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.