The Dying Cult of the Record Shop

HMV Nipper

The Dying Cult of the Record Shop

Although it was far from ever being my favourite music retailer or record emporium it nevertheless saddened me to hear the news that the HMV chain were calling in the administrators (LTW News)today.

It is sad not only because of the news that up to four thousand jobs would be lost but also because it was yet another familiar beacon and landmark, as traditional as M&S, of our national High Street has gone the way of so many others in the wake of the recession as well as the onslaught of the digital age, when so many have dispensed with buying music in a physical form and now download, or steal, as a means of attaining their chosen lifestyle soundtrack. What saddens me most of all however is that it signifies the end of the record shop lifestyle which accommodated a generation with a place to hang out, meet people, flirt, see what others were purchasing, what they were wearing and perhaps also discover what gigs were on or upcoming.

It was in a record shop; Phoenix in the High Street, where as an early teen I overheard a conversation that the Clash were playing that night and promptly bought a ticket at the counter which was a passport for my own personal road to Damascus or rock and roll road to ruin, depending which way you look at it, and it became the first gig I ever attended. It was also in a record shop’ Virgin in Frederick Street where I heard a rumour, and at that point it was only a rumour, that New Order were playing their first ever gig; also their first public appearance after the suicide of vocalist Ian Curtis only several months before at Valentinos that evening and promptly made my way to the venue to join the queue already forming in the late afternoon alongside fellow believers. As it turned out the band did play that night and the gig was probably as memorable for me as it was for everyone else who attended.

Saturday mornings of my youth, when being young still allowed me to get up after a raucous night out, were invariably spent in Greyfriars Market which housed a huge second hand record department; Easy Rider, which allowed you to purchase albums at extremely cheap prices whilst also allowing you to take them back under any amount of pretexts including the fact you simply didn’t actually like them; thus allowing for mistakes and experimentation. This was only the preamble to the Saturday afternoon-after heading home for lunch and hopefully being further energised by the cacophonous noise you had just purchased to head uptown for the prerequisite Saturday afternoon hanging out in Virgin to discover how the rest of the weekend could be spent.

Virgin in Frederick Street was somewhere exciting, simultaneously dangerous and safe, for me and others to hang out on Saturday afternoons as a teenager. It was more than a record shop it was an avenue toward discovery and find out what was happening over the next week as well as somewhere to develop my own sartorial expression without fear of being laughed at or intimidated.

Virgin was not then the corporate nightmare it became, simply being a shop with bare floorboards and records in cardboard boxes behind the counter. I remember being particularly excited the day ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ came out and I opted out of school to head uptown, buy the album, and being simultaneously thrilled and disappointed when they simply lifted a copy out of a box stacked next to several others in a makeshift space behind the counter. It didn’t diminish the experience as I spent the rest of the day with the sleeve positioned firmly beneath my arm like a Technicolor badge of honour and generational ‘Fuck Off’ motif, hanging out with similar minded souls, chatting and swapping experiences.

It is all so different today when music is so much apart of our everyday lives-like water or electricity as David Bowie, who knows a thing or two about such matters, once observed, and can be heard in virtually every shop, café and foyer in the high street and beyond. This was not the case during my youth and at times I feel such over exposure has diluted its impact if not its relevance.

Today’s generation have access to all recorded music via the pressing of a few buttons and whilst this is a great step forward it has also robbed the culture of some of its mystique. I can remember gazing at the covers of the Velvet Underground and Nico, the first New York Dolls album, Roxy Music’s ‘For Your Pleasure’ and ‘Horses’ by Patti Smith believing they held the entry to a secret universe, but my personal entrance had to be delayed until the weekend when I could afford to buy them. That they are still among my favourite records, several decades down the line, shows that waiting for something heightens its appeal in a way that instant availability never can.

It is now we return to the method most people deploy when buying music in the modern age and the one which has probably hastened the demise of the record shop as a cultural experience; they sit on their fat asses in the comfort of their homes and probably forget about it an hour after it has been purchased. If there is a good thing to be attained by the loss of HMV, and there is nothing ostensibly good about a business going bust or people losing their jobs; are that it will drive those souls who still possess integrity and still want their music in a form of physical manifestation into the smaller independent stores. Unfortunately this reprieve never happened in time for Avalanche which closed its doors at the start of the year. It is a sad day for the High Street when a beacon of security like the ‘Nipper the Dog’ logo is about to disappear from our sights but it will be a sadder day still when the whole culture and cult of buying a record disappears from our lives entirely.

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  1. So sad! Made lifelong friends with folks working in or shopping in record stores back in the day. Every Saturday was exciting since I usually went record shopping on Saturday mornings with friends and we would have lunch and compare all of our newly purchased treasures. I miss those days very much.

  2. I’m guessing we’re of a similar age and I too can remember the thrill of thumbing through rack after rack and occasionally finding a real treasure amongst them. I remember when record shops had booths where you could hear a requested track in the pretence you were about to buy it. Our HMV shut down a long, long time ago, the nearest to me at the time being in Leicester, home of Jessops who also exited our High streets this week.

    I see distinct parallels between the two. As a teenager I’d make pilgrimages to Leicester to buy camera equipment and the elusive 12″ neither Menzies nor Woolies would dream of stocking. Not only was there a huge HMV but also smaller, independent stores, places like Silver Street Records or St Martin’s, whose shop – not unlike Jessops main store – was not unlike a cave, filled with treasures. I’d enter either with the anticipation and a thrill of the unknown, more often than not coming away with some gem and vowing to return before one of the other baubles that caught my eye disappeared into someone else’s collection.

    But they changed. St Martins moved to a newer, bigger and shinier site and became mainstream, no longer stocking the kind of music I wanted to buy. Similarly, Jessops went all hi-tec, I was nearly blinded first time I walked in after their revamp, place was as sterile as an operating room. And gone were the enthusiasts, the people who knew their stuff and were willing to share that information, no more did someone bag my purchase and ask ‘Have you heard of this / these?’ – almost akin to an invitation to a secret society for true connoisseurs.

    It’s years since I’ve even set foot inside Jessops, I wasn’t too impressed when they tried to sell me two grands worth of kit that – despite their assurances – wouldn’t do what I wanted, nt without further outay at least. Service went out the window too. Bit better on that score in HMV but have you tried shopping there lately? I’m not the biggest or fattest of people but the aisles are crammed so close together it becomes claustrophobic and nigh on impossible to see anything on the racks. I got so frustrated at being buffeted about, having ignorant shoppers (staff too sometimes) stand right in front of the section I was browsing and the bloody awful music assaulting my eardrums that I walked out without buying, went straight on to amazon and received it a day or two later with minimum fuss. And for less money. (Perhaps amazon and their tax avoidance schemes aren’t the best comparison).

    I couldn’t imagine hanging out in a record shop for hours on end the way I did in my youth; at my age I’d probably be arrested anyway but the point is shopping in places like HMV and Jessops ceased to be the pleasure I used to look forward to. It’s certainly not because I’ve outgrown music or photography, not by any means, I’m still very much in love with both, I just think they both lost sight of the raison d’etre but, sadly, not before their stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap killed off all the good independent outlets.

  3. A rather high proportion of my student grant (remember those?!) went straight to Gordon in Action Records, Preston. Many happy hours were spent in that wee shop. Not many independent record shops where I live now so I’m hoping that HMV stays open to allow me the luxury and enjoyment of spending a few hours browsing the racks and picking up CDs I would never find online

  4. Avalanche is only closed for a refit:
    http://www.avalancherecords.co.uk/

  5. Graham Henderson

    Excellent article. Much of that resonates with me, because I frequented many of the shops mentioned here. There was also Bruces, The Other Record Shop, Bandparts, Couple of more down Cockburn St (Cant remember their names) Ezy Ryder! Yep remember them well.. I cut my first demos tape in the studio under the shop!

  6. Maybe its an opportunity. Near where I love in Kingston Upon Thames, Banquet Records manage to maintain their very 70s-record shop atmosphere & stay in business. On a saturday its overrun with suitably fashionable teens perusing the ‘new’ section & discussing forthcoming gigs.
    The end of a corporate giant that prefers its staff to hide their ink is not the end of the record-shop.

  7. Funny thing is – when I was 14 back in the mid-80s I had this idea that music would one day be available in exactly they way it is today – that all the rare music you spent ages trying to find and had to save up for would be available to everyone.

    And now it’s here, it’s just all a bit crap, isn’t it? No effort required anymore – so less incentive to actually enjoy what you have.

  8. Avalanche is still open…. is it not?

  9. I think it’s a bit early to sound the death knell yet. Some independents are thriving and a lot have seen a steady increase in sales. Events like record store day are helping and the shops that diversified from pure vinyl or one specific genre seem to be doing ok. I work in a record shop and I am amazed on a weekly basis at the age range that enter the shop and am even more amazed at their buys. Only this week did I sell patti smith, VU, Ramones, and Bowie vinyls to a girl of 14 and they were not presents. Keep positive folks and support, support support. Don’t just complain about how you remember it used to be, visit these ships and help younger generations get the same buzz as you did x

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