Record shop musings

I’ve been involved in a small handful of amusing incidents in record shops over the last week or so; normally I wouldn’t think they were worth writing about but it struck me this morning that actually there might not be many record shops soon, and that I should therefore record these moments for posterity, lest my future children, brainfucked on hypermedia till they have attention only for nanosecond bursts of white noise, ever ask me what it was like to communicate in public with another human being while purchasing music, rather than… whatever it is that they’ll be doing.

First up, I mistakenly bought two copies of the new Queens Of The Stone Age album – I ordered a copy via Amazon one lunchtime, had a phone call from the mortgage advisor shortly afterwards and had to clear out my bank account on surveyor’s fees or searches or suchlike at short notice, so cancelled the order. Or so I thought. The next day, after my dad transferred me some money he owed me, I picked up the QOTSA in HMV for a tenner. A few days later and the Amazon copy arrived.

So a few days further on I took the unplayed copy back to HMV with the receipt, and exchanged it for The Tuss. The assistant manager served me.

“I’d like to swap this for this, please. They’re the same price. I have my receipt.”

“Can I ask if there’s anything wrong with [the Queens Of The Stone Age album]?”

“Well there’s nothing wrong with it per se-”

“I’m not gonna argue with you…”

“- it’s just really badly produced-”

“Oh I agree totally.”

“- too compressed, and apart from a few tracks I can’t listen to it.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Are you really called Spartacus?”



“I’m lying. I got fed-up on Saturday and wanted to be anonymous, so made myself a Spartacus nametag.”

I felt like asking him if he’d read any articles about compression on the internet, and if he’d heard of notorious internet music journalist and anti-compression campaigner Nick Southall, but, despite him being called Spartacus (however temporarily), I reasoned that he’d probably consider that kind of behaviour to be moderately insane.

Secondly, on Saturday I had some time to kill in town after a haircut (ideally I wanted a Victorinox ‘tomato knife’, but the kitchen shop didn’t have any) and popped into HMV. Despite my better judgement I had a quick look in the dance section to see if, by chance, they had the debut EP by The Tuss from earlier this year, enamoured as I am with the album proper. They didn’t obviously; record shops don’t stock records people want to buy anymore, which is why they’re going bust – more of that later, though.

There was a guy wistfully and worriedly handling a copy of Rushup Edge, obviously completely indecisive about whether to part with his hard-earned £9.95. Having just reviewed it (eyes right), I felt qualified to pass comment.

“That’s very good, by the way.”

“It is?”

“Oh yeah.”

“And is it… really Aphex Twin?”

“I certainly think so. Sounds like him. It’s his publisher and stuff.”

“Thanks. I think I might buy it.”

He seemed very worried about his potential purchase of The Tuss. Even if it isn’t Aphex Twin, Richard D. James isn’t going to come round your house and throw eggs at you and laugh. And besides, it’s good!

But the fact that it may or may not be Aphex Twin probably wasn’t the root cause of the guy’s trepidation. I get the feeling that for a lot of people buying a record in 2007 is a psychologically worrying thing, and I’m not sure why.

[Having been back in HMV today though, I’m pretty sure they had the same amount of copies left as they did on Saturday – suggesting that he didn’t buy it in the end.]

Perhaps (and this is serious wishful thinking) it’s because people suspect subliminally that they’re not going to enjoy their purchase as much as they might have enjoyed records in the past, and that the cause of this is hideous modern production trends.

But that’s not ever going to be the whole story. There’s something, some issue with private cultural investment. Debord would no doubt say something about spectacle, how it’s useless to listen to music unless people see you listening – i.e. with an iPod or at a gig – that people are loathe to invest capital on private cultural goods that work on a non-visual axis. Hence the popularity of DVDs, which people seem to buy as ornaments. The complete triumph of visual culture over… any other culture. Which means music. But how and why has this happened?

Let’s talk record shops again.

Exeter has one each of the two big chains, both on the High Street. Branson’s is due to move into a new shopping centre this autumn, I gather. The other desperately needs new premises, as it is small, cramped, and cannot hold enough stock. My brother used to work there. (Emma used to work in Branson’s.) I regularly play them off against each other for new releases, which I still prefer to get in a shop on day of release.

There is a smattering of independents, too. First up is Martian Records on Gandy Street; formerly second-hand only and a perpetual hangout for Goths and metallers, it now deals in cheap other-territory imports, a la CDWow, plus a huge array of minutely varied black hoodies with words like Rammstein across the chest, piles of cheap DVDs, and a leftover smattering of second hand stuff. I pop in occasionally but rarely pick anything up. The last thing I bought there was the Jarvis album.

Across the road and into the Guildhall centre is Solo. Fifteen months ago I detailed the start of its demise. Things have not got better since; sparse stock of new releases and no replenishment of back catalogue stock has been order of the day as the lower floor prepares for closure, which will just leave upstairs, which previously housed the ticket shop and ‘specialist’ (jazz, country, world, etc) sections. Whether they will become just a specialist shop is unclear; I just hope they lose the clothing, which they appeared to sell none of over the last year and a half, and which must have been a contributory nail to the coffin. In my late teens and early twenties this was my store of choice. The 3 for £20 section used to be terrific.
Somewhere in town (currently Fore Street) is Reckless and/or Reform Records, which changes name and premises often. I think it used to be a dance vinyl specialist; whether it is anymore, I don’t know. I may have bought one album in there, years ago, when it was by Timepiece; I honestly can’t remember.

And then there is MVC, which a year or so ago became Music Zone, and then a few weeks ago started becoming a Fopp – the sign above the door didn’t change, but the stock and all the point-of-sale and merchandising did; even the chip & pin reader said Fopp. Fopp has of course now gone bust, largely due to over-stretching itself in acquiring the bankrupt Music Zone’s stores. Staff were not paid for last month’s work. If the situation is the same at the rest of the chain’s stores, then they are standing unmanned and unlit, but full of stock.

Beyond these ‘dedicated’ record shops, there are or course the usual other places where you can buy the week’s big releases – WHSmith, Woolworths, Tesco, Sainsburys, etc.

I had a vague plan for where this was going, but I’ve lost my mental destination somewhat since I started writing this over the weekend. Essentially the future doesn’t look bright for physical record stores. Even Berwick Street in London has taken a heavy hit in recent months.

Anyway… In other news: I’ve been using earplugs at gigs for quite a while, specifically this kind of thing. Again, if I was as obsessed as I seem, I’d work in something about how everything is too loud, competing for attention, badly recorded, etc., and how if, say, Simian Mobile Disco records actually had real bass frequencies to start with, you wouldn’t need to turn them so loud in a club to get some kick into the bottom-end.

Also, Imogen Millais-Scott, in Ken Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance, looks just like Björk.


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