Record Store Day

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.

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14 responses to “Record Store Day

  1. Pingback: Record Store Day – my blog « My Writing Diary

  2. Great post Nick. Where is the Fopp nr Covent Garden then? It definitely used to be where Fred Perry now is Im sure!

    • It’s near Cambridge Circus, on Shaftsbury Avenue, on the corner, more or less opposite Odeon Covent Garden, which isn’t strictly Covent Garden, it’s dead good. x

  3. You may have drawn a blank with some of your old haunts but there are still plenty of places to find real music.
    We have definitely exited the record store hay day, but that’s certainly not going to stop the demand being met.
    In London as in many other cities, independent retailers are a plenty, albeit they converge into one district. The Berwick St and Poland St retailers are still going strong and in Exeter, the likes of Rooster records are carrying the torch.
    It is a shame that mainstream music retailers seems to have abandoned the high street, but they are certainly not the only choice. Independant retailers will order things in from there suppliers so that you can still get that feeling of a physical transaction.

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  5. Jeff Vander Werf

    Awesome! Perfect! I find it eerie how much I agree with you – CDs, independent records stores, Record Store Day. Have fun on RSD!

  6. You know I love you, Nick, but the paragraph starting with “Invisible music” is the absolute worst kind of “you know, in my day…” crap. Not only did people older than you write functionally the same paragraph about vinyl, but people younger than you will one day write functionally the same paragraph about MP3s.

    Other than _that_, this was great.

    • That’s the point though, Ian; I don’t think people will write the same paragraph about mp3s, or the cloud, or whatever comes afterwards, and thus that sense of emotional connection, and value will have gone.

  7. A friend sent me a link to this, thank you – its good to read someone who shares the same sentiments. I used to work at Exeter’s Fopp, it’s closure was a great shame for exeter – it deserved and should of worked! Great article!

  8. Great read, I too was in Totnes today but the shop just seemed fill with people who were there for the ebay profits

    • It’s a tricky one; the guys behind the counter (Rupert and Johnny, I think the second guy was called) were super friendly and helpful (and knew a LOT about Arthur Russell, way more than me, which isn’t much, to be fair), but I did feel a bit as if I was intruding in someone else’s club; I think the size of the typical chain stores gave you an anonymity which I, as a customer, appreciate in certain circumstances. Fopp struck a great balance; gutted the Exeter one’s gone.

      As for profiteering, I picked up a handful of 7″s for me and the Monstershark dude (Techno by Panda Bear, which wasn’t a RSD release, plus Wild Beasts and the weird Xiu Xiu / Deerhoof thing), and the Radiohead 12″, which I wasn’t expecting but which I’m glad to have got. I shan’t be ebaying any of them. Would’ve picked up the Destroyer album on CD too, just because I fancy it, nothing to do with RSD; I imagine there was a lot less ebaying going on of Drift purchases than your average London shop, but if you make stuff limited, that’s going to happen. I wish RSD was more about just going into a record shop and buying ANYTHING.

  9. Great article Nick. I loved yesterday, actually taking the time out to get on the bus to Brick Lane and spend a view hours browsing and buying at Rough Trade East. I suspect there were a lot of people in the 900 strong queue at 10am who were there for the ebay quick buck, but that says more about society than record buying habits. The two 7″ I really wanted haven’t showed up on ebay yet, so I can only assume they were bought by people who actually wanted them, which pleases me, whereas watching today at seeing stuff going for silly money that was still on the shelves at 5pm last night is laughable, people are stupid. There were stacks of Michael Jackson singles left last night.

    I sat today and played one of the vinyl albums I bought, first vinyl I’ve bought in 10 years maybe, Stuart plays vinyl daily but I can never be bothered. I sat watching the vinyl turn and drifted, as if being hypnotised, I had forgotten the magical forces of vinyl, maybe I’ll buy more in future. Bravo to RSD.

  10. Apols for typos, I am dizzy from watching vinyl spinning.

  11. Pingback: Record Store Day 2012 | Sick Mouthy

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