| reprinted from the April issue of Providence Monthly|
75 Or Less Records - April 07
In a way, the compact disc has become its own worst enemy, just as the music industry as a whole is often its own worst enemy. The format was introduced in 1982 promising "perfect sound forever," yet the average life expectancy of a CD player remains about five years, and no music collection is without a stack of skipping, unplayable discs. In retrospect, it seems as if its two decade reign has been a march towards self-defeat and obsolescence. The format came into vogue because of its superior sound quality, but the virtues that pushed it to the top of the musical heap also spell its doom: disposability, affordability, and ease of production. The compact disc is not meant to last, and now the music industry is reaping the barren fields it sowed with a disposable cash crop.
Part of the problem is that the CD never became the artifact the vinyl record did. The disc is small and flimsy, easy to scratch, and easy to lose. The packaging is cheap, breakable plastic and the inserts are too small for either memorable artwork or engaging liner notes. Compare that to the rugged durability of the record and the artful packaging its size accommodates: think of Andy Warhol's classic cover for the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers with its functioning zipper, or the monolithic beauty of Led Zeppelin's gatefold II LP. The CD was never hospitable enough to such innovative presentation for one of them to become a treasured possession. Perhaps that's why in 2002, for the first time since the ascendance of the CD, sales of that format dropped, while sales of records increased.
One person yet to give up on the compact disc is Mark Macdougall, owner of 75 Or Less Records, a small label run out of his home in Warren, RI. The label is an outgrowth of 75orless.com, a website dedicated to music journalism in easily digested, bite-size portions. "I wanted it to be a place where you could stop in and within two or three minutes read very straightforward reviews," Mark explains, "and know what things sounded like, and then move on." Hence the site's name: its album reviews are all 75 words or less. This philosophy is an interesting counterpoint to the wordy elitism of pitchforkmedia.com, perhaps the foremost source for rock writing on the web, and one prone to statements like, "Air creates the alternate now, an environment that begs escapism without denying humanity. Talkie Walkie may mollify Air's overt Frenchness, but should in no way be deemed a sudden opening of the soul." The 75 or Less take on the same album: "Love them or hate them, this is still the best kind of cosmic French sci-fi electro-lounge pop you can possibly find."
Since October of 2001, 75orless.com has been cranking out reviews five days a week, for a total of about 250 albums per year (out of 1500 submissions), and averaging 400 to 900 readers a day. In 2006, Mark decided to take the next logical step.
"I was hearing great music that nobody else was getting to hear," he says of some of those submissions, "and it was frustrating for me that it was absolutely brilliant, but had no chance of reaching anyone else." The result of this frustration was 75 Or Less Records, a boutique label that boasted an impressive twelve releases in its first year, including a double-CD compilation of 31 local acts. Despite that imposing workload, Mark maintains, "This is just a hobby—a hobby that takes forty hours a week now." As a thirty-nine-year-old suburban homeowner with a successful career in data center configuration, he can't be bothered with spending his spare time on a golf course: "Instead of spending three hours chasing a ball, I'd rather spend three hours digging through submissions and trying to hear some band I've never heard before."
Drawing on the inspiration of DIY-moguls like Gregg Ginn, founder of 80s punk powerhouse SST Records, and local labels like Ben McOsker's Load and Brian Oakley's Corleone, Mark is trying to deliver a quality product on a shoestring budget, well under the radar of a bloated music industry slowly collapsing beneath its own weight. Issuing 150 copies of each CD at a cost of $300, the costs are split between the band and the label, as are the final products, and, naturally, the profits. For the bands, it's an opportunity to have a professional-sounding recording in unique, handmade packaging to distribute at their shows. For Mark, it's a product to sell on 75orless.com, the only method of distribution for the label.
"It's a small accomplishment," Mark declares, "Very small. Nobody's getting rich, but we can take pride in the fact that we actually turned a profit."
Contrary to those sounding the compact disc's death-knell, 75 Or Less strives to create a product that will have the prestige and value of a good, old-fashioned vinyl LP. Each album is issued in a sturdy cardboard case, screen-printed by hand, oftentimes with the artists themselves pitching in. For example, Mark cites Chris Daltrey of The 'Mericans, who released their debut on the label last year: "He was at my house for a week straight working on getting his CDs done." Perhaps it is possible for the CD to have that artifact quality it's sorely been missing.
"CDs in plastic cases are entirely disposable media. Ours have cardboard packaging. By printing onto them, they're unique. We'd like to think we're incorporating art into the music."
Mark looks forward to putting out another twelve albums this year, including efforts by the F.I.D.s, which will be out by press time, previously unreleased tracks by the Purple Ivy Shadows, and possibly Mark's own prolific power-trio Six Star General. He will also be joining forces with Tim O'Keefe's newly-minted digital label Cozy Music to release the debut by the Cold War: 75 Or Less will put out the hard copies, and Cozy Music will distribute MP3s over the internet.
"I hope 75 Or Less never becomes a job," Mark says in summation. "I would prefer to keep it what it is, which is a serious hobby. I'm doing it because I love it. That's what keeps it fun."
@ 7:09 AM