STOP THE MUSIC?

In the category of “The Changing of Things Through the Internet”, Columbia House, the company that offered membership to their club where one is required to purchase so many record albums per year on a monthly basis, filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy production due to the change on how music is distributed, consumed, and purchased–if at all!

It’s current holding company, Filmed Entertainment Inc., filed a chapter 11 bankruptcy production in New York City in middle August, noting that because of state of downloading music files, as well as the many streaming services offered through Pandora, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and it’s recently entry in the music streaming services, Apple, this one time powerhouse in the retail music industry could no longer compete in how they conducted their services for the last sixty years by offering eight to ten record albums for only one cent (or some other cheap price), just to use as an incentive for people to join their “club”.

Although Columbia House claims they have 110,000 members in their service with a revenue of $17 million earned in 2014, they listed total assets of $2 million while owing some $63 million to over 250 creditors. This amount of $17 million earned falls short of their peak year, 1996, when this company raked in $1.4 billion.

Columbia House was at one time part of Columbia Records, one of many divisions of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Their biggest competitor was RCA Records, a division of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), where the two giants in media were always looking over each other’s shoulder to make sure that their record releases were selling well, and to make the number one spot on Billboard’s album charts.

Columbia had one trick up their sleeve that RCA tried to compete with only to eventually buckle down. A few years before their music club got its start, Columbia introduced (and patented) the Long Playing record album, a 10” disk that offered a number of songs on both side of the disk that played at a much slower speed at 33 1/3 RPM, offering more recording time and a fidelity that sounded a bit better than the 78 RPM disks that’s been around since the turn of the 20th century. RCA competed in the album category by offering boxed sets of selections that appeared on 7” disks that played at 45 RPM, with two or three selections on each record side. So if Columbia can offer an album with ten songs on a single disk, RCA offered their albums on three 45 RPM disks with two to three songs per side.

But Columbia won the album war, making their 10” disks (later growing to 12” disks) the industry standard. Soon, RCA, along with everyone else, now offered 12” albums while the 45 RPM disks were reduced to singles, with one recording on each side. For the next thirty or so years, nearly all records released by all companies were either 12” albums, or 7” singles. 78s were phased out by 1958, never to be offered on a mass scale ever again.

So in 1955, in order to enhance sales of their long playing (LP) records, Columbia began their Columbia House Record club, placing ads in many different magazines of the era ranging from Esquire to Playboy, where for a single penny (moving up and down in price maxing out to a dollar and some loose change), one can purchase a selected offering of eight to ten albums by joining their club. The offering was easy, but the commitments were a bit harder. In order to maintain a membership in good standing, one would receive a monthly catalog of new or recent releases offered by Columbia Records as well as a few other labels, with a postcard noting a specific title. If one wanted that album, one would do nothing. The club would send that album to the member through the mail, along with a bill for the album for the full retail price. If one didn’t want the album, one would send the post card that states “Send me nothing”, and one would only receive yet another catalog the next month with another post card pushing another album, where the process would repeat. But one was required to make so many purchases in a given period of time, all paying at full retail prices for each album required to buy.

Many people were hip to the company’s terms, promptly sending the post card back with a “no thanks” message, and eventually making a purchase for an album at full retail within the given period of time. However, many others were not as savvy to what they got themselves into, and were mired with all of the commitments involved, down to forgetting to send the “no thanks” post card back to the company headquarters in Terre Haute, Indiana and thus, being stuck with unwanted albums billed for its full price. (This little scenario was even a plot for an episode of Leave It To Beaver where the Beev joined a mail order record club only to ignore the monthly mailings and is forced to pay for all of the records that came to the Cleaver’s home doorstep!)

As business picked up, the company offered other forms of music outside of LPs. They first offered prerecorded reel-to-reel tapes in the 1960’s, moving on to 8-track tapes in the 70’s, audio cassettes in the 80’s, and CDs in the 90’s. Records offerings were phased out in the late 80’s when record production itself hit its dry spot.

Then something changed in the turn of the 21st century. Thanks to downloading places on the net such as Napster, one can grab all of the music one wanted as an audio MP3 file that sounded just as great as a CD could provide, for the best price around–free! Soon, many people were trolling around cyberspace to places where music was available for naught! It’s legal status was rather questionable, but that didn’t stop anyone from taking advantage in getting something that was once available for some kind of price!

Perhaps one of the biggest nails in the music coffin was pounded a few years later, when Apple, the one time second player in the computer business that was still under the shadow of Microsoft, introduced its iPod, a small device that can play those MP3 files folks were getting for free or for a much cheaper price. That lead to the slow demise of the CD. Not only because of sales, but through methods of the record labels. They figured that they can sell their music for 99c per cut or less, and never having to pay the expenses of pressing recordings onto a vinyl CD disk, printing up small folders that fit within those plastic “jewel box” CD holders, and shipping the disk to dealers and distributors around the nation and the world. Thus, consumers and the music companies slowly diminished the CD that eventually nearly killed the LPs!

Columbia House morphed their business to offering digital video disks (DVDs) replacing the audio CD for their club, offering eight to ten DVD titles for $3.00 or less–not counting paying for postage, handing, and even sales tax. The terms to maintain membership remained the same as it was back in the LP days.

Thanks to streaming services offered by Amazon, Google, and the leader of the pack, Netflix, now DVDs are becoming part of the new threat. Although DVD sales and rentals are rather healthy for what they are, technology on how media is distributed has changed from one source to another. And the cycle will continue.

As a footnote, one element of media and its method of packaging is making a mild comeback–the LP record! Many folks are discovering that audio coming from a vinyl album sounds a bit better than hearing the same sound from a CD. The analog tones are warmer and richer, and depending on one’s equipment to hear such sounds, one will notice that digital audio cannot capture those same notes, just because digital audio is “too perfect”. Places such as Barns & Noble has started to offer newly pressed LP records as part of their mix. Perhaps the most amusing part of these “new” records is the fact that much of the selections newly pressed by one of the three music companies (Sony Music, Universal Music, and Warner Music ) are catalog titles originally released in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s when records were the nearly only place to be! And if one desires to get a record from the period (mostly out of print titles), many garage and estate sales that offer records as part of the offerings report brisk sales for LPs sold for as little as one dollar each and less–with no commitment whatsoever!

It will be interesting to see what is in store for music distribution in the next few periods. Just about every kind of smart phone can play back MP3 files, and streaming services are now the hot option to get music a la radio, and records have made a welcomed return. And traditional over the air radio is ever still popular to hear music, along with the ads that come with most radio programming. In spite of all of these choices, tunes are easier to get, assuming that the type of music is pleasing to one’s ear and to one’s tastes!

Anyone ready for Leapy Lee’s greatest hits??

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NEWS AND REVIEWS

     The Road Theatre Company of North Hollywood opens their 25th Anniversary season with the world premier of Lisa Loomer’s HOMEFREE, a  drama of a trio of homeless youths and the lives their lives where each day offers an experience of surviving by the seat of their pants.

The three in question are Breezy (Gabriela Ortega), Franklin (Lockne O’Brien), and JJ (Barret Lewis). Each one was forced into their urban wild through personal circumstances. Breezy, a girl that lived with her strict mother and leering step dad, is pregnant. Franklin was forced out of his home just because he was gay. JJ lived through various methods of substances by way of drink and assorted drugs. They are based in Medford, Oregon, a community that tolerates a bit toward street people. They survive as a team, taking a look toward one another and always finding a way to carry through; eating through dumpsters, begging for spare change, and even going through some dubious methods to keep coins in their pockets. Although there isn’t much hope in their horizons, they do have plans. JJ, the street smart kid and the unofficial leader, schemes to head over to Los Angeles to find success, willing to take Breezy along. Franklin, another kid with an unofficial ranking as the more intelligent one, falls into a series of near demise–or so thought. Meanwhile, Breezy and JJ as set on their journey to LA, wind up in nearby Ashland, Oregon, a town that is more tidy and doesn’t tolerate homeless people as Medford does. While in Medford, they befriend a pair of older and more experience people living off the urban landscape, Shannon and Aaron (Chelsea Averil and Donald Russel), that knows more about the ins and outs of existing in a life that offers no guarantees of food, shelter, and a chance to live through the next day. It’s a saga of a small group of youths that is suppose to begin their lives, but wind up judging if their lives are to progress or end!

This play by playwright Lisa Loomer shows how the so-called “American Dream” has once again failed to keep up its pledge to become a state of happiness that can be achieved by all. Instead, it’s just an empty title that shows that life is really a gamble where the odds are in favor of the house, in spite of the fact that a physical house isn’t part of the package! It presents itself as more a glimpse of a post modern society that offers nothing and gives more of the same.

As to the performers that appear in this production, the three leads-Gabriala Ortega, Lockne O’Brien, and Barret Lewis as the young adults play their roles quite well, showing that they are not really kids per se, but adults that are more hip, savvy, and street smart that those that are more privileged (i.e. with more access to money and connections) in order to exist. They do want a home of some kind, but know they can’t have one. Michael Matthews directs this play that is gritty, rough around the edges, and isn’t charming to begin with. It’s not ugly or grotesque, but is far from being dressed as pretty in pink nevertheless!

As to what’s seen on stage, Michael Young’s costuming shows the really nitty gritty of living on and off the street scenes. JR Bruces’ set design focuses on the two sides of Oregon; Medford–with floating scenic backdrops that are made of metal scaffolding, rippled aluminum sheets, and other metallic pieces that can be found in any scrape yard, and Ashland that is more or rich dark oak wood sidings, suggesting that this location is better off, and intends to keep it that way!

In addition to the above noted cast, Steve Apostolina and Elizabeth Herror appear as various characters that appear in an assortment of roles.

HOMEFREE is a play that is very heavyhearted, very challenging, yet very real. It can be viewed as a downer play, offering no bright moments. But as noted before, it does offer that keep of a brighter life ahead. It’s all about what kind of deck life deals with, assuming that the virtual cards in the decked aren’t marked, or even counted!

     HOMEFREE, presented by The Road Theatre Company, performs at The Road on Magnolia, located within the NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, until November 8th. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 PM, and Sunday afternoons at 2:00 PM. For more information and for tickets, call (818) 761-8838, or via online at http://www.RoadTheatre.org

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