The Vinyl Countdown: Record Store Day unpicked
It may come as a surprise to those living in the cooler nooks of this little island, but many of us now live in towns and cities without any meaningful emporium of sound. That is, we don't have a local independent record shop. Occasionally a side-note to a wider feature on the impact of music downloading, the slow death of music retailing on the British high street has, for the most part, been under-reported. With odd exceptions - the threats to Cardiff's Spillers or Nottingham's Selectadisc spring to mind - most shops have closed down to little notice or fanfare.
The ongoing problem faced by the sector was recently highlighted by Edinburgh's Avalanche Records in a missive on Facebook. Avalanche - who themselves once had three outlets in the city but are now reduced to the one - was where I first bought Nirvana's Bleach and who famously refused to stock the early Manic Street Preachers records on account of them being "shite". Like Eastern Bloc in Manchester or Volume in Newcastle, Avalanche had (and still has) a crucial role in developing and maintaining the local music scene, so to learn even they were struggling came as a disappointment.
A city with a large student population, Edinburgh has historically been well-served by record shops and, as teenager, it was possible to spend day trips doing nothing else but trawling round them (off the bus at Record Shack, into Avalanche, down to Ripping, then the hike down Leith Walk to Vinyl Villains) before finally hitting Virgin and HMV to scour the import racks. A la High Fidelity, they were sometimes intimidating places, with the feeling that as a customer you were a minor inconvenience interfering with the important jobs of chatting with a sales rep or cleaning a used Groundhogs album, but most of them were an Aladdin's cave of exotica, of sounds past and present.
Avalanche point out that the biggest problem they face is each new student intake brings more young people who have grown up in towns without record shops - and therefore have never entered into the record buying habit. Being Edinburgh based they benefit from the summer tourist trade, but declining sales throughout the rest of the year are threatening the shop's medium term future.
There's is not a unique situation and part of the industry's response to this decline has been the annual Record Store Day, a celebration of all things independent, musty and filed-alphabetically (or by genre). 2010 sees the biggest event yet, with hundreds of stores all over the world taking part, offering a host of exclusive and limited edition releases designed to get fans back supporting their local outlet. Vinyl records from The Beatles, Blur, Thee Crooked Vultures rub shoulders with special label compilations and other oddities, a reminder of when buying music was an experience, rather than just a click of the mouse. If I lived somewhere with a real record shop, I'm sure I'd be uh ... super-stoked. The old school record buyer in me feels a twinge of guilt about not buying more music, especially if it comes in a fold-out cover or on bubblegum pink vinyl.
Up until a few years ago it was still possible to walk into Virgin and buy a couple of vinyl singles on new release Monday until one week when they stopped stocking them. Then, sometime later the entire chain closed down, victim to the recent economic recession. Mail order has its uses, but the extra effort required puts paid to those impulse buys, those things you bought just because you had a couple of quid spare in your pocket. A lot of people got very rich as a result of impulse buys. The ability to preview stuff online (legally or otherwise) is also a factor in stopping rash purchases. All those indifferent albums you used to buy simply on instinct because it was the 'new (insert artist here) record' stay firmly in the racks, victim to your knowledge that everything after track three is pretty dull.
One of the other problems stores now face is the fact that rock 'n roll is well over half a decade old. That's a lot of back catalogue and shops can't hope to carry a meaningful range of oldies alongside the ever-expanding list of new titles. Pop into Avalanche in the mid 80s and you could be certain of being able to browse through an entire section devoted to The Sisters of Mercy or The (Southern) (Death) Cult, never mind pick up all the Velvets and Bowie albums. Is there still a store in Britain where you could walk in off the street and have access to, I dunno, a decent run of Dischord albums or all the Pebbles compilations, never mind singles that are more than a few weeks old?
A cursory visit to our local HMV, which has now demoted most of its CDs to an alcove at the back of the store in favour of cheap DVD deals and video game paraphenalia - almost as if music was an embarrassing relative - offered little respite: no Rolling Stones discs at all; the most recent U2 and nothing else; REM's Accelerate being pamped at £2 in some kind of fit of pique by the label management finally realising that paying a hundred squillion dollars for a band way, way into its career was totally fucking stupid. Of course, record retailing is not a public service. Shops can't be expected to hold massive inventory just in case little Johnny discovers Bob Dylan (or maybe Hawkwind ... we'll have to cover all eventualities!) In some respects, rock n' roll has just become a victim of its own longevity.
The tsunami of new music, coupled with the limited nature of so many new titles means that a trip to a record store, instead of being a pleasure is now often one of momentary disappointment. The title you want is sold out, never to return. You go into a record shop and there's a good chance they won't have anything you want. For old farts like me, this often means just ticking off something on the 'wants' list or scratching that itch that comes to you in the bath and says "How come you got to 40 without a Sparks record? And will HMV have any if we go?" Who knows.
One of the selling points of Record Store Day is how nice all the special releases are. Of course, once everything becomes nice, it becomes normal. There's also a limit to the amout of extra tat most consumers will put up with (anyone for a job lot of unsold Pixies box sets?) I was already annoyed that the recent U2 remasters didn't fit on my CD shelves and that Los Campesinos! box thing has been kicked about from pillar to post ever since, too big to sit with the CDs, too confusing to file with the DVDs. Nice, but fucking annoying after 14 months of being lost under gas bills and old copies of Farmer's Weekly. And don't get me started on 'special editions' of new albums. Even the independent sector isn't immune, with one high-profile outlet offering exclusive end-of-year 2-CD sets of the albums it had spent the last 12 months happily pimping to its sucker customer base. There's a big part of me that says the record industry has never liked its customers, never treated them with any real respect. Take the pocket money and run. Now the kids have started to abandon the consumerism (but not the music), everyone's in a blind panic. Chickens coming home to roost?
It's almost certain that record shop closures will continue, until we reach a point where they almost serve a boutique purpose. I'm sure a living can be made in small market towns by having a few racks of interesting second-hand vinyl and new, specialist releases alongside the books and other antiquaria while the other half sits with a coffee and carob cake. But the traditional model no longer seems viable - especially when indepedent outlets are asked to pay higher wholesale prices for new releases than punters need to pay online.
For the likes of Avalanche, although they see no long-term future in relying on the summer tourist market, imagine a shop just off Edinburgh's historic Royal Mile where you could flick through the history of Scottish rock and pop: complete runs of Postcard singles, the entire Belle & Sebastian back catalogue and with the Mary Chain albums front and centre at all times alongside exciting new bands. That's the romantic in me, the one comfortable in the past rather than the chaotic present. Nostalgia is an escape, and not necessarily a route out of economic discomfort. That's my 'If I had a record shop' dream. It may not be anyone else's.
Oh, by the way - in the time you've taken to read this story, the Record Store Day releases you hoped to pick up have already sold out. Try Ebay.