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(Above: Cake’s newest video is called “Sick of You.” They definitely seem tired of the lifestyle.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

It won’t be hard to spot John McCrea on Friday night. The lead singer and chief songwriter for the alt-rock band Cake will hold center stage in a night of music in the City Market.

Seeing him in the future, however, may be more problematic.

Concerned with the direction of the music industry and unwilling to make a living by touring alone, McCrea is seriously considering a second career as a farmer.

“When I look five to 10 years in the future, I don’t see myself able to afford to make a living as a musician,” McCrea said. “We just spent 2½ years on an album, which is a significant investment. I’m not willing to do that again if people are just going to take it against our will, play it a few times then move on to the next thing to consume.”

Although celebrity musicians will always exist, McCrea said, midlevel, working-class bands like Cake may cease to be if there’s not reciprocity between fans and artists.

“Touring is a grueling thing to do, and if that’s a musician’s only source of income it means they can never come home,” he continued. “I have a family. I hate touring, and if there’s no other option I’ll get out.”

Fans can rest easy for now, however.

When Cake’s sixth album, “Showroom of Compassion,” debuted at No. 1 last January, much was made about the fact that it had sold fewer copies than any previous chart-topper.

What people missed, McCrea said, was that it sold roughly the same number of copies in its first week as Cake’s previous release, “Pressure Chief.”

This consistency is even more remarkable considering seven years had passed between those albums, years marked by turmoil in the record industry.

“We watched everyone stop paying for music during those years (between albums),” McCrea said. “The joke in the studio was that by the time we were finished nobody would be buying music anymore.”

Cake had a solid run of Top 40 hits in the 1990s, including “The Distance,” a cover of “I Will Survive,” “Sheep Go to Heaven” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket.” Vince DiFiore’s trumpet and McCrea’s sardonic spoken/sung lyrics became the band’s calling card. Radio airplay combined with constant touring earned the band a cult following.

“So far I’m happy with what’s happened with this album,” McCrea said. “It tells me we have a relationship with our fans, and they trust us to go out on a limb and buy something without hearing it.

“I know when I was a kid I didn’t have that much money, and sometimes you’d buy an album and there’d only be one good song on it. I learned to be careful, but at the same time I learned that other artists always seemed to put out good records and knew I could trust them. We try very hard not to waste our fans’ time or money.”

The California-based quintet still toured during their recording hiatus — they stopped in Kansas City several times — but for the main part the group’s focus was on extricating themselves from their contract with Columbia Records and setting up their own shop.

“I don’t think a major label is a good place for a band like us,” McCrea said. “Since music is now free, the industry needs to economize and go out to dinner less. We didn’t want to have to pay for all the waste at a label.”

After testing the waters with a 2005 rarities and B-sides collection, Cake decided to self-release “Showroom of Compassion.” Liberation and success instilled a newfound sense of confidence, and for the first time in a while all of the band’s members were excited to contribute.

“Democracy is a slow process,” McCrea said. “There were a lot of disagreements, but we found our way through. Unlike past albums, everyone is completely happy with how this one turned out.”

A band at a crossroads, Cake is considering setting up an annual summer event similar to Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival or Cracker’s campouts. Cake tested the concept several years ago with its own multi-artist Unlimited Sunshine Tour, but the idea of staying in one place appeals to McCrea.

“I guess by definition fewer people would be able to see it,” McCrea said, “but I travel enough as it is.”

Keep reading:

Review: Cake

Cracker: The Grateful Dead of indie rock

Review: Smashing Pumpkins, Cake

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(Above: The crew at Championship Vinyl discuss their favorite Side 1, Track 1’s in the ultimate record store flick “High Fidelity.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Music fans geeked out for Record Store Day, have a new bedside companion until the next incarnation of the annual event. In “Record Store Days,” Gary Calamar and Phil Gallo have loving assembled a history of their musical Mecca.

The tome operates on several levels. The bountiful pictures that depict the stacks, musicians and proprietors of record shops qualify the book as a fetish object. It’s easy to get lost in the details, such as trying to identify the covers on display during Elvis Presley’s trip to a Memphis shop, or getting lost in the promotion displays in a picture the counter at The Holiday Shop, a Roeland Park, Kan. store in the 1950s.

The chapters are quickly paced, and contain lots of headers, so they can be read in bits and pieces. There are nearly as many sidebars as photos. The insets tell the stories behind the most outlandish names, like Minneapolis’ Oarjokefolkopus or Los Angeles’ Licorice Pizza, chronicle the history of record stores in movies, and tell about finding that first love in the racks – musical or otherwise. Along the way, plenty of musicians, owners and fans relate their favorite vinyl experiences.

Finally, the book offers a comprehensive history of the independent retail industry. The story starts at the turn of the last century, when records were sold in furniture stores as an accoutrement to Victrolas and other record players. Like everything else, music sales declined during the Depression, and the materials used to create the platters were scarce during World War II.

The record store as we know it blossomed in the 1950s, and enjoyed a heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s. The spaces almost became alternative community centers, where music fans would swap songs and stories while digging for the latest gem.

The final half of the book also serves as a cautionary tale of the industry. CDs gradually replace vinyl, but when the bubble bursts in the late ‘90s, neither the major labels nor the stores have anything to replace them. Particularly telling is the story behind SoundScan, the computer-based sales tabulator that destroyed the manipulative hand tallying.

“Record Store Days” ends on a happy note, with the opening of Amoeba on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and the recent resurgence of vinyl. The final chapter discusses the founding of Record Store Day and is sunny enough to convince anyone to hop in their car and run to a record shop as soon as they finish the page. The book doesn’t try to be objective. It reads like a loving embrace written by people who love vinyl, for record fans.

The book’s biggest flaw is that too much of the action is centered in Los Angeles and New York. There are some mentions of Criminal Records in Atlanta, Waterloo in Austin, Texas and Oarjokefolkopus, but little else occurs between the coasts. Some love for the great college town record shops would have been a welcome – and diverse – addition.

Calamar and Gallo are not out to convert new fans to the cult of vinyl, and readers will quickly know if they are in the target audience. (Hint: If you don’t think it’s cool that the record on the cover actually has grooves, this book likely isn’t for you.) The duo knows the next best experience to being in a record store is reading about record stores, and their offering does a great job of taking fans there.

Keep reading:

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

Review – “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll”

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