2001-2010: Some Vintage Years for Wien

Jukebox journalist (and sommelier of fine NJ music) Gary Wien has tasted and digested more than 2,000 CDs by Jersey-fresh artists — and the LEAST you could do in return is to pick up his brand new book, ARE YOU LISTENING?

Okay, we’ll bite: the first question has got to be WHO, as in who in their right mind would want to sit down and listen to more than 2,200 full-length compact discs — the vast majority of them independent releases by largely unknown, locally based artists — without being paid, forced at bayonet-point or given over to some sick fetishistic thrill?

Gary Wien, that’s who; the veteran chronicler of Garden State popular culture who founded the monthly Upstage Magazine around the turn of the millennium — and who subsequently zapped himself into the Tron-world of pixelated publishing, via his website New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. As the sort of respected jukebox journalist who musicians gravitate to in hopes that he could maybe help them out, Wien managed to come into possession of many hundreds of self-released compact discs by hometown hopefuls. One day a few years back, he decided to do something about it — not a yard sale, nor a sculpture of “repurposed” objects, but a little endeavor called Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 from New Jersey Artists.

As the Belmar-based author of Beyond The Palace makes abundantly clear, he was listening very intently indeed. The three time winner of the Asbury Music Awards “listened to the good, the bad, and the very ugly; yet somehow remained a music fan through it all.” He listened to major label releases from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, My Chemical Romance, and Fountains of Wayne, alongside concurrent output from regional cult heroes (Bouncing Souls, John Eddie), Shorecat favorites (George Wirth, Arlan Feiles, Jon Caspi) and some artists so obscure even Gary Wien had never heard of them. Then he crunched the data, reviewed his findings and voila — an illustrated, opinionated guide that succinctly summarizes and encapsulates an era in which “recording a professional album became affordable enough for artists,” even as it heralded “the end of the album as a concept.”

UpperWETside was pleased to be given a sneak peek at the new book (handsomely designed by the author), scheduled to be made available for purchase online and on shelves beginning June 1. In keeping with the changes that have transformed book publishing every bit as much as the recording industry, Are You Listening? will be issued as a full color print volume, scaled to the dimensions of an oversized CD case; as a bargain-priced black-and-white version of same — and as an e-book loaded with bonus audio and video extras. We caught up with Wien as he tweaked the finishing touches to the project; turn the record over for the interview on the flip.

Brian Fitzpatrick, the highest ranking Jersey-bred musician that you’ve likely never heard of — as per the pages of Gary Wien’s millennial music retrospective, ARE YOU LISTENING?

I must say you sound pretty sane and functional for a guy who just listened to 2000 local-dude CDs. How on earth did you ever begin to get a handle on this project? And are you even now plagued by the nagging suspicion that there’s something extraordinary out there, that somehow managed to escape your notice?

I didn’t know there’d be that many — I had about six to seven hundred discs in my collection to start with, and every time I thought I had it under control, I kept finding more and more things to investigate. I went on CD Baby, Google, MySpace, looking for any artists with a New Jersey connection — and in the end, I started using keywords like crazy; entering the name of every town and looking for that one songwriter who wrote about his or her hometown.

The ten-year time frame, 2001 to 2010, makes for a pretty neatly wrapped up package — but it also makes sense as the very real end of an era, since we passed a tipping point in the way that music is made and marketed and delivered to the audience.

When I was a teenager, musicians made cassettes — only a few bands could afford a really good recording. Even into the 1990s, a band had to save up to do a proper studio session. But by the end of the 90s, anyone who had a Mac or a good PC could do it for themselves. Something that came out of a cheap home studio sounded as good as the best of the 1980s stuff.

So, what you had was the first era where you didn’t have to have a great song disappear. It was also the first decade in which I was able to make a living by covering music, so in a lot of ways it’s been a very interesting and exciting time…I dreamt of something like iTunes when I was a little kid.

As you’ve said elsewhere, the ironic thing is that this was the first decade in which recording a professional-sounding CD became accessible to everyone…and at the same time it would probably be the last, since CDs look to be on their way out.

I think that they’re still going to be around, but you won’t see bands running off a thousand of them…a lot of bands are coming to shows now with download cards instead. It’s sad in a way, but it makes so much financial sense…you don’t have to store CDs or haul them around to gigs.

I think what we are seeing is the last days of the album. I love the concept, the idea of an album, but in a few years any artist who waits to put out an entire album of songs, instead of releasing songs one by one as downloads, is going to really stand out from the crowd.

Now, you’ve talked about the diversity of the music landscape here in New Jersey, but are there any similarities, any common threads that run through the work of all these different people?

There are certain themes that can occur in many different places…certainly 9/11 is something that had a huge effect on anyone in New Jersey. Another thing that I find interesting is that there’s a whole generation of songwriters coming of age now, who’ve lived their entire lives with war going on. How is that going to affect you? I find a lot of that in so many records I’ve heard.

Having plowed through all those records — a pretty Herculean task if you ask me, or maybe even Sisyphean — how many could be considered real finds; bands and singers that you were completely unaware of going into this project?

I did find about 40 to 50 that I didn’t know about before. People like Brian Fitzpatrick, who’s number 5 on the list, and Brian Molnar at number 9 — apparently he was very well known in Americana music circles. The trouble is, we don’t have a real New Jersey radio station to expose us to this sort of stuff; they kind of slip between the cracks.

It seems to me that there have always been a lot of Jersey musicians who, if anybody’s asking, consider themselves to be “New York” acts. How did you approach somebody like that?

I guess you could say I’m trying to ‘out’ them! I looked for people who had been living here for a good part of the decade, or who grew up here; who had that sense of their hometown having shaped them into who they were. A good example of that is John Easdale and Dramarama; they broke nationally after they moved to LA, but they kept that Garden State connection…you can’t spend the first 18 to 20 years of your life someplace and not have it affect the work that you do.

I noticed that a number of your top rated CDs were by big time guys like Bruce and Gaslight Anthem…did you kind of go back and forth about having these little localized acts compete in the same arena with major label releases?

It was always going to be that way. My thinking is that it’s worth more to an indie artist if you’re not being told they’re ‘special’ because of it; I didn’t want to use ‘indie’ as a defining thing.

I guess I could see how somebody might appreciate being rated alongside guys like Springsteen, rather than just being the best of the complete unknowns. So apart from the Jersey connection, what exactly were the criteria you used in putting together your top 100?

Some disqualifications were that I didn’t want to feature live albums, or greatest hits collections. The Smithereens posed a problem with their work in the last decade; when they put out something like a cover of a whole Beatles album, I considered that to be a greatest hits sort of situation.

But there was a grading process; a very sophisticated grading process, based on the number of ‘perfect songs’ and other factors like that. I entered everything into a program, and the ranking that came out is exactly what you’ll see in the book.

So if anybody has a problem with their ranking, you’ll just refer all complaints to the Gary-Tron 5000. But in the face of all this game-changing tech, all these radical shifts to the music business and publishing and media, why even put out a hard-copy printed book?

I’m aware that the book as we know it is under assault, but I’ll also be doing this as an e-book, and I expect that I’ll have the most success with that format. I’ll be including all sorts of extra features with the e-book; a lot of video interviews that I’ve done with the artists, rare songs. A lot of the artists will be donating songs to the project, and I’m looking to sponsor a series of shows, in every part of the state, to mark the release of the book.

But I always wanted to do it as a printed book, because I’d really like to get them into stores. In fact, I’ll be doing both a color and a black-and-white version. The color version will be a little expensive, probably around $30, but the black-and-white will be much more affordable. And the e-book will be sold very, very cheaply — probably around $10.

So how does one get hold of a copy? And who exactly do you see as the target audience for this book?

With any luck, the book may be arriving this week. I want to capture as much of the summer as I can; get it into a couple of stores. But I’ll be pushing the e-book as much if not harder…the sales will come mostly from the website.

As far as who the market is for this book, well, it’s a definite collector’s item for fans of the musicians. People who are into music think it’s interesting because it’s so different…nobody’s tackled anything quite like this, not even in New York or LA. It really gives you a sense of the incredibly diverse music scene here in New Jersey, where so much musical history has been made.

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