Tomorrow is Record Store Day and I need to make a confession. I don't go to record stores. Well, not much anyway, and more often to browse than to buy. Which is odd given that over the years I've not only spent a great deal of money in record shops, I've worked in them. Indeed, the year (1988) I spent working in the Virgin Store in Marble Arch, London, was the most outrageously fun year of my whole adult life.
And, as a lifelong music fan, I've never felt closer to the ground than when I was crowding the counters of mad little stores in Brixton and the West End as the latest platters were slapped on the turntables. That one, mate, I'll have that one playing now. You didn't need to know anything about the record but that you liked the sound of it.
(On the other hand, I'm pretty sure I was the first person in all of Brixton to buy 'Pirates' Anthem'. The Jamaican guys at the shop in the covered market had to break open the just-arrived courier box to sell it to me, a fact which both bemused and amused them.)
In part I'm disappearing from record stores because the good ones, the survivors, are specialising in a way that isn't much use to me. They're selling objects as much as they're selling music. And as lovely an object as a bang-up re-pressing on 180gm vinyl is, my life is oriented around music in digital formats.
But as Morgan Davie notes in an excellent post at The Ruminator, record stores are disappearing from all all our lives, and the music -- along with other content -- is disappearing from the High Street:
Because when I say content, what I really mean is stories. Music and essays and novels and more, all of them to me are stories, and stories matter. Stories are how we make sense of the world, how we dream beyond the edges, how we fit ourselves into a chaotic flow that will not slow down for us. Stories give us our humanity. And we are heading for a time when stories are hidden away from the physical world.
Shops are important. Encoded into our folded-up mental maps, their simple presence reminds us of what is possible and what is important. The shops in our retail zones, just like the institutions in our civic centres, are how a community tells itself what it values and what it wants to be.
Your online world is one you build around yourself, but the physical world is one we build together and share.
I would debate that last point. We do shape online spaces together, and share them. As a digital music shopper, the most fun I've had was at eMusic.com, a place that was great mostly because of the savvy, sharing community there. Unfortunately, eMusic was run by a bunch of stupid assholes and I eventually gave up my monthly subscription when management deployed probably the worst "update" I have ever seen on any website, anywhere.
So let's get to the point: record shops are disappearing from the real world and the online stores that replace them mostly suck. The problem isn't catalogue -- the iTunes Store has more on its digital shelves than any physical shop could dream of -- but character. I'm an Apple fanboy and I will go to some lengths to avoid buying things on iTunes. Sure, it's as easy as breathing, but there's something barren and over-managed about it.
Of the others I use -- including Juno (bizarre and confusing interface, but dance music heaven), Amplifier and 7 Digital -- Bandcamp is easily the best. Choice of formats, ease of use, PayPal support .... But I kind of want Bandcamp to be more of a record store and less of an unobtrusive retail services provider. The fact that it's so artist-focused means it's not a great source of back-catalogue goodness. The new emphasis on a social component seems promising.
But for now, my big fun online tends to be in music discovery places that aren't actually stores. Maybe one day soon, buying music will be as fun as discovering it on Soundcloud or Hype Machine ...
But tomorrow will, of course, absolutely be a good day. Real Groovy Records has a lineup that includes DJ turns from Simon Grigg, Jacinda Ardern and TV3's Tova O'Brien -- and also, of course performances from Waves, whose long-lost debut album gets a special vinyl release along with its previously unreleased follow-up -- and of course Beastwars, whose long-awaited second album, Blood Becomes Fire, will be released in a limited blood-red vinyl edition too. (It's actually avilable in digital form from Bandcamp today.) Me and my boys are pretty amped for that Beastwars instore, let me tell you.
Under the Radar has the rundown on what other New Zealand stores are doing.
And finally, because I'm running out of time and increasingly hangry -- congratulations to Sean James Donnelly for taking our this year's Taite Music Prize. Awesome.
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