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Chris Ashford of What/Iloki/Wondercap Records

17 May 2009

Chris Ashford may not have a household name, but over 30 years ago, he released a single by his teenage friends, The Germs. That single, “Forming” b/w “Sex Boy” (What) is now widely recognized as the first Los Angeles DIY punk release. Now he’s exploring the farthest reaches of jazz with his current label, Wondercap.

Chris has spent many years as both a music industry (albeit indie) businessman and an avid record collector, so I asked him some questions about the shift toward digital media and downloading. His answers pleasantly surprised me.

This interview is running concurrently with my full interview with Chris Ashford at which covers his history in the music business, from the creation of What Records to his present releases on Wondercap. You can read that here.

What’s your take on the way the music industry is moving into a purely digital direction?

Chris Ashford: Well, they’ve certainly been heading that way for a while. Boy, where do I start with this?

Without any judgment on my part about what you’re saying, I want to get your take on the MP3 phenomenon.

Chris Ashford: I’m going to make this more complicated than the question just for the fun of it.


Chris Ashford: I think the record companies, back in the late ‘80s were looking, once again, for ways to make money. We’d been hearing about CDs for 15, 20 years, but the technology hadn’t actually been perfected. Of course, the old rumors in the old days were you couldn’t ruin them or anything, they were perfect. But anyway, we won’t get into that. I think they hammered out CDs way too fast. Recording engineers and mastering engineers weren’t prepared, so early CDs didn’t sound very good. They didn’t track the tapes. They didn’t know how to master it properly for the sound ranges. They were using copy masters from vinyl pressings to make the CDs. But they immediately put a very high price on them. I think, through the ‘80s, they’d been raising the price of records pretty quickly anyway, and now it was their chance to go a third higher and I don’t think they had any idea what they were getting into. I don’t think they had any clue what digital meant. They were the dinosaur record companies and they were going to make all the money. Within 7, 8 years, it came back and bit them in the ass. They thought everybody was going to buy something and, little did they know, that people were going to be able to just throw these things around on the internet and give them away for free. With the technology, what it was, you weren’t necessarily losing a huge amount of quality. It’s not like a cassette that gets copied and copied and copied to where it’s muffled to death. Obviously, MP3s and stuff like that are much lesser than .wav quality, and you can hear the difference, but with the advent of iPods and stuff like that, a lot of people don’t care. It’s certainly not an audiophile’s dream, but it is what it is. It took a computer company to almost straighten out the music business, starting with the iPod and iTunes. I don’t think it’s ever really recovered from the damage. The CD, when it first came out, basically killed the single, and the single, really, still was the staple of the business. The downloads have brought back the single, which is interesting, and which is actually doing rather well. Something is on a TV show, all of a sudden, people download the crap out of it, where in the old days, if it was on a TV show, people would go out and buy the single.

I agree that that’s been an interesting dynamic.

Check back next week for Part 2!


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