etc. This was the good stuff.

Next were packages from larger metropolitan areas and indie music hubs — New York City, the Pacific Northwest, Athens, North Carolina, Lawrence and of course, Omaha. After that were the quirky packages that obviously contained something more than a CD. Somewhere along the way bands got the idea that if they threw in little treats like candy or toys with their music that it would catch a reviewer’s eye, and they were right. What they didn’t understand, however, is that the reviewers are more interested in the trinkets than their music.

Last opened were the plain envelopes with hand-written return addresses and “Do Not Bend” scribbled on the back. Anonymous packages from anonymous locales. It’s amazing how much one assumes about a band and its music simply by its name, photo and album artwork.

It didn’t take long until towers of precariously stacked, unlistened-to CDs covered every horizontal surface in my office. It’s not that I didn’t want to listen to all of them. The problem is that in addition to CD reviews I also write feature stories about bands — their music has to take precedent or else I’ll come off even more like an idiot during interviews than I actually am. Falling to the wayside in all this was time for listening to music that I actually sought out and knew I liked.

About every 18 months things reach a tipping point, and I have no choice but to undergo a global purge. I’ve never sold a promo CD in my life; I’ve only traded them for other music, which is what I did this past weekend with more than 600 CDs (and with another 500 on the way). I’d like to tell you that I’d listened to all of them, but that would be a lie. It simply wasn’t physically possible.

While packing away those CDs, I felt a tinge of guilt and regret. Somewhere in there could have been a diamond hidden among the hours and hours of derivative indie folk, sloppy garage punk, geek metal and personal confessional monstrosities. Could I be missing the next Elliott Smith or Husker Du? I’ll never know. What I did know was that each one of those poorly packaged and designed CDs represented someone’s hopes and dreams. All they wanted was for me to take a moment and listen to their music. Instead, here I was sending it away, unheard.

Over the past couple of years, the number of CDs arriving in the mail has slowly dwindled thanks to new ways of distributing music via digital download — a much more efficient, economical and earth-friendly approach. It won’t be long until finding a CD in the mail will once again be a novelty — an unexpected gift — instead of an ever-growing monster that slowly takes over my office.

Look for the usual Friday pre-weekend update at the usual time tomorrow…

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