In the Shadow of No Tower

Insound, Other Music, and Anthology explore the brave new world of digital music

All three interviewees, like countless listeners of previous generations, first got into music by checking out records based solely on their cover art or intriguing labels. There was a palpable sense of mystery inherent in these physical objects and the untold sounds buried in their black grooves. The thrill of discovery bubbled up with every trip to the store. Now, "you never take chances, because you always want to hear something first," Madell grumbles. "What we peddle at Other Music is often difficult music. You can't always get it on a first listen or whatever. That sort of information-overload culture isn't necessarily to the service of underground music. People make snap judgments about stuff." Wishnow too perceives how the Internet and file sharing are a double-edged sword: "For avid music fans, it created a sense of discovery and community . . . however, for the more casual music fan, it created a sense that music was not something that one should spend money on."

While the nature of the beast encourages snap judgments and hive-mind sensibilities, the upside of the MP3 format for independent music, reissues, and other sorts of obscure music is impossible to deny. Abrahamsson admits that "the overhead is so low that you can focus on so many things. The medium is tailored for these kind of releases." He offers as testimony that the biggest success for the nascent site so far has been the release of the self-titled album from ex–Gorilla Biscuits/soon-to-be Quicksand guitarist Walter Schreifels's 1989 one-off hardcore project, Moondog, which played but one show at CBGB. "Walter was incredibly enthusiastic about having Moondog seen in a light with all these other esoteric, strange records," Abrahamsson says. "He was really into that."

Smaller imprints and artists are reticent to make the leap, though. "It's a complicated contract," Madell says, admitting that after a career in record retail, he's learning the legal logistics on the fly. Then there's the aesthetic question: how to sell music that no longer has a visual aspect or tactile quality to it, a particularly heated issue with the crate-digging savants these stores target. Diehards may cling to their nearly puritanical tenets—analog sounds better than digital, and cover art is meant for a gatefold record sleeve, not a JPEG file—but the trend away from physical product is irreversible. "MP3s are not my favorite format," Abrahamsson confesses. "I prefer LPs."

Insound's marketing also prioritizes albums over singles: "We want to elevate the album format in a time in which it's being challenged by technology," Wishnow says, conceding that it's also a matter of business. "The truth is that we cannot survive selling individual tracks. We pay credit card fees and transaction fees on every order to credit card companies, and we would lose money on every 99-cent order."

Madell also prefers LPs and old 45s, but is nevertheless enthused about the future. "It's exciting to be at the beginning of this new era," he says. "I can't really say there's a problem with people buying stuff digitally. They're listening to music, that's what really matters."

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