RTS Repost: Songs to Learn and Sing – Music Clubs and Their (and My) Downfall

[RTS, or ‘Rockin’ the Suburbs’ from the Ben Folds song, is the occasional music-related series of posts I’ve been writing on my Live Journal of the same name for the last few years.  I’ve decided to repost some of them here for your enjoyment. — JC]

–Originally posted at my LiveJournal, 4 March 2009.

I’m not sure exactly when, but I’m sure it was sometime mid-1986 when I first joined one of those music clubs.  I’m pretty sure it was RCA that first time.  I’d seen the pull-out ads in TV Guide inserts for years (If I remember correctly, I think I sent one in with a penny taped to the card when I was five or six, knowing nothing of the contractual obligations that time, and my parents were shocked to see albums coming in the mail and duly sent them back, telling the company how old I was.  I don’t count that time. 😉 ).  I think the selling point for me was that they had titles that I couldn’t find at the local Music Forum or Mars Bargainland department store.  They had stuff that I was just beginning to hear about on college radio, and read about in Star Hits (aka Smash Hits in the UK and later on in the US) and elsewhere.

I’d somehow talked my parents into letting me join it, promising I’d be good and only order things when I had the money.  For the most part I did pretty good that time around, ordering only when I had money to spend (I worked at various jobs then, either at the local YMCA or at Victory Supermarket).  I was also really good at sending those response cards back, making a habit of choosing music as soon as possible if I had money, or going without if I didn’t.  I also sort-of shared the club with my sisters, asking them if they wanted me to order anything for them so I could make good on the contract quicker.

I think the first time I quit that club was because they didn’t have everything I was looking for…their rock selection, while interesting and perhaps more diverse than the local stores were offering, didn’t have enough.  I quit RCA and and after awhile joined either Columbia House or BMG, not sure which.  It may have been Columbia House, as I think it was about the same time that my friend Chris was trying to get some free albums by signing friends up, and I of course was taken in.  That must have been mid-1987, because one of the titles that I ended up buying at that time was The Smiths’ Strangeways Here We Come.  Columbia House had a better selection, dealing with nearly all the major distributors at that time.  By this time, what was on major labels I could order from CH, and whatever was on an indie label or was an import, I could find at Main Street Records down in Northampton.  Again, this worked pretty well, and rarely was I scratching for money to pay off an album I’d ordered.

I think the reason I quit that time was because I needed to save money for college, and I had to drop a lot of things I didn’t need.  As tempting as it was to keep this up, I had to do without.  There was also the fact that I’d missed on sending the response cards more than a few times, so I figured it was high time to do away with it before I got into more trouble.  I don’t remember exactly when I quit, but I’m pretty sure it was during senior year.

Then there was college.  At that point?  Let’s just say that my monetary problem started around this time, primarily in the form of used record stores.  By that time I was obsessed with collecting music, and having two main record stores (Newbury Comics and Tower Records) and three good-sized used record stores (Nuggets, Planet and Mystery Train) within a few block of my dorm was not helping.  I’d be spending money on albums when I should have been spending it on paying the phone bill or on food.

And somewhere during sophomore year?  I joined again, this time BMG.  Lord knows why.  I guess I had the big idea that ordering albums from a music club made more sense than going hogwild at one of the stores down the street.  I’d do one instead of the other.  Of course, that idea didn’t last long…

I finally quit for good sometime in 1992, soon after I moved out of the apartment I shared with L., when I was well and trully broke and owing some serious money to all sorts of places.  I made good with the contract, bought what I needed to buy, and never joined another music club again.  It would take a few more years of bad money decisions and way too much album-buying before I was able to turn my debt around, but at least this one temptation was away from me.


So here we are, 2009, and the BMG Music Club is finally about to give up the ghost.  I have such a small cd collection now I can just about fit it in two large wooden boxes in the closet (and this is after having an immensely large collection acquired from four years at a record store and four years of frequenting Newbury Comics and elsewhere).  My collection is now in digital format, growing slowly but surely through online means such as Amazon, eMusic, and elsewhere.  eMusic is the only thing I use that comes close to being what these old-school music clubs used to be, where I have a finite amount of time to choose what music I want.  I’m in much better shape financially, so it’s something I can afford and keep well under control.  I can still go to the local Barnes & Noble, or take the train up to Amoeba, but I don’t buy physical cds nearly as much as I used to, and I’ve noticed that lately my physical cd buying has been of old titles–stuff I’m finding in used or sale bins.  I’m pretty much catching up with stuff I either had on vinyl, or things I never got around to buying back in the day.

On the other hand, however, I’m still a collection fiend.  I’m one of those collectors who wants the entire discography of a band if I really like them.  I could do with just their albums, but I want their singles and rare b-sides as well.  (I could do without some of the 12″ remixes that are nothing more than a cheapass dance beat with the vocal tracks pasted on them, though.)  If I was still a weaker man, we’d have a larger apartment so I could put all my cds and all our books together in a “study” room, and I’d be scraping by monetarily.  I could still pare down on what I buy and download, and I will admit that it sometimes distracts me from my writing time, especially when I’m playing around with my library, recreating my compilations via playlists on my player.

On the whole?  I do sometimes miss being in those clubs.  It was fun while it lasted, but like everything else, its time has come and gone, and it’s time to move on.

RTS Repost: ‘This is the end of the broadcast day…’

[RTS, or ‘Rockin’ the Suburbs’ from the Ben Folds song, is the occasional music-related series of posts I’ve been writing on my Live Journal of the same name for the last few years.  I’ve decided to repost some of them here for your enjoyment. — JC]

“This is the end of the broadcast day…”

That’s a phrase you don’t hear much anymore, do you?

With the large number of terrestrial stations picking up satellite feeds or having overnight shows (pre-recorded or otherwise), and all the internet and satellite stations (at least the ones not run out of someone’s basement) running twenty-four seven, it’s kind of strange in this day and age to hear a station read out the end-of-day legal sign-off.  You know, the one that says the above phrase, followed by the technical jargon of where the station is broadcast from, where their tower is, and what frequency they’re at.

Even rarer nowadays is hearing the station go off the air, followed by the hiss of static.

I’ve been listening via internet to WAMH, Amherst College’s radio station and the one I’ve been listening to since 1987, especially on the weekends with their Potted Plant countdown.  I could be listening to any other station here in the Bay Area, or even Save Alternative (which in my opinion is doing a great job of resurrecting the freeform radio format), but you all know my love for college radio, so I try to listen to it as much as I can while it’s on the air.  Since WAMH usually goes off the air about 10 or 11pm Eastern time, I get to hear the sign-off at 8pm out here on the west coast.

The funny thing is that I remember as a kid hearing the sign-off all the time, and for a brief stretch I knew WCAT’s by heart when I worked there in 1987-88 and again in 1995-96.  I was hired for weekends back in the 80s (I thank my friend Chris for that position), back when it was only an AM station that went off the air at sundown.  I had to play a prerecorded cart of the owner reading off the same legal sign-off, played exactly fifteen seconds before shutting down, so that I could power down right on time.  I had to do the same thing as well at my college radio station, when I had a late night show on WECB, and again at the other college station when I had the alternative show on WERS.  By the time I returned back to WCAT in my last radio gig, that station was broadcasting on both AM and FM frequencies, but I only had to play it for the AM station.

There’s something melancholic about hearing a radio station sign-off, at least for me.  When I was a kid–and even as a teenager–radio was my link to the real outside world, past my family and past the small town I lived in.  I think that, more than anything else, was what pulled me towards radio in the first place, even more so than the idea of playing all my favorite songs and sharing them with other listeners.  I liked the community aspect to it, a sort of etheric connection that kept everyone informed and entertained.  Of course, the internet is a hyped-up, jacked-in, overloaded version of that idea, but somehow it isn’t the same…where the internet is aural and visual, terrestrial radio is only aural and therefore more personal–the deejay is talking to you, informing you, playing you music for your enjoyment.  The internet, while it can also do that, sadly also has the effect of turning you into a five year-old with a sweet tooth let loose in Wonka’s Chocolate Factory–if you have no self-control, you end up overindulging.

Hearing that sign-off always leaves me with a sense of sadness, that I’ve reached the end of a performance, leaving me to make my way back to the real world again.  I’ve been entertained by the deejays and the music, I may have even learned a few things, but their job is over for the day.  Hearing it today reminded me that the school year is almost over, and this station will soon be off the air for the summer, leaving me to my own devices.  It also reminded me that today is Sunday, and my relaxing weekend is almost over.  This time, instead of needing to go back to school the next day, I have to go to work.

Still…I’m glad radio is still out there, whether it’s online or terrestrial.  Even if it is a fleeting entertainment, it’s a sound salvation (as Elvis Costello sang), and still my favorite way of relaxing.  Even when it’s the end of the broadcast day.