Spin the Black Circle

In 2015, the music industry seemingly hit rock bottom from a sales perspective. Streaming, according to Nielsen, experienced a growth rate of nearly 93%, while CD sales hit another recent low. Artists, young and old are forced to tour continuously to maintain a standard of living befitting of their profession.

Despite these changes in the industry, another physical medium has seen sales continually bounce back, and exceed any reasonable expectations. In the first half of 2015 alone, the RIAA reported record sales of nearly 9 million. That statistic, was the highest in over 25 years, a time when Sony’s Discman was not yet a household name.

Some of the appeal for the vinyl market is clear. Just like throwback jerseys and classic cars, consumers yearn for the authentic in a world that is increasingly disconnected and dependent on the digital. A record sleeve is highly tangible and gives a more distinct feel for the story behind the album. In an era obsessed with artisan water, exposed brick walls and organic granola, the record isn’t an outlier, it is the latest in a search for authenticity. The warm, sometimes hazy sounds  that emanate from vinyl have re-ignited a love for the old-school in many music fans tired of compressed MP3s and tiny computer speakers.

But the authenticity engendered by the vinyl resurgence doesn’t come without a cost. Iconic albums by top artists re-printed often cost $20-$30, a steep cost particularly for a generation of new vinyl lovers unaccustomed to paying for their music. Rare, out-of-print records fetch even higher prices, sometimes costing over $50.

Part of the allure of the record craze is the opportunity to collect and to discover the strange assortment of albums that were available in a pre-Spotify era. Although the internet simplifies the process of searching for records, it does not eliminate the rush of finding a special release at a dusty old shop. Much like the used book store, technology has transformed the way people interact with their media, but not entirely displaced the need to experience the tactile.

The rush of collecting vinyl is certainly a new high-profile hobby, but in the long-term the sustainability of the industry remains uncertain. Only 40 plants in the U.S. currently manufacture vinyl, currently lending a highly-collectible component to the business behind the music.

Time will tell if today’s 20-somethings tire of purchasing vinyl, but strong alternatives exist. Despite the stupidity of its initial public relations push, Neil Young’s Pono Music opened up the world to the possibility of streaming high quality FLAC files. Jay-Z and Kayne West followed suit with the much maligned Tidal Music, which charges $20 per month to access a library of on-demand hi-def music.

For the average consumer, the realm of hi-fi music can be confusing, and offer too many options to be streamlined. But for those interested in experiencing the music authentically, a new wave of strong bluetooth products (including Sonos, Ultimate Ears and Bose) make consuming music, whether it be the physical vinyl or high-quality streams a seamless experience.

 

Not Fade Away

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If you had turned away for just a moment during Friday night’s listless Bulls game, you could have sworn it was 2012 or 2013. Except this time, the player in agony on the floor wasn’t Derrick Rose, it was stalwart Jimmy Butler. Butler had smashed his way through the porous Nuggets defense for a torrid 18 first half points, before being wheeled off the floor with a knee injury.

In the second half, Rose was forced to pick up Butler’s mantle and play with the reckless abandon that he so rarely displays at this stage in his career. Rose delivered, getting to the rim with ease, and scoring 30 points on a near triple double. The problem, was that with Butler sidelined, the Bulls had no clear answer for Danilo Gallinari, the Nuggets versatile swingman who scored 33 points on just 12 shots.

For the majority of the game, you could forgive the Bulls for giving major minutes to Cameron Bairstow or E’Twaun Moore. The team was taking what the Nuggets offered, and entered the 4th quarter with a healthy 16 point lead. But when you are missing Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and even Nikola Mirotic, sometimes the cupboard is bare. Sometimes teams in this predicament lack the wherewithal to stay strong against even a pedestrian team like the Nuggets.

For the Bulls, the soul searching must continue. With the loss, Fred Hoiberg’s Bulls fall to 27-22, and occupy the 6th seed in the surprisingly tight Eastern Conference. This is a team that barring significant improvement cannot challenge the Miami Heat in the playoffs, let alone the Cleveland Cavaliers.

It’s extremely tempting to blame the Bulls’ struggles on the recent spate of injuries, but the problem goes deeper than that. This team lacks a discernible identity, appearing constantly stuck in a power struggle between Butler’s assertiveness and Rose’s confidence in his increasingly diminished skills. Most troubling, the team cannot find ways to close games, an indication that some veterans on the team are unable to carry the load they once could.

And for all the strife, the Bulls front office appears resolute in their determination not to make a significant trade. Can you truly blame them? With most of the team’s attractive front court assets hobbled, the team would be limited in the players it could offer most teams. For now, it appears that the Bulls will be stuck in NBA purgatory- not bad enough to make the lottery, but not good enough to challenge the teams occupying the top spots in the Eastern Conference. That kind of awful resignation must make Tom Thibodeau somewhat happy that he departed when he did, and spared himself the suffering of yelling through one more lost, directionless season.

Just Like Witches at Black Masses

Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath, as a band, is a cultural artifact. The group emerged in the late 1960’s in the UK, immediately establishing themselves as the archetype of what was to become heavy metal. For the better part of a decade, the group  wrote indelible riffs, ruminated on the occult and partied the hardest of any band NOT named Led Zeppelin.  Surprisingly, this was not remotely sustainable.

Over the next thirty years, the band’s lineup was a revolving door, with guitarist Tony Iommi proving the only true stability. Fans born after 1985 couldn’t be blamed for having an incomplete picture of a band often overshadowed by the singularity of Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career.

Like many bands however, Sabbath couldn’t quite ever call it quits. With recent Chicago concerts including a triumphant 2012 Lollapalooza performance in the books, the band made Chicago one of the first stops on the aptly named “The End” tour. With the fragile health of Iommi and Osbourne always in the forefront of fans’ minds, Chicago would provide the first major test of the band’s vitality on the 2016 tour.

The scene outside the United Center was like something out of a rally in Sturgis. Leather-clad fans from their 30’s through their 70’s pounded light beer while waiting to amble through metal detectors, a veritable Back of the Yards meets Sons of Anarchy contingent.

Increased security measures, it turned out, were warranted, as the staff confiscated more than its fair share of switchblades and flasks.

The scene inside the sold-out United Center was one of cautious anticipation as an ominous curtain blanketed the stage. Sabbath took the stage to a fresh, CGI-fueled video that featured a demon rising from the ashes.

Opening with the lurching “Black Sabbath” off of the group’s debut album, Osbourne prowled the stage, clad in black with a menacing yet restrained stage presence. From the onset, Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler established themselves as a powerful and unrestrained duo, highlighted by furious takes on classics including, “Fairies Wear Boots” and “Snowblind.” The group turned on the air raid sirens for a thrilling, fist-pumping rendition of the all-time great “War Pigs.” The crowd was so enraptured, that even the off-duty cops serving as security guards couldn’t help bobbing their heads.

Although Osbourne’s voice faded throughout the concert, Iommi was determined to carry the show, and offered scintillating solos towards the latter half of the first set on songs such as “NIB” and “Hand of Doom.” Throughout the concert Osbourne exulted the crowd to show their fucking hands and strangely closed many songs by saying, “God Bless You!”

Osbourne found his rhythm on the last several songs, including a visceral rendition of the title track from 1970’s epic Paranoid.  For a group that was never predicated on stability, the show was a nostalgia-packed effort that demonstrated why their influence remains strong to this day. And the truly sold-out crowd reveled in the superlative performance as purple and white confetti streamed from the rafters.

With concerns about Osbourne’s health remaining chief, the band later postponed several upcoming tour dates, lending increased credibility to the notion that this truly, is the end.

 

Welcome Back

Donald Trump

It’s been three long years since we closed our doors. Some things have changed- ESPN stopped supporting sports journalism, closed Grantland, Tinder happened and Periscope has taken off.

We’re not here because we want to be excellent sports writers. We’re not. We are just a couple of dudes who know that sports and pop culture writing can and should be fun.

The latest iteration of the site will keep things brief, real and entertaining. We have NO expectations. We simply don’t care about our audience. We don’t care if you read this. (Seriously, is there anyone reading this?)

Check back for weekly updates.

Lies Kain Colter Told Me

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Today former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, along with 27 members of the Wildcats squad announced the formation of a new union, the College Athletes Players Association. Colter and team seek to have this union recognized and sanctioned by the National Labor Relations board. Ostensibly, Colter claims that the aim of the union is to provide protection for these players in the event of medical or scholarship related issues, certainly a noble idea. According to the Chicago Tribune, Colter maintains that this is not about seeking direct compensation for players.

Unfortunately, that isn’t how the NCAA, or the general public have reacted. NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said in a statement, “Many student athletes are provided scholarships and many other benefits for their participation. There is no employment relationship between the NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes.” And technically he’s right. The option for a player to join a team is strictly voluntary, like any other organization or group on campus. Often however, athletes in the major two sports come from impoverished backgrounds, and lack both the educational background and family support to succeed at many universities. To remedy this, most Division I programs provide a variety of tutoring services and offer students a substantial meal plan.

But for many of these athletes, there is a knee jerk reaction to say “But where is my piece of the action?” Conference realignment, The BCS and a series of new television deals have seen an unprecedented amount of cash go into the hands of the major conferences and NCAA. Coaches are routinely paid over a million dollars, to coach players who aren’t compensated. This epidemic is so bad, that Deadspin published a morbidly shocking map that revealed how many states have a basketball or football coach as the highest paid state employee.

Despite these clear financial booms, research on athletic department spending remains remarkably sobering. A USA Today story published in 2013 found that just 23 of 288 athletic departments in Division I turned a profit. Consequently, at the vast majority of schools, paying athletes in the two moneymaking sports is not remotely feasible. And doing so, would jeopardize the trickle down of funds that support “lesser” sports like track, swimming and tennis.

In principle, it’s noble to want to pay these student athletes. They endure intense training, outrageous travel schedules and are cogs in a financially lucrative machine. The issue more than anything, is that in both football and basketball, the infrastructure to provide high-caliber minor league systems do not exist. At least in basketball, athletes not able to declare for the draft after HS are more than capable of signing a lucrative deal with a European League team before joining the NBA.

And if we think the current system of under the table cash and benefits for top recruits is suspect, what would a system that paid players look like? I anticipate that top recruits like Jameis Winston and Cam Newton would have commanded significant signing bonuses, and multi-million dollar contracts. But for the average player, the same funds would be sorely lacking. And if paying players became commonplace, what’s to say that schools would still be obligated to pay the entirety of the scholarships they currently offer? Imagine the outrage, the anger that would occur if our nation’s top athletic universities no longer gave these student-athletes a scholarship.

The current system, overseen by the NCAA is far from perfect. Athletes with injuries and academic struggles do indeed slip through the cracks and this is a tragedy. But for the majority of student athletes, those in Division I and beyond, organized sports remain a steadying force and a true beacon for good, both on the playing field and in the classroom. Times have changed and the business of sports is truly more lucrative than ever. But let’s attempt, for the sake of these athletes to maintain the belief in the power of amateurism in sport. And for those going pro in something other than sports, that scholarship, the experiences of a college education, are the foundation of a better life for themselves and our communities at-large.

Never Again, Is What You Swore The Time Before

2013 has come and gone, and if not for another Blackhawks championship, Chicago would be among the sorriest sports cities in the nation. D-Rose is crying in a walk-in closet full of unused shoes, Tom Thibodeau is sabotaging the Bulls’ chance at a lottery pick and Jay Cutler is riding off into the sunset with barrels full of the Bears’ money win or lose. Theo is sticking to the terms of an ever dubious five year plan on the North Side and Rick Hahn is trying to salvage the future of the South Side club future by making a series of interesting moves.

Success in sports is definitely a cyclical phenomenon. No team can win constantly, and most leagues operate in a way that rewards teams for outright failure. But unfortunately for most of our teams, mediocrity is an accepted part of the status quo. The Bears finished 8-8, and did not make the playoffs, but most consider Trestman’s debut season a strong push in the right direction. If Phil Emery is able to use the remainder of the salary cap room left-over after Cutler’s mega-deal to fix the defense, Bears fans could conceivably see a 10-6 team in the fall.

The Bulls are 14-18, and figure to get a middling seed in the NBA’s weak Eastern Conference. Many critics have justifiably suggested that the team is now in NBA purgatory- incapable of contending for a title, but not bad enough to get a high draft pick in the lottery. For now, it’s probably best to show up to the UC with no expectations, other than maybe the enjoyment of the halftime show and inflatable mascot races.

If you can find anything positive in the total collapses of the Chicago baseball teams, it’s the fact that fans are no longer showing up to watch awful baseball. Wrigley’s attendance was the lowest in perhaps a decade, and will likely be bolstered by the sentimentality of the 100th anniversary in 2014. The White Sox realized in June (or was it July?) that the season was a lost cause, and dealt a variety of high-priced players for top prospects. Neither club will contend in 2014, but modest gains on both sides of town aren’t hard to imagine.

And don’t forget, if you aren’t inclined to pay the big bucks for any of these loveable losers, there’s always The Sky, The Wolves and The Rush (OOPS, they folded). Here’s hoping that regardless of our rooting preference, that 2014 is a much kinder sports year than 2013.

A Pain to Get Used To: 2014 NBA Preview

LeBron’s hairline is receding further. Coach Thibodeau was found passed out in the Berto Center conference room after another late-night film session. It must be time for the Back of the Yards 2013-14 NBA preview.

The lasting image of the 2013 NBA season was the epic game winning shot by Miami’s Ray Allen in game six of the Finals. With Allen’s shot, the aging Spurs last gasp at a title was extinguished, and the Heat seized a second straight championship in an uncontested seventh game. The offseason featured a fascinating reshuffling of the deck, with Boston sending its primary core, Pierce and Garnett, to the Brooklyn Nets. Adding in the signing of the reliable SF Andrei Kirilenko and the Nets appear to have just enough talent to make a modest run in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers hard-fought series against Miami bodes well for their future, particularly when accounting for Paul George’s ascendancy to the NBA’s upper-tier. The most significant questions for the Heat involve the health of the aging star Dwayne Wade. Any late-season injury to Wade could jeopardize the Heat’s chance at defending their title.

In the West, the Thunder promise to return to relevancy after Russell Westbrook heals from a torn ACL, but suffer from a lack of quality options on the perimeter after losing Kevin Martin in free agency. Other contenders appear to be in short supply, as Memphis appears to lack the firepower to attain elite status. And the hard-luck Hornets are now the Pelicans, representing a huge nickname upgrade, with endless possibilities for showing how amazing these crazy birds actually are.

The question to end all questions this year surrounds the health of Derrick Rose and the team chemistry for the Chicago Bulls. After a year plus of constant speculation, Rose has dispelled doubts about his health and returned to making the spectacular, mind-blowing plays that made him the most dangerous PG in the NBA. Rose’s impact on the team can’t be overstated- new holes will open up for shooters and the elusive Bulls fastbreak will be back in full-force.

The Bulls return all core players, save for the mercurial Nate Robinson. As much fun as Robinson’s outburst against the Nets was in the playoffs, Rose will easily be able to reclaim his role as team leader in the clutch. Mike Dunleavy looks to provide more of the consistent SF play recently supplied by Marco Belinelli and Kyle Korver. Along with better expected production from Benny the Bull, and a rumored regimen of Rogaine for Carlos Boozer, the season is shaping up to be a memorable one.

All jokes aside, the Bulls ability to capitalize on team synergy will likely reveal the extent to which the team will succeed. Improved defense by Jimmy Butler and instant production by rookie Tony Snell could determine if the Bulls are finally able to get past the Heat in the ECF. Bulls fans are also rightly clamoring that Thibodeau should display more patience with the rotation, and rest key players during regular season games. After all, they still don’t give out trophies for 60 win seasons, as unfortunate as that may be. If the Bulls aren’t able to catch lightning in a bottle, the Heat could likely pull-out a three peat and remind the league how little parity exists in the NBA.

Eastern Conference Champion

Miami Heat

Western Conference Champion

Oklahoma City Thunder

NBA Champion

Miami Heat

Five to Watch

Kevin Love

After missing significant time last year, Minnesota’s star PF is out to show that the Timberwolves belong in the playoffs. In conjunction with Rubio, he represents exciting promise for a franchise desperately in need of revitalization.

Rudy Gay

With the largest expiring contract in the league, Gay is sure to be the target of unending trade rumors. Look for the Raptors to make a strong push to re-sign the dynamic swingman, but don’t be surprised if a contender comes calling down the stretch.

Jimmy Butler

The Bulls G/F took tremendous strides last season towards establishing himself as a lock-down defender and high-caliber slasher. Taking the next step offensively would give the Bulls their own version of Kawai Leonard, and ensure that the team has enough firepower to survive a defensive heavy showdown with teams like the Pacers.

Andrew Wiggins

Before a minute has been played this season, the NBA’s worst teams have begun the “Rigging for Wiggins” sweepstakes. The Canadian-born SF is a surefire top pick, and a potential franchise savior, tabbed by many as the best prospect since Kevin Durant. Enjoy the ride as he decimates NCAA competition before bringing his talents to the Association.

Philadelphia 76ers

Pundits are already speculating that this incarnation of the Sixers could be the worst team the league has seen in decades. With Evan Turner as the team’s best player, it isn’t difficult to imagine this being a sub ten win team. However, with the aforementioned potential to nab a top player in this year’s draft, along with New Orleans draft pick secured in the Jrue Holiday trade, the turnaround time for the franchise could be brief.

NBA Awards

MVP: Kevin Durant, Thunder

Coach of the Year: Jason Kidd, Nets

Rookie of the Year: Ben McLemore, Kings

Most Improved: Anthony Davis, Pelicans

Sixth Man: Manu Ginobli, Spurs