Reorganizing Top to Bottom

23 08 2007

Ravi Shankar

By Derek Beres

Currently building my Ravi Shankar collection (see yesterday’s post), I walked into Virgin Records the other day in search of the concerts I did not have in my possession. The store in Union Square has always irked me in many ways – it is designed to make you feel like you’re walking through, and living inside, of a television show – yet they have a decent (slightly above mediocre) selection of international music. Since Tower Records shut down, there’s few options for me to pick up non-digitized music, so outside of Virgin and Barnes & Noble,  my options are limited.

The entire store, first of all, is on sale. I’ve never seen such a display of panic disguised as ingenuity. Ingenious, really. I walk through rows and rows of discounted discs, packed the overflowing magazine racks, around the merchandising area that’s bent on revamping horrid ’80s denim fashions plastered with Pink Floyd and Doors logos, past the dominant global genres – reggae and Latin – and end in “Asia.” The row encompasses everything imaginable under that umbrella term, from orchestral Chinese music and Japanese Zen meditation discs to bhangra,  Malaysian pop, Asian Underground and Tibetan monk chants. And, of course, what I was seeking, the classical music of India.

Their selection, again, mediocre at best, was further confused by the complete disdain the employees must hold for things like: organization and coherence. There was none of it. I found ’80s bhangra hits under Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Karsh Kale discs thrown into the section marked Ryuichi Sakamoto. Cheb i Sabbah was filed under dance compilations, and some horribly cheesy Indian pop singer with glasses and gold chains was resting inside of the space supposedly reserved for Ustad Sultan Khan. I did find the section of Ravi Shankar, though I also found more of his discs not in that section – for example, in Bollywood.

Add to this sad display of retailing this report I read yesterday on Billboard’s website. The opening graph will suffice: “A new study released today by the Texas-based Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI) estimates that global piracy of recorded music has cost the United States $12.5 billion in economic output and 71,060 jobs annually.” It would make sense that Billboard would post such nonsense, seeing as their publication relies on the financial support of large record labels. They’ve been holding hands with the RIAA since the entire online debacle began.

Cost the United States $12.5 billion? How, exactly, is this even possible? How can one account for money never spent? I spend a good portion of my journalistic time dealing with record labels that, while concerned about piracy, are actually figuring out how to make money in a changing market. Changing. That word is key. You cannot base 2007’s sales on what had been sold in 1997. It’s a different market entirely; a different industry, a different artistry. Yes, part of the art has to do with earning a living without selling millions of CDs – you know, what over 99.9% of musicians have been doing all along.

Yet that .01% clings tenaciously to their media stronghold. And really, it’s little more than that. They’ve bought their way with magazine and television advertisements, and continue to influence the phrasing of industry standards. That’s how their able to make people feel like criminals, or even worse, victimized, when all that’s really going on is a changing of the guard. The new shift has arrived, and they’re not ready to leave, so they’re going to do everything possible to make us believe they don’t need relief. We’ve already seen it with the presidency of this country; the record industry is merely following his lead. And, in some respects, it’s working.

In others, however, it’s not. Hiring think-tanks to do your dirty work is a temporary balm to a deeper burn. When something i diseased at the top, it’s going to filter down to the lowest levels – hence, the complete disregard of record store employees earning low wages and not being given reason to keep the shelves in order. Nothing else is. Still, it’s a shame. International music is already given a position of importance in stores near the bottom of the totem pole. Yet the bottom rungs hold the foundation, something the higher classes always forget when fingering their bankrolls.

Most of these artists and countries remain in the exotica section, something “other” people listen to. Never mind the fact that, when given a chance, many fall in love with the music of other cultures. It happened to me, enough to make a career out of it. And through my experiences in journalism, DJing and teaching yoga, where I’m able to reach my largest audience on a consistent basis, I’ve had so many people ask about these wonderful musics that a day rarely goes by when I have not written down a song title, artist name or record for someone. It’s just a shame to consider that when they go into the store, they may never find it.

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