Record Store Day – An Ambivalent Ramble Pt.1

With the amount of vinyl I buy you’d think I’d be an evangelical supporter of record shops, wouldn’t you, and heartily looking forward to Record Store Day 2011.  But I’m kind of swithering for some reason, and I think it’s one of these things which merits a bit more discussion than just Awesome! Record shops! Vinyl! Special editions!  Yay!

Firstly some caveats, because I might come across as being against both record shops and Record Store Day for the next little while, and I guarantee you I am not. I love record shops and I think that a day reminding us all that yet another crucial part of the independent music infrastructure is under threat and needs our support is a very good thing.  Not least because we human beings have a rather irritating habit of only realising that we miss something once it’s gone.

Part 1: Record Shops – The Bad News
Part 2: Record Shops – The Good News
Part 3: Record Store Day

My first thought, however, is that for all record shops are generally a good thing, like labels and venues, they are not deserving of support or protection just because of what they are – they have to actually be good at it.  It is easier than it ever was for bands to sell direct to their fans now, which is hugely more profitable for them, and if you genuinely support the making of music then you simply cannot say that this is a bad thing.  But that means that as a label, a shop, or any other part of the infrastructure which feeds off that band-to-fan transaction the onus is very much on you to justify your entire existence these days.

Like labels, the internet has completely changed the game for record shops.  Competition is generally regarded as a good thing, but mature industries (where the music industry was, and where much of it still is, in its head) provide relatively narrow forms of competition.  A record shop just had to have an advantage over the other more or less identical record shops in its immediate catchment area.  If they did that well, then shazam, they were more or less set.

This was more or less the same with record labels: they were all used to competing with one another on pretty narrowly defined terms, and that has all gone now.  Now they are competing with all sorts of ill-defined things.  Now, just as we need a compelling reason to buy a physical product rather than a download, we need a compelling reason to traipse off to a shop, when we can almost certainly find what we want on the internet faster, more conveniently, and often cheaper as well.

So a record shop needs to become a compelling destination in its own right, because it is unlikely to measure up as well against the traditional retail yardsticks of choice or price.  You need a reason to go in, a reason to dedicate whatever part of your day you spend wandering around to poking around a shop full of stuff you can get cheaper on the internet, without the worries which clothes shoppers face, of misjudging fit or shape.

Furthermore, just as musicians are facing the squeeze from people spending their entertainment budgets on a massively increased array of competing products, like gaming for example, so too record shops are having to shift the emphasis of the terms on which they compete.  It’s not about ‘retail’ competition as much as it used to be, because they will almost always lose that battle to the internet, it’s now about the competition for leisure time – as it seems to be across much of the physical retail sector.

And let’s be honest, a lot of record shops simply aren’t, or weren’t, very nice places to visit.  The staff can be snotty, the decor ropey, and the respect for the actual product pretty minimal.  Some places manage to make that charming, but many more simply make it look like they don’t really give a fuck.  And if they don’t why should we.

The music industry may still be squealing like stuck pig, but the success stories of recent years, such as the excellent Beggars Group, have found salvation in the specialists.  Instead of courting the mass market, they realised that the more dedicated fans were the ones who spent the money, and they have addressed those fans well by emphasising the kind of band and the kind of business model which suits that market.

For shops this is a problem though, because the more hardcore the fan, the more they are suited to the Long Tail model – they’re passionate and willing to spend, but it is on a more obscure range of products.  Again, shops simply can’t stock every last little stupid release from a tape club label in Basingstoke, however much I might personally want to buy their stuff.  So the more passionate music fans – the ones who spend the most time and money on music – will end up buying a lot on the internet anyway, and while they are there, shops’ potential custom will be cannibalised and there’s just no way of avoiding that.

A lot of shops have utterly failed to acknowledge these things beyond moaning about them, and they will go out of business and, frankly, tough shit.  This is the equivalent of a record label complaining that people don’t buy CDs anymore and trying to get the government to shut the internet down – it just isn’t good enough.  Why are Beggars Group successful?  Because instead of moaning, they addressed the problem in front of them: okay, people aren’t buying as many CDs anymore, but who is buying stuff and what do they buy?

Of course, to suggest that I myself have any of the answers to these challenges is laughable.  If I did I would be selling records and making a fortune doing so. But from the perspective of someone who loves records, there are definitely some things I think do make me want to spend time and money in shops, even if it’s always highly doubtful whether or not one person’s personal preferences have any real broader relevance. In Part 2, tomorrow, I will discuss the things I like about my favourite shops, and you can make of them what you will.