Meet John Vettese. He’s a popular figure in the Philadelphia region and beyond, because of his work with WXPN, a listener-supported public radio station. He’s the guy behind The Key blog, bringing readers some of the best musical gems in the Philadelphia area and beyond, which also features live Key sessions. He also works on the XPN Local Music hour, which airs on the station on Tuesday nights. It’s a weekly, one-hour show focusing on local artists from Philadelphia.
When he’s not doing social media for the station, or even working with World Cafe with David Dye, an influential NPR Music program recorded at XPN, he hosts What’s The Frequency???, a monthly program that airs on XPN that explores the music of the ’90s. Vettese grew up with the music of the ’90s, a decade that had a profound musical impact on his life.
He estimates that he and his wife have about 2,000 LPs between the two of them, which are records that they’ve had since childhood, picked up at garage sales and flea markets across the region, passed down from friends who moved across the country, as well as ones that they bought both used and new at various record stores around the globe.
For our latest installation of In Support of the Art, we chatted with John about many different aspects of working in public radio, as well as his own experiences growing up in an age before the internet was a widely-used music discovery tool.
Modern Vinyl: What are some of your earliest memories about how you got involved with the world of music?
John Vettese: Music in general or records in specific?
MV: Music in general.
JV: I guess I would say probably because I always liked to go to sleep listening to music, and it’s weird. People ask me this a lot, and ask me if I came from a big musical family, or if my family was a big musical influence on me. To an extent they were, but I feel like I’m way more obsessive and crazy about music than anybody in my family. I’m the only person in my family who’s like that. It’s not like my parents had this amazing record collection that I started digging through, but what they did have was a bunch of old reel-to-reel tapes that my dad made when he was in the service in the ’60s. Cool cassette tapes. They were basically like mix tapes of stuff from the ’60s. The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, that sort of thing. Eight-year-old me would take those tapes and play them. Or rather, my mom would put them in my tape player and put me to sleep.
That was when I first first started, and then I started to listen to more and more stuff. I guess somewhere around late middle school, early high school…so about ‘92, ‘93, was when the whole alternative thing was really poppin’. Through some friends and their older siblings, I started getting really into a lot of bands of that era: Pearl Jam, Nirvana. Nirvana in particular because I remember getting, well, a friend of mine made me a tape of them, and played Incesticide. I remember thinking that Nevermind was okay, and I didn’t get why everyone was so excited about it, and then I heard Incesticide. I thought, “Oh! This one’s got some cooler stuff on it.” And then In Utero I really, really, really loved. I was about 14 or 15 when I heard that, and I really loved that record. I got obsessively into Nirvana, and I remember seeing Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged and just being like, “Wow this is amazing!” Sometime around that, this is also very early [into] the internet era, I was using…do you know what Prodigy is? Does your memory of internet stuff go that far back?
MV: It’s something I’ve only vaguely heard about, because I was born in ‘91 so…
JV: ‘91? Okay. Yeah, yeah. So Prodigy, this was about ‘93-’94. Prodigy predated AOL, which predated everything social media. It was a very, very, very primitive form of meeting people on the internet and connecting with them. It was very primitive social media, I guess you could say, even though it wasn’t really that? It was this thing you logged into and there was a news channel and a sports channel. I used that to go on Nirvana boards and connect with people who were really into Nirvana. I started trading Nirvana tapes. That kind of introduced me into this world of really obsessively not just hearing an artist’s popular album and hearing the hit songs from that album, but digging really deep into their catalog and also stuff like…not in their catalog that you had to seek out. For a few years, I was definitely down this crazy Nirvana rabbit hole, where every recording that I could figure out how to get, I would. My parents were always like driving me to the post office so I could mail tapes that I was trading with somebody, so I could get more Nirvana tapes in return. That kind of got me into that whole universe.
I guess there was a point a little later on in my teens where I…well I was a very moody, angry teenager. I probably was not a lot of fun to be around. I probably was kind of a dick. I was very into mopey industrial stuff like Nine Inch Nails. Thankfully I outgrew that, for the most part. I was into a phase with that too. Instead of going really deeply like I did with Nirvana, I went really deeply into these artists in that world. I guess in mid-late high school, I started branching out beyond angry music, I guess you could say. I got really into electronic music and dance music. More poppy stuff. The Beastie Boys; I got into hip-hop. A Tribe Called Quest. The Roots. I started listening to more and more stuff. That just continued for the past…I’m 37 now, so the past 20+ years. That was a really long and rambling answer and I apologize.
MV: You’re fine! You’re fine, honestly. To go off of that, you mentioned the whole tape collective thing. Is this something that first got you into the world of record collecting?
JV: Oh, definitely. I probably first got into records a little before that, because my siblings and I grew up in Ambler, which is a suburb outside of Philly, in Montgomery County. [In] the neighborhood we lived in, people would have yard sales all the time, especially in the summer, and people would always be selling records. This was pre-vinyl revival. This is pre-early stage of the vinyl revival. This is when people thought CDs were the future, and they were selling or throwing out all their records and re-buying everything on CDs. It’s funny now, because CDs are essentially worthless, and everybody’s buying stuff on vinyl again. I remember going to a lot of those and being like, “I can buy a handful of records for $5? Yeah! Cool.” I would spend money I made mowing lawns or whatever on records at people’s yard sales. My family had a record player that they didn’t necessarily use a lot, and when my brother went to college, he gave me, okay he didn’t give me, but he let me use his stereo system that had a record player. That was when I was about 14. By 13-14, I started buying stuff at yard sales to play. It was mostly older stuff, like classic rock; your typical Rolling Stones and Kinks records. Whatever records that everybody had a million copies of that they were selling. That started before I got into the more obsessive end of it by Nirvana.
Throughout my teenage years, I started getting more and more records that way. Just going to people’s yard sales and going to record stores. And going to the dollar bin and getting stuff that way! Mostly like my thought of buying records as a teenager, my idea of buying records as a teenager was…you didn’t buy new records on vinyl. You bought older stuff. Classic rock, whatever. I used to keep a list of records and albums in general that I wanted, and a sublist on that list of stuff that I specifically wanted on vinyl. It wasn’t anything like, “I want this on vinyl because it needs to be pristine quality or whatever,” it was none of that. I wanted it on vinyl because it was an older record. I wanted all of my Led Zeppelin stuff to be on vinyl. I believe it is at this point. For the longest time, as a teenager, probably to the mid-to-late ‘90s, buying records is something you did…buying older stuff that way. Obviously around the same time there’s a whole world of indie rock and punk, and hip-hop and electronic music that was still through the whole time through the ‘80s and through the ‘90s and even into today. They never stopped pressing vinyl records, 7”s. It didn’t occur to me as a teenage kid from suburbia that new stuff was also available on records, probably until my junior or senior year of high school. I worked in a record — a CD store rather, and we would go to conventions. I would see new stuff available on vinyl, and it had me like, “Wait a minute, what?” That blew my mind a little bit.
I remember as a tangent off of the Nirvana obsessiveness, I was really into Foo Fighters as a kid. They released some of their earlier stuff, like the singles, on vinyl, and songs of theirs that you could only get as a result of buying the vinyl. They were probably the first “new band” that I had a vinyl single, a vinyl release by. Everything else was classic rock until then. Eventually that started changing over in the later ‘90s and over the 2000’s, and now when I go to shows, I will buy vinyl. Everybody has it, and if the artwork is really good, then I prefer to have it on that than on CD or cassette.
MV: Back when we first were emailing, you mentioned that you don’t really care about format. You sound like you don’t have a preference for what’s going on. So, how has that impacted your collection?
JV: I think what I said in the email was that I don’t care about the format, but more that…maybe I did say that. (Laughs) What I meant was…I’m not going to automatically think vinyl is superior just because it’s vinyl. Oh man. I’m totally blanking on what I even said in this email. Oh wait, I remember now! I think what I was trying to get at was that ultimately to me, the songs, the music and the recording are important. If a record sounds good, it will sound just as good on my iPhone, to me personally. I know there are other people out there who prefer vinyl over everything, and that’s totally cool. I’m not one who hears these nuances. I listen to the overall song, overall record and the overall recording. If it’s an album I’m really passionate about, I’m going to love it just as much listening to it on my phone as much as I would listening to it on a CD, as much as I would listening to it on a record or tape, or whatever, whatever.
How has that impacted my collecting? I’ve got a lot of CDs, tapes, records and MP3s. I have a lot of everything. I listen to them relatively interchangeably.
MV: In a way, the listening experience could be different for everybody. One person could be like, “Oh! This is great to listen to on vinyl on a rainy day,” or another person could be like, “It’s great to pop this into my car’s stereo system and drive around with the windows open.”
JV: Right! Exactly. It’s all context. Obviously you’re not putting a vinyl record on when you’re driving around, but I think that just coming at it from a music fan’s perspective…For example, I was at a Mitski show at Boot and Saddle and the merch table had records on vinyl; Mitski had her previous record on vinyl, Japanese Breakfast had their record on cassette, and I think they had CDs and everything too. I mean I also look at it as a lot of the time when I buy stuff, I’m buying stuff at shows, where you’re supporting the artist directly. They’re on tour, and what’s the biggest thing I can do to help this artist besides the fact that I came to their show? I want to buy something. Unless I’m really tight money-wise one week, if I have money and I have a choice, I’d rather spend a few extra bucks and get something that’s a little bit bigger, and that’s a bigger way to support the artist. I’m not doing it because I feel it’s like a superior product or whatever.
MV: And of course, it beats shipping fees.
JV: Oh yeah, like buying online. Totally.
MV: Let’s talk about your actual record collection! How do people react upon seeing it, where it may or may not be used as a scratching post for your cats?
JV: (Laughs) I mean, honestly, I don’t have that many people who come visit me, so it hasn’t come up that much. I have had friends who…especially when I was growing up…people my age…not everybody my age kept following music through to the point where now they’re back into buying vinyl. They bought CDs and collected CDs. You hit a certain point in your thirties where some people keep going with music and others are just like, “I’m happy with the music that I have and just want to listen that stuff, and I’m not into new music as much.” And their perspective on collections is CDs. I’ve had friends see the collection and be like “Well, my CD collection is bigger than that, but dude I’ve never seen that many records.” I’m like “Okay, cool.” Honestly, though, I don’t often have people over who peruse my collection. Mostly it’s me and my wife and our cats hanging out listening to music.
MV: And of course, you have that story of the cats just scratching.
JV: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s another reason why…I think that it’s probably a good thing that I’m not more into vinyl as an artifact, because if I was, I would be freaking out about the fact that this thing that I bought has been destroyed, because my cats often feel the need to sharpen their claws! I’ve never been able to figure out a way around that. In my old apartment, and previous apartments with previous cats, my cats would feel the need to mark their territory, as cats do, and they did so on records. I had several records where the spines are unreadable because the cats scratched the living hell out of them. My wife’s collection in particular, our one cat went to town on it because it’s in this vertical shelving. He’ll stand on his hind paws and reach up and do that whole thing, scratching that way. So his paws land right on her Rs, so her Rolling Stones records are tattered down the sides.
Again, alright, that’s a bummer, but the record itself plays fine, still listens fine, and it’s not like we were ever like “We’re going to sell these.” We have them to listen to them, and we can listen to them. It’s a bummer they don’t look as pretty, but we don’t have them for what they look like. We have them for the music they contain!
MV: I’m sure some of our readers are going to read this interview and be like, “Oh my god! If our cats or animals ever did that, we would give them away!” They’d cringe.
JV: Right! I mean, I’m sure some of your readers are going to read the interview and think that I’m totally contradicting myself, because I am, because I buy records because they’re pretty! Or I buy them for the way the album covers look; it looks better on records. I don’t buy records to look good, but it’s kind of both. There’s a lot of different factors that go into any collection. There’s always one factor that’s the underlying, driving force. I think for me that’s to have lots of music, and immediate access to lots and lots of music. I think that’s why I have lots of records or lots of CDs and MP3s and tapes. I should’ve figured out some sort of estimate to give you, but I didn’t. I’ll ask.
MV: Moving on, what are some of your favorite records in your collection, and how did you acquire them?
JV: Okay. I did think about this! I mentioned earlier how Foo Fighters were one of the first “new” bands where I bought their record on vinyl. From their first album, their self-titled album, they had a couple of singles; singles that had B-sides where if you went to see them in concert, you’d hear these songs. You’d hear them and be like, “Oh wait, they’re not on the album? Where are they?” They were on the “This Is A Call” 12” or “I’ll Stick Around” 7”. This was when I was working at the record store, and when we were putting in orders, I would special order — even though I was an employee and ask, “Can I put in an order for this?” One of them I got just from going to the record store and ordering it through that was the Foo Fighters’ “This Is A Call” 12” single. The B-side to that was “Winnebago.” It had two B-sides: “This Is A Call” was the A-side and the B-side had “Winnebago,” which is freakin’ awesome and “Podunk,” which is alright. The most interesting thing about that record, I think, is that [it’s a] luminous vinyl. This was the first record I had seen that wasn’t like…over time I’ve seen [records] on blue vinyl, on red vinyl, on green vinyl, cotton candy vinyl, like what the new Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties record is on [in] seafoam green vinyl. This is on luminous vinyl, which means…the Foo Fighters’ first record is very UFO-themed, so luminous vinyl actually glows in the dark. You would take this record out, hold it out in the room in the light for a little while, then kill all the lights and the record would be glowing green. That was pretty cool. I have not made it glow in the dark recently. I hope it still works. I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t. That’s definitely one of the cooler records I have.
Another way I used to get records back in the day wasn’t special ordering from when I worked at a CD/record shop. In the back of Rolling Stone or Spin, or whatever magazine, there’d be ads for little indie labels, micro-labels, where you could write in and get them to send you a catalog of whatever they had. You could mail-order releases that way. One of the releases I got through that was…remember how I told you before where I had reached a point where I was trying to listen to more music beyond the angsty music I listened to as a teenager? One of the very transitionary artists in that was Beck. I would hear his music a lot on the radio, there were parts of it that were heavier and crazier, but he was also super poppy and super catchy and super fun. And he had this crazy-long extensive catalog, that for somebody who is really into just trying to hear every bit of music, recorded music, that an artist has, it was perfect. He was somebody else who I got really deep into with collecting indie releases. He had a couple records that were very hard-to-find. You’d never go into a store and see them, because nobody ever carried them. I had heard about them and I found them, and one of them was called A Western Harvest Field By Moonlight. It came out on Fingerpaint Records. I actually had to write to Fingerpaint Records, get the catalog, and find it in the catalog and send them the mail-order form with however much money it was, like eight or ten dollars. I got this 10” record of this. It alternates between really mellowed out, the country-folk side of Beck — the song “Totally Confused” is one of those — to the total noise, abrasive side of Beck. That was pretty cool. That’s one that I still jam from time to time.
This is one I remember getting at Rainbow Records when it was in Norristown. I have a 12” single, and this is pretty funny, for Puff Daddy and the Family’s song “Victory.” One of the B-sides is a remix of “Victory” by Nine Inch Nails. They redid this as an industrial montage; they really chopped and screwed it. It’s batshit. I have that, and I wouldn’t exactly call myself a Puff Daddy fan? I think he’s fine for what he is, which is to say I love his albums as a hip-hop fan. I consider him more of a pop artist/entertainer, crooner in a way? Even though he is a rapper. He’s also a really good producer as well. As far as him being around? I felt like there were better rappers at that time. He was just super mega popular, and almost ubiquitous in the late nineties. That song was everywhere, and I like that one. It had a cool music video; Busta Rhymes was in it. I thought Busta Rhymes was fuckin’ awesome. I remember getting that record and going “Oh wait, there’s a Nine Inch Nails remix on this?” And that was pretty cool.
Speaking of Nine Inch Nails (I’m sorry this is all coming back to Nine Inch Nails). They put out their record The Fragile in 1999, and I have that on triple vinyl because it was a double CD. It was like three A-side/B-side LPs on vinyl. That’s just one where I just think the album art…it’s very minimal album art, and when you look at it on a CD-size package, you can tell it’s kind of cool, but you look at it on a record and it’s a lot more striking. It’s also interesting to hear how…I first got that album on CD and it’s broken up differently. Rather than being split between two CDs, it’s split between three LPs. The way it breaks up the sequence of the songs is different, and I think it’s just a different way of experiencing the record. I think that’s cool.
Getting into the early 2000s now, I have a Bright Eyes box set that Saddle Creek released either right before or right after the Bright Eyes album Lifted came out in 2003. It basically collected everything that Bright Eyes had released up to that point into a box of, I wanna say, 10 LPs. Letting Off The Happiness is on there. Fevers and Mirrors is on there as a double LP. There’s singles on there. It’s just like everything. That was something where I had gotten into Bright Eyes on Lifted and then I think I found out about that because I signed up to the email list from the record label. A more contemporary version of hearing through the grapevine that the label released this thing and mail-ordering it. I got an email from the record label saying that they were releasing this thing and you can order it here via the internet. That’s where I got that.
I’m trying to think more recently than that even. I have a copy of Strand of Oaks’ Pope Killdragon record that I got when he did a Kickstarter for that record. Strand of Oaks is a Philly musician who’s getting a lot more national acclaim. But at that time, he was still largely Philly, but touring enough that he had a big enough fanbase to do a relatively successful Kickstarter. At the time I had met him, once at the radio station, I had donated to his Kickstarter and I remember him saying, “Hey! We got our goal. We’re gonna start mailing out the rewards.” He lives in my neighborhood, which I discovered after meeting him. He was like, “Do you wanna just meet up for drinks and I’ll just give you your stuff?” I said, “Yeah, that’d be cool!” I have this hand-delivered copy of Pope Killdragon.
I have a copy of Dr. Dog’s Shame, Shame that is on orange vinyl, that looks very pretty on orange vinyl. That’s my favorite record of theirs. I’ve also got Hop Along — a lot of what I started buying, and what I have is [from] local people, obviously because of my job. I try to support them, and get records from them — I think I have everything of theirs on vinyl. The first thing I bought of theirs was a 10” EP of Wretches. It’s the first thing of theirs that I heard. It has one of my favorite songs of theirs, “Bride and Groom” on the A-side, and there’s also a song called “Sally,” which is really rad, also on the A-side. On the B-side there’s this…I wanna say 12-minute song? I didn’t realize that when I got it. It’s called “Second Name” It’s awesome. All that made me a huge fan of Hop Along. I saw them live! I got the Wretches EP when my friend sent me the MP3s, just like “Oh hey man! You’ve gotta check this out!” And I loved it. So I bought it from them at the show, and this was probably a year before their first full-length came out? Their first full-length being Get Disowned, which is technically their second. Anyway. I’m sorry! I’m giving you such a mess of stuff to work with here. I’m very tangential in the way I think and talk.
Oh! One more thing to add, I guess, is that I really love the ‘80s and ‘90s band Throwing Muses. They’re like…pre-alternative rock since they started in 1985? But they’re a really awesome band that not enough people know about. The singer-songwriter who leads the band, Kristin Hersh, people know her as a solo artist. People know Tanya Donelly from her band Belly. I don’t know if that many people have ever gone back and dug through Throwing Muses’ catalog. They’re a fantastic band. I’ve got an LP of their first record. This is one that I got not at the time, since the record came out in 1985, but I think I got it at a secondhand store in the past few years. It’s just awesome. It’s dissonant and expressive and oddly catchy.
MV: You obviously have a lot of cool things in your collection, but are there any white whales that you’re still on the lookout for?
JV: You mean like records that I want, holy grails of mine?
MV: Ones you want, but are just a little unobtainable right now.
JV: Um, no. Like I said, I used to keep this list of the things that I want to get specifically on vinyl, and these things that will complete my collection. I want all these Led Zeppelin records on vinyl because I want to have all my Led Zeppelin records on vinyl, and Clash records, because I specifically wanted Clash records on vinyl, and that sort of thing. I think most of those I’ve gotten. I think there’s at one point, I had the chance to buy The Clash’s Sandinista! on vinyl, and the one I really, really wanted was London Calling, which is arguably their most popular and influential album. I like elements of all The Clash’s albums for the most part. I’m not one to hold one Clash record over the other, because I think they all do interesting things really well. I was really obsessed with getting London Calling on vinyl. I think part of it, again, was the cover. It’s freakin’ brilliant. I thought it’d be something that I would rather see and hold and look at on a bigger format, than a little tiny one. I was on the lookout for that forever, and at one point my friend and I were at a store. I think it was Space Boy Records on South Street, when that was open. I found a copy of Sandinista!, the triple album that followed it, with the double album being London Calling. I thought, “Sandinista!? Aw man, I don’t want that. I want London Calling!” I remember my friend Neal telling me, “Dude, you’re looking for a copy of one of the most revered punk albums of all time? You’re going to have a hard time finding it and you should just get Sandinista! today.” I went, “I want London Calling or nothing!” And I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sandinista! on vinyl since then. It was very inexpensive then for what it was, around $10 or $12. That record’s really good! I probably should have bought it. I did not. Would I say I’m still on the lookout for it? No, not really.
I think when I go into record stores, I just browse around and see what they have, and see what I find. For instance, when I was traveling in Italy, I found some really good record stores in Florence. One of them was called Rock Bottom Records, which is a little bit of a corny name for a record store, but it was one of the best record stores I’ve ever been in. It specializes in vinyl. I’d say about 90% of their stock was vinyl, and each of the records have a little…I don’t know if it was a description they had pulled from somewhere, or if it was a description the band had written themselves, but the descriptions of the records with press quotes and why they were psyched about it. I thought that was really cool, and it was really well-curated. Of course, all the descriptions were all in Italian, and my Italian is only so-so, so I was only able to get the general sense of it, but not anything specific. I was able to find some stuff there, but I didn’t go in there with the agenda to be like “You’re going to look for European pressings of whatever!” I was in a record store and I was gonna look around to see what I could find. I wound up finding Sonic Youth’s Fishtank EP, In The Fishtank, their participation in that series, which I’m not sure if it still happens. It was a series where this one independent label would take a pair of musicians that had never played before and put them in the studio and had them jam, more or less. And it was recorded, to see what happens. Sometimes they would jam actual songs that they had come prepared with, and other times they would improv. This one…I haven’t gotten as far down into my listening stacks from the trip yet, but this one is more on the improv side, because it’s Sonic Youth and the other band’s called The Ex. I believe it’s an experimental, free jazz, noise-driven guitar band? It’s a really cool series. That was one that I was flipping through and seeing what I found, and I wanted to see what Sonic Youth albums they had. I found that one and I said “I’m going to buy this.” Again, I’m sorry about the tangents!
MV: Let’s switch gears and talk about XPN for a little bit.
JV: Okay, sounds cool.
MV: Working with the station sounds like it has been a lot of fun. I’ve been a fan of the station for years. I’m curious here. What first drew your interest in public radio?
JV: I think it was more my interest in radio stations. The fact that it was a radio station playing interesting music. I try not to be a total snob about it. I listen to commercial radio. I listen to public radio; I’ll listen to both. I found myself familiar with college stations too, like WKDU and WPRB, and I found myself as a late teen/early-twentysomething gravitating towards XPN because I felt like they owned a really good middle ground in-between the total freeform, anything goes, craziness that a college station could sometimes be, and the overly-structured, overplayed playlisted whatever — overly playlisted is the phrase I think I was going for there — world of commercial radio. As a listener, when I first found out about XPN about 20 years ago, it was this ground between this chaotic anything goes, and you felt like anything could still happen, but the people who were there playing [music] for you, there’s this degree of professionalism and drawing on knowledge. It’s more than just saying, “Hey! I’m gonna play some crazy shit for you for the next two hours! Have fun!” like you get in more freeform, college stations. Not to say that KDU or PRB are like that. I love KDU and PRB.
College radio and internet radio in general can sometimes be overly on that side of things. I felt like as a listener of XPN, it struck really good middle ground. And then I started discovering really good artists through XPN. In the mid-2000s, I got a day job at the University of Pennsylvania, so I was right up the street from the station. I started volunteering there, and volunteering in various capacities led to me being here part-time, which led to a full-time gig. I was volunteering for about six years and came on full-time in 2012.
MV: What are some of the most rewarding things about working with the station, and with public radio?
JV: Being able to work in music full-time, I think is something. Like anybody, you get stressed out with work on a day-to-day basis, as anyone does. Working here, you always have to step back and say, “This is music. I’m working in music all the time and this is just amazing.” Being able to have that as a constant part of my life, whether it’s me as a general listener, fan and appreciator of music, or having it be what I do, a driving force of what I do for a living. It’s just awesome. Being able to have a platform where I can introduce people to music that I’m really excited and passionate about and having the freedom to do that without having…how to phrase this…I feel like with commercial stations, they don’t take chances on things until they’re sure that a large audience is going to get behind them, because commercial stations are driven by being able to have this massive audience.
I think because we’re a public station, we come from it with a different set of values and we don’t have to think about it that way. We just think about if it’s good and if people should hear it. We can go from there. We don’t have to think about the consideration of how many people are going to be into something, or if something’s going to appeal to the maximum portion of a demographic. At least for my part, in my shows, for what I play on the ‘90s show, the local show, and feature on The Key? I don’t need to think about that stuff at all. I just come at it from the perspective of: “This is something that I think is really good and I think people should hear it.” From that, you’ll see some stuff connect more readily than other things, some things people will really respond to, and others won’t. I see that across the board on the local show, the ‘90s show and the blog. It’s not totally making decisions based on that either. I get to make decisions based on what I think is good and important music. I think that’s amazing. It’s something that’s awesome about public radio, to me.
MV: You just mentioned The Key, which perfectly segues into this next question. How did The Key get its start?
JV: The Key got its start through a grant that my boss, Bruce Warren, got from NPR in 2010. NPR was doing these grants to start local-focused music websites. They were locally-focused websites in general, based on what the NPR affiliates wanted to pursue. We put in a grant to do a music website, and we got it. Around that same time, I was volunteering for the station through a local show and I was recording musicians. When the blog launched in 2010, it became a home for these recordings that I had been making of Philadelphia artists. In 2011, when I came on part-time, we started doing video as well as recording, and I started writing more about the local scene. When I came on full-time in 2012, I had been working as a journalist in the Philadelphia music community for over ten years at that point. I had started in late 2000 writing for City Paper, and I had been doing lots of scattered freelancing. When I came on, I was able to take all the stuff I had been covering, and rather than putting in little things here and there, I had The Key as my avenue for writing about the local community. It has expanded and grown since then.
MV: It’s definitely one of the most widely-talked about blogs I’ve seen in circles I follow, and those circles aren’t predominantly Philly bands. That’s really interesting! I’ve watched it grow over the years too.
JV: Yeah! And the original mission was all-Philadelphia artists and all-Philadelphia everything. As the blog grew, we started expanding the definition of that. Now it’s like…we’ll cover national stuff as well as local stuff, like when Mitski came through. One of my contributing writers did an interview with her. If there’s a show in Philadelphia, we consider that something that we’d cover. I still view our focus and our mission as the Philadelphia music community, as defined by musicians living, working and making music in Philadelphia, and touring in Philadelphia as their “home base.” That’s still what motivates and drives me.
I think the good thing about being able to expand our coverage into music in general is great, because a lot of times, people won’t want to read an article about up-and-coming bands they’ve never heard of, but they will want to read an article about My Morning Jacket or Florence + The Machine, or something like that. We’re able to cover bigger artists that bring in viewers to the site, and they’ll look around and get interested in and discover a lot of the more up-and-coming locals that we’ll cover. It’s good to be able to mix it up.
MV: Where do you see the future of the music scene as a whole going?
JV: Music in Philadelphia or the music scene in general?
MV: In general.
JV: Oh man. The future of music. That’s hard to boil down to a single answer. I think that I like the direction of the way things are heading towards streaming. I think that’s great. It presents a challenge for artists, in terms of monetizing what they do, but I think it’s great in terms of getting more people to hear music, and getting people to interact with music in ways other than…before it was just like you had radio and you had MTV, and if your music wasn’t on either one of those, you had a hard time breaking out. Before MTV, you just had radio and if you weren’t on the radio, just forget about it. I think that opening up, and streaming…I don’t think it’s totally eliminating the curated aspect of things, like it’s not totally getting rid of the “gate keepers,” because I think a lot of people still look to blogs and things like whether it’s radio stations like us or NPR Music in general, who are often curators, or blogs like Okayplayer or Pitchfork who are curators, Guardian Music in the U.K. People still look to the curators out there, and I don’t think that’s going to go away. I like seeing the fact that things are opened up where people can explore more on their own and hear things on their own without having people be there and having people tell them. It’s funny.
A lot of people my age will talk, and like how I talked about earlier, where people had to write to the labels and get mail-order catalogs and send in for stuff, whatever. I think that’s cool, I think that’s fun. It’s what I did. But I don’t think that was necessarily better, and I have people my age who will talk about the halcyon days and how you just had to know, and the people who knew…well, “These kids today, they’re just a few clicks away from everything, and you can know an artist’s entire discography in 30 seconds and blah blah blah.” It’s just like shut up! Why is that a bad thing that people have access to music? Why is that a bad thing that people are curious and explore that curiosity? I think that’s why I think the whole streaming thing is wonderful. It allows people to do things that were more of a pain in the ass for me (laughs). I like that things are going in that direction, and I would like to see more artists be able to profit off it directly. I think the diminishing role of the record label is that sort of good? But I think that there needs to sort of be those entities in there to help the artists figure out what they’re doing. Not all artists are savvy enough to be self-managed and self-sustaining. I think that these old institutions are going to remain in place, and I think that they need to keep evolving. Some are better than that than others. But overall, I’m positive about how music is going, and I think it’s great that people have access to music in a way that I didn’t when I was younger.
MV: Lastly, is there anything else you’d like to add?
JV: No, I think I’m good. I’m sorry I rambled so much.
After our interview, John sent me an email with this addendum on it, regarding our chat about the future:
Also also also — your question at the end of our talk about the future and my thoughts on it, where I basically went on about streaming and how awesome it is, haha. Firstly, I do hope you keep some of that, since I’m very much pro-music being accessible to anybody who wants to hear it! However, just to add on to it (since it occurred to me after the fact that you were probably asking about the future of vinyl), here’s an addendum:
Even if streaming does take over how we consume music at the mainstream level, I don’t see vinyl ever going away. I think there will always be a place for vinyl – for collectors, for old-school LP heads, for the new generation of vinyl enthusiasts that the whole resurgence has created, for the fans who want to support to their favorite touring band at the merch table. And it seems like the vinyl industry has figured out how to cater to this smaller but more devoted audience and sustain itself doing so. I mean, it won’t ever be like it was in the ‘70s or ‘80s where all releases, high profile and low, were getting pressed in mass quantities leaving a bajillion copies of albums by Blood, Sweat and Tears and The Eagles and the freaking Big Chill Soundtrack that wind up clogging up every $1 bin everywhere…but you know, maybe that’s a good thing!
Photo Credit: Maureen Walsh