Record Store Day – An Ambivalent Ramble Pt.2

British Sea Power playing an in-store in Avalanche Records, Edinburgh

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 a great thing. Not least because we human beings have a rather irritating habit of only realising that we miss something until its gone.

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

So, to pick up where I left off in Part 1, 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.  I will repeat that I am not so silly as to think that what floats my boat about a place will do the same for everyone else, but that’s what the comments section is for.

In many ways a shop’s biggest disadvantage is probably also it’s biggest advantage: it’s not global, unlike the internet, and it can’t stock everything, unlike the internet.  So if you turn those two things on their heads, what defines a record shop could perhaps be seen as where it is and what it chooses to stock.  Location and curation*.

During the post-punk era in particular, where similar to now there was a massive revolt against the banality of the mainstream, a lot of record shops became heavily involved in promotion and the releasing of records.  Rough Trade is probably the most famous example, and there are many more, however the CD era seemed to make shops a bit lazy, and simply throwing the most popular stuff on shelves seemed to do the trick.  Well not anymore, that’s Amazon’s job now.

Avalanche Records in Edinburgh is a bit of an anomaly because of the unusually high proportion of tourist traffic, but Kevin there says that the vast majority of music he sells is by local bands.  MGMT can’t shift a single record, but Kid Canaveral can**.  This may be an unusual situation, but in general I really do think that a strong relationship with the local scene is an important factor for a record shop these days.

If I go record shopping in a new city, as I did in Austin at SXSW, I want not just the Pitchfork favourites, but to know who the local bands are who are trying to make themselves heard above all this hubbub.  Cultivating a relationship with the local scene also gives a focal point for the music community, in much the same way that a good venue, a chat forum or the comments section of blog can, and nurturing these communities can earn you a lot of loyalty from the people within them.  If you feel that gigs, new releases and musicians are buzzing about you in a place, and you’re a music fan, you’ll surely be desperate to be around it.

Similarly, as there are fewer and fewer record shops, bands perhaps need to be reminded that the ones left still exist.  Far from making it worthless bothering with them, as it might have been when they were in thrall to be big distributors, nowadays you can manageably do your own distribution; provided you are sensible about it and maintain the relationship rather than just posting off some crap and forgetting it.  And I can tell you from my experience with Avalanche, the admin might be a bit scrappy, but we have made a lot of money selling records in that shop.

When it comes to curation, I always remember the early days of Fopp, before it simply became HMV’s Hipster Department.  I used to go in, and no matter how obscure, they just always seemed to have what I was after.  I am not suggesting that I am part of a particularly unpredictable market when it comes to music, but well-chosen stock which shows understanding of the customer base and challenges them just enough, without being too deliberately obtuse, can bring me back to a record shop again and again.

I know the curation of independent record shops has always been paramount, but I think the emphasis has shifted away from the high street stuff even more in the last few years, and that a shop’s choices are now more important and a lot less obvious than they were in, say, 1995 when the market was more homogenised and well-understood.  I stand open to correction on that one of course.

Banquet Records in Kingston upon Thames became a regular lunchtime destination for me when I worked down South.  They are a tiny shop, but they had really interesting stuff and a tall skinny guy I remember who absolutely always gave me interesting recommendations.  A cleverly-stocked record shop, like a well-curated blog, can open your eyes to stuff you never knew you wanted in the first place.  For those reasons I went back all the time, even when I wasn’t exactly shopping, particularly. And this brings me on to the really obvious next thing: knowledgeable, personable staff.

It may be obvious that you need good staff, but in the record industry it’s tricky because knowledge and sniffy snobbery often go hand in hand and the clientele can be shy as well, meaning someone too bubbly can put them off, but in general you have to be really canny about who you hire. The people in your shop are just about the biggest difference between you and the internet.

And of course, the shop itself can’t just be a repository of bits of plastic shit anymore.  It doesn’t need to be immaculate – in fact that would probably be a drawback – but shop owners need to bear in mind that you are competing with people’s houses, where they can purchase records in comfort.  You don’t need to paint it all beige, or reproduce an IKEA showroom, but you do need to pay attention to the physical environment you are offering.  Buying records, like owning them, should be a sensory pleasure – leafing through vinyl, mooching around, wasting time at listening posts, it’s all part of the joy of owning records, and a really nice shop can hugely enhance that experience.

Funnily enough, you know, I’d be cautious about expanding the place to include books or coffee shops or bars or stuff like that.  When it’s done well, this is a brilliant advantage, of course, but people have to cognisant of the fact that they are taking on a whole new business about which they might not know all that much.

It’s not enough to just slap a bar in there, you have to actually make the bar itself a really good bar, which is a whole different challenge.  Equally the presence of a coffee machine doesn’t automatically turn you into a coffee shop. Mono in Glasgow is a great example – I’d be in there for a pint all the time even if I wasn’t shopping – and when a music nerd gets a few pints down them, purse strings can be dramatically loosened!

These things are all pretty obvious, and actually haven’t changed that much, even with the internet; these elements have always been the things which made a record shop great.  But if you get all of these things right – earn the loyalty of the local musos, be sensitive to your audience and stock your shop accordingly, and provide an environment that is in itself a pleasure to spend time in, and is staffed by friendly, vaguely like-minded souls – then a local record shop really can be, and does deserve to be, one of the focal points of a local music community.

The internet is great for music.  It allows all sorts of scattered communities to form, it allows levels of independence which were really difficult to make work a few years ago, and it can potentially cut all the shysters out of the relationship between a band and its fans, but we should bear in mind that these things work best when they complement the real world, not when they are at odds with it.

Song, by Toad doesn’t do well just because we exploit the internet effectively, but because we use the internet to improve what we do in real life – help bands make music, help musicians get fans to their gigs, help out of town bands play up here, help people in Edinburgh find people and bands with whom they might have things in common, and help people from the wider world see what’s happening in our small corner of it.  The internet should support real world relationships, and a good record shop is where a lot of these things come together, and we should be very careful not to lose what we can’t get back for simple thoughtlessness.

*Yeah, I know, that was shit.  Sorry.
**But then, they are just a better band, so that might be why.