Sunday, 17 April 2011

Digital Love: Extended thoughts on Record Store Day

The thing about record shops* is that they aren’t actually any fun. The old Rough Trade in Covent Garden was good for 20 minutes of circling the staircase and ‘scuse-me-pleasing round the imaginatively classified collection (by country or genre or era, or just ‘The Fall’).

But I can’t say I ever formed a band there, or got a date, or even had anything recommended to me. Rough Trade East is no better – the staff seem polite enough but there’s usually silence in the racks, with that day’s chosen record playing in the background. There used to be these noticeboards near the front with Bassist Wanted messages and houseshares available and unglamorous record label internships on offer, but then the boards got moved to the back and forgotten about. There’s a good range of music books and magazines, which is helpful now that Borders has closed, although I don’t suppose you’re allowed to read them while you have a coffee at the front. (There is actually a by-law in Shoreditch requiring all shopfloors over a certain square footage to operate a Gaggia.)

Oh, the records. Well, it’s nice to browse. Most of the records I want are at least £3 more in Rough Trade than I would pay at Fopp or online, so obviously I don’t do my main music shopping there. Why should I? It’s a business, not a bloody charity. The artist gets a piss-poor amount either way. No, what record shops are really good for is rarities – vinyl, cassettes, special editions, bonus CDs, posters, badges, Buddha machines, signed copies, instore gigs and exclusive playbacks. This is obvious when you see that the busiest day of the year – Record Store Day, on this very Saturday – draws huge crowds with the tantalising promise of super-limited edition vinyl (in some cases so limited that there aren’t any. Oops). They aren’t there to pay £11.99 for the latest Panda Bear CD.

You have to understand that I have zero emotional attachment to music as a physical object (with the exception of guitars I guess). I like vinyl as a novelty item – it’s fun and I used to enjoy cueing up Dylan and Baez on my dad’s record player, which I hauled into my own bedroom aged 14. I got into cherry-picking odd 7” or 12” records from charity shops or HMV, often ones with unusual packaging or just cheapo bits and pieces – I’ve got a Guns n’ Roses 7” on orange vinyl if you’re making offers, and some scratchy Lenny Kravitz, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd; all the junk shop perennials.

But the record player would skip when I walked across the room, and on the whole vinyl was an expensive hobby – there were only a couple of proper record shops within an hour’s drive of my house. So I mostly stuck to CDs, half of which were burned from friends’ collections, song names scrawled in biro on the covers. The entire collection got ripped to computer for efficiency when I was about 15, filing everything alongside my latest Napster downloads, which were themselves a labour of love at 56kbps. I remember trying to hear The Smiths for the first time (being without an older bro/sis/neighbour to mentor me) and hogging the phone line overnight for a pathetically low-bitrate MP3 of ‘The Boy With A Thorn In His Side’ – a disastrous choice which delayed my love of The Smiths for another three years.

This guy had too many records. Whaddya know.

And you know what? CDs get in the way. CDs are just stuff that you buy. They’re not musty and organic and papery like vinyl. They’re plastic and they shatter and wobble and the liner notes get creased and ripped if you slide them in too quickly. So even if you have a massive record collection you end up playing them through your computer, right? Because you probably also have an MP3 player. If all your music is on your hard drive and on your iPod, do you really need to have shelves and shelves of plastic? Is it to congratulate yourself on how much you love music? Or to prove that to anyone who steps into your living room?

I'm not advocating giving up physical records for shitty low-quality MP3s, YouTube rips and Spotify Mobile, however. One of the main sticking points with my desire to abandon plastic record collections is the continuing tyranny of Apple software and hardware, a development that has profoundly shaped the last 10 years of music listening and buying and shafted everyone except Steve Jobs & Pals in the process. The rise of the iPod meant the rise of poor quality listening, because Apple imposed a lockout on decent quality files (ie, WAV), forcing users to adopt the mediocre AAC file quality. Not bad for listening on the street, but not something you want to convert your whole collection into. And what happens when Apple eventually phases out the iPod?

It would be great if the majority of our listening was 320k MP3 and lossless formats like FLAC. The fantastic online shop Boomkat regularly offers a choice between MP3 and FLAC on its download products, with a price difference of a couple of pounds at most. This is presumably to cater for the DJs and bedroom producer types who also use Boomkat for its extensive vinyl offerings, as MP3 files are noticeably rubbish once you put them through a set if Funktion Ones. And that’s great – if you’re a DJ playing out then vinyl and CD will often beat digital for quality. On the other hand, plenty of DJs and live electronic musicians now do completely digital sets – not iPod sets, but high quality WAV/MP3 files played through Traktor or similar DJing software. (Boomkat also offers an incredible wealth of knowledge at your fingertips, with extensive reviews and contextualisations for every release as well as audio previews. It's rad.)

So it seems to me that shops like Phonica and Sounds of the Universe, specialising in techno, house, jazz, funk and related dancefloor-orientated music, are currently more vital than indie peers like Rough Trade and Sister Ray. If playing records loud in a dark room is integral to the music itself, then physical records will remain important for a long time. The punters aren’t just collectors, they’re DJs making their own living off those records. But when the record stands as an inert signifier of a possible live show – as it does for a rock band – then owning the vinyl seems a little less important.

There are a number of strands branching off from each of these thoughts – in many ways this is the issue that underlies all music (and music writing) at present. Ie, What Does The Future Hold?

Who can say, but a final word regarding Sister Ray’s Phil Barton, who recently told the Quietus: “Increasingly we’re moving out of what I call ‘the dance market’, or what was the dance market, because there is no market – so there’s no point in stocking house records anymore, because nobody buys them.”

The man who runs one of the biggest and supposedly best record shops in the country says nobody is buying house records. Dude, if they’re even bothering to go to a shop for their vinyl anymore, they’ll be at Phonica. EVERYONE is buying house records.

*For they are shops! Not stores!

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