Sunday, September 16, 2007


I'm not a big fan of change, as you can probably tell by my addiction to nostalgia. Even in fourth grade I was already nostalgic for kindergarten. In 2003 I moved from Atlanta to Chicago, which was a huge change for someone like me, but it was one I knew I had to make. Two months after I moved here I got a job at the Chicago Reader, an alt-weekly newspaper. The Reader made a lot of its money through classified ads, allowing it to have more pages per week and more employees than it probably needed, but why not put out the best product you can. In 2004 started cutting into the Reader's profits from classifieds, because if you can post your ad on Craigslist for free, there's no point paying for it at the Reader or any other newspaper.

Last year people started to leave the Reader for other jobs, but unlike before, they weren't replaced. Instead, those who remained picked up the slack. This wasn't too much of an inconvenience, at least not at first, because we often had a lot of downtime at work, but morale hasn't been very high the past two years, especially since the Christmas bonus, which was the equivalent of two full paychecks in '03 and '04, was cut in half in '05 and eliminated altogether in '06. We were told at the end of last year that layoffs were probably going to happen early in '07; in late February a few people in each department were laid off, but for the next few months everything was quiet. I can be an incredibly naive person sometimes—I started to believe the paper was doing better, partly because no company-wide meetings were announced during this time. But then certain people started quitting in June, and in late July it was announced that the Reader had been sold to Creative Loafing, an alt-weekly paper in Atlanta that also owns papers by the same name in Sarasota, Tampa, and Charlotte.

Yes, maybe it is time for new managerial blood at the Reader, but everyone knew there was going to be a lot of current blood spilled before the new management settled in. We learned on the day of the sale—through a business-news Web site, not the publisher of the Reader—that production of the paper would move to Creative Loafing's headquarters in Atlanta, and therefore the entire production department in Chicago would be laid off. This week we learned about layoffs in the editorial department. I was able to keep my job, but it's not much of a consolation prize since good, smart, dependable coworkers are leaving, including my favorite coworker, the person who makes work more than just "that place I go every day so I can pay my bills." She'll be leaving at the end of October, but others will be gone in two weeks. It's not a great time to be in the newspaper business.

It's not a great time to be in the music business either. Jason Hare linked to a great New York Times article two weeks ago, via his Facebook page, about Rick Rubin, the famous record producer (Beastie Boys, Run-D.M.C., the Dixie Chicks, Johnny Cash) who was hired by Columbia Records earlier this year to help run the company and figure out how to save the industry in his own unique way. As Lynn Hirschberg's article says, "Seemingly overnight, the entire industry is collapsing. Sales figures on top-selling CDs are about 30 percent lower than they were a year ago." And as Rubin says in the article, "Until very recently, there were a handful of channels in the music business that the gatekeepers controlled. They were radio, Tower Records, MTV, certain mainstream press like Rolling Stone. That's how people found out about new things. Every record company in the industry was built to work that model ... And that's how the music business functioned for over 50 years. Well, the world has changed. And the industry has not."

I read that Justin Timberlake (who's had songs produced by Rubin) accepted an award at last week's MTV Video Music Awards by challenging the cable network to actually play videos again. (I also read that multimillion-dollar videos like Timberlake's will soon become a thing of the past because of changing business models and possibly a lack of airtime on channels like MTV and VH1.) For a long long long time people have made the joke of "Remember when MTV used to play videos?" and I've pointed out that they do still play videos, just not during peak viewing hours. But now I'm not so sure—the last time I checked MTV's schedule, videos were banished to 3:30 in the morning. Maybe it's finally time for me to join in on that joke.

It is ironic that MTV mostly played white artists' videos when it debuted in 1981 and defended its choices by saying that it operated like a rock radio station: if black artists weren't making rock videos, too bad. Some black artists responded by asking, "When the hell did Hall & Oates become a rock band?" The irony now is that any time I see a video on MTV these days it's a rap or hip-hop video made by a black artist. Times have changed. And if MTV can't get advertisers interested in three-hour blocks of videos anymore except during graveyard-shift time slots, well then, times have changed in that area too, and MTV can't be blamed for trying to survive by making tons of low-budget reality shows, which seem to get decent ratings ... or maybe not, but since the shows are low-budget to begin with, who cares?

But while I'm acknowledging that times have changed and MTV doesn't show videos that often anymore, I have to ask: shouldn't MTV stop producing an awards show for videos every year? The ratings have fallen the last couple of years, possibly because people tuning in have no idea what videos have been nominated and therefore have nothing to root for. Okay, so the ratings did go up this year, but I'm guessing that's mostly because of MTV and Britney Spears's joint venture in sad exploitation. Everybody loves to rubberneck.

As for Tower Records, all of its stores closed last December, although it lives on as a Web site. I looked forward to my visits to Tower, especially in high school and college, just as I loved visits to its competitor, Virgin Megastore, which was conveniently located close to the Reader's offices. Tower and Virgin were the closest you could get as an adult to a childhood trip to the toy store, especially if you loved music and, in the pre-Internet age, couldn't find everything you were looking for at your local record stores. My only complaint about the Tower store in downtown Chicago, which I only visited once, was that it had an escalator that went up to the second and third floors yet there was no down escalator. Wishful thinking, Tower.

The Virgin Megastore on Michigan Ave. in Chicago closed on July 14 due to some of the same problems that killed Tower, e.g. the new era of digital downloads, legal or otherwise. Tower and Virgin's prices were way too high in most cases, especially once file sharing became possible, but if you bought an album the week it came out, you could usually get it for $10 or $12. I don't mind ordering CDs from, but there's nothing like instant gratification. Now there aren't any record stores close to work, and the one that's a mile away has an inconsistent selection; for example, the only two Todd Rundgren albums they currently carry are Nearly Human and 2nd Wind, which no one is clamoring to buy. (I like Nearly Human, but I stand by my original statement.)

Back in March I went to Virgin to look for a copy of Premiere magazine after hearing that it was ceasing publication after nearly 20 years. I wanted to see what was in the final issue, especially Libby Gelman-Waxner's last column. I first bought an issue of Premiere in 1989, when I was 13. My parents gave me a subscription for Christmas the following year and renewed it every year for the next seven. I was in love with movies in middle school and high school, and Premiere was the best movie magazine around as far as I was concerned. (England's Empire was also good, but its import cost and the fact that I could only find it at book stores in Atlanta while I lived in Macon and Athens prevented me from buying it often.) My mom recently asked me if I was going to throw out the old issues I still have in a drawer in my parents' house in Macon. They're moving to North Carolina next year (more changes ahead) and don't want to be burdened with my tangible nostalgia when they start packing. I told her I'd ship the magazines to Chicago when I come home for Christmas. I can't just throw them out. It's ridiculous to think that I'll look through all of them again, but it's comforting just to know they're still there.

My friend Jeremy continued to subscribe to Premiere until the very end, but readers like him weren't informed that the magazine would be going away; he found out from me after I found out on IMDB's news page. What he wanted to know was whether or not he'd get a refund for the issues he'd already paid for. According to Wikipedia, "In late April subscribers were mailed postcards advising them of the magazine's demise and telling them the balance of their subscriptions would be fulfilled with issues of the tabloid-like Us Weekly. Negative response to the offer immediately was posted to the magazine website's forum pages by unhappy subscribers, and it was announced a cash refund would be available for those who preferred one."

Like I said, I wanted to buy the final issue of Premiere, mostly out of nostalgia and an 18-year commitment to the humor of Libby Gelman-Waxner (a.k.a. Paul Rudnick), so I went to Virgin in March and saw that copies of an issue with Will Ferrell were on the magazine racks. Nothing was mentioned in that issue about it being the last one, so I figured the next issue would be the last one.

Wrong. Just like a long-running TV show with low ratings that gets canceled before the writers have a chance to come up with a series finale, Premiere's final issue was just another issue, with no goodbyes or "It's been a great 20 years" or anything of the sort. I'm guessing the editors didn't see the end coming in time to prepare anything special. I wonder if they were first told that the June issue would be the last, which would've brought Premiere's long run to exactly 20 years; instead it fell a few months short. Like Tower Records, Premiere continues to exist in the U.S. as a Web site, but from what I can tell, Libby Gelman-Waxner's column isn't on it, which is a shame.

Here's one comment I found on a message board back in March when the news broke, written by a casual Premiere reader:

That is too bad. I love this magazine. Everytime I go to Barnes $ Noble this is the one I carry when I meet girls. My last 2 girlfriends started conversations with me about something from the magazine. (I tell you this is a chic-magnet) I dumped them both after a year, but that's another story. I confess I hardly bought it, except for special issues with Star Wars characters; and when it came with 4 different covers.

This guy accomplished the whole "woman-hating, insecure but bragging, sci-fi nerd" hat trick in one fell swoop! I didn't include the end of his comment, where he asked people to guess who was on the cover of the first issue of Premiere and gave three easy clues about Harrison Ford. The only problem with his question is that Ford wasn't on the cover of the first Premiere; Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd were, promoting Dragnet. Another commenter corrected the "chic-magnet" reader on this point. I doubt he responded.

A more drastic change that affected my infotainment life came last Thursday, September 6, when was suddenly shut down due to its hosting site,, being shut down. Apparently Jatol's owner hadn't been paying his bills for a while and was legally forced to switch off his servers, which Jefitoblog used to run his site. Or something like that. All I know is that Jefitoblog has been dark for over a week now and may not come back, which is a huge blow to all of his readers and for people like myself who Jeff Giles, the site's workaholic mastermind, encouraged to write about music (because even great workaholic music writers like Jeff need some time off). I thought Jefitoblog would be around for years to come, and if it never returns, then I'll know there is no God ... of pop culture, anyway.

Look, I realize change is necessary, and change can be a wonderful thing—the birth of my two nieces, for instance, and the positive effects of my time in Chicago on my mental health. And it's great when a bad change can lead to something new: earlier this week I woke up to an NPR report about a new record store in Sacramento owned by Russ Solomon, the founder of Tower Records, who I later learned was forced out of a leadership role at Tower during its last few years of operation. I was only half-conscious as the report ended, but I heard enough key words to search for more information later. The store is called R5 Records/Video and is located in the same building that Tower vacated in December—Tower's very first store, in fact, opened in 1960—which must give Solomon, who's 81 years old, some sort of satisfaction. The store's logo even resembles Tower's. The NPR report featured a few sound bites from customers, one of whom said that it was simply nice to be able to shop for CDs in a big record store staffed by music lovers once again.

After I got up that morning and searched for information on Solomon's new record store on Google, one of the first items I came across about this new beacon of hope for those of us who still enjoy purchasing tangible memories (those of us who live in Sacramento, at least) was a blog entry by a former Sacramento resident and jazz musician who'd recently been to R5 Records for the first time. The date of his entry was July 14, the same day Virgin Megastore closed in Chicago.

That reminded me of a saying people often use when comforting friends or loved ones who are experiencing unwelcome setbacks in their lives: when one door closes, another door opens. Sometimes it's the door to an actual record store whose name isn't iTunes or Amazon, and sometimes it's the door to a new chapter in life, one that ends up being better than what you'd grown accustomed to. You never know. I don't like not knowing, but there's already so much I don't know, adding one more thing can't hurt.


  1. I'm sorry to hear about your work situation. It's always difficult to deal with that kind of turbulence at the workplace (I should know, a great deal of my job revolves around helping people who recently lost their jobs.)

    I'm a hopeless nostalgic as well, so you have my deepest sympathy. My old issues of Premiere, Empire and Sight & Sound are safely stacked away in my parents' attic, and hopefully they'll never have to move (my parents, that is... possibly my magazines, too...)

    I mean, I'm all for change and innovation - as long as it doesn't compromise what already exists. Then again, it usually does.

  2. that is one long-ass blog post. i'm proud i made it through to the Premiere and jefitoblog demise.

  3. My friends in the business say the music business is doing fine; it's just the record business that's suffering. Licensing and online music sales are keeping the industry afloat for now.

    But there's a lot changing, indeed. And as it gets more and more complex and unfamiliar I cry out for simplicity. Or I think about Thoreau pointing out how we wear paths in our minds just as we do a path to the mailbox. Or I think about Craig of craigslist responding to angry newspapermen in New York this spring when he pretty much said, "This is what people want. You should have thought of it first."

    Life gets less tangible as communication becomes more real.

  4. what a sad, but great post, robert.

    i think the record industry would have an easier time keeping up if they were producing more good music. maybe i am wrong. but i feel so uncompelled by any of the mainstream music i ever catch snippets of this day.

    i just recently decided that i have hit the age where i think all good music was already made and i have resigned myself to having my mp3 player be a shrine to the music from 2004 or earlier. i will keep trying to buy good records at garage sales because the classical era and the 1960s and 1970s were the truest great times for music and i can get anything i want from the serendipitous acquisition of good vinyl.

    (as well as composing run on sentences with poor grammar and non existent capitalization.) anyway that was a big realization for me. my wardrobe and music collection will cease to evolve forward, and i will only continue to seek out gems from before anyone knew about britney spears.

  5. Great comments, Terje, Sal, and Kate! I love what you had to say. (Mary, you're on probation.)