Yes, the times they ARE a changin’
For those who follow these things, there were two big stories in the financial pages that affected the entertainment business over the last ten days: the demise of the American retail chain Tower Records, and the purchase of YouTube by Google.
Tower Records, founded all the way back in 1960 and a familiar part of the shopping experience for generations of music fans (both American natives and visiting tourists), had been languishing in Chapter 11 (bankruptcy) for several years, unable to find a way to combat the general decline in CD sales. It was finally put out of its financial misery when purchased by a liquidator for $134.3million; its 20 remaining stores – including the flagship Sunset Boulevard shop – are set for imminent closure.
YouTube, on the other hand, is barely 18 months old, has no real income to speak of, let alone profit, and yet has made such an impact on the way we listen to and view music (and other TV) that Google bought it for an extraordinary $1.65 billion. (A price, mind, that reperesents barely 15% of Google’s cash!)
There has been considerable media coverage on each of these items but few stories I have seen that link them together. Yet they are clearly two sides of the same coin: 1) Record sales decline, big box store can’t figure out how to adapt the shopping experience, goes into bankrupty. 2) A couple of twenty-somethings figure out a way for the public to share videos online, quickly get to delivering 100 million video views a day, find themselves courted by the richest of tech companies, become billionaires overnight. Moral 1#) Kids want vids for free, not expensive CDs. Moral #2) Adults can get rich quick, without making a profit.
There’s another news story that ties into all this, and that’s the closure of CBGB’s. Like Tower Records, the famed birthplace of NYC Punk could not adapt to the times, got into debt with its landlord and, despite a spirited resistance fought out in the mainstream media, lost the battle to stay open. A few hundred lucky souls would have been in attendance this last Sunday October 15 for a farewell show starring Patti Smith; a similar number of even luckier souls saw Chris Stein and Debbie Harry playing together the previous night.
I was mildly ambivalent about CBGBs. Like anyone who attended the venue in awe of its historic importance, I was astounded on my first visit back in 1986 or 87 – not so much by its squalor (though the toilets really were something that had to be used to be believed) but by its sheer normality. A long thin bar down one side of the long thin room, a raised seated area opposite, and a narrow passageway inbetween, leading to a series of chairs and tables and a miniscule dancefloor. It was nothing to write home about.
But the best venues rarely are. CBs was just like the advertising slogan for the house beer, itself a line lifted from (appropriately) a Talking Heads song: “same as it ever was.” Founder Hilly Kristal knew that if ain’t broke, you don’t fix it, and while CBGBs never recaptured the glory of 1974-75 (when the people who were regulars swear to this day that it provided the greatest nights of their lives), it continued to be a marvelous place to see live music on those nights when the stars aligned. I remember special “secret” shows by The B-52’s, the Tom Tom Club and Crowded House (the latter for which a grand piano had been hired but failed to work; it took up about 90% of the stage space). I remember equally ecstatic shows by local new York acts like 3 Colors and The Toasters and Living Color, where the room was packed from wall to wall with kids who just wanted to dance. I remember seeing the kind of New York noise bands that were the only game in town in the very late 80s: the name Das Damen comes to mind, though I’m sure there were many dreadful others. I remember a set by Ian McCulloch among the dozens of UK acts (The Wonder Stuff? Ned’s Atomic Dustin? The Lilac Time? Why is it all such a blur?) who hoped to buy credibility by playing the oldest and still grimiest rock club in town. And I really want to tell you that I remember seeing the Ramones play there, though what I know I actually remember was the number of times I saw Joey Ramone at the bar, same as he ever was. It was that kind of place. A tourist trap that delivered the true tourist experience. No wonder Hilly never fixed the toilets.
Still, CBs expanded over the years, sometimes too quickly for its own good. Hilly opened a gallery and performance space on one side of the venue, a pizza bar on the other. I remember many a free slice of good pizza and beer courtesy of some record company bash back when I could barely afford to buy my own. Routinely, these CBs side projects would close, reopen, and mutate. The pizza place long ago closed; the gallery became better known for its brisk business in CBs t-shirts to Japanese tourists.
Like many New York music fans – and for all my fond memories – I stopped going to CBGBs many years ago. The New York City club scene moves fast, and there was always some new venue out there that boasted the best new acts, either home-grown bands from the downtown scene or the best of British (and other) Imports. It was reassuring that you could walk down the Bowery and still see a crowd gathered outside CB’s front doors, still see a group loading up its gear into a rented van, still see the homeless guys begging for change, but there was rarely a gig going on inside 315 that you felt you couldn’t miss.
The last time I was in there was over a year ago, when the threat of CBGB’s closure became a reality and Hilly responded with a press conference he held from the stage of his hallowed club. So began a long farewell, for which many acts returned the years’ favors and played either for free or for the Save CBGBs publicity. As the months ticked by and it became obvious that the doors would soon close for good, forty- and fifty somethings bemoaned the club’s demise as the death of New York rock. They were wrong: it was merely a changing of the times. For a few hundred yards away, in the blocks just below Houston Street, the younger kids have spent the last several years partying away to bands and DJs at Mercury Lounge, the Annex, Luna Lounge, Pianos, Sapphire, The Living Room, The Slipper Room and any number of other bars and venues as if CBs had never existed.
I’m sad to see it go, though I can’t confess that I thought or fought to keep it open. You simply can’t resist the tides of change and even those things that pride themselves on staying the same – be it the racks of discounted records at Tower, or the Rolling Rocks at CBGBs – must eventually adapt if they don’t expect to die. It’s a lesson that won’t be lost on the people at YouTube and Google as they try and figure how to make money from a format that became worth a billion and a half dollars – by giving copyrighted stuff away for free.