A Needle in a CD Stack

Copyright 2005


Listen. You want cheap music? Keep downloading MP3s off the internet. If you don’t care about the quality of the music you’re pumping into your ears, keep downloading. On the other hand, if you’ve noticed that something’s missing from the MP3-versions of your songs, step inside, my friend, and I’ll tell you a story.

New York City: a man walks out of his apartment in the 20s on his way downtown along Park Avenue. He doesn’t wear headphones. Just blue jeans, brick-red work boots, white T-shirt, V-neck beige sweater, and an Army-green winter coat. His jet black hair thins and recedes along the pale crown of his head. If you get close, you will see two dark sparkling eyes. He may fidget and run a stray hand through his thinning hair, but he will not take those black onyx eyes off yours. An elfin nose stretches out between those eyes. High cheek bones and a hard-edged jawline frame a small russet-colored mouth that continues to form words with an occasionally lisping tongue.

Justin Strauss, 48, never worked a day in his life that didn’t have something to do with making music. During the day, Strauss works as a project manager for a hotel renovation company. At night, he works at the Virgin Megastore, in the Union Square area of Manhattan, near the East Village. From 6 pm to 1 am he’s on the floor helping customers or in the DJ booth spinning his records. Strauss prefers vinyl to CD, but he acknowledges the comparable sound quality of both. However, he will not listen to MP3s, where vocals and instrumentation lose their fullness, their roundness, their resonance. The grand scale of the artful music gets lost in the process of compressing a CD to an MP3: a skyscraper-size painting shrinks to a thumbnail-size reprint in order to fit on the computer screen. Strauss stands in opposition to this devaluation of sound by sacrificing his time to promote the superior quality of vinyl and CD, because he cares about music.

First stop at the Virgin café, he gets a coffee (“Nothing but the real stuff”) and maybe a blueberry muffin. He hasn’t eaten since nine in the morning—a bowl of oatmeal, a glass of oj and more coffee. The leather tab on the back of his Levi XX jeans attests to his spartan eating habits—29-inch waist, 34-inch inseam. His arms don’t get much bigger from his wrist to his bicep, but with them and his small, delicate hands he can maneuver sound waves with the magical precision of a wizard.

Two records become one sound under the direction of his fingers. He grips the grooves of the vinyl and manipulates the levers and buttons of the mixing machine to spin music like pink taffy from the two Technics turntables. Strauss stretches out the accumulated ingredients into a string of sound that he flings out over the heads of the audience. Just before the song slackens and he loses the hypnotic moment, he flicks his wrist and hauls back in the rubbery sound vibrations. Then he lets loose another colorful strand of stimulating beats that continues the transcendent moment seamlessly.

Outside the music store, pedestrians equipped with iPods hurry along 14th Street. What kind of music are they listening to? What’s inside that Cracker Jack box, that iPod? That MP4-version from iTunes (even more compressed than an MP3), is it a golden ring or a plastic knockoff?

“The guitars don’t sound right. The bass sounds bad to me. There’s warbling sounds on the vocals that clearly shouldn’t be there,” said Dave Moulton, a Grammy-nominated sound engineer, about the inferiority of MP3s and MP4s. “There are people who can hear that it’s not CD-quality and I would be one of them. That’s why I call it music-lite.” Simply put, an MP3 encoded at 128 kilobits per second strips away 90 percent of the music data captured on a CD, Moulton said. “It is really painfully obvious,” he emphasized. “MP3s sound worse than CDs.”

Yet millions of people buy this inferior brand of music. In two years of operation, Apple iTunes has sold 250 million songs in MP3 or MP4 format. Worse yet, billions of people steal MP3s off the internet. Universal Music, which owned the largest share of the $30 billion global music business last year, claimed that illegal downloads cost the industry billions of dollars in lost revenue. BigChampagne, an online music monitoring company, confirmed that between one and two billion illegal downloads occur every month. If the music industry could drive that business to legal download sites, at $1 per song, the industry could reap an extra $1 billion to $2 billion every month. Multiplied over a year, that’s $12 billion to $24 billion of lost revenue. There’s the problem: many people obviously prefer their music for free, even if it sounds worse than a CD, and the industry that is the source of producing that recorded music is suffering as a consequence.

At the same time, Nielsen Soundscan, which monitors the sale of all recorded music, reported that CD sales were up in 2004, by 2.3 percent. This is the first year-to-year increase in CD sales since 2000, when Napster and the music download revolution took off in full force. However, the increase in sales may be a smoke-and-mirror trick. The record labels reduced CD prices so much—$7.99 at mass merchants, like Wal-Mart—that the industry may have lost money. The final revenue numbers for 2004 have not been released by the Recording Industry Association of America, but rumor has it that revenue was down again.

“[The record labels] kind of have a tough, dual identity they have to maintain. On the one hand, it’s important for them to maintain that we’re winning the war on piracy and our business is poised for a comeback,” said Eric Garland, a top executive at BigChampagne. “You know, they’ve got to maintain the value of their businesses. Particularly those that are trying to IPO [Initial Public Offer of stock]. They’ve got to get analysts and Wall Street to believe that they’re doing better. But I just have so many personal friends that have just been laid off in wave after wave of downsizing. I mean, these companies, when you’re inside them, they’re in such, such bad shape. They’re hemorrhaging. They’re just in terrible shape, financially.”

Although Universal Music represents top-selling musical artists, like U2, Eminem and 50 Cent, the company reported revenue losses in 2001, 2002 and 2003. Universal also predicted negative growth for the entire industry into 2005. Currently, iTunes and other legal music download sites generate a small portion of the music industry’s revenue—less than 1 percent of it, said Garland. The music industry needs to sell CDs to make money.

“You have to get the retailers to whisper it to you,” said Garland. Several retailers have confided to Garland that the industry can’t sell enough CDs to make a profit. “The real business of music, the big business of music is going in the direction [of internet MP3s], which is just this sort of vast, unlimited trove of, you know, cheap, relatively low-quality recordings.”

Back at the Virgin Megastore, the needle rides the groove of the record. As one turntable plays a song for the rest of the store, Strauss listens to a different song on the second turntable through his headphones. With the music playing in his head only, he searches for the perfect sound to mix into the song already playing by spinning the second record full-turns and half-turns. Once he finds the sound, he peels off his headphones and steps back from the two turntables. Bouncing to the music, he stomps one of his brick-red work boots and rollicks his shoulders from side to side. His wallet chain slaps up against his jean-covered pant leg to the beat of the music. Several customers in the CD aisles respond by nodding their heads to the same beat.

The song formerly in Strauss’ headphones becomes the music throughout the store. Strauss loops a bass beat from the new song with a touch of a button on the mixing machine. The irregular heartbeat encircles the store. It is the foreplay before the climax.

He sidesteps the more than 200 records (a mere fraction of his 10,000-plus records) and speaks into the microphone: “Virgin helps you save. Spend $50 on a purchase today and get a coupon book worth $1,000 in discounts.” It’s part of the business of selling music in a retail space.

“I hate ‘em,” he said about the in-store commercials. “But they gotta be done.”

With another touch of a button, Strauss lets loose the entire song, and “Danger” by the hip-hop artist, Blahzay Blahzay, takes over the store’s sound system. Strauss unsheathes the shiny, black, 12-inch vinyl record of 50 Cent’s song, “21 Questions,” and mixes a segment of it into “Danger.” Then he starts scratching the segment of “21 Questions” by making twitchy movements with his fingers on the record. The sound comes out like wicka-wicka-wick. Strauss uses a lever on the mixing machine, called the crossfader, to interweave the two songs. “Danger” plays on with a rhythmic scratching added over its bumping bass groove. (Strauss also plays CDs at Virgin, every once in a while.)

“Hip-hop is so popular it is Pop,” he said. “Not necessarily the kind I like. I’m not a huge fan of a lot of it. It’s not hip-hop to me.”  Strauss criticizes the bitches and hos, bling-bling mentality of a lot of today’s hip-hop, but says the Neptunes, Timbaland and Kanye West represent a level of artful hip-hop music.

“When I first started DJing and seeing what could be done, a lot of people sampling, doing creative things, but now there’s a lot of mediocre stuff. That’s what happens when things get into the mainstream. Gets watered down. Sometimes I’d just rather play the instrumental versions. You got a song like ‘Lean Back’ [a hip-hop dance hit from last summer]. It’s not lyrically setting the world on fire, but it’s great. It’s just a great party song.”

Strauss also has a strong affiliation with the Beatles. “They still sound better than a lot of stuff coming out now,” he said. “Years from now, a kid’s not gonna ask you, ‘Wow, do you have the Franz Ferdinand record?’ Not that they’re not good. I just don’t see people 40 years from now listening to it. They’re not gonna last through the ages like the Beatles did. Maybe I’m wrong, but.” Strauss said he rarely plays the Beatles because he figures the customers at Virgin have already been introduced to their music. “Maybe ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ ” he corrected himself. “Just the groove of that song, like a loop. Ringo’s drum thing. People say it’s the first trip-hop record.”

Strauss saw the famous foursome live at Shea Stadium in 1966 with his mom and dad. “It’s when I heard the Beatles that I knew I wanted to pursue music for the rest of my life,” he said.

Justin Strauss entered this world in 1957, when the rock ‘n’ roll sounds of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis Presley still jarred with the musical sensibilities of the majority of non-teenagers, who were accustomed to the orchestra-accompanied singing of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Noise the parents called the new music. Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Here To Stay the kids chanted back. This is the world Strauss was about to enter. Born in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, Strauss soon moved to Long Island, where he and his family—mom, dad, and later a younger brother and sister—lived in the same house as his paternal grandparents. His mother’s parents lived a few blocks away.

After seeing John, Paul, George and Ringo shaking their mop-top hair, and famously harmonizing and playing their guitars, bass and drums as loud as possible to overcome the screaming girls in the audience, Strauss bought his first vinyl record—a Beatles single—on the smaller 45 rpm format, measuring seven inches in diameter, as opposed to the industry standard 33 1⁄3 rpm format, measuring 12 inches in diameter. All of his spare pennies went to buying records when he was a kid, Strauss said. He still has all of the original Beatles releases on both kinds of vinyl—every last one of their full-length albums on 12-inch as well as all of their singles on 45s.

Strauss also had the good fortune of having a voracious music fan of a father to help stimulate his music career. His dad, who owned a contracting company that maintained the paint jobs on Yankee Stadium and many of the New York City bridges, bought all the latest audio equipment, including a 4-track audio recorder when Strauss was about 12 years old. He followed his dad’s example and started recording himself and his friends on the new machine. That’s when Strauss formed his first rock band, in which he assumed the role of lead singer.

His father also went with him to several concerts throughout the 60s and 70s—the beginning of a musical era now known as Classic Rock. For some reason neither Strauss’ mom nor his siblings shared a similar yearning for live music. “I was the one who was into it,” Strauss said. He and his dad saw the Rolling Stones live at Madison Square Garden in ’69, ’72, and ’75, as well as the likes of Ike and Tina Turner and B.B. King. Witnessing the live performances of these musical legends gave Strauss an idea of what to emulate when he got up on stage.

In high school, Strauss’ girlfriend introduced him to a few guys in a band, called Milk ‘n’ Cookies. That same week Strauss recorded the band in his basement with his dad’s 4-track recorder. The lead singer, Ian North, who also played lead guitar and wrote the songs, asked Strauss to join the band and shoulder the singing responsibilities. “I’m not really a good singer. I just had a style that fit. My hair was long,” Strauss said. “Skinny and long hair means lead singer.”

Strauss described M&C as a “anglophile band” influenced by the Power Pop musicians of the mid-70s, like T. Rex, David Bowie, and the Sparks. In true entertainment fashion, where somebody knew somebody, their demo tape landed in the hands of the Sparks’ manager, who had some connections and clout because the Sparks had a top-five album in the UK at the time. M&C’s demo tape circulated from one person to another and ended up on the desk of Muff Winwood at Island Records in England.

Records don’t just happen. A record label nurtures the process from beginning to end: the initial recruitment of the band; paying for the studio; hiring a producer and engineer; paying for the mastering of the record; pressing the physical product at the manufacturing plant; designing the packaging; organizing promotional tours and advertising the new album. It takes a lot of money to get that vinyl record, CD, or MP3 for that matter, into the hands of the music-buying public.

In 1974, Winwood descended the stairs of Strauss’ basement, heard the band play, and signed them on the spot. Island Records moved the boys, who were all under 18, to London, England, and put them up in a South Kensington townhouse to start working on their record. “It was like I died and went to heaven,” Strauss said with rising excitement in his voice.

To promote the album M&C wrote a radio friendly single, “Little, Lost and Innocent.”

With the album complete, the band appeared on radio and TV shows throughout England, France and the Netherlands, but, when the single didn’t do as well as Island had hoped, somebody in corporate pulled the plug on releasing the album. By this point M&C had a manager who shopped the record elsewhere while the band went back to New York to play the downtown clubs, like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. They appeared on the same billing as up-and-coming bands, the Ramones and Blondie, and Island finally decided to release M&C’s record because of the band’s connection to the punk movement in New York. However, North, the lead guitarist and songwriter of M&C, had already moved to England to pursue a solo career and the bassist, Sal Maida, had left the band to join the Sparks in Los Angeles.

Before the break up of the original M&C, Maida and Strauss formed a lasting friendship. “Wherever we were—London, wherever— we were always scouring stores for rare records,” Strauss said. “We’re still friends ‘til this day.” In fact, the two of them talk at least once a month, he added.

Strauss and the original drummer from M&C continued to gig in New York with a replacement guitarist and bassist, but they were struggling. So when Maida called up Strauss and offered to introduce him to the L.A. music scene, Strauss and the new M&C jumped at the opportunity.

“It was snowing here and when I get out there it’s gorgeous,” Strauss said. Maida made good on his word, and soon M&C had regular gigs at several Hollywood clubs off Sunset Boulevard, including at the legendary Whisky a Go Go, where a decade earlier Jimi Hendrix, the Doors and Janis Joplin had played just before launching their careers.

Strauss and the rest of the band set up digs with Maida at the Tropicana Motel in West Hollywood, where Jim Morrison lived at the height of the Doors’ success and where Janis Joplin overdosed on heroin in one of its suites. “It was kind of a hellhole, but it had its vibe,” said Strauss about the former motel that was torn down in 1987 and replaced with a Ramada Inn. The Tropicana functioned as a fraternity house for musicians, writers and artists. Sam Shepard had lived there just before Strauss’ arrival and Andy Warhol filmed the cult movie, Heat, there in 1972. Tom Waits occupied one of the rooms at the Tropicana when Strauss and company showed up. “Somehow, we became friendly with him,” said Strauss about Waits, who was a regular at M&C shows. The musicians at the Tropicana went to each other’s performances, where there were also hordes of screaming teenage girls in the audience, said Strauss. “We had lots of fans, lots of press,” he elaborated. “Elton’s manager came to the shows. He said he wanted to manage us.” Although Elton John’s manager may have had other motives than promoting M&C’s career. “He was gay. I think he just wanted to be with the band,” Strauss opined.

Excessive drinking and partying started to weigh on the rest of the band, although Strauss claims he never drank that much and never got into drugs. “Music was enough for me,” he said. Island released the M&C record while the reconfigured band was out in L.A., but once again M&C broke up, this time for good. “We couldn’t capitalize on Island’s release of the record,” admitted Strauss. Welcome to the long, hard road of the gigging musician.

Back in New York, Strauss had a collection of thousands of records that he put to good use. His girlfriend at the time introduced him to a club DJ she knew. After a trial night on the turntables, Strauss had a regular gig spinning records at the Mudd Club, one of the most popular dance clubs in New York City during the late 70s and early 80s. The club’s playlist consisted of disco and rock music, so Strauss expanded his record scouring to include disco and dance songs, as well as new rock music. He picked up DJ gigs at other popular clubs, like Pyramid, Area and The Ritz (now Webster Hall), and continued to expand his record collection. Strauss started producing dance remixes for popular artists, like Blondie, Depeche Mode, Erasure, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. A google search comes up with a list of more than 20 remixes he produced or co-produced.

Strauss met his wife of 15 years while DJing at the Ritz. He has two daughters, ages 12 and 15, whom he accompanies to concerts, just like his dad did for him. The three of them saw the Killers at Irving Plaza in October. Through his contacts, Strauss secured seats in the VIP section, and his daughters got to meet David Bowie.

“I used to visit a club, called Area, in New York, which was really, really popular back then. And Justin used to spin there,” said Tony Calon, the store manager of Virgin Megastore, Union Square. “And I didn’t know him back then, but when I took over the store I found out Justin worked here. It was just so coincidental because I was always a fan of his music.” A year ago, Colon came to Virgin from managing at Circuit City.

“Justin’s knowledge of music is so incredible that not having him in the store clearly impacts our sales, because he sets the tone in the store,” Colon said. “Customers come in and it’s a great vibe. It’s like one big party. So they’re inclined to spend more money when he’s here. I mean, if I could I’d have him here seven days a week. But I can’t. But he definitely impacts my business. There’s no question about that.”

While Strauss mixes the store’s soundtrack for the customers, they can browse an inventory of more than 15,000 CDs on two floors. A ride down the escalator and thousands of DVDs await them on the ground floor. Virgin also sells iPods, CD players, Technics turntables, T-shirts, hoodies (upscale hooded sweatshirts), fiction and non-fiction books, pornography, video games, and, tucked away in a corner of the Dance section downstairs, a curated selection of several hundred vinyl records—new releases on 12-inch and on 45s.

“If we just sold CDs, we’d be out of business in a week,” said Strauss.

These are dire times for the music retail business. Last year, Tower Records filed for bankruptcy and then miraculously rebounded, while HMV closed many of its North American stores. Clive Davis, the chairman and chief executive of BMG North America, whose parent company Sony-BMG now owns the largest market share in the music industry, spoke to music retailers at the industry-wide conference in August of 2004. “You are faced with a major threat,” he said, according to a Dow Jones newswire. He identified that threat as “competition from digital distribution”—MP3s.

Davis also gave the music retailers, like Tower, HMV and Virgin, some advice. “It’s fun to shop for music,” he said. “You have got to make it exciting.”

Enter DJ Justin Strauss. As Virgin employee and DJ, he competes for the attention of music fans who could just as easily stay at home and download songs from the internet, rather than show up at his store. If the criterion was quality of music, the CDs at Virgin would win hands down over the MP3s at iTunes. If the criterion shifted to selection of music, Virgin would win again.

“The music universe is something like, I don’t know, 25 or 30 million tracks, and Apple only offers a million of them,” said Bill Werde, who covers the music industry as Associate Editor at Rolling Stone magazine.

Try downloading the Beatles or Led Zeppelin on iTunes. Apple doesn’t have the licensing rights.

It’s not just iTunes, though. Napster To Go, Virgin Digital, Best Buy—none of the online stores offer the selection of the brick-and-mortar retail stores. However, the illegal download sites have the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and almost every artist and title imaginable, all up for grabs. Well, almost every artist and title, but not quite.

“There’s a lot of stuff you can’t find on iTunes or the illegal way,” said Steve Persak, 19, a student at Stevens College in New Jersey. He recently bought a CD of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers that he couldn’t find on the internet. He left Tower Records with two CDs that he bought—the new Jack Johnson album and a collection of remixes by DJ Logic.

J.E. Miles, Jr., 44, heard the music of Rahsaan Patterson and Lalah Hathaway at a friend’s house in North Carolina. He couldn’t find their music on the internet and finally came to Virgin to buy the CDs.

Dorothy Kahien, 23, bought the new CD release from the indie rock group, Straylight Run. Kahien owns between 3,000 and 4,000 CDs, she said. She also has an iPod-mini to listen to her MP3s. “I feel like the quality of CD is better,” Kahien confidently stated.

A lot of people can’t hear the difference between CDs and MP3s, and, therefore, iPods work perfectly well for them. But a lot of people can hear the difference. Everybody’s ears are different.

“I’m very snobby about my MP3s. I won’t just buy the songs they sell at the Apple iTunes store. All of my MP3 music was encoded from the vinyl or from the CD at a much higher bit rate. It sounds as good as the source. I cannot hear the difference,” said Garland of BigChampagne. “The physical reality is the bigger the file the better it sounds.”

Garland encodes his MP3s at a variable rate of 360 kbps. However, Moulton, the aforementioned Grammy-nominated sound engineer, advocates even higher compression rates if one wants near CD-quality sound from an MP3. “If it gets up to 500 kbps, the loss isn’t so great,” Moulton said.

The long and short of it, technology came along and made music sound worse, but Garland expects technology to clean up its own mess. “Here’s the other variable to throw in the mix. This could be a temporary condition or temporary artifact of the price of storage. Here’s what I mean. Why compress music at all?” he started to explain. “If I’m going to move all of these high fidelity CDs that I have onto my hard drive, why not move the original source sound to my hard drive. Because at nearly a gig each, which they are, CDs are what 700 megabytes each—so almost ¾ of a gigabyte each—for me to put 10,000 recordings onto hard drive I would need 7,000 gigs of hard drive. I’m saying not only will that be possible, I think that will be affordable one day really soon.” In other words, the next generation of storage—terabytes—will allow safekeeping of several thousands of CDs in a handheld, portable player. “Then I’ll feel like a fool, and so will everyone else who bought all this music on iTunes, lower quality so that it would suit our storage capability in 2004,” Garland continued. “And in 2010, it makes no sense.”

As for Strauss, he’d have a lot more room in his apartment if he encoded his 10,000 vinyl records to MP3s, or, by Garland’s prediction, waited five years and encoded them to CD-quality storage. In addition to his apartment, where wall-to-wall records fill up every room except the kitchen and the bathroom, other storage facilities for Strauss’ records include his parents’ house in Long Island, a storage facility in Manhattan, and Virgin. He’ll say things like, “This is music to me,” as he feels a record in his hands. He’ll even slip a record out of its sleeve and smell it for the trace of chemicals from the pressing plant. He buys new records every week. If he can’t find the vinyl at Virgin or at the mom-and-pop shops around the city, then he uses the English website, Pure Groove. When that package comes in the mail it’s like Christmas in his apartment. Those onyx eyes widen and sparkle. He can’t wait to get his hands on that new black-licorice disc, sniff its circular etchings, center it on his Technics turntable, and drop the needle into one of the grooves.


For perspective:



“Is iPod sound quality better or worse than a basic home stereo system?

Worse. The MP3 standard ruined high fidelity. It’s possible to upload CD-quality onto the iPod. But most people opt for the default, lousy quality of MP3 and M4A compression. An entire generation has grown up never knowing high fidelity, never hearing what the artists heard in the studio when they were recording. This is a real shame.”

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