Sunday, 19 April 2009

Record Store Day - False Nostalgia?

third post for Chordstrike

It's not often these days that the NME writes brave and thoughtful pieces, but Luke Lewis's blog post this week about Record Store Day qualifies. Today (Saturday) is Record Store Day, an international collaboration between independent record shops which will include in-store performances and exclusive releases to try to encourage music fans away from their computers, and back into their shops. By now you're probably thinking - surprise surprise, this Amazon guy's going to say he prefers buying music online! But please hear me out - I write only as a music fan who buys music from a variety of places, some online, but often not. Record stores are great to browse in, and it's always exciting to be able to take a CD home and play it right away. But I think Luke Lewis is right when he says there's a lot of "false nostalgia" about record stores.

The regular story goes that record shops are more than just shops. Geoff Travis, founder of one of the UK's most famous record stores Rough Trade, told The Skinny this month that "A record store is a meeting place for the exchange of music, fanzines, ideas and culture. I believe that people like to leave the house and have somewhere convivial to go where they meet kindred spirits and share some music and some life." Kevin Buckle, founder of Scottish indie shop Avalanche, said in the same article: "There may also be other ways of discovering music but none are as effective as getting a good recommendation from a shop."

(there's a bit of swearing in this clip, and a wholly unnecessary flash of Jack Black's backside over his trousers. Eugh.)

Well, I've never had a recommendation from a shop, and even if I did, why would I trust it more than a recommendation from a friend, or from any other music fan? Online I can browse music blogs and forums, fanzine reviews, newspaper reviews, even review aggregators like Metacritic, to find a multitude of opinions about a multitude of records. Moreover, I can listen to previews of the songs, or even go somewhere like MySpace or YouTube to listen to full tracks. It's always easy to take a "things were better in the old days" attitude, but music fans have never been able to make more informed decisions about their purchases than they can now. And, of course, you can shop around for the best price now without having to cross town several times.

I suspect Geoff Travis is just remembering his own shop in its 70s heyday in that quote. But there's a reason Rough Trade has such an enduring reputation - because shops like it are few and far between. Mostly, if you want to meet like-minded people, you go to a bar or a gig, not a shop.

Of course, I don't want record stores to close down. I've spent many happy hours trawling through endless boxes of records, or flicking through CD racks looking for that specific album I really need to hear right away. Clearly, online and offline music stores have different pros and cons and I really hope, despite the economic downturn and the fall in CD sales, that both can continue to serve music fans. But let's not get too misty eyed about a romantic notion of what record stores are when it isn't very close to reality.

The NME blog post was also discussed on Idolator.


drew said...

I have just found your blog from a mention on Song By Toad.
Good article, however I think that being 25 you missed the heyday of the record shop. Hope that does not sound patronising but if you started hanging about in record shops when you were 15, then most of the good indies were already gone.
Old gits like me remember Listen, Echo and the original Fopp and that was just Byres Rd.
As for being able to listen on myspace to tracks before you buy. Have you never listened to something there, bought the vinyl or cd only to find out when played on a conventional stereo that the sound is thin and flat?
I used to spend the whole of Saturday back in the day listening to the tunes being played in 23rd Precinct or upstairs in Dub II and making choices on what I heard and discussing tracks with others in the shop. Some of the staff could be cunts, keeping limited copies of the upfront tunes for their mates but you just treated them with the contempt they deserved.

There may be a certain amount of misty eyed sentimentality in what I have written, however I have never ever gotten the same buzz about completing an online transaction form as I did handing over my fiver or tenner and walking out of a shop with something that I had never heard of or even knew existed before entering. I also used to love the smell of record shops.
Yes I do buy online more than i should but about the only decent record shop left in Glasgow is the Oxfam Music on Byres rd, which I will visit about once a fortnight. However I live 30 miles out of town so don't get in as much as I would like. I also go to Avalanche every time I'm in Edinburgh.
Christ, I sound like a right sad old git.

Ally Brown said...

cheers for the comment Drew. I have to say I visit the Oxfam music shop on Byres Rd every time i'm in the area - every other month or so - and also, down the lane across from Hillhead Underground there's a record shop with hundreds of boxes that I visit sometimes... and also Mixed-Up Records a mile or two away is great too!