Friday, June 24, 2011

SEO - Scam Exploiting Obfuscation

In order for an Internet auction site (or any E-Commerce site) to grow and thrive, it has to have web-presence in the field of its commercial endeavor. The site must come up in online searches for the type of site that it is, and the merchandise that is sold there. This is no easy task as there are so many competing sites with established online presence that will always outrank niche sites in general searches.

Just for example, Google the words “book auction” and you will not be getting any niche site results on the first page. You will have to go deeper than that to get any niche site results, but eventually you will get them. Critical to a site’s web presence is what is known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO), a process of enhancing the substructure of a website for searchers who are seeking the type of things said website has to offer.

SEO has many technical complexities that I can’t even begin to go into here. There is plenty of info about it already on the web (good, bad, and otherwise) if you’re interested in particulars. It does have to be done though, and done properly. Unless one is a “web-wiz” it is a task better left to professionals, which will cost of course, but if done properly, be well worth it. A caveat – the shyster percentage is high among those advertising their SEO ability. It is one of the most frequent service offered by scam artists. Rule of Thumb: The more bodacious their claims are, the more likely the SEO organization is just a scam.

Nobody can get you a Google #1 page ranking in 48 hours in the organic listings. Touting your site’s submission to 1,000 search engines is useless. Who even uses HotBot, AltaVista and Lycos anymore? Not many I would think. Ever heard of Trexy? I didn’t think so (unless you’re the ultimate web-nerd). No point in this practice and, it is unverifiable in the result department. Besides that, you could easily do it yourself if you wanted to. Just a couple of blatant examples; the clever scammers are much more insidious.

In order to find the best SEO professional to hire, research on SEO (what it is, what it does, how it works, what the current trends are) is an absolute requirement. You also need to know your site’s technical weaknesses and strengths regarding SEO before you even attempt making contact with anyone in the SEO business. A budget and a marketing plan is also a necessary prerequisite. You need to have a set of realist expectations and answers from a prospective SEO company on exactly how those expectations will be met. You also need references from the company on their success, not in general, but specific, verifiable examples of their work in your field of commerce. That last part is key: IN YOUR FIELD OF COMMERCE. Just because a company had some success boosting the presence of a dentist from Oshkosh doesn’t mean they’ll be able to do the same for your online store or auction site.

All this answers only part of the question I posed at the end of my previous post - “So why doesn’t this awesome little site have significant prominence on the web, and what can be done to change that?” It is obvious that not enough has been done in the SEO department on Mynotera, yet still I continue to get bids on my items and sell consistently. When you are good at what you do, and you build up a dedicated clientele over time, repeat business will happen. But there is much more that can and should be done to increase business on a potential “golden nugget” like Mynotera, and in the next post, I’ll delve into a little more. SEO is very important, but it isn’t everything.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Best Kept Secret Collectibles Auction Site

In the previous post I went into some detail about some selected Internet market venues for buying and selling collectible merchandise of value in an online auction environment, and that for this type of merchandise, a niche site is much better than a general merchandise site. So what is this niche site I’ve chosen to do most of my business on? It is called MYNOTERA. You’ve probably never heard of it, but some people have. It has only been in existence since late 2009. Since then I have sold over 1000 items there and have a good amount of repeat business. It may well be the best kept secret on the Internet, but depending on who is reading this post and other factors, it may not stay that way for long.

The thing about Mynotera is that they have an “Antique and Vintage Only” policy. You won’t be able to list those Sue Grafton and Stephen King books you couldn’t get rid of at a yard sale (signed First Editions exempted of course). Mynotera charges no registration fees, no buyer’s premiums, and no basic listing fees. You get to upload a maximum of 8 photos for free too. The site looks like nothing else out there. There are NO ADS. It is uncluttered and features a mysterious piece of artwork in the upper left corner of the homepage, and a picture of a single item largely displayed front and center, with other featured items pictured below it. There are only 10 Categories to browse – BOOKS; CATALOGS; PRINTS MAPS & PAPER; STAMPS; POSTCARDS; TREASURE HUNT; UNCOMMON VINYL; HISTORIC PAMPHLETS AND DOCUMENTS; PHOTOGRAPHICA; THREE AND BELOW BOOKS. Currently no category has more than 1500 items. This is a paltry amount of merchandise when compared with those other sites I spoke of previously. But this is quality vintage merchandise- perhaps not the most valuable and expensive things ever, but certainly items out of the ordinary; collectible and very often hard to find.

One recent item of interest listed on Mynotera was a 1940 Batman #1 comic book. It didn’t sell because that book might potentially be worth over $20,000, and Mynotera currently doesn’t have the traffic currently to get the exposure this item requires for that type of sale. It will likely end up on Heritage where it could potentially fetch a huge amount of money, and make Heritage a tidy profit of 25% of its price. The fact remains though that it was listed on Mynotera first. Rare and valuable collectibles DO make their appearance on this site. In fact, if a lot of collectors out there knew about it, they’d be picking Mynotera clean in a matter of months. Compared to everywhere else, prices are very reasonable for these items. Where else are you going to find say, an 1837 First Edition of “The Pirate’s Own Book” ?. Not many places I’d venture to say.

Here is another one: 1876 SLAVERY DAYS, Sheet Music by Edward Harrigan. Do you know how rare this is? VERY, VERY. How about “The Annual Register for 1781” with lots of content about the American Revolutionary War while it was happening. That certainly isn’t common. If you’re looking for something vintage and pretty, perhaps not worth a fortune but still highly collectible and somewhat scarce, there’s Harrison Fisher’s 1908 “Bachelor Belles,” a beautiful book of beautiful ladies of the early 20th century. Want a real bargain? 1881 “The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments or, The Thousand and One Nights” Illustrated for $2.75 and No Reserve. Or, 1938 “Don Winslow of the U. S. Navy” Whitman “Penny Book” based on the famous comic strip for $3.00. (These things are plenty scare and worth a LOT more than 3 bucks; multiply it by 10 and you have a price closer to the mark.)

These are just a few items I picked at random, not necessarily the best, or the most valuable, or the most unusual items on the site. You should go there and explore it for yourself than take my word for it; you’d be astounded. As far as what I’ve actually sold on Mynotera, here are a few recent examples- 1920’s Roy Brothers Croquet Set catalog ($112.99); 1938 Cahiers d’Art Bound Magazine ($100.00); Egg- The Polite Force LP ($50.00); 1764 History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts by Thomas Hutchinson ($200).

There are three things Mynotera lacks though – a lot of Buyers, a lot of Sellers and a lot of Traffic. Those are three pretty big things. If the amount of the buyers were to suddenly boom, the site could be shortly be wiped out of merchandise. If it got an increase in only sellers (without a proportionate increase in buyers), many might be discouraged and pack up their tents and go home after a short while. BUT, if the site experienced a huge increase of traffic, both buyers and sellers would increase and the site’s Internet presence would be greatly enhanced. So why doesn’t this awesome little site have significant prominence on the web, and what can be done to change that? I will let you know in my next post.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

E-Commerce and the Great Online Auction Rip-off

For those that may have thought this blog died with my rant on the banning of imported clove cigarettes, you’re wrong. The cloves didn’t die, they just morphed into “little cigars”; cigarettes with a cigar-paper type outer wrapping. The govt will probably try and find a way to ban them too, further torpedoing the Indonesian small business export economy, but that’s another topic for another time.

The main reason I haven’t been posting is that I’ve been busy, very busy with business. If you’ve read previous posts here from awhile back, you know that my business is online selling. At the time, a site called Bonanzle (rechristened Bonanza) was poised to be my major outlet, replacing the top dog,- eBay. Now I can no longer consider it to be the major outlet for my purposes. For the type of merchandise I deal in – scarce and often rare, antiquarian books, vintage magazines, ephemera, stamps, comics, uncommon vinyl and 78s, photographs, postcards, etc., the auction environment is the best choice for getting top dollar, and not have your stuff sit around doing nothing but look good on display in an e-Store. There are hundreds of sites that do this with fixed price listings. Bonanza is one of them. Now I’m not saying that’s bad; for some, this works out very well. Bonanza has some very positive things going for it- lots of items on display on their front page, no commercial ads, a Google and Bing tie-ins, the ability to import your listings from eBay and Etsy, no listing fees, low final value fees for sellers and no fees to buyers, free picture hosting for up to 4 photos, the list goes on and on. However, as the site has grown, with nearly 3.5 million items listed and over 300,000 users currently ( including buyer members and sellers), there is a greater likelihood for sellers and their items to get “lost in the sauce,” especially if they don’t have the metrics in place for optimization in Google and Bing searches. Also, outside promotion (a lot of work, often accompanied by spending money) and networking is a requirement if a seller is looking to do well on this site.

Most sellers on Bonanza have what I would call a handful of items in their booth- 500 or less. (Even my booth, Windhamearl’s Black Lodge, falls into this category.) These are part-time dilettantes for the most part; people who sell for a little bit of extra cash now and then. I imagine that few of them put in the self-promotion effort required to sustain a business operation on a day to day basis. They may have tried this ‘n that in spurts, but have resigned themselves to occasional sales. The site also tends to have a proliferation of “garage-sale merchandise”. In randomly visiting a booth, I found 6 Danielle Steele HC novels for 4 bucks, a set of 8 vintage animal salt and pepper shakers for $4.76, and an 1893 Harper’s Bazaar magazine in poor condition for $4.76. Seems like a garage sale to me. That’s not to say that there aren’t sellers who have rare and valuable items. There certainly are. I would hazard a guess though that these sellers are not using Bonanza as their primary outlet, and have their fingers in a number of other sales pies. Overall, for a site whose motto is “Everything but the Ordinary,” there sure is a lot of ordinary merchandise there.

So the major thing that Bonanza lacks (for me) is an online auction environment. If there ever were any aspirations of Bonanza entering the online auction trade, I think that ship has sailed now that they are very comfortable with their business model. If you don’t like it, go sell somewhere else. But where? eBay? From a “been there, done that” seller’s standpoint, you probably know that eBay ain’t what it used to be. Not only has eBay’s new policies driven sellers away in droves by de-fanging the feedback system and cowing sellers with their DSR ratings, but now they have also employed new tactics to “fee to death” the small to medium seller. True, for insertion fees, one gets 50 free listings per month (that’s not much except for the merely casual seller), but after that, it’s full charge. eBay keeps this money whether you sell or not. But that’s not where the real money is anyway. eBay makes money on the “add-ons” to insertion fees, listing upgrades (subtitle, bold, listing designer, etc.), picture hosting fees (anything after the first one will cost you), and reserves (the optional price you set that your item can’t be sold under). This is all before “Final Value” fees, or what you have to pay eBay when your item sells. For auctions, it is a flat 9% with an upper limit of $100. In order to decrease eBay’s percentage, your item needs to sell for a good deal more than $1112.00. The average seller isn’t selling high ticket items in the $1200 - $12,000 range. But wait, it gets better!! (For them, not you).

eBay now also charges you a 9% fee on your shipping charge. eBay’s rationale for this according to eBay Selling Experience VP Todd Lutwak (now there’s a name for ya) is "The key takeaway here is, buyers tell us they love free shipping. And we wanted to put a system in place that rewards sellers who offer free and low-cost shipping, and we think that this change aligns the incentives among the selling community." So Todd, what you are saying in essence is, that you’re now going to penalize sellers who charge for shipping by tasking a cut of said shipping charge across the board because your market research shows that buyers luuuvvv free shipping. Do you have any fucking clue that shipping costs sellers money? Wasn’t free the last time I went to the post office. Do you think that by taking a % of the shipping cost you’re going to encourage sellers to hand out free shipping to engender more sales? I seriously doubt it. Where is a seller going to make up that money, in the cost of the item? That’s money back to eBay again. In this same article, Lutwak also said “eBay research suggests that sellers who move from a model of charging shipping & handling to a free-shipping model will find it easier to qualify for eBay Top Rated Seller, making them eligible for a 20% discount on their fees.”

What Toddy-boy isn’t mentioning is that in order to qualify as a Top Rated Seller on eBay, one has to be a PowerSeller with a minimum of 100 transactions and $3,000 in sales from U. S. buyers over a 12 month period, PLUS meet their convoluted DSR standards. So now, a seller has to eat the shipping cost to jump through the eBay system hoops in order to qualify for your blue-ribbon “Top Rated Seller” logo and a fee discount? If this isn’t elitism I don’t know what is. Look, I’ve been a “Top Rated Seller” and a Powerseller on eBay, and that didn’t do jack-squat for my sales, nor for a number of other eBay sellers I’ve spoken with over the course of the last few years. If a buyer cares about anything, it’s your feedback. Most buyers aren’t so stupid as to think they’re getting something for nothing with free shipping. What buyers want is “fair shipping”; a reasonable cost with items shipped in a reasonable amount of time, and packaged well enough so whatever you buy isn’t damaged. Charging $25 for shipping a small item is not reasonable (unless it’s overnight express), any idiot knows that, and who would fool enough to buy from someone who charged that? What you’re doing here my friend is double-dipping. You’re gouging the seller on a cost she has little control over. Then, you’re doing it again with your financial arm, Pay Pal. Pay Pal doesn’t deduct shipping cost, or even sales tax from the fees they charge to receive money. That’s quadruple-dipping. eBay keeps saying that they’re listening to their buyers, but it is obvious they don’t give a flying fuck about their sellers, and that’s why sellers keep leaving in droves. The quality of buyers too has severely depreciated in the categories of merchandise that I sell. Selling on eBay now is a cutthroat business, and the throat that is getting cut is likely your own.

Let’s look at another “Big Dog” for online auctions – Heritage Auctions. This site specializes in Art, Antiques, Rare Books, Comics, Coins, Entertainment Memorabilia, Fine Wines, Jewelry, etc., etc. These guys sell a lot of stuff for a lot of money. They’re the world’s largest collectibles auctioneer and the third largest auction house with over $700 million in annual sales and well over half a billion online bidder members. They are both a Live and Internet auction house; have been around since 1976 and online since 1999 or so. WOW! Right up my alley! With that kind of presence, who would want to buy or sell collectible stuff anywhere else? Well, there is a catch- their fees. A Buyer’s Premium is 15% to 19.5% of the items you win in their actions. Yes, on top of the money you spend on buying stuff there you’re paying Heritage a kickback for the privilege of bidding and winning. Zowza! Plowing through Heritage’s Terms and Condition of Auction agreement might be best done with the aid of a lawyer, but the impression I got is that their Sellers fee is 10%. So Heritage makes at least 25% on everything they sell. Unless you’ve got some really, really valuable stuff to sell, it just isn’t worth it. And if it is that valuable, you might need it appraised in order to get top dollar. Heritage does that too, for a fee of course. They don’t tell you exactly how much that is upfront but they will give you an estimate if you contact them with the information on what you want appraised. Actually, I did see their Standard Appraisal Fee Schedule. Minimum Appraisal Fee on a written appraisal is $500, or $350 per hour per appraiser, plus travel expenses (if necessary) to the tune of $175 an hour after the first hour of travel, plus airfare, hotel, car rental, etc. You really need something or somethings that are very, very valuable in order to afford this. Grandma’s silverware isn’t going to cut it. On the plus side, they will rebate some of your dough if you choose to list items they appraise through Heritage, and informal appraisals (verbal, with no documentation) are free but limited to three items, and you might have to bring it to them in Dallas where they’re located.

Compared to the eBay format, navigating Heritage is awful. It is a pain in the ass to find anything, description information is minimal in most cases and so is the pictorial content- for most items, only one photo. There are also additional complexities. In the Coin category for example, Buy (It) Now items are mixed in with ongoing auctions and Sold items. You have to look closely. Plus, there are current and future Live auctions to consider. This is no casual buyer or seller site. You really need to know what the hell you’re doing before you get involved with Heritage. For most people this is just out of their league. Still, like on eBay, people do a lot of buying and selling there because they are very well-known (high web presence) and attract a lot of people.

After that come a slew of sites that are eBay wannabes – WebStore, eBid, OnlineAuction, bidStart, WeBidz, etc. Most of these are free to list on for basic listings, and charge low (or even no) Final Value fees. On the downside, what they’re not making in fees they make up for in ad revenue, a sure killer of site aesthetics. When auction sites like the aforementioned don’t charge fees and don’t limit what can be listed (within the bounds of standard legality, of course), there ends up being an awful lot of junk listed on them. You might get lucky if you spent enough time there, but who’s got time to spend browsing categories of mostly crap? Yes, there are some dealers putting up rarities and valuables mostly at high starting bid prices because they have nothing to lose if it’s free or uber-cheap to list. Trouble is, very few items on these sites seem to be getting any bids. Searching on some of these sites can be problematic. Also, the majority of them look like eBay clones without the eBay traffic. “Without the eBay traffic,” that’s the key. They are trying to do too much instead of concentrating on certain niches they can build a reputation and following with. It’s like a Dollar Store trying to go head-to-head with Wal-Mart. What is the point of wasting time listing at large general merchandise auction sites that don’t get a whole lot of traffic? None really, except that it’s just another outlet. Remember that you will be tying up merchandise that more than likely won’t get any bids, and if you’re selling unique items, listing them on multiple sites at the same time can be risky business.

So what IS the answer? For my money (or yours, if you’re buying from me), the obvious choice is a small niche-market auction site that caters to the type of merchandise I deal in - antiquarian and scarce books, vintage magazines, ephemera, stamps, comics, pictures, postcards, etc., So what site is that? Well, stay tuned, I’ll tell you in the next post. (Note: as I was composing this post four new bids just came in on items I have listed there.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The King of Cloves

Well, it has finally come to pass- thanks to Obama and the Congressional minions, it is now illegal to sell clove cigarettes in the United States. Smoke 'em if you got 'em...and I've got a few... for now. I've been smoking clove cigarettes ever since I went to Bali eight years ago, and have been a long-time smoker way before then. I don't even remember what brand I smoked prior to cloves (also known as Kreteks, in the Indonesian), and I can't, I WON'T go back to regular cigarettes. To me, they don't taste very good, and for me, it's definitely a matter of taste.

Even though I knew this ridiculous legislation was inevitable, I kept postponing stockpiling a large purchase of the now-banned product figuring I could wait until a couple of weeks before the ban deadline (Sept. 22nd) and still have a sizble amount of smokes before the product disappeared. I got a shocking wake-up call when the place I buy from in Pennsylvania decided to remove clove cigarettes from inventory a couple of weeks early, leaving me virtually cloveless. Panic ensued- I bought up all the clove cigarettes I could find locally, whatever brand I could find. (My preferred brand is Djarum, the Vanilla, or Gold, as you see in the photo.) I looked into online sources for purchase, but the ones from Indonesia (where clove kretek cigarettes are manufactured) didn't seem so reliable. Sure they were cheaper, but they take a long time to get delivered and I could see them being confiscated in customs. That would be a LOT of money up in smoke. Eventually, I found a domestic source, and also enlisted a friend from the South to purchase for me whatever he can find. With any luck, I will satsfied until the first snowfall. It's going to be an ugly winter though.

Back to the whole legislative aspect of banning cloves (and other flavored cigarettes) ...what the hell were these clowns thinking? The rationale is suposed to be discouraging young people from smoking, as if clove and flavored cigarettes are THE gateway to developing a smoking habit. That's just plain ludicrous. Teenagers smoke the most heavily advertised brands- Marlboro, Camel and Newport. After that, it's the generics and a few other name brands like Parliment, Kool, Doral and Virginia Slims. Cloves and other flavored cigarettes hardly factor in at all, and just aren't easy to find. Also, they're a bit more expensive than your average cigarette. In fact, the only kids who smoke clove cigarettes are usually Goth kids, and the percentage is fairly low. The brand of choice is Djarum Black, a pretty strong cigarette. Personally, I can't smoke more than one occassionally, and it is not my kretek of choice. Considering that 99% of clove cigarettes are manufactured in Indonesia, and cloves account for the largest percent of the flavored cigarette market outside of menthol, the part of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act that bans them is a direct embargo on Indonesian cigarette exports.

Under the FSPTCA, methol cigarettes are NOT banned. Why? Because the American tobacoo industry has too big a stake in them. Set up the little guy to take the fall, that's what it amounts to. Clove cigarettes account for only .09% of all cigarettes sold in the U.S. Less then a tenth of a percent! So does this look like an effective move in curbing teen smoking? Obviously not. It's just symptomatic of the empty-gesture ineffective legislation that has become a hallmark of the American political system.

Whether Barack Obama still smokes cigarettes or not is a still a bone of contention among some people. I think as recently as June he's admitted to puffing a few. As for his brand, no one knows for sure. Most seem to think it's Marlboro. I'm pretty sure it's not cloves. If he was a clove addict, he might not have been so quick to support banning them. Maybe he'd just have them imported under the radar. I'll bet Clinton found a way to get his hands on a good Cuban cigar now and then. Obama is classified as an ex-smoker, and I'm sure he'll keep it that way in the media. I think he's a closet smoker; only his wife and the Secret Service may know for sure. Still, the legislation is a bit hypoctitical from that perpective. Ex-smokers are notoriously the worst in their zeal against smokers.

So guberment has taken away my kreteks, or will, when I run out of them. Serves you right, you say. Time to quit. Well maybe, but it's forced cessation, not on my own terms. I think if some (tobacco) cigarettes are illegal, they all should be. If the people in government are so anxious to prohibit individual lifestyle choices (and they are), then pull the rug all the way out. Cigarette smokers have been made the pariahs of society; you can't smoke in restaurants, bars, public buildings, airplanes, movie theaters or any numer of other places. I remember a time when you could light up anywhere. Those days are gone, gone gone. That's fine, I'm not going to argue ETS with anyone. I'm not going to even defend smoking at all, but I believe I have the right to make up my own mind if and when I want to quit.

Just remember though, that banning clove cigarettes is ineffectual as a preventative measure to teen smoking and just pisses people like me off. And it won't stop here. Cap & Trade, Health Care, Bank and Corporate Bailouts and so many other situations where legislation will miss the mark, screw the little guy and allow the Corporatocracy to reap the rewards is the modus operandi of how things work in this country now. You can count on it, unless you're willing to do something about it.

For now, I may be "The King of Cloves," one of the few with the last remaining supply of those tasty cigarettes. But my days are numbered. When they run out, I guess I join the ranks of the ex-smokers. I can guarantee I won't be intolerent of smokers as most ex-smokers are. I respect your freedom of choice. I only wish mine was respected as well.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

What I Didn't Do on My Summer Vacation/Summer Music

Here it is, Labor Day weekend, the summer swirling to a gurgling finish as the last droplets of good weather are sucked down the drain by the inevitable seasonality of the region I live in. What didn't I do on my summer vacation? WHAT vacation, I ask. By conventional definition, I didn't do anything. I worked, sort of, albeit leisurely and without a whole lot of enthusiasm. Vacation by definition is "to vacate" implying one is leaving something, a job, a building, whatever in order to be somewhere else, do something else...usually for set period of time allotted by an employer or, if you're self-employed like me, whatever and whenever you can afford to get away.

This year, there has been no money to spend on the sort of vacation that allows one to get away to sunny climes, idling on beaches, sipping cool, tall alcoholic beverages, visiting interesting places, doing cool things. And that's really a shame because the weather around here has SUCKED big-time for the most part- rainy, cold (or at least very cool for summer) making it the most non-summer I've experienced in years. So enough bitching about summer. It's over. Autumn is moving in and soon there will be a yard full of leaves to rake and dispose of. Maybe I'll get nostalgic and wistful this Fall. I could use a change of perspective.

Not having done a blog post since the middle of June, I pondered what topic might be worth diving into to wave farewell to the season of sun. Business surely isn't it; the sales climate for me has been as depressing as this summer's weather. Economy? Well, surely you know where that's at by now, and regardless of the pundits' call for the end of the "Recession", the real world indicates otherwise. This is just the beginning in my estimation, and you ain't seen
nothin' yet. Politics? Politics is a sucker's game; it's rigged and rotten. A speech given by an idiot full of sound and fury...signifying nothing. Sure, I went to a Town Hall Meeting to listen to my Congressman (Eric Massa) take questions (mostly on the ineffective Health Care Bill), but in the end, even HE said it wouldn't pass. There is no doubt we could use some positive change, but too many elected Representatives are bought and paid for by the Corporatocracy, and the only change you're going to get is the "spare change" thrown to the sidewalk for the populace like 'Cash for Clunkers' and Government stimulus rebate checks. And don't get me started on the Oba-man's "Education Speech". It's been botched in the handling and compromised my the media and Administration before it's even been given. Here's a lesson plan for ya- have every school kid write a paper on what Obama promised in his campaign vs. what he's delivered. What's he done right? What has he done wrong? What would YOU do if you were the President of the United States to make the country more prosperous, efficient, and harmonious, without resorting to fascism. You might find some surprisingly good answers among young minds.

Okay, business, the economy and politics are off the table as far topics I'd care to write about without getting apoplexy. What's left? Sex, drugs, rock 'n roll? Sex- finally getting some but need a whole lot more. That's always a touchy topic for me anyway. I suppose I might be inclined to be more open about it if I wasn't married...but as I am, I'll hold my tongue on that topic. Keeps me out of trouble. Drugs? Once again, touchy subject, at least on a personal level. Unless I'm in Amsterdam where there is some level of legal
tolerance, personal anecdotes and experiences are off the table. Besides, I don't have a sweet dealer like on 'Weeds', so there is nothing happening there....unless you count salvia, but that, my friend, is a topic for another discussion. So that leaves 'rock 'n roll'.

Okay, I'll sub-out music in general for the rock 'n roll tag. I can't ever just listen to one genre anyway. At least here I've made some interesting discoveries (with the help of friends, acquaintances and other sources) this summer...some new, some revisited, and some just weird and out of the blue. As a musician, music-seller, music-reviewer and just someone who loves hearing eclectic music, I have strong desire to always seek out
something new. With the proliferation of music outlets on the Internet, there is no lack of availability of cool music. With MySpace, ReverbNation, YouTube and a slew of other places out there you can find a gamut of music ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. There are only things that you haven't heard or don't know about yet. So let me tell you about some of my recent finds.

First, there is a project called The Division, and the CD called "Mantras". The Division is a solo project by Matthew Schultz of Lab Report and Pigface. Schultz is noted for his weird "Anti Tank Guitar" instrument, but it is the profundity of world instruments used on "Mantras" that makes this album a standout. I discovered it in the last batch of
CDs I reviewed for Chain D.L.K., and it was really the best in the bunch. Conceptually, "Mantras" is supposed to be about Ritual Magick (not something unfamiliar to me) but the music is a pastiche of exotic Middle Eastern motifs, intoxicating rhythms and sweeping ambiences that will blow you away. Highly recommended. Make sure you have your hookah at hand and your girl is dressed in a Princess Leia slave girl outfit, or at least a belly dancing costume.

Next up is
Bat For Lashes. They were introduced to me by way of a friend who sent me the same link of the Letterman show performance you just saw if you clicked on their name. I don't care for every song they do, but the Letterman performance was pretty good. A little Bjork-ish, a bit like Kate Bush, a does of the 80's. You don't find a lot of new artists sounding like this these days. Along the same lines is Sol Seppy, and her "Slo Fuzz" song is worth a listen- very psych/shoegazer influenced. Speaking of shoegazer bands, got me to thinking, how come you don't hear new bands doing that kind of music anymore, and whatever happened to Lush, the premier female-fronted Brit shoegazer (if you don't count the Cocteau Twins). Well, Lush expired in 1966 when flame-topped lead singer/guitarist Miki Berenyi decided to go full-time into the publishing business. Little did I know (or hear) that Emma Anderson, Miki's counterpart vocalist/guitarist in Lush had put her own group together called Sing-Sing with a gal by the name of Lisa O'Neill. Okay, so this wasn't Lush revived, but they managed to squeeze out a couple of pretty good albums when I wasn't looking and disband too before I even heard them. In the world of pop music, you just can't get enough good stuff like this, so I'll take what I can get, even after the fact.

ISB, who I've rambled about enough in another post were also on my playlist this summer due to receiving a 9 CD bootleg compilation called "God's Holiday, Part 2." It's mostly their later stuff when the band was in decline, and probably only interesting to a "String-Bean" like me, but there are some cool gems amidst the clunkers and too many versions of "Black Jack Davy". Finding a copy of this massive set would be a daunting task for most anyway.

So what else have we got? My friend in Florida made me copies of albums I didn't have on CD- Eno's "Another Green World"; the first
UK album (prog-rock supergroup, Bruford, Holdsworth, Jobson, Wetton); John Foxx's "Metamatic"; Kraftwerk's "Ralf and Florian" and the Supreme Beings of Leisure (first album). But this is more nostalgia than anything new, and if you like eclectic and/or electronic music, you probably already own them, or should.

Let's delve into the
DIY category briefly, and an artist who came to my attention via Internet sell-mart Bonanzle, and a visit to my little corner there, Windhamearl's Black Lodge. Out of the Blue I get a request to review the music of someone who calls himself Modartist. In order to formally do a music review (for Chain D.L.K., the only site I formally review for) I need a copy of the product (usually CD) and the music needs to fall somewhere in Chain D.L.K.'s area of genres- Goth, Industrial,Electronic, Ambient, Synth-pop, Experimental, Avant-garde, etc. Since the music of Eric Scott Bloom (Modartist) doesn't fall into the aforementioned genres, I couldn't do a formal review, but that doesn't stop me from telling you about it here. My initial exposure to Modartist was a track called "Real Bad Acid Trip". It's Bob Dylan on windowpane positively cruising down 4th Street. Plenty of psychedelic influence and Pynchonesque lyrics. "Nature of the Beast" is a pretty cool track too. He does sound a bit too much like the rolling stone that followed Bob home on these tracks but further exposure to some of his other songs shows that he's attempted to expand his horizons. I heard hints of Blue Oyster Cult(lite), the Who, Mott the Hoople, Bowie, and a style of music that was predominant in the 70's. I think this guy should get out and tour. Who else is doing this kind of music but the has-beens, and do you really want to pay to see a bunch of overweight, saggy-jowled once-weres crank out the same stale stuff that dominated the radio for so many years? I don't. As for Modartist, I don't think everything he does is great, but there are enough good nuggets amidst the heap that it's worth your while digging into. ESB is a visual artist too, but I'll let you make up your own mind about that.

So what's left? My friend Rob sends me a ton of links, and I think I'm still trying to catch up on a lot of them. Wounded Violets is sort of an odd and interesting duo; experimental dark folk collaboration of a
Parisian chanteuse and a musician dud from Colorado. Kind of Current 93 meets Mazzy Star. Probably too weird for most, but worth a listen for the adventurous. This kind of stuff is most prone to attracting a cult following, especially if you have a number of limited releases that are nearly impossible to find, and expensive when you can find them. I don't think that's the case with Wounded Violets, but it does appear to be the case with In Gowan Ring. Rob also did the legwork on their music and I wasn't initially impressed with their latest musical offerings. Reminded me of Edward KaSpel's lesser solo efforts with a hint of Chad & Jeremy. I think they'd make a competent Renaissance Faire band. However, in digging back through their catalogue, I found them to be much more musically adventurous and interesting on their older material, which of course, is difficult to find. There Oregonians have been touring Europe most of the summer, so they must have something going for them.

real music of summer though, has emanated from the ice cream truck that tours the neighborhood. We must have the only ice cream truck that plays a variety of tunes ranging from "Old MacDonald" to "Swan Lake". (Most seem to play the same annoying song over and over again.) Christmas songs too. What's up with that???

As for me, creatively I've spent what little time I can scrape together working on a piece of music with the working title of
"I'd Walk a Camel for a Mile", something radically different than what I've previously done in my Serious Black project. The track has a Middle-Eastern flavor with mostly genre-appropriate instrumentation. So far, it's nearly 15 minutes long and instrumental. That though, is bound to change as I have some vocal ideas floating around in my head and the repetition spanning 15 minutes seems not as good an idea as it was when first started. It's just a sketch anyway, and if Rob and I can find a way to collaborate long distance on it (he's a ways away in Montreal), it may tun out to be something quite special. But I wouldn't hold my breath; I'm a computer recording Luddite, stuck by choice (and $$) and the world of hardware/outboard gear that nearly everyone regards as passé.

So that's it for the blog post. I encourage everyone to go out and listen to something new today. Yes, even buy something new. If you're stuck for ideas, please feel free to visit
Windhamearl's Black Lodge . I've got a lot of great stuff just sitting there doing nothing, and to be honest, I could use the money.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Managing the Malaise

It seems like everything I'm doing or not doing lately hinges on my level of inspiration. On one hand, this is a pretty cool way to operate. On the other, it can be extremely unproductive when not inspired. As I'm not trading dollars for hours, and the only boss I really have to please is myself (and my wife, who enlists me for household tasks that simply MUST be done) I can often while away the hours preoccupied with endeavors of little real substance or accomplishment. Somehow I justify that anything worth doing must come from and inspired perspective and not from self-reproach of "what must be done". Since this winter past, little inspiration has been forthcoming. This motivation constipation, or 'the malaise' as I call it has infected my creativity, income and general happiness to some degree. Yeah, there's no one to blame but myself for this but still I feel it's better than doing things you don't want to do when you don't want to do them. I know that in the past, pushing myself to work when I wasn't motivated did not produce significantly better results, especially on the creative end of things. Then again, being uninspired to step beyond the bounds of the hum-drum sometimes requires a catalyst. Such a catalyst took form by the recent renewal of acquaintanceship with a dear old friend.

My friend, who I will refer to as Bob, posted a comment on my blog that was like getting a wake-up call with a silken feather. I was tickled pink! It had been 20 years since our last contact with each other, and my previous (although admittedly half-hearted) attempts to track him down in the interim were met with no success. Being ever the wanderer, I though he had moved to some distant country and and become enmeshed in a foreign culture and lifestyle. Not so distant though was he I soon found out, after now having a way to contact him, and all at once it seemed like old times again.

Our friendship really began at the beginning of our senior year of high school, and although we had known each other a few years prior, I ended up attending a Catholic HS, largely at the whim of my parents, who (Mistakenly) thought it would be an advantage to getting into a better college. Meanwhile, Bob soldiered on in public school, having a blast, no doubt. In my junior year, I knew that my ideas were turning too radical for the stricture, scripture and structure of the Jesus-driven educational system. I wanted to grow my hair long, wear flowered shirts and bell-bottom pants. I wanted a girlfriend who wore miniskirts instead of a frumpy uniform, I wanted to smoke pot, take L.S.D., spew forth my radical philosophy, make music and hang out with the 'hippies'. None of this was happening in the cloistered world of the parochial school. So I finally rebelled, my folks relented and I spent my last, and best year even in public high school.

From the first day he wandered into my basement playing a flute back then, Bob and I became fast friends. He introduced me to J. R. R. Tolkien, and I introduced him to the Incredible String Band. (Only the latter would end up being "literally".) Our love of eclectic and exotic music was the glue that cemented our friendship and actually forged a vehicle for mutual creativity. At the time, there was no more eclectic and exotic ensemble in pop music at large than the Incredible String Band. The ISB have been described as a psychedelic folk band by those who know little or could care less about their music; they are no easy outfit to pigeon-hole, and most attempts fail to do justice. From their Scottish/Celtic roots, the instrumentation and form reaches into Asian, Afghan, Moroccan, Indian (India), Tibetan, and even American Blues and Rock. It was "World Music" of a sort before the term as such was even coined. Yes, for a period of time their lyrics may have seemed psychedelic, but their songs carried tales mythic import, and bespoke of wisdom well beyond anything else being done in the rock/pop genre at the time. Cryptic, yet seductive and inviting.

"O second self, o gate of the soft mystery
I'll love you if you'll love me;
O guide me
with the gold of Gabriel's wing
Grant me the tongue
That all the earth does sing-
Vibrating light, forever one the sun
The book of life is open to us
There'll be no secrets left between us..." - Three Is A Green Crown, Robin Williamson

And yet, they were often very whimsical too. That was a big part of their unique charm, which did not carry over very well into the decidedly non-whimsical '70's, at least as far as the critics and the general record-buying public were concerned. But I digress too much. Suffice it to say that the ISB was the core influence of the musical collaboration (along with other folky acoustic oddities like Dr. Strangely Strange, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Forest, etc.), the not-so-incredible string band, that Bob and I embarked on which we eventually named Pilgrim Quiggle. As such a collaboration, it was founded on inspiration rather than perspiration, or any illusions of working toward a goal of fame, critical or public acclaim, or even monetary compensation for our efforts. Unlike previous 'band' efforts (on my part at least), we never had any set rehearsal schedule, disciplined practices, or truly public performances. We got together and improvised when we felt like it, played for our small circle of friends, and had a jolly good time of it.

Bob had no formal musical training. I had some, which helped a bit with the structure, but was only enough to get by. Bob was good at percussion; he had a natural ability for rhythm and a knack to be able to pick up unusual instruments and make them sound interesting. My guitar and mandolin formed the base, while Bob dabbled in various hand drums and bongos, whistle, flute, jew's harp, ocarina, shakuhachi, bowed gimbri (primitive Moroccan string instrument), shenai, or chanter (Indian reed instrument), castanets, finger cymbals and whatever else he could get his hands on to make interesting sounds. Eventually, a sitar even crept into the mix, but I could not wrap my head around it and gain enough skill to make a good go of it, so I sold it to another friend.

We actually did write enough songs in our own ramshackle fashion that were nearly an album's worth of material but we had no Joe Boyd (ISB producer) to take us into a legitimate studio and refine our sound. Even if we did, I'm sure we would have come off as Incredible Wannabes and would have quickly sold our way into the cut-out bin had any record label been foolish enough to sponsor our 'act'. Had we gotten serious, stuck with it and gained some discipline, who knows? We might have gotten good enough to at least play Renaissance Festivals, and would have been prouder of it than the band guys.

The important thing here though is INSPIRATION. It is what fueled our little collaboration in spite of its deficiencies. We might occasionally play an ISB song, or a T-Rex song but the overwhelming majority of our material was original, and often bizarre, but it had a magical and whimsical quality to it. Hearing some of those songs now, as ambivalent as the listening experience can be, I hear glimmerings of brilliance amidst the averageness of amateurism. We had a lot of fun, and I'm sure we both learned something about inspiration and creativity along the way.

Our association continued into college where we were roomates. Perhaps that was a mistake, as familiarity tends to breed contempt, and our lifestyles were not necessarily compatible in the long run, or the small room. Although we saw each other occasionally over the years following, with the exception of the DNA Theatre project (another coll-abort-ive effort we experimented with), there was little in the way of co-conspiratorial creative efforts between us. I had gone the way of rock musician, being involved with one band or another. Bob would pop us as an actor in a play, a musician in a gamelan orchestra, a juggler, and likely a whole lot of other roles I don't know anything about. When I finally moved away from our local area, we lost touch. For 20 years. Until he looked me up again.

That contact was both nostalgic and inspirational. I discovered that his interest in eclectic music had not dissipated but expanded. He's collected more exotic instruments, and learned how to play the fiddle. Through our correspondence I've had sort of an awakening and renaissance of ideas that I've been meaning to put into practice, but never could seem to get the motivation to realize. Now, a bit of synergy from afar has wakened a desire in me to attempt to truly syncretize my influences. Possibly, the answer to the malaise, which is where this post all began. I know it won't happen overnight, and Bob and I may never get the opportunity to collaborate on another Pilgrim Quiggle, or any such musical squiggle, but the seeds have been sown.

"...You know what you could be.
Tell me my friend,
Why you worry all the time
What you should be..." -You Know What You Could Be, Mike Heron

Sunday, May 24, 2009

It's all about ME and you and US

This post is spurred on by Bill Maher's most recent Real Time HBO show, in which the guests were female rapper M.I.A., former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson, Nobel Peace Prize winner and 'Banker to the poor' Mohammad Yunus, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Newsweek magazine editor, Jon Meacham. When the "easy target" Bush administration was in power, Maher was a formidible political satirist. His barbs were usually well-place and right on, although he often overlooked the deeper issues in favor of the popular ones. It has become clear that in the presence of the Obama administration, Maher is comedy first, political issues second (or maybe even third), passing up few opportunities to cheap-shot the easy targets, which include religion, the American public at large, and his audience in part.

That much was clear from the get-go, during his interview with Tamil Sri Lankan female visual and rap music artist M.I.A. , when Bill made stupid remarks about Maya's (M.I.A.) pregnant condition during the Grammys, gave an impromptu geography lesson for the dumb American public on Sri Lanka's location, and incorrectly assumed the conflict in Sri Lanka between the Tamal minority and the Sinhalese majority was a religious (Hinduism vs. Buddhism) one. I'm not religious, but I've noticed that Maher won't pass up an opportunity to crucify religion any chance he gets. (He would have made a great Roman Centurion in Jerusalem back in 33 A.D.) The conflict is not religion-based, but rather ethnic and majority-over minority based, the hegemony of the Sinhalese over the Tamil and the Tamil's refusal to docilely accept their role as second class citizens. MI.A.'s purpose for being on the show was to enlighten the American public on the truth of the situation since recent the end of the civil war and defeat of the rebel Tamil Tigers in that country. The Sinhalese oppression now goes unchecked, and rather than make issue of that, Bill chose to make fun of MI.A.'s British accent and even blame the Brits for spawning the conflict.

So with that bit of embarrassment out of the way, Maher moved on to the panel- Simon Johnson, Mohammad Yunus and Jon Meacham. Bill lobbed the initial topic, a nice & easy one that posed the question- "It looks like things are getting better but economically speaking, are we out of the woods now?" Johnson swung and connected limply on a pitch he should have been able to hit out of the park by saying that there has been some recovery as "No drama Obama" pulled the banks away from falling off the edge of the cliff, but for the "real economy" (the general public), things still look a bit shakey. Simon, Simon, Simon....what the hell are you doing? Following Maher's lead dumbing-down the economic situation for the Joe 3-pack public? Jeez, you wouldn't ever say anthing so shallow and simplisitc in your Baseline Scenario blog, so why would you boil all the water out of the pan on a highly rated TV show? You know that the Banksters have been sucking up all the goodies out of Obama & Tiny Tim's Santa bag they can, you know the market is being manipulated, and you know that the Gen Public is fucked with a capital "F". At least you could have strongly pointed out where the guv'ment was going wrong, and how Obama's wuss handling of the Banksters and his lack of forward planning was just hastening the inevitable doomsday scenario.

Maher, in one of his rare moments of brilliance, used something Johnson said about "Banana Republics" to make comment on the infectious avarice of the financial sector, and the American public at large, equating unfettered markets with the religion of material greed. (Gotta get that religious snipe in.) Smiling Buddha Mohammad Yunus said that the economic crisis was actually an opportunity for real positive change in the financial sector, and that it was overlooked in favor of the status quo, and failed to be capitalized on. He said "We have selfishness in us and we have selflessness in us...but the way the economic market is designed... it's all about selfishness, and I have no chance about looking out for anybody else." Maher follows up with a comment about how there are no plans for redesigning the financial system, and Obama is still giving money way to the corrupt Wall Street executives he went to Harvard with. Meacham (P.J. O'Rourke light) finally got a comment in about the economic and social disparity of the United States today, citing how the Great Depression brought the nation together as one enabling social and economic change, while now it's all rhetoric and business as usual.

There rest of the show was consumed with Cheney vs. Obama on the terrorist issue, and Maher's favorite pincushion, religion. Now I'm no religious supporter, but gee Bill, give it a rest already. How about some constructive economic solutions? How about what needs to be done to make things better for Americans who are losing their jobs, their meager savings, their freedoms and being forced to eat Genetically Mutated Organisms? Out of all his "New Rules", the only one worthy of mentioning was his last- Stop thinking that electing a Superhero is going to be the answer to our problems. Rather than zeroing in on he puts it, "Chocolate Jesus" (Obama), he turned his attention to California and Schwarzenegger. Saying that it was impossible for the Gubenator to solve California's problems because it's "illeagal" to govern in this state. Maher said "We only govern by ballot initiatives, and there are only two types of those - things I like, and don't raise my taxes. We votes YES on gain and NO on pain. This is why America's founders established a representative democracy, because they knew if the average joe had the chance, he'd vote for a fantasy world with no taxes, free beer and vagina trees." A little broad-based humor, but in essence, Maher's right. The pressure exerted by special interest groups and "political correctness" has fostered the oiling of the squeaky wheel over what makes common sense, and is really in the public good.

This brings us back to the first part of the topic title - All about ME, or perhaps even the collective "WE". The WE being those that can exert the most power and influence over legislation, who gets the breaks, who gets the money, and who gets the shaft. It seems as though it will always be the ME/WE minority that gets the two former boons, while the bane of the shaft falls on the collective "you" majority. Like a good feudal lord, the Prez throws bones to his hounds like the "Credit Card Bill of Rights" which bans retroactive interest rate increases and minimum payment time disclosure among other things, but fails to cap outrageous and usurious interest rates at a percent that's reasonable. He says he's going to close Gitmo, but can't deliver on an exit strategy. He finger-wags at the Wall Street culprits that caused the financial debacle, but does nothing to punish the wrongdoers. And those are only a few issues. Pretty unbelievable for change we're supposed to believe in.

So it seems as though it's still all about ME, only the "ME" here isn't you or I. It's them. The people with the power and the gold still making the rules to serve the people with the power and the gold to make the rules. It doesn't take an IMF economist to know that the robber-barons of Wall Street, Goldman Sachs is manipulating the stock market to their advantage, and yet nothing gets done about it. Gee, could that have anything to do with former T-Sec Hanky-Panky's and current T-Sec Tiny Tim's relationship with GS cronies?

It's time we stopped thinking about ME, and started thinking about US. Instead of focusing on the big score, beating down the competition and amassing as much personal gain at any cost to our ethics and values, we need to develop a mindset that will benefit the majority of the people in this country over our own individual little island worlds. The gap between the HAVES and the HAVE-NOTS is widening; people who lose their jobs and homes now are finding that it sucks to be on the other side of the chasm. What happens when if the dollar truly tanks? (And don't think that it isn't a possibility, because a large part of this nation's economic stability depends on who buys our debt, and other countries ain't buying like they used to.) Maybe then they'll realize we're all in this together, or if you have the biggest guns, you can still get your own way.

As Simon Johnson pointed out in his "What I Didn't Get To Say on Bill Maher Last Night" post on The Baseline Scenario, Mohammad Yunus's idea of the "Social Business" model over a "Strictly-for-Profit" business model is something that needs to be addressed NOW, before it becomes too late. In a country you're doing business in, there has to be a certain social responsibity, otherwise the propensity to suck the citizens dry becomes too great. Whether it's Big Oil, the Pharmaceutical Industry, Insurance, Banking, Tech, etc., whatever, the idea of taking huge amounts of money in profits and not contributing socially (and I don't mean charitable tax write-offs, scholarship funds and grants stamped with the corporate logo) is repugnant. How can a mega-business justify its right to exist in a community, when it has allowed that community to go bankrupt by manipulating the tax laws to not pay its fair share? How can you have a gainfully employed America if you keep shipping jobs overseas for a few tax breaks? How can you have a healthy America if your business pollutes the environment, genetically alters the food supply with unknown and potentially disastrous consequences or drive health care costs through the roof? How can you have a wealthy America when you rig the casino games of Wall Street with under the table financial mechanisms no one understands, that enrich YOU rather than any sucker investors bold or stupid enough to play you game of chance? How can you have a future for America when you keep the wheels of energy stuck in the muck and mire of fossil fuels with cost-prohibitive roadblocks and aggressive lobbying?

It's time we stated thinking about US, the collective "us", and begin to change the mindset about what it all means to co-exist harmoniously in this country, on this planet together. Anyone can be the harbinger of a doomsday scenario (just check the best seller's list) , but it takes courage and forward thinking to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Maybe we need an even worse plight to make us al pull together. I'm not suggesting socialism, but I AM advocating social consciousness. Yeah, you can be a naysayer and trumpet the glory of unfettered free-market capitalism. So how's that been working for you of late? All I'm saying is that it's time to employ a little common sense, get off the high horse and do what's right for US as a whole, not what you think is right for just your little world. Because if you're only out for 'ME', you're going to find out soon enough just how small your own little world really is.