Tomorrow, as I’m sure you’re aware, is record store day. All week ‘journalists’ and comment box fillers, have been trying to neatly file themselves into two piles. Either you buy everything on 180gram vinyl and have never even dreamed of torrenting an inferior quality MP3 file or you sincerely believe Spotify should be free and sometimes think to yourself they should be paying you a wage for the amount of free music you consume. However, things, as always, are not quite as black and white as that, at least not for me.
I grew up with a walkman and a pair of those blue and red tagged GameBoy headphones. I went through a series of market stall walkmans due to trying to simultaneously ride my BMX and listen to Ash’s 1977. Landing dirt-jumps to ‘Lose Control’ and crashing to ‘Let it Flow’, as the ruby-red poured down my shins, always felt perfect. At home, I had a tapedeck which you could barely see for dusty a pile of Melody Makers and Vox magazines and my cover-mount tapes were lined up beside cassettes filled with Steve Lamacq introducing songs, yet his words were barely audible through the wispy hiss of the Evening Session from three weeks before. I probably should have bought more cassettes to save taping over them but was saving up for a helmet and kept spending my pocket money on spokey dokes.
“I sometimes wish it was that summer again...”
‘Oh Yeah’ by Ash
And then - as if by magic - I got a PC one Christmas, and, for my birthday a few weeks later, a set of dirty-grey speakers. I could finally listen to CDs in my bedroom, and over a period of months I upgraded my favourite tapes to CDs. It took ages as Weymouth’s Our Price rarely stocked things that weren’t in the charts and the local independent store was more interested in white labels for wannabe Ibiza deejays than Reef’s first album or some new band called the Stereophonics. If you wanted an Incubus album, you had to wait at least three weeks - perhaps they were trying to tell me something...?
The following Christmas I asked for money so I could buy a second hand MiniDisc player, mostly so I could copy CDs off my friends and listen to music on the go, as my discman kept ruining all my CDs. I think I bought Slipknot’s self-titled record - the ultimate anti-boyracer album - three times after I learned to drive, as those anti-skip things never ruddy worked. Around this time the internet arrived, and I spent hours on ICQ talking about music for a penny-a-minute via my AOL dial-up connection. Someone who used to post me mixtapes emailed me an MP3 and I felt like I’d partaken in space travel. And someone else told me about this new thing called Napster , so I stayed up for 48hrs gorging on the sci-fi madness of it all, exploring strangers' inboxes and being told to check out Weezer, Ben Folds and all these ‘merican bands that I’d only heard one or two songs by on Mtv2. Eventually, after months of waiting three hours for a track to download, my parents received the phone bill. It was a hundred and forty smackers. I don’t know if you’ve ever fallen out of a plane or been suffocated, but if you can imagine both sensations at once and all the colour in your body dipping to your toes like a cartoon character, then yeah, that was how I felt. Suddenly, these few tracks I had downloaded didn’t feel particularly free.
My modem was taken away and I was told to get a job. I walked into town and saw a sign in the independent store window, ran home with thoughts of Empire Records, wrote up a CV and raced back with probably one of the most pathetic CVs ever written but somehow, talked my way into a job. And for the record, if anyone ever tells you different, dreams can, sometimes, come true! For three years I made tea, opened boxes from distributors and helped humming Grandmas who had no idea what that “Hit Me” song was they were asked to buy. I hoovered, dusted, cashed-up, changed till receipts and lugged recycling; and not for one minute did it feel anything less than an honour to be a servant, straddling the line between the magicians who made music and the people who were going to go home to giddily bash the play button for the first time.
Sure, there were asshole customers who only seemed to show up whenever I had a hangover trying to return CDs without a receipt and those smelly biker dudes who turned up two minutes before closing, too drunk to understand that we were asking them to leave. There were punks buying pop and elegant ladies picking up the latest albums by Jewel, Travis and Metallica. There were goths asking about Mansun EPs which weren’t out for months and tweed-wearing chaps outraged that we had sold out of the three copies of the Belle & Sebastian re-issue (“Shouldn’t you have got in 50 copies of it? They’re the best band ever, you eejits!”). People from all walks of life strolled in. Some had a nose, mooched about, grabbed some lunch, came back, asked what was playing 40 mins ago and did-we-have-a-copy-of-it-in-stock. Others marched straight up to the counter with a piece of paper and said, simply, “This?”
I loved my job and was desperate for them to take me on full-time. It wasn’t hard to imagine working in the shop for the rest of my life. For brownie points, I’d be reading magazines and keeping notes of things to order in. I vividly remember arguing for my own staff recommended rack and a listening post, and a sofa, and a pile of magazines, and, and, and... I mostly remember this because when my boss said I couldn’t introduce a recommended rack, I decided to start an email mailout, and asked if I could leave flyers on the counter for it. So this website you’re looking at now, twelve years later, is kind of that mailout, but cranked to 111. One chap saw my flyer and asked me to build a website for the local venue, and eventually I ended up promoting nights at the venue and becoming the resident ‘DJ’. But enough of my life story.
So here are three reasons why - despite eventually getting my modem back and now owning an iPod, a superfast broadband connection, a Spotify subscription and once calling CDs “digital carcasses” - that I LOVE record shops, and why, if you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, you should too...
People say record stores are inconvenient, and that Amazon is a cheaper and easier place to buy CDs and that iTunes is far quicker. This isn’t untrue but surely, deep vein thrombosis is far more inconvenient? The thing you realise about working in a record shop in a seaside town is that you’re not that odd if you go on holiday and spend half a day flicking through the 3-for-£1 singles racks. Everyone does it. And I felt so much better about the fact I would spend hours in record shops as a teenager, popping on headphones and gazing at posters of bands. I rarely bought anything as a teen but now I remember pretty much every trip I’ve ever taken by the records I’ve bought. Like the first time I went to SXSW and I picked up a copy of Elliott Smith’s Either/Or from Waterloo Records, the store the man himself reportedly frequented. I remember buying a Sonic Youth t-shirt from Other Music in New York, and re-buying The Shins Chutes Too Narrow just so I could listen to it whilst driving to Coachella (especially as I think an ex-girlfriend still has the CD of my original and I have the empty case...).
Going to a record store is a day out, it’s the destination, and the journey there and back should be steeped in anticipation and excitement. If you don’t know this feeling, record store day is a bloody good excuse to give it a go! The time it takes and the memories it forms means these records become landmarks that punctuate your life, rather than just files on your hard disc, etc, etc... (This point was made far more eloquently by John Doran, over on theQuietus).
Isn’t P2P and the shopping experience in digital stores, a bit like standing in a petrol station forecourt, talking through bullet-proof glass, hoping that the heavily marketed confectionery product you always eat is available? Sure, you have the web at your disposal and the ‘people who bought this also bought...’ stuff and tagging is useful but it rarely leads you to the unexpected. End of aisle racks, curious bits of blurb and noticing a piece of artwork you like, so taking a punt on a record and persevering with it because you've invested money and time in it. Until the internet can replicate this experience, that’s both tactile and unearths the unexpected, then talk of the record store’s demise is greatly exaggerated. And to be honest, considering how much the business of music has changed, it's hardly surprising we've lost some stores and kind of gone back to how things were before the explosion of the major label music business.
I do love the internet but social networks are where we hide and spread our friendships so thin that we’re actually being reclusive (see the TED video above). Meanwhile, some idiots think that the only people who frequent records stores any more, are bores, in their 50s, who spend £50 per week on Zappa and Young records. You need only spend 15minutes in Rough Trade East (like myself and Wendy Roby did on Tuesday) to realise that this finger to the wind ‘journalism’ is utterly unfounded. We saw teens, students, and yes, some gentlemen (and ladies) the other side of 30 with fluffy sideburns and brown jackets. We met two of the RTE staff - two of the smiliest gents you ever will meet - who told us about a 14 year old named Ned who comes to nearly every instore and buys a couple of records a week. They told us tales of staff members starting labels, of people asking curiously what’s on the stereo and ending up engaging in half an hour conversations with staff members. With every syllable I felt myself longing to work in a record store again.
Like coffee shops and bars, record stores are great for people watching and as a meeting place. I never feel ‘alone’ in a record store because they’re social hubs. To be honest, I think the government, if they’re going to close our libraries, should seriously consider giving out grants to turn these emporiums into town hall-like palaces, where youth clubs, debates and tea-slurping sessions can take place. I would be less than half the man I am today without music. Music is one of our biggest exports and record stores, which provide a cultural backbone to our towns and cities, are more important now than ever.
Whether you collect vinyl or just want to buy an album as a badge (seriously, we had a nose around the RSD stock and these are amazing!) or just want to chat to some likeminded people IRL, head down to your local store tomorrow (despite reports, there are still 200 or so of them left in the UK!) or better still, travel to one and have an adventure, you never know what might happen.
DiScuss: Why do you love record shops?