Sunday, July 27, 2008

Mike Dreese of Newbury Comics: The Well-Rounded Radio Interview

Newbury Comics started as a comics store on Newbury Street, a famed block for shopping in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood, but now each of their 27 locations sells CDs, vinyl, DVDs, posters, toys, books, magazines, sports merchandise, clothes, shoes, housewares, and much more.

Given how much time (and money!) I have spent at Newbury Comics over these last eight years and how much great music I have discovered there and subsequently brought to my listeners, I was glad to be able to interview Mike Dreese, the co-founder of Newbury Comics, as we had a great conversation about the state of record retailing and the state of the music business in general.

If you live here, you already know why it's such a fun place. If and when you visit New England, be sure to stop by one of their stores and experience it for yourself. Newbury Comics now has locations in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island with the majority of stores in Greater Boston. Check for address location and to shop online as well.

Our timing of featuring Dreese on Well-Rounded Radio's 50th episode is good as this year is Newbury Comics' 30th anniversary and they are opening two new stores this summer. One is a super store in Norwood, Massachusetts in a space formerly used by a car dealership, which sounds like it might give the Amoeba Records stores a run for their money, and a second store will be located at historic Faneuil Hall in downtown Boston. Maybe there is a future for the record store, yet.

So, I have made it to episode 50....yeah.

While I am not one to make too much of numbers, my arrival at it after producing the show for the last six years does make me stop for a minute to think about the path I've traveled and where it might be going.

Well-Rounded Radio was an idea born just outside Seattle on a sidewalk in Kirkland, Washington with my friend Marion Seymour back in 1999 during a conversation we were having about the great music interviews we both used to hear when growing up in the New York City area.

For me, it was hearing interviews with musicians from Jeff Foss on Hofstra University's Radio station (now called WRHU), on WNYU’s New Afternoon Show (which, I’ll admit, influenced my choice of NYU for college...), and from Vin Scelsa and all the New York radio station’s he’s been on over the years and who continues today on WFUV in New York and on Sirius Satellite Radio.

For Marion, it was listening to great rock and roll radio in New Jersey where she grew up and as a pioneering DJ herself in Seattle on KZAM, where she broke all kinds of programming boundaries and interviewed everyone who was anyone when they came through Seattle for more than a decade.

Since this kind of programming wasn’t something that existed to our satisfaction, I thought, why not create it myself?

In late '99 I moved back east and my wife Stacey and settled in Boston. Well-Rounded Radio started to formulate into an idea in 2000 and 2001. September 11th motivated me to do something I'd been thinking about, instead of just talking about doing, so I created a demo with a plan to pitch it to NPR. Little did I realize at the time that NPR is more competitive than most commercial radio syndication...and of course it is, because anyone with any taste would prefer to be on it!

Then came blogging and then came broadband and then podcasting. Then there was less of a need to find the distribution channel and more of a desire to take my passion for music and my joy in helping others discover really, really good music in an era where it seemed like mainstream radio didn’t care about anything but really awful hits. Of course, that’s only gotten worse.

I also hoped my show would make you feel like you were listening in on a conversation instead of it seeming like the host was trying to grill the subject or simply fawn over them. Hopefully I’ve succeeded at those goals to some degree.

As we all know, the media landscape is changing radically and while it's fascinating to watch it happen, and in some ways be a part of it, I'm sad about the passing of No Depression and Harp magazines and I'm sad that so many record stores are struggling and closing.

Part of the reason that I love record stores like Newbury Comics is that as someone who started out on vinyl and moved on to CDs and now mp3s, I think it will be sad when there are no longer these kind of physical places to interact with other music lovers and to discover new artists in surprising ways. Staring at your laptop can be fun, but it can also be pretty damn lonely, so I’m hoping "record stores" can evolve into something more than just a place to pick up an encoded physical product.

I could regale you with the time Bob Bortnick of the Dancing Hoods was working behind the counter at Slipped Disc, convincing me of the merits of The Velvet Underground and Nico, or all the hours spent digging through the vinyl at St. Mark’s Sounds or Bleecker Bob’s or Pier Platters or Midnight or Tower or that great record store on Northern Boulevard in Little Neck that I have long since forgotten its name, but who always got the import Clash albums in first!

Getting a tip from the record store clerk, picking up an album because the sticker on its shrink wrap had name-dropped all the right artists, or finding a used LP that was just cheap enough to make you want to buy it and give a band a chance...all those methods of introduction seem to be passing us by, even as new methods of introduction are becoming the norm. I'm not saying they are better or worse, but it is worth thinking about what we might be losing even as we move forward.

As a musician myself, I'm thrilled that musicians will have more power in their hands via the Internet, but I'm not that thrilled that the reduction of record stores, magazines, and record labels means that the power will rest in the hands of fewer corporate gatekeepers, like Wal-Mart, iTunes, Amazon, Microsoft, Napster, Rhapsody, Target, or whoever. Not that I have anything against any of these companies, but it's never good to have the power rest with too few, even if the Internet can connect us one to one in so many other ways. Of course there are bloggers and podcasters and other tastemakers, but distribution has always been the most valuable commodity in any media industry and that’s not likely to change.

Over the last year or two I have been looking at how I can take Well-Rounded Radio from hobby into something that I could make a living doing. I can tell by my web site traffic, emails from listeners, and the music coming to me from around the world that people like what I’m doing. My numbers keep growing and it’s clear that music fans still need real human people to filter their choices for them, just as record labels, DJs, music journalists, and record stores have done for decades. (If you want to help with this, you can take our online survey and tell us a bit about yourself.)

As a hobby, I've been careful to not let Well-Rounded Radio consume too much of my life as I raise a family and work a paying job, but it’s also something that I know is helping to connect independent musicians and an audience of listeners who also love that sense of discovery when you find a new artist that you connect to and, to put it plainly, fall in love with.

In many ways I’ve taken my activity from my 20s in making mix tapes and CDs for a group of friends combined it with my own professional experience in marketing, and upped the ante using the net.
In an era where the role of DJs, music critics, and music journalism is in flux, maybe all that we need is some ways to help us find things that we want as well as be open enough to discovering something new that might just fill some current need we have in our lives.

Although some of the artists and thought-leaders I've interviewed have been from outside Boston, the vast majority who have been on Well-Rounded Radio are from Boston's amazing music scene, which doesn't get nearly the kind of national press that it should.

Which brings me back to Boston and the 50th show.

It also makes perfect sense that Dreese is on this episode because when I was in my band Falling Stairs in the late 80s and early 90s, we used to come up to Boston from New York City to record at Fort Apache. We made it a point to go to a variety of great guitar stores in Allston and always made a stop at Newbury Comics, which was the kind of record store that I always wished we had in the New York area.

Now I've been in Boston for almost nine years and I take Newbury Comics for granted (and yes, I still shop in brick and mortar stores!), but when I go to other cities, I realize that record stores are becoming more rare each year.

Given Newbury’s success, part of me wanted to pick Dreese’s brain for how they've maintained their success and provide some ideas to other music retailers around the world to help them evolve as the music industry changes. I’m sure there’s a brilliant business plan in there just waiting to be born...

The show features a mix of music from the late 70s up to today, much of it from Boston artists.

I met with Dreese at Newbury Comics' offices and warehouse in Brighton, Massachusetts to discuss:
* how the regional chain got its start and grew to where they are today
* how the music business has changed since the late 70s and how they’re evolving with it
* the return of vinyl and what it might mean in the scheme of all the changes

Music featured in the interview include:
1) Classic Ruins: 1 + 1 < 2 (in preview)
2) Willie Alexander: Mass Ave
3) The Clash: Complete Control
4) The Cure: Boys Don't Cry
5) La Peste: Better Off Dead
6) The Lyres: I Want to Help You Ann
7) U2: Fire
8) The Neats: Red and Grey
9) Human Sexual Response: Jackie Onassis
10) The Proletariat: Options
11) Jerry's Kids: Uncontrollable
12) Treat Her Right: I Think She Likes Me
13) Dinosaur Jr: Kracked
14) Buffalo Tom: Crutch
15) Salem 66: Across the Sea
16) Throwing Muses: Bea
17) Mary Timony: Look a Ghost in the Eye
18) The Mighty Mighty Bosstones: The Impression that I Get
19) Mr. Lif: I Phantom
20) Dresden Dolls: Coin-Operated Boy
21) Ho-Ag: Golden All Night
22) Marta Gomez: Dejalo ir
23) Tulsa: Breathe Thin
24) Frank Smith: Cut Right Through
25) The Radio Knives: Stone Stone

Mike recommends Flobots, Velvet Rope, Twist and Shout, Waterloo, Amoeba, The Record Archive, and Criminal Records.

Charlie recommends visiting Newbury Comics and and finding your local or regional record store through the Coalition for Independent Music Stores and buying locally! Bring a friend and help keep them all going.