Only two of the new records we’ve bought this year weren’t purchased in a real, physical shop; Nicolas Jaar and Iron and Wine. The latter could have been bought in our local HMV, and I’m not sure why it wasn’t, but Jaar was sadly nowhere to be seen in Exeter’s emporiums. I like the feeling of coming home from town with a new record; I have for years.
There’s been a lot of guff written and talked about Record Store Day, not least by Rick Martin from the NME, who wants to be rid of the constraints of physical possessions. Well, those that have music on them, at any rate. (iPods and hard drives excluded, presumably.) Plenty of people have responded to him, including The Quietus’s John Doran, who espoused his love for vinyl, and Bethyn Elfyn, who wrote a BBC blog about how much she loves Welsh record shops. As ever, I feel like I fall between two camps, even though I’m far, far closer to John and Bethyn than Rick.
Because, as a rule, I don’t love independent record shops. Well, not unequivocally. The record shops I frequented in my youth and young adulthood were the big chains, mainly; my older brother worked in HMV and, when we first met, my wife worked in Virgin Megastore. I shopped in Solo Music in Exeter often enough, and knew some of the staff, and when I was at university I shopped in Spinadisc on Northampton high street, too, but other indie record shops, the ones full of vinyl with someone dripping ennui behind the counter, I found uncomfortable, most of the time. Maybe it’s that the ones like that near me were rubbish, and the ones I popped into, tourist-like, on Berwick Street during trips to London I never frequented often enough to become familiar, and thus comfortable, with.
Also, and this is a serious consideration, I’m of that odd generation that falls between vinyl and MP3; I’m a CD lover. I have hundreds, thousands of them. In neat rows. With alphabetised dividers.I have always and will always prefer them to vinyl. Where others hear vinyl’s warmth I hear lack of clarity. Where others see gloriously big artwork I see tatty card sleeves. I love the way they refract light. I love the size, the portability of them; unlike vinyl, which you can’t really take anywhere without a proper box or bag, and unlike MP3s, which you can take all of, everywhere, all the time, in your pocket, you CAN take some CDs everywhere you go, but they have to be precious ones. Ones you really want to listen to. I know that sounds ridiculous. I have an 80gb iPod. I have an iPhone in my pocket pretty much all the time with several hundred songs on it.
Last week when I was in London I hopped off the tube in Covent Garden before I headed for Paddington and home, as it was the most convenient place for me to jump off and find a record store. Rob wanted me to pick up the PJ Harvey album on vinyl, and I wanted the Bill Callahan on CD for Devon Record Club the next day. So I exited the station and headed for HMV. It wasn’t there. So I tweeted, asking where there was still a record shop in Covent Garden, and googled on my phone too. Googling suggested Rough Trade in the yard; I followed the directions, but couldn’t see it. I wondered around aimlessly, looking for the Fopp that I always seem to stumble upon round there, but I couldn’t find that either; it looked as though it had been replaced with a Fred Perry shop, or else was boarded-up for renovation. Rob tweeted back at me with directions to the Rough Trade. I went back to the yard. Not there. I asked a guy sitting opposite where it was meant to be. It had closed. The HMV had closed. Where the hell could I buy a record in Covent Garden?
With some more directions, crowd-sourced from Twitter, I found the Fopp – I’d been at the wrong end of the street when I thought it’d become Fred Perry (I was wearing a Fred Perry at the time, for double irony) – and bought the records I was after. The guy who served me was an Exeter alum. We talked about how the Fopp in Exeter had closed. He’d worked in the same Virgin Megastore as Emma, too, when he was a student (after Em had left to become a student herself). That had closed too. MVC had closed. Solo had closed. The picture at the top of this post is of what used to be Exeter’s Fopp. Before it was Fopp it was the HMV where my brother worked. I’ve been buying records from that shop for the best part of 20 years. It’s almost a straight-line walk from my house. It takes seven minutes. I’m pretty sure there are more musical instrument shops in Exeter now than record shops.
Em is of the opinion that the beginning of the end for Virgin was when they moved to centralised ordering, effectively losing local knowledge and expertise, and customer service, in favour of “efficiency”. Efficiency doesn’t work if your customers don’t want to shop with you. She says Thresher suffered the same problem; moved to centralised ordering, lost touch with local trends and tastes, and collapsed. I’m inclined to agree. Attempting to cater to people who don’t really care about music has brought the big shops low. I can buy a plaid shirt or a Beatles mug in HMV but I can’t, the day after a prominent documentary about him airs on TV, buy an in-print Ron Sexsmith album. It’s people like me and the other Devon Record Club dudes, essentially the NME’s mockable £50 man (I’m in my 30s, I work a professional job, I have a mortgage, I don’t “party” like the kids), who are willing to still pay money for physical records. Our tastes are diverse and intense. We don’t want to buy the Take That record in Sainsburys. We want to pick up things that excite us. I’d have bought that Emeralds record last year if I’d ever seen a copy. I’ll buy Panda Bear’s Young Prayer at the weekend if I see it, or Ron Sexsmith’s debut, or something else that I’d never find in Tesco, or Sainsburys, or HMV as it is now.
Invisible music is a convenience for me, but it’ll never be a passion. I tried it, years ago, and didn’t get on with it. It made music into consumption, acquisition, rather than appreciation. I know new methods of distribution like Spotify go some way towards preventing that, but revenue models are still not fixed, and are far from benefiting the artist the way that physical sales can. Where’s the thrill or heart in downloading an MP3? I doubt anyone ever tells excited, reverent stories about the night that Tomboy leaked and they found a Mediafire link to it the way I tell people about how I felt making a 30-mile round trip, a pilgrimage, on the train up and down the Exe, to go to HMV and buy Kowalski and the Fireworks EP on the May bank holiday before my 18th birthday. I can still remember how I felt all the way home, imagining how the songs would sound (even though I’d heard some of them on the radio), delighted that I could play them endlessly when I got home. And besides, it’s a lot easier “curating” a physical collection than a digital one; all that tagging, sorting, finding covers, backing-up, sorting, searching, filling in a database, sitting at a computer being a librarian, like you’re at work. I just put them on shelves.
In the sleeve for Spoon’s last album it says “BUYING RECORDS IN RECORD STORES IS COOL.” I agree. It’s not only cool; it’s also delicious. I wanted to buy a handful of Cluster and Harmonia albums for months at the start of last year, never saw them in Exeter, and could have ordered them at any time online, but I knew I was going to New York at the start of May for our honeymoon, and who would pass up the chance to go record shopping in New York? Even in NYC I couldn’t find them all, but I got to buy two of the four I was after.
When I went back to Northampton, a year after graduating, and got drunk in old haunts with friends who had hated it as much as I had, we discovered that Spinadisc on the high street had closed. It had been replaced by a guidance centre for young people, which seemed ironic.
On Saturday I’m going to go to Totnes, to The Drift Record Shop, because it seems like the best thing to do.