Sunday, September 19, 2010

Not what they mean by ‘sales volume’

It seems like only yesterday that I was in the aisles of an electronics store, scratching my head. No, not from the usual lice. I was there to pick out a DVD recorder for my father-in-law. And I couldn’t make a decision for the life of me. What’s more, it was lunchtime and I was hoping to actually get some food, too.

If you know I wrote about electronics in a previous life, you know my trouble wasn’t from feeling clueless about the technology. No, my issue was that I couldn’t think. I glared toward the corner of the floor, where one of a rack of auto sound systems was playing music at a volume loud enough to make the deaf hold their ears.

“Excuse me,” I called over to a passing employee, “could you please turn that down? I’m trying to pick something out here.”

I tried to put myself in his position and imagine the answer that would come: “Sure…and can I answer any questions for you?” Which made it all the more surprising when he sauntered to the offending device… and cranked it up even higher. Smirking, he walked away.

Shopping, it’s time I admitted, just isn’t about the shopper.

This is about more than the din. Just arrive at the intersection of aisles, for instance, at the same instant as an employee in most department or grocery stores. Do you think you get to go first? Or pick up a customer-service phone to ask for help in, say, housewares. Don’t worry, you won’t have to step aside for the stampede of clerks arriving to help; they’re no suckers. Once in Kmart, I saw a skeleton with a pocketbook, leaning against a shopping cart. It was nowhere near Halloween.

Yet the music, so to speak, sets the tone. Just try to walk through the doors of the typical store with something in your head. Anything from the quart of milk the kids need to the brilliant notion of a new invention that will make you millions—forget it. One blast of that music, and whatever was in your thoughts is long gone.

The Muzak many of us once heard in stores was bland, incredibly boring and annoying to listen to—but only if you listened to it. Muzak, after all, was background music; you could tune it out without much effort. For most stores today, what you’ll hear instead is one beat-heavy track after another. You only have to be in the store for ten or twenty minutes? Tough. You have to listen to what will get them through their agonizing shift.

My father-in-law, Eddie, probably the coolest man I know, takes matters into his own hands. It’ll be the middle of the afternoon when he goes up to the manager. “Tell me who you see shopping here,” he’ll tell the 25-year-old, who doesn’t have to look: Everywhere around are seniors. “Do you think they want to hear this music?”

Not that his strategy always works. I could tell him what does work: shopping online with his music of choice playing softly on iTunes. But at 82, he just wants his store back.

Someone else probably does, too. And it’s only proper to accept heavenly justice with that certain demonic glee.

A few months after that DVD-recorder shopping experience, you see, the last bit of news about Circuit City hit. My first thought was sympathy for the many, many good people who would soon lose their jobs, with the hope they’d quickly find new work. But in my next thought, I could almost hear one particular young man’s feet pounding the pavement. Now, that was music.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Summertime, with one jam after another

It’s often during a long workday, with one deadline piled onto another like those medieval tortures that involved piling up rocks—with a person beneath, of course. This particular person sees a restful evening ahead and calls his wife to confirm. But it is not to be. “Weren’t you going to the jam tonight?” asks Elena.

That’s right—my other life. You see, I’m part of the Westchester live-music scene. Me and my…my…you were waiting for an instrument? Me and my daughter, the guitarist. I go along to most of them, as parent, chauffer and roadie—not necessarily in that order. Over four summers plus holidays, a couple of times a week, it turns out I’ve been to more than 120. Sleep? Silly Daddy.

When Katie isn’t working or in school, it seems she’s either practicing, playing at jams or playing in her own or others’ gigs—engagements that, in theory, are paid. (Silly musicians.) Every jam kicks off with a “house” band that includes the person running the event. That band opens with several songs that set the tone: rock, blues, R&B or a mix. As they play, anyone who wants to play in the jam signs a list with name and talent: voice, guitar, bass, drums, sax or whatever. So far, no didgeridoos. But you never know.

The house bands are always good, with professional talent that would intimidate relative newbies but for their welcoming attitudes. (If it were me playing, I’d be intimidated anyway.) For us, though, the next part affects how good a night it will be for Katie, not to mention those of us watching and listening. The guy running the jam has to put together one set after another. Sometimes it’s with musicians he doesn’t even know; other times, with ones he knows too well. And despite his best efforts, the results can be mixed.

Where it sometimes goes wrong has to do with the nature of jams. It’s one thing for a musician to learn a song. It’s quite another, when the person running a set points to say it’s your turn, to improvise a solo that’s both technically impressive and melodic. With someone who knows how to do this, it’s quite possible, often moving, and fascinating for a non-musician to watch. All the soloist needs is for the other musicians to cooperate. Silly soloist.

Despite my lack of musical talent, I know how things are supposed to go. Rhythm guitarists, um, play in rhythm to help the soloist. Katie is told she does this well, keeping her own volume down when other musicians are soloing. But some guitarists don’t play well with others. A rhythm guitarist who experiments with all the pedals in his collection as the other guitarist is trying to solo doesn’t seem to be playing nice. But the disrespect is clearly equal-opportunity. Imagine the diplomatic skills needed if you’re running a jam and a guitarist waiting to play decides to tune his guitar, at full volume, during the house set. Try to keep from killing one who sets up in front of the house band and begins playing along without being asked.

It gets more interesting. Drummers keep the tempo, right? Tell the one who was looking to the bass player for cues as to the beat. I suppose it’s better than the occasional drummer who thinks he’s playing Yankee Stadium and drowns everyone else out. (Where's an umpire when you need one?) And then there’s a guy I suspect is former CIA. When he’s running a set, he knows the chords and key of a song they’re about to do. He just doesn’t want the other musicians to know.

But such times won’t go on forever. In fact, Katie’s departure for her last year of college tells me this night-after-night jam sandwich could eventually give way to more paid gigs. Plus, of course, a music career with enough cash rolling in for our little girl to help Elena and me live to high on the hog in our golden years. Maybe we’ll even get backstage passes on her international tour.

Silly parents.