Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly Soundbites

By Fred Mills

AUGUST 31, 1998:  COLLECTIN' IN THE FREE WORLD: It's a confusing time to be a collector of music. Not because of the vast, unnavigable array of bands greeting you every time you contemplate a purchase; product choice actually keeps things interesting. No, it's the process of tracking down tunes that's become daunting.

On the one hand, try weighing all the retail options: specialty stores offering both new and second-hand goods; mega-chains who'll sell you a fridge to go with your Foo Fighters; those ubiquitous 10-CDs-for-a-penny record clubs; and an explosion in Internet mail-order operations that suck your credit card number into cyberspace and spit out a FedEx parcel at your doorstep.

Likewise, end-of-the-Millennium high-techery is upping the ante for record collectors who, in general, tend to be ahead of the technological curve. Whether on 8-track cartridge, Quadraphonic LP, Mini-disc or DVD, record geeks want their music and are instinctively resourceful when it comes to obtaining it. Consider this recent scenario: Many collectors who in the past swapped tapes of concert bootlegs or out-of-print albums now trade music via email.

Armed with the latest computer software, it's become relatively easy to upload, or post on a website, a file containing, say, the recent Santana/Los Lobos concert (initially recorded from the audience on DAT) and make it available for downloading and subsequent transferring to disc by other fans.

Bill Glahn, publisher of maverick music journal Live! Music Review, has a keen interest in all this. In addition to regular coverage of the bootleg LP and CD industry, his magazine also delves into new issues specific to record collectors. Clearly, the wild-frontier nature of the Internet has added food for speculation. "[Web-based transmission] is still in its early stages, but it's coming on fast," predicts Glahn. "When the computer becomes the center of the home entertainment system, I think the possibilities are great!"

Glahn cites the latest digital audio format, known as MPEG-1 Layer 3 (MP3), as one piece of evidence that our music universe is expanding rapidly. Early formats were plagued by pitfalls involving transfer and sound quality, but MP3 largely surmounts these problems.

Says Glahn, "MP3 is a compression scheme for audio files. It's used to store sounds in more compact files, making it easier to transfer as files over the Net, and is less cumbersome to store. For example, you can fit 11 hours of music on a CD using MP3." Glahn does add that at the moment MP3 files burned to disc can only be played on a computer's CD-ROM player, but even that scenario is likely to change in the future as technology advances. (In fact, Billboard recently reported that one company, Nordic Entertainment Worldwide, has bypassed the disc issue altogether and is marketing a portable MP3 player, dubbed the MPMan, that allows consumers to plug directly into their computers and transfer music from hard drive to the player's memory.)

Perhaps even more significant is the widespread availability--which is to say, affordability--of recordable CDs (CD-R). While the cassette has nothing to fear just yet, record collectors owning computers are embracing CD-R burners at an astonishing rate. The trading of homemade CDs is already commonplace. And faced with the shrinking bootleg marketplace (due to assorted legal woes of late, many international bootleg companies have shut down), grassroots entrepreneurs are stepping into the gap and spawning a new breed of bootlegger specializing in CD-Rs.

"The bootleggers are the first to grasp the advantages of the new technology," states Glahn. "Even without paying royalties, there were always economic considerations for bootleggers. For example, most CD pressing plants would only press in quantities greater than 500 or 1,000 copies. Given the limited number of hard-core collectors, this meant that only the most popular artists (Beatles, Stones, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, etc.) were usually bootlegged. CD-R's have helped in returning bootlegging to the fans. I'm seeing more and more limited CD-R bootlegs by such artists as The Skids, Pussy Galore, Crack The Sky, etc. There are some appearing that rival the professionals in terms of sound quality, packaging, etc. And the scarcity of the material is sometimes astounding."

Boy howdy to that. Out-of-print material has proven irresistible, with mastered-from-pristine-vinyl, pirate editions of CDs by Buckingham-Nicks (the duo's self-titled album), The Who (My Generation), Southern Culture On The Skids (First Album) and Neil Young (six titles from his '73-'81 years, each disc filled out with live/rare bonus tracks) all causing a stir among collectors' circles.

Additionally, as Glahn indicated, limited edition bootlegs have been cropping up with such regularity that it's obvious some major tape archive combing is underway: The Byrds' Flight Pattern offers a mini-history lesson ('64 to '67), via assorted TV and stage appearances, and tags on a pair of Gene Clark demos at the end; Patti Smith's Mother's Day presents, on two CDs, an unedited radio broadcast from 1979; Tom Petty's The Fillmore 20 is a staggering three-disc set recorded last year in San Francisco that features unbelievable mixing-desk sound.

The fan's compulsion to hear music is nearly as strong as the urge to procreate, and the advent of new means by which one can obtain that music continues to fuel that compulsion. There's no telling where things will lead, but just the same, as Glahn succinctly observes, "It's a fascinating time to be a music collector!"

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