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Entrepreneur Michael Dorf Explains How Technology Is Like a Fine Wine

“Like wine, tech can also dramatically alter our perception of reality.”

Courtesy of Yagi Studio/Getty Images
Courtesy of Yagi Studio/Getty Images

In some ways, technology is like fine wine. In the right amounts, under the right circumstances, both can enhance our lives immeasurably. As the Greek playwright Aristophanes said a couple thousand years ago, “’Tis when men drink they thrive—grow wealthy, speed their business, win their suits, make themselves happy, benefit their friends.” Yes, absolutely. A cool piece of software can do that too. 

Like wine, tech can also dramatically alter our perception of reality. One of my earliest inklings about the coming future shock arrived courtesy of Nicholas Negroponte, the academic who, in 1985, started the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, just a four-hour drive up I-95 from New York. His book, Being Digital, was a revelation, explaining that a fundamental transformation was occurring as society shifted from the world of atoms to the world of bits—weightless, disembodied pieces of computer code that moved at the speed of light. When I met him years later, he illustrated this phenomenon by looking dismissively at the Knitting Factory business card I handed him. “Oh, I don’t have cards anymore,” he said. “I’m done with atoms.” As he rattled off his email address, I fumbled to write it down—with pen and paper, of course. 

In my industry, the shift from atoms to bits had already begun. The same year Negroponte started the Media Lab, Dire Straits became the frst artist to sell a million albums on CD, marking the beginning of the end for analog media—i.e., those vinyl Flaming Pie records I was desperately trying to sell for my buddies in Swamp Thing. Not that I really understood any of this when we opened the Knitting Factory in early 1987. I was still an analog kid: In the mornings, after waking up under my desk, I would resume my day job of promoting my Wisconsin bands, calling college radio stations and saying, “Hey, I’ve got this great new LP by Phil Gnarley and the Tough Guys!” I could practically hear them yawning on the other end until I mentioned that I also had a club in New York that booked artists like Bill Frisell and Sonic Youth. Suddenly, they perked up. “Got any recordings? Now that we would play!” 

So I got to work creating a series of cassette tapes called Live at the Knitting Factory and, eventually, 250 college radio stations around the country signed up. The artists agreed to let us record them because we weren’t selling the tapes. This was strictly a promotional tool to attract fans to the club. That helped the musicians sell more tickets and helped us sell more beer. The radio stations would mention our brand several times an hour between songs by, say, the singer Cassandra Wilson or jazz saxophonist Steve Coleman. The series became so popular that TDK agreed to sponsor us with a small fee and all the free cassette tapes we could handle. Once we got rolling, my partner Bob practically lived in the studio making hundreds of copies on six double-cassette decks that he wired together to duplicate faster.

Live at the Knitting Factory was not only an incredible marketing tool; it also provided us with a big incentive to go digital. Now that we were taping these phenomenal musicians—recordings we hoped might someday be as valuable as those old Blue Note or Verve jazz sessions—I wanted the best equipment possible. In those days, that meant a DAT machine. Sony had just come out with the Digital Audio Tape recorder a few months earlier, claiming it had a sampling rates up to 48 kHz, at 16 bits of quantization. Whatever. All I knew was that it was the latest thing, the wave of the future, and I wanted one—badly. The problem was that DAT machines cost thousands of dollars. One day, I was walking on the Bowery—the sidewalk jammed with hustlers selling their wares—when I spotted a guy offering a big, heavy DAT recorder for just $200. It was obviously stolen, but I immediately started rationalizing: Hey, if I don’t buy it, he’ll just sell it to some other schmuck. I didn’t tell him to swipe it or fence it for whoever did. 

I bought it and excitedly carried my new toy back to the club. The device was as fantastic as advertised, easy to use, with awesome sound quality. Sadly, a few months later, while we were away on a camping trip, some burglars smashed a hole through our exterior wall and rammed through the concrete masonry. They crawled inside, opened the front door, and walked out with everything we had—house sound system, recording equipment, and, of course, my shiny new DAT recorder. The karmic irony of my hot machine getting stolen was hard to miss. Eventually, I realized what my frst digital contact high had done: I was behaving like an addict, skewing my moral compass. 

Now we were really fucked. Fortunately, we had built up so much good will among musicians in the months since we opened that we managed to organize a long day of beneft concerts at the elegant Puck Building a few doors down. John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards were the headliners, but many other legendary musicians showed up to play, including John Zorn, the saxophonist/futist Oliver Lake, and the drummer Rashied Ali. 

That event, in October of 1987, was a phenomenal success. Not only did we raise a large sum of money to replace our stolen equipment, but The Village Voice wrote a big story and we got our frst piece in The New York Times. Somehow, this awful moment turned into a positive, inspiring one. For me, it was a moral infection point: Since then, I’ve never bought anything stolen. In fact, if I find a twenty-dollar bill, I try to find the owner right away. If I can’t, I’ll give it to charity. Nothing comes for free in this life. There’s always a karmic consequence. 

Another irony: Had I waited a few months, I would have been fush enough to buy a brand-new DAT machine. A&M Records got so excited about our college radio series that it gave us a $75,000 advance to produce four records under the name, Live at the Knitting Factory. This was a big deal. Hal Willner, the Saturday Night Live producer—and one of the first industry players to appreciate what we were doing at The Knit—had introduced me to Steve Ralbovsky, then head of artists and repertoire for A&M. 

From Indulge Your Senses by Michael Dorf. Copyright October 8, 2019 and reprinted by permission of Post Hill Press.

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