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 didnât 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, cafÃ© 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.
Todayâs 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.