Read Zach’s New Essay “A Musician’s Dream Dies at Amoeba Records”
A Musician’s Dream Dies at Amoeba Records * By Zach Selwyn
By now music snobbery should have gone by the wayside. After all, the state of music has been disgustingly bleak since MP3s dethroned the industry in the 2000’s. Jobs have been eliminated, rock ‘n roll clubs have closed and bands with true talent and drive have settled for Spotify streams as a means to an .08 cent residual check twice a year. It wasn’t always this way.
In the glorious 90’s, I had friends with million dollar expense accounts, closets full of CD’s and other useless swag – like the Dave Matthews Band rain poncho I still have in a garage somewhere – and pockets full of drugs. But to say you are a “music executive”… or an A & R guy these days – sort of signifies that you are hanging onto a dream that died long ago. I have a good friend still in the business whose job it is to re-package Greatest Hits compilations to Wal-Marts across America. He’s the last executive I know – and I doubt that putting together a 10 song CD called Best of Soul Asylum is what he dreamt of when he was a younger man. In a way, today’s aging execs sort of resemble the 55-year-old hair metal musicians still hanging around the Rainbow hoping their demo CD lands them a review in Hit Parader Magazine.
Sure, nowadays vinyl is popular, but not everybody can plunk down $28.00 for a new Jack White album, no matter how many awesome backward grooves and upside down hidden songs exist when you play the thing on a 1976 Fisher-Price stereo. Besides, nice record players today can run upwards of 500 bucks. Isn’t it just so much easier to have a digital device or streaming service with everything you’ve ever wanted on it? Most of the world thinks so… But apparently, the gargantuan structure known as Amoeba Records in Hollywood does not.
Amoeba Records is the last place in the world where a used “out of print compact disc” can fetch roughly $17.00. It is the last place in the world where snobby record store employees still exist- and consider themselves way superior than the people shopping in their store. It is the last place in the world where music entitlement continues to thrive, as tattooed polliwogs insult your used DVD or CD collection while snickering behind the counter about the fact that you are wearing a Black Crowes shirt.
“Another R.E.M. CD?” One super tool employee whinnied as I tried to sell back a stack of CD’s from my collection. “Sorry, wrong decade.”
There are two things the Amoeba employee despises: Your band and your CD/DVD collection.
In 2003 my band released the first of our now five country-rock albums, ”Ghost Signs.” At the time, the death cart hadn’t quite been dragged through the streets for the physical CD, and independent manufacturers like Discmakers were still convincing artists like myself that things like shrink-wrap and jewel cases were ever so important. I fell for it, not only because it was my first time putting out my own album, but because I had always been one of those kids with 10,000 CD’s neatly arranged in jewel case displays across my dorm room. In short, I wanted my own title to exist with those titles. And there it was, finally in April of 2003: My album Ghost Signs by Zachariah.
The minute I received my shipment of 1000 CDs in the mail, I did what any bright-eyed troubadour who harbored dreams of becoming the next Springsteen would do – and I sent them out to a hundred magazines, music festivals and bigger record labels, hoping for a bite, a lead or a review. I also packed a box of 50 and went down to Amoeba Records, hoping to get a top display in front of the store. I lugged the huge box to the consignment counter and met a skinny employee with a Descendents t-shirt on who rolled his eyes when he saw me drop my hard-fought album on his counter. In those songs were my heart, soul and dreams. I was under the impression that he would take 50 of them and then ask for 50 more. After all, this wasn’t some crappy demo tape, this was an actual well-produced bad-ass album.
The employee barely shrugged at my hard work. He giggled and yawned. He wasn’t impressed. Instead, he offered up the following.
“We take two copies.”
“Two?” I said, incredulously.
“But I have, like 1000 of these,” I said.
“So does everyone else. Here’s our deal. If these sell, you get 3 bucks. If they don’t sell in 30 days they go in the dollar bin.”
I couldn’t believe it. Here I was, expecting to unload 50 CDs and have hundreds of new fans clamoring for me to perform live at the Greek Theatre by the end of the summer. Instead, a skinny asshole with skin so pale you could count his remaining good vein had shattered my dreams in under three minutes.
As of last week, both copies of that album are still floating around the dollar bin at Amoeba Records.
11 years later, I experienced roughly the same exact thing when I dropped my band’s new album off at the store, hoping that they had opened their minds to independent artists actually trying to distribute their own music. I was greeted by a chubby woman with Betty Page bangs – who had a dozen bangles hanging from her wrist. She had strange vampire kitty tattoos and was ironically wearing an Usher tour t-shirt. I hated her smugness immediately.
“Consignment?” She asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve actually placed some of my music in the store before.”
“What an achievement,” she puked.
I laid my new album on the counter. 11 songs. Pristine and awesome. A personal accomplishment. It was called Skywriting and was my fifth album of original material. I had foregone the jewel case this time around for the plastic sleeve and single panel artwork. It was cheaper, less clunky and much easier to store. My friends had been doing it this way for years, so I took their lead and saved some money on manufacturing costs. The girl looked at me as her lip curled upwards.
“What kind of packaging is this?” She asked.
“Well, I didn’t print my new album in jewel cases because – really – who uses jewel cases anymore, right?”
She shot daggers. It was as if I told her that the world was ending in a few minutes. I wasn’t sure why. The CD game had suffered so immensely in the time since I put out my first record, I figured the days were numbered that anyone would be caught dead with a jewel case. Or a CD for that matter. After all, new computers don’t even have DISC DRIVES anymore.
“You’re kidding, right?” She vomited. “Of course we use jewel cases.”
“Oh, I just figured they were becoming obsolete and everything.”
“I have 25,000 CD’s at my house. You call that obsolete?” She said.
I wasn’t sure what to call it. I have 25,000 CD’s as well, but mine were all stored in Case Logic books and on shelves in closets. The days when my alphabetized CD collection was the envy of every Pi Phi who waltzed into my fraternity house asking to borrow The Chronic were OVER.
“You don’t use the big CD books?” I asked.
“CD books are bullshit… You can never find anything, the artwork gets folded which means you can’t re-sell it and the discs get scratched in the storage… Whoever started using those things in the first place was an idiot.”
I couldn’t believe it. I was having an argument with a record store employee about how to store compact discs. It was like arguing that the news in tomorrow’s print newspaper would be more relevant than the news just posted on the internet.
She took my CD’s and re-packaged them in some abandoned clear jewel case she had in the back of the counter and filled out a consignment sheet for me. This time, I only brought two copies of my new album, wishing not to embarrass myself by leaving down the elevator with 50 copies like I did a decade prior. I signed a sheet saying that they could sell the album for $7.99 and that I’d retain three bucks of each sale.
Then I suggested we put the CD in the country section, to which she replied, “Nobody wants to be in the country section… especially with a name like Zachariah. You think anyone is looking in the ‘Z’ section of country?”
“Maybe they’ll find it while looking for Dwight Yoakam?” I suggested.
She rolled her eyes again and hit me with even more conceit and arrogance.
“No offense, but if anybody is looking for Dwight Yoakam, they probably aren’t looking for you.”
I hated this bitch.
“Fine,” I said. “Put me next to Warren Zevon and ZZ Top in the ‘Z’ section of rock n roll.”
“Good choice,” she said. “Not that anybody is looking for them either.”
I thanked her for being so awesome and told her that she’d be surprised at how fast my CD’s would sell. She eeked out a fake smile and waved me off before moving onto the next customer who was selling a large amount of unopened House of Cards DVD’s.
Three days later, I sent my brother into Amoeba to buy both of my CD’s. I didn’t care if I was losing a few bucks by doing it. The point was to prove to these assholes that I could sell something at their store. I slipped him $20.00 and he went in and came out with both copies of my new album.
A day later, a different manager called me and informed me that I had “miraculously” sold out of my CD’s and that if I wanted to bring a few more by, he’d be happy to consign them and pay me the $6.00 I was
“How many copies should I bring down?” I asked him sarcastically. “About 50?”
“Why don’t we start with one,” he said.
I told him I’d be in that afternoon. But that I wasn’t providing a jewel case…