Monthly Archives: March 2008

Vinyl Revival Revising (Say that 5 times fast)

As part of the writing workshop I am in right now, I decided to dive a little deeper into a topic I touched on last year.

Its all just a little bit of history repeating.

I fell upon an incense-filled, Marley-shirt stocked, dusty, musty record shop in Wicker Park the other day. I went in and perused the colorful glass-blown display case ornaments, smelled the Lavender Dreams incense, and wondered what my hypothetical child would look like in a Janis Joplin onezie. I ogled over old Beatles live albums. I filed through rows and rows of The Wailers, Floyd, Zeppelin, Clapton, The Stones, and all variations of 1960s nostalgia. Then I came upon The Shins, Radiohead, The White Stripes, and an array of current indie rock bands. After initially pinching myself to ensure that I was not lost in a space/time continuum, I learned from the store owner that many bands today are recording onto vinyl. According to John Sepulvado from NPR, sales of new vinyl records are closing in on $1 million and there has been a spike in used vinyl sales as well. Where is this increased distribution coming from? I initially just thought this was a Wicker Park trend to buy records because retro and hippie chic is so hot right now. But there are a slew of reasons for the sales insurgence in today’s culture, each one varies with music lovers varying lifestyles and passions.

The sale of 7” vinyl singles has gone up in the last few years, due in part to the growing popularity of DJ mixing. The singles are the perfect size and length to mix hip hop beats with indie pop and techno songs. Why not modern up Sly and the Family Stone with Beck and his two turntables and a microphone? There are no anti-piracy laws to stop mix enthusiasts from tweaking a song to create their own sound with the help of Otis Redding. The pops and hisses of the vinyl on the turntable give the sound more character as well.

Another reason for the vinyl revival is the physicality of the product; there are still people out there that want a hard copy of albums. As the media industry becomes increasing digital, people are still looking for something they can hold in they hands, something to show off at a dinner party. Even the act of scratching a record on a turntable can be more fulfilling than sitting in front of your Mac digitally creating a sound. Plus, digital downloads of songs and albums have taken away from the importance of album cover art. The 1”x1” pixels on the iTunes Store screen doesn’t evoke the same emotions that a 12”x12” cardboard canvas does. In the past, the cover art was part of the feel of the album, meant to evoke certain emotions and supplement the story that the music told. The story behind the iconic Abbey Road cover, the Fab Four walking away from the Abbey Road Studio, is symbolic of the end of the Beatles’ pop culture reign. The memories of that era go hand in hand with the album cover.

If the industry continues to support the vinyl medium, and as digital continues to change the future of the industry, the need for CDs may become extinct. Most people download CDs to their computer and lose the CD in piles of old software discs and user manuals. Vinyl records may push CDs into extinction. Records give the user a better sense of the music it holds with the grooves in the vinyl. CDs, with the sterile indestructible material, are less connected to the listener. Even the wear and tear of the vinyl record can bring back memories that CDs can’t. How often do you hear Sympathy for the Devil on 97.9 and sing along, sounding like a broken record because your old album always used to skip at “pleased to meet you meet you meet you”?

New indie bands today are expanding their fan base and distribution by recording their albums on vinyl and selling to specialty record shops. As a classic rock junkie sift through the records, looking for a lost copy of Kansas’ Leftoverture that, last he remembers, was spinning in Chazz’s turntable in 1975. As he looks he comes across Kings of Leon Because of the Times. He had heard the band toured with Dylan once and decides that if Dylan can vouch for them, they must be worth a listen. By sticking current albums in amongst these music legends, new bands are increasing their credibility among the rock gods true critics; their loyal fans.

But how has vinyl kept from falling to the same fate as CDs to digital music? It’s about more than the surface of the material or the industry. It’s the sound, the time, the story, the scene, the act. Its about sitting down in your room after standing in front of your shelves of records trying to decide the perfect one to fit the mood you are in, or the mood you want to be in, because you know the perfect key to your inner self is tucked somewhere amongst these pillars of albums. It’s about sitting down in your overstuffed La-Z-Boy that has made every move with you since college. It’s about pulling the lid off your old turntable. It’s about hearing the pop and spin as needle hits vinyl and the record takes off. It’s about not leaving the room, consciously allowing the music to take over your time and thoughts. You may read, you may write, you may smoke, you make drink while listening. But every action is changed because you are sharing the room with the sound. You can’t leave it. You don’t want to leave it. It’s about the need that the turntable has for you, the help it elicits from you when it needs the record to be flip before it can go on. Neither of you will be satisfied until the music starts again. It’s about not just putting your 10,000 song MP3 player on shuffle and going about your day with a subconscious buzz as songs wiz past you. It’s about not missing a beat. It’s about the experience the artist intended you to have while listening to the sound they created just for you, just for your mood, just for your moment in your room.

Part 3: The Battle

Now that you have your platform for your search, its time to start looking. Its important to go to war with a battle plan. Determine what you must have in your apartment and what you don’t mind living without. Location, closet space, a spot for the liter box, room sizes, view, patio, elevator, street noise. Roommate and I decided to weigh some parts more heavily than others. We knew we wanted to live in Lincoln Park. It would cut my commute to work in half and you can’t ignore the bar scene. I wanted something close to DePaul as I wrestle with the idea of going back to school in the fall. We avoided the word “vintage” for fear that it would bring us back to those unbuffed floors. We looked for places with some exposed brick or fireplaces to give the place some character. We both like have people over so wanted to have room for all our overstuffed couches so visitors don’t have to sit side by side or on the floor. We decided we could sacrifice bedroom size for living room size. Roommate loves to cook so we needed more than a hot plate and microwave for the kitchen. And for the sanity of my cat, I wanted to have a place where she could look out the window to the street or some trees, not a brick wall. So now we had our stratego.

The actual viewing of potential apartments is a roller coaster ride. Ups and downs as you walk into every apartment. You walk down the street in the perfect location into an apartment the size of your freshman year dorm room and smelling similarly of a certain herbal essence; and nobody wants to go back to that a second time, no matter how close to North Ave Beach it is. Others reel you in with the rustic charm of a fireplace and wood rafters, but when you open the blinds to find you’re sharing in an intimate moment with the couple in the building across from you. My impressionable cat does not need to sit at the window all day long and learn the more complicated Karma Sutra positions. But when you find that place that you can picture yourself cuddle up on your couch in or cooking dinner, pounce. The Chicago rental market is a place comparable to the wilds of the jungle. Only the strong survive. I was thrust into a situation for which I was not prepared when I moved here. I went to see my very first Chicago apartment and it was perfect. Yet at the time I though that since this first place is so awesome, they must all be like this. I sat on the application for a day and looked at other places, which was mistake number one. If you have even a small feeling that you may like the place, splurge on the $25 application fee and fill one out. My second mistake was sending in my application through snail mail. Always take it directly to the management office; whichever application gets into their hands first, wins. This is a sprint, not a marathon.

A closing tale: Roommate and I walked into a building on Clark at Fullerton, followed close by two other interested parties. I can see it now;. The landlord triple booked us and is going to force a “last man standing” cage fight in the apartment. Winner gets the lease. I curse myself for not coming prepared with my brass knuckles. Thank God for pepper spray. We walked through the decrepit halls of the building with a landlord that looked oddly like Crazy Eyes from Mr. Deeds. The dark hall smells like someone made a ramen noodle-and-beer stew and poured it into the carpet fibers. We are both almost ready to bail before even reaching the apartment when Crazy Eyes opens the door into a clean, sunny, open living room with freshly stained wood floors. A kitchen with a dishwasher, two carpeted bedrooms, two marbled bathrooms, two walk in closets, rooftop access with a view of downtown, a fireplace, a goddamn dishwasher! I had to touch the white washed walls to ensure this wasn’t a mirage. Roommate and I gave one knowing look at each other. We had to have it. Who cares that it was a 20 min walk to the El? Who cares that the bar Neo’s was in the basement of the building? Who cares about the pub stew soiled halls? Who cared about Crazy Eyes’ weird eye that’s hovering over us as we excitedly whispered in the corner? The stark contrast from the ramshackled halls to the perfectly manicured apartment made us forget about all the elements we had previously discussed in detail and ranked in importance. In a situation when the other competitors are standing face to face with you in the ring, it’s important to plan surprise attacks. We couldn’t let the other people looking at the place know that we wanted it for fear they may snag the place from under our nose, believing that we saw something they had overlooked. It was a delicate situation. I am no good at delicate situations. In my frenzied excitement I blurted out that we wanted to put in an application as soon as possible. The others quickly followed. The first to have their application in and accepted would get the apartment. It was out of our hands now.

Serendipity hit us on the head when went to see another place while wait to hear back from Crazy Eyes. Emotionally exhausted and determined to sign a lease that day, we went to see one last place. A privately owned condo by a woman that moved to Arizona and has been unable to sell her place with the unspoken recession brimming. We were still delirious over the last apartment and, in a haze, did not realize our ideal location at the intersection of Fullerton, Halsted, and Lincoln. As proud Michigan State alumni, we were only steps from John Barleycorn and O’Malley’s. 2 block from DePaul, my future alma mater, and a quick walk to the Fullerton El stop. We walked into the apartment. Newly remodeled kitchen with marble counters and a breakfast bar, the holy dishwasher, and counter space for Roommate’s next culinary creation. An open living room with a brick fireplace and view out to the street, with room for all our couches. Two bedrooms and two bathrooms with no need to share a bathroom. The largest closets I have ever seen. It was perfect. Location and all. Thoughts of Crazy Eyes drifted from our heads as we heard the rent was cheaper and included utilities. And a bonus we didn’t even know existed in the city. A free parking spot. We proposed a two year lease to seal the deal and we were home.

Some final words of wisdom when you’re losing hope and your eyes hurt from scrolling through Craig’s List posting for 3 hours, from the almighty Steve Perry, don’t stop believe.

Part 2: A Map

There are two ways to approach the enormous task of narrowing down the bulging real estate market to what you are looking for: 1) Craig’s List 2) Apartment Finders. Here is my evaluation of each:

1) www.chicago.craigslist.org is the cornerstone of free classified ads. I used it when I was trying to find someone to sublease my apartment in Cleveland when I moved. It’s free and well known among the grad students at John Carroll, so after diligently showing my place for about 2 months, I found someone to take over my lease so I could move forward with my glamorous accountant life in Chicago. Subleasing is usually more beneficial for the subleasee. I was so desperate to find someone so I could start my new job in Chicago that I lowered the rent and paid the difference. I got the better end of the deal when I looked on Craig’s List in Chicago and found someone looking to sublease for far less than the going rate a mere hop, skip, and jump away from Wrigley Field.

Craig’s List search filters let you narrow down the hundreds of listing into what you are looking for. How many bedrooms? What neighborhood? Got pets? What’s your price range? And the all important picture included. I never give ads a second look if they don’t have a picture of the place posted. Red flags should go up when a blank screen is more appealing that the apartment itself.

I look to Craig’s List to avoid realtors. I feel better working with condo owners or individuals that own one or two buildings. More flexible, less paperwork. I learned to go through the lease with a fine tooth comb when signing a lease with an individual to watch for loopholes. It can be much smoother and convenient when you and the owner can agree on terms and conditions. Plus you don’t have to listen to realtor’s song of selling.

2) There is a great market for apartment finding services in Chicago. With the abundance of real estate in every shape and size, it’s always less stressful to have a professional on your side, and for free! That what I thought when I walked into the Chicago Apartment Finders and Apartment People offices. But when the agent was the same age as me, I knew I wasn’t going to get much more than an entry-level realtor. I used these companies when I was looking for an apartment for myself and cat only. I told them what I was looking for and saw 10 apartments (5 with each company). Behind all these doors were the same small square rooms with floors that looked they had never seen a buffer. When I said I wanted vintage, something with character, I thought I was eliminating the modern dorm-style high rises; instead I got the city’s equivalent of Annie Wilkes’s cottage in Misery. I felt counter productive when I found myself walking into the same building twice. Once with Apartment Finders and again with Apartment People. Most management companies and landlords will try to rent their apartments through a realtor or themselves (on Craig’s List) and the small apartments that are left, the ones with the view of someone’s bathroom window, they hand off to these apartment finding services to try to sell. It’s the garage sale of the real estate market; one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. I love a good estate sale, but I don’t want to spend 4 hours of my day in a car with a stranger driving around to bottom of the barrel apartments. Again I stress that I know my apartment search could be easy if I settle for practical and livable. But again, I don’t know want livable, I want a lifestyle. So when the roommate and I began our search again, we vowed not to look at 20 bad apartments before we settled on one, which eliminated using the service at all

Part 1: to pack up or not to pack up

The first step is to weigh the burden of your current apartment. How bad is it? How loud are the neighbors? How often does your landlord ignore your voicemails about the suspiciously large mouse hole in the bathroom? How much longer can you risk waiting to see if the squeaky floorboards in the apartment above you are going to give out under the weight of your neighbors’ waterbed and come falling through your ceiling? Now estimate the manpower required to pack up your stuff (including that couch that you’re not really sure how you got into your apartment in the first place). If the effort of the search and move is worth it to escape your current living situation (or if your just looking for a different view out your window), then its time to start looking. For some, this decision is forced upon them when your roommate and her boyfriend decide to legalize what they’ve been doing under your roof for a year and get married, leaving you with the decision to either pay $2000/month on your own, or find another place to live. For me, the decision came when I got my first winter gas bill. I live alone right now (unless you count my cat) and there was no way I was going to go another winter paying $200 bills on my own. So I reeled in a friend to live with me and now we begin the search.

A real estate adventure in 3 parts

Apartment rental season is in the air. You can almost smell the U-Haul exhaust; hear the realtors’ Blackberries constant buzzing; see the daily growth of Craig’s List postings.

I have become a self-deemed expert at apartment searching. In the past 12 months I have moved to 3 different cities in 3 different states, rented 2 apartments, have been a subleaser and a subleasee. I have seen every type of apartment and meet every type of realtor and landlord in the Midwest. I am burnt out on the apartment search. This time around, it’s for good. After the lease is up on my Wrigleyville 1 bedroom apartment with its view of the Lakeview post office truck lot and curry-smelling stairwells, I am going to find the perfect apartment and settle in for the long haul. At this point in my life, with everything going for me, the world as my playing field, endless possibilities for the future, reaching for the stars; my only true dream is to renew a lease for another year and never go through this Satanic game of cat and mouse with realtors again.

So let me lead you on this adventure through the Chicago rental real estate labyrinth.

I will preface my lesson by saying that I may get slightly more emotionally involved with my apartment search than is necessary. The eternal optimist that I am, a genetic curse from my overly supportive father, believes that true love is out there, true housing love. As I keep up the string of complaints with the rest of the rental community over having to walk through 15 seedy apartments before finding an acceptable abode and having to pack up all my worldly belongings yet again, I still get a small adrenaline rush over the prospect of what I could find behind each apartment door I come to during this year’s apartment search. Could this be the door that holds my downtown view? My spiral staircase? My fireplace? My exposed brick? My 10 minute commute to work? My 2 block walk to both the beach and the el? My gut-rehab warehouse loft with vaulted ceilings and floor to ceiling windows? My dishwasher?? Anything is possible in the real estate world. I realize that the whole process would be less emotionally draining if I settle for a moderate size and price and neighborhood. But I have trouble accepting defeat against my dream home.