I can’t count the number of hours/days/years I’ve spent browsing record shops in the last 30 odd years, quite literally across the globe. It’s so sad to bound up to a much loved record emporium you’ve not visited for a while and find it’s closed. Since the Record & Tape Exchange in Camden closed, I have little reason to travel to NW1. Kingston still at least has Collectors, Beggars and an HMV, but twenty years ago it had these as well as a Tower megastore, a Virgin (then Zaavi) megastore, two Our Prices and a shop succinctly called “The Record Shop” (it clung to selling a lot of vinyl). Almost every town across the country had a small, independent music retailer in their high street. Bexley Heath had two; one at each end of the high street, in addition to WH Smith, Woolworths, Boots and whatever other store deemed it profitable to sell new records and cassettes. Bexleyheath’s Smiths is where I bought Iron Maiden’s ‘2 Minutes To Midnight’ on 12” and Marillion’s ‘Punch And Judy’ on 7” in 1984. Every purchase has its own memory. So now every time I pay a visit to Rebound Records in York or the Rock Box in Camberley, I make sure I find something to purchase to close that ever narrowing gap in the “A” section of my CD collection, or fill up the “M” section. I’m sure I could find the release cheaper online, but I can’t express the despair I’d feel if I walked up to their doors to found they had closed. So a fiver or £6.50 for a copy of the first Allman Brothers CD I don’t have, or “Dirk Wears White Sox” by Adam And The Ants, an album I didn’t buy when I was a huge pre-teen Ants fan, but now feel I really do need, are small prices to pay.
Sooooo. Here’s my penny’s worth about HMV. The high street is suffering, OK? You can go on and on about poor management, a failure to move with the times, high price for CDs when times were good, but look at Borders. Look at Jessops. Did you ever think Woolworths would just disappear? WH Smith or Boots could just as easily go the same way, and then what would we end up with in our high streets? Coffee shops and charity shops? Don’t get me wrong, I like coffee, and I also like a good old rummage through the dusty old CDs and even dustier vinyl (latest “find”: This Is Your Bloody Valentine for £3 in Oxfam), but I also like browsing through Waterstones, and HMV and Smiths and wherever… Music still represents value for money. Looked after, it will last forever. An unwanted CD or LP can be sold if not liked or loved anymore, but it can also be returned to your deck or CD player (if you still own one) for Proustian reminders of times gone by, happier or sadder. You can’t do that with a download on a trashed, recently made obsolete hard drive, can you? I taught at university for a few years, and most of the students felt that £10 was too much to pay for an album. I pointed out that if you went back 40 odd years or so, that new album would cost you around £3. Fair enough, they shrugged, but they looked a bit shocked when I pointed out that in contrast and by comparison, a packet of cigarettes at the same time would cost around 27p, a pint of beer 11p and a ticket to the Wembley Cup Final a mere £2. A ticket to see Led Zeppelin in 1971 would set you back 75p. 75p to see Led Zeppelin promoting their fourth LP! So that £3 record in today’s terms should cost you anything between £25 and £40, the same amount that people are prepared to pay for a new computer game.
Yep, CDs were a bit steep when they first came out, quite possibly artificially so, and who was happy to find out that their £15 CD from Our Price would set you back a mere $15 Stateside? I can recall an article where it calculated that if you wanted enough CDs it was cheaper to fly to New York and buy them there, flight included an’ all. But what business chooses to sell its produce deliberately cheaper than the market is prepared to pay? I don’t see Rolls Royce or Rolex selling cut rate cars or watches.
HOME TAPING IS KILLING MUSIC. Except it didn’t. I used to borrow friends’ LPs and copy them to cassette, but I really wanted the actual vinyl, the artefact, and any tapes that got spun more than two or three times usually resulted in a legitimate purchase of the album. Cassettes offered a large degree of portability, especially when I was a student and the relative transience that engenders, but deep down I really wanted Led Zeppelin’s fourth LP ON VINYL, with the gatefold sleeve and the inner bag that had the lyrics to ‘Stairway…’, and the distinctive green and orange Atlantic labels on the vinyl itself. I wanted the gatefold version of Black Sabbath Vol 4 with the glued in inserts and the swirly, spiral Vertigo logos on the labels. I can’t express the despair felt on finding an original Mushroom pressing of Heart’s “Dreamboat Annie” in Camden that had a gatefold jacket with lots of vintage shots of Ann and Nance inside. Sure, my box fresh, mint Arista copy had an inner bag, but sadly it only had a single LP sleeve to hold it. Of course, I eventually bought a gatefold version too (and a picture disc), which went a long way in assuaging my pain. My point is, I needed the object itself, which in a way was half of the medium – the other half being your record deck. And here’s my point; the death/dearth of the stereo system, supplanted by iPods and iPhones and whatever new gadgets and what-have-you is available for you to listen to your sounds on, means that not only is the artefact not really needed, once you have transferred it to your hard drive or your listening device, especially in this modern world where space is becoming a much sought after luxury, but that big ole 12” LP, or even its 5” CD counterpart, just takes up too much room. I can remember sometime around 1986 being invited round to the friend of a friend’s apartment (this was in Hong Kong) to hear one of these new fangled compact discs on a new fangled CD system (probably “Dark Side Of The Moon” or “Brothers In Arms”). Yeah, it sounded pretty cool. It sounded pretty clear and loud, but the truth is, I’ve never listened to an MP3 on a modern device and went, “wow, that sounds amazing! Really toppy and tinny, the way I like it!” in quite the same way as when I listened with headphones to my first ever cassette Walkman (which actually did sound amazing). Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that I can carry around what might amount to someone else’s large or even entire music collection in a small electronic box the size of a cigarette packet, but not at the loss of the artwork and lyrics and credits and photographs and cryptic messages and all the little things that make the package more interesting.
Maybe folks today don’t quite see the value in music. Certainly, with regards to the high street, what’s good for the consumer (buying cheaper online or cheaper at the out of town superstore) is bad for the consumer (see high streets full of coffee and charity shops). I kind of respect Prince’s right to have given away his last album free with a Sunday paper. In one quick transaction, he made as much out of the album in one go as he might of over the whole lifetime of the release, if issued commercially. Covermount CDs (the ones often given away with music magazines such as Uncut, Classic Rock and Mojo) usually highlight new releases and are aimed at consumers who like and regularly buy music, and quite often in a physical format. But giving away a classic album on CD with a Sunday paper will merely place the idea in the head of the consumer that music can be free, should be free and certainly isn’t worth paying for. Sure, it will generate a lot of licensing revenue in one go, and there’s mechanical royalties on top of that to consider, but I would use the analogy of the farmer who slaughters all his cattle in one season, makes a huge profit at market in one go, then has nothing to sell the following year. The NME during the 1970s would occasionally give away flexi-discs with excerpts from new albums ( “Exile On Main Street”, “Billion Dollar Babies”, “Brain Salad Surgery”), and it was a BIG DEAL. Today, if you get enough free CDs or free downloads, you will eventually see no worth in them at all. When I bought records as a teenager, the purchase had to be very carefully thought out and considered, and after investing that pocket money, I then had to invest time in listening to the thing. I WANTED to like my new purchase that I’d invested a whole £4 or whatever in. I’d persevere with new purchases in a way that I don’t with albums that I’m given. At least I could swap or sell a real dud I was misled by Kerrang! or Sounds into buying (stand up Tony Macalpine’s “Edge of Insanity”).
So support your local record store. You’ll miss it when it’s gone. And so will I.