Nights in White Satin
Spotify and everything before it
My brief career as a teenage bootlegger began innocently and ended unremarkably.
Christmas 1968, my parents gave me a portable tape recorder with mini-reels, opening a new chapter in my life. I fashioned a makeshift recording studio under the midnight covers with the plug-in microphone and my trusty gray plastic Silvertone AM/FM radio, waiting breathlessly for the first notes of that song I wanted so badly to hear. I filled reels and reels that first week, capped by the New Year's Day countdown.
Soon I discovered I could transport the recorder to concerts via my trusty Indian bag, the only purse carried by self-respecting hippie girls of my time. I'd then bring the tapes, which I hoarded like treasure, to school so we could listen to them during lunch and study hall when the teacher left the room.
The reel-to-reel thing ended abruptly and unexpectedly two Christmases later. No longer would I have to hold my purse just so for the tapes to spin and record during concerts. No more winding and threading – or chasing dropped spools across the floor before the cat got involved. Technology had trumped the reel-to-reel: My parents gave me a cassette recorder.
Throughout the 1970s and into my Walkman years, cassettes liberated me from songs I didn't want to hear and immersed me in music I did. Making literal mixtapes was a snap, and MTV fed that hunger, creating new stars with Warholian speed. Cassettes still had built-in problems – they could tangle or break, and the packaging disconnected the fans artistically from the band's world – but convenience ruled. I bought, received, made, and traded tapes, yet continued collecting vinyl, the physical package being important to me.
Then one day, flipping through a UK music magazine in my apartment at the Willie Arms (aka the Austin Opera House), I read about a new format: compact discs.
Napster in its early days, in the late 1990s, was like looting the land of milk and honey. Downloads were questionable (truncated, mislabeled), but I filled hard drives like crazy. Not tunes that took food from the mouths of Madonna's children or kept P. Diddy down: The songs I sought were largely out of print, regional or local, or obscure hits. I accrued those titles I'd once bought on 7-inch singles, cassette tapes, and vinyl LPs. It was survival-of-the-fittest music.
Then my computer crashed, and I lost all of it – gone like my 1960s mini-reels that held a thousand nights in white satin. That was the unrecoverable crash that took with it six years of irreplaceable writing, the bulk of my early computer years. Along came the downloading legalities that changed the way we listen to music now.
There were songs I still wanted. I'd had a taste of the forbidden, and I briefly but guiltily played with free peer-to-peer file sharers LimeWire and Kazaa. Without looking very hard, I found and subscribed to an online service I believed allowed me to legally download songs. Not iTunes, because even though Apple's computers are the best, their customer service sucked when I owned Macs. So I ran to PCs for games.
As a writer, I'm surrounded by music and no longer compelled to hear "my music" in the bank line or between my front door and the car. Though iPods won, those devices are useless to me because I prefer the visceral connection to the music via physical product and packaging. I've always been ripe for whatever makes the iPod obsolete.
That initial subscription was bogus. I cancelled in a huff of self-righteousness directed as much at myself as the shady, malware-infested service. Stupid, I know. In 2005, a boyfriend gave me a turntable, and the familiar hum of vinyl filled my life again.
I'm a huge fan of music pundit Bob Lefsetz. He's the California entertainment attorney turned blogger who antagonizes the music industry online through the Lefsetz Letter.
He's mostly right, in my view, wielding cyber-claymores against the business, calling bullshit when it's needed, opining whether anyone asked. He really loves music, and it shows. What he's done is create an ongoing conversation about issues that cannot be ignored: downloading, ticket sales, copy protection, distribution – anything that sticks in his craw.
And the industry responds. Lefsetz rags on Kiss magnate Gene Simmons, then debates him publicly with no preparation. Quincy Jones weighs in. When he tweaks John Mellencamp, the singer's wife fires back (protectively but not well). Santana drummer Mike Shrieve pours out his heart about the reality of being an iconic image in the film Woodstock and what that pays at a weekly gig today. Lefsetz even printed a couple of my emails then completely dismissed me for defending South by Southwest after he dissed it this year.
"Wait, I read your signature," he wrote, "and you ... LIVE IN AUSTIN!!"
End of conversation.
On July 18, Lefsetz mailed out a short blast: "Spotify Codes for You." He'd been writing about the popular European music subscription service for a while, touting its ease of use. Spotify's stream offers easily created playlists, the ability to share music with one click, a powerful search engine with filters, offline service, and mobile phone apps.
Spotify isn't the only service of its type, but people listen to Lefsetz. David Hyman, the head of Spotify competitor MOG, prevailed on Lefsetz to try his product instead. Rather than defend his choice, Lefsetz printed comments people made about MOG vs. Spotify, which seemed to run 60/40 in favor of Spotify, despite a highly coincidental mass citing of the lack of Gillian Welch. MOG demands a credit card to sign up, while Spotify is free and unlimited for six months.
I shunned MOG's card request and opted for the Spotify freebie.
Yet another new service, social media website Turntable.fm, which allows users to share music, annoyed me to no end. "If you have a facebook friend already on turntable, you're in!" the front page cooed. "Can't get in? You can add your e-mail to the invite list here and we sometimes give out some invites." I entered my email.
"Who'd win in a wrestling match, lemmy or god?" came the response.
Are you fucking kidding me? God would smoke Lemmy for an after-dinner cigar. I typed in God, not realizing I was supposed to subreference a scene from Airheads.
"Please try again," the screen smirked.
For the last week, I've idled away the heated hours on Spotify, mostly making playlists the way original Fabulous Thunderbirds bassist Keith Ferguson used to file his LPs: "Mexican," "Negro," and "Other."
Amid the Spotify experiment, Amy Winehouse died. This sent me off into a soul jag that had far-reaching effects, including the discovery that Sister Rosetta Tharpe has more songs on Spotify than the late Miss Winehouse. That's more a comment on Winehouse's sadly short career, but it also supports the notion that Spotify can be effective for such marginalized or lesser-known artists as Tharpe.
I was thinking about the summer of 1969, probably because I recently attended a high school reunion and it's hot and that was a good summer for me. I wanted to hear "Badge" by Cream: "Thinking 'bout the times you drove in my car/Thinking that I might have drove you too far." Found it. But I am on Spotify for more than nostalgia. So I listen to one of Destiny's Child(ren), Kelly Rowland, while perusing the 1980s classic hits queue, and I'm inspired to search for a late 1970s punk song by the Vibrators that I can't remember the name of.
Voilà! The Vibrators are well-represented on Spotify, and "She's Bringing You Down" erupts into my headphones. During these late-night forays into the past, present, and future, I discover non sequitur lyrics getting stuck in my internal jukebox. "If I go crazy, then will you still call me Superman?" I sang aloud with 3 Doors Down.
And this is why I wish Rowland and Wiz Khalifa and all the other faces in Spoitfy's ads much luck in their quest for success. Sometimes it's just about making music that counts for more than sales. Rowland will never hold my attention the way Sugar Pie DeSanto does, and while I'm not interested in Tinie Tempah or Blake Shelton, acts such as Fitz & the Tantrums, Raphael Saadiq, and Duffy make new soul music I will seek out.
Last week, I introduced one of Austin's R&B pioneers, Miss Lavelle White, the spotlight performer at Girls Rock Camp. After her performance, one of the campers raised her hand. "Are you on iTunes?"
"Yes, I am," nodded Miss Lavelle.
The young girl beamed. Next time, she'll be asking about Spotify.
10 Favorites I Found
1) "Matty Groves," Fairport Convention
2) "We Don't Need Love Songs," Fitz & the Tantrums
3) "Mercy," Duffy
4) "Goo Goo Muck," the Cramps
5) "Let's Go to Big Mamou," Fiddlin' Frenchie Burke
6) "Soulful Dress," Sugar Pie DeSanto
7) "Let's Take a Walk," Raphael Saadiq
8) "Season of the Witch," Brian Auger's Oblivion Express
9) "La La La La La," the Blendells
10) "Talk to Me," Ted Taylor
10 Foundlings From Texas
1) "Starry Eyes," Roky Erickson
2) "Talk to Me," Sunny & the Sunglows
3) "Don't Talk to Me About Men," Cindy Walker
4) "Run and Hide," the Chayns
5) "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground," Gary Floyd
6) "Compared to What," Ronnie Laws
7) "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)," Janis Joplin
8) "It's Gonna Be Easy," Doug Sahm
9) "16 Monkeys," Los Lonely Boys
10) "Telephone," the Black Angels
10 Favorites I Couldn't Find
1) "La Danse de Mardi Gras," Steve Riley
2) "Friday," Rebecca Black
3) "Baby," Buddy Dial
4) "Bittersweet," the Robbs
5) "White Table," Delta Spirit
6) "Darkness Darkness," Robert Plant
7) "Dog Days," Leigh Harris
8) "I Can't Stand the Rain," Ann Peebles
9) Anything by Arcade Fire
10) "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida," Iron Butterfly (full-length studio version)