Record Store Day: The Rebuttal

Dan Gibson | April 15, 2009 12:15 pm

It’s hard not to like Record Store Day, the homage to the indie record store taking place this Saturday. Lots of limited-edition merchandise will be on sale; bands will play in-store sessions; and the Record Store Day brand will take over the retail space at Coachella that was formerly held by Virgin Megastore. Someone saying “New Order 7-inch” is about all it takes to get me to throw my support behind any sort of function or event, but Luke Lewis at the NME takes a look on the other side of the fence.

Why on earth would someone be against nerd-coveted vinyl and parties? Why would the bad man say such awful things? Partially because he doesn’t know if record stores are worth saving.

But is this such an epic tragedy? I wonder if there’s an element of false nostalgia here. The particular kind of store people have in mind when this subject comes up – ie, a half-remembered realm where a clued-up expert would have the time to guide you through the new releases, make personal recommendations, and send you on your way – surely disappeared decades ago, if it ever existed.

Besides, many of these nostalgists are precisely the kind of music obsessives who would have spluttered with rage if any record store assistant had presumed to tell them what to listen to. Who relies on retailers to tell them what to listen to? Or music critics, for that matter. These days, we make our own discoveries.

I should know. I worked in an independent record shop in Amersham for four years. There was no time to make pally recommendations – we were too busy processing the big sellers in a frantic bid to turn a profit. Which ultimately failed. The store closed in 2003. It was replaced by a Robert Dyas.

The cold truth is that the fate of record stores is bound up with wider shifts in our economic behaviour. No-one could save Woolworths, because the niche it had catered for no longer existed. Similarly, commentators are up in arms about the plight of regional newspapers. But when was the last time you read one? Sometimes, the depressing conclusion is the only accurate one.

While I certainly understand the concept of getting people in the stores so that they might fall in love with the experience again, I get the feeling that Lewis might be right. I still buy a decent amount of music, and I might stop by to see what free stuff I can get my hands on Saturday, but if there’s something I decide that I want on Sunday, I’ll probably still end up buying it online. Certainly there are cities with great record stores still, but some places are stuck with indies staffed the employees who were left when the sort of experts that we might ideally remember helping us find a new band split for richer-than-minimum-wage pastures.

My first job in a record store was at an amazing place that was staffed with people who had the sort of encyclopedia-type knowledge that selling jazz, blues, and world music effectively calls for. Last year, that store shut down. I saw one of my former co-workers on Monday night, and he’s a lot happier actually making some money at a local musical instrument store. It’s consumers’ loss that he’s not around to help direct people towards Mingus’ Black Saint and the Sinner Lady these days, but asking him to do so for the sort of paycheck he was receiving is absurd, and I think if you asked him now, he would say he should have left indie music retail ages ago.

On the other hand, if you look at the sort of people who work in editorial at eMusic, Amazon, and iTunes, the collected expertise is astounding, and not knowing the specifics of the salary structures at those sites, I feel fairly certain that those experts are at least not feeling cheated by how they’re being compensated. The expertise that used to be bought out by access to an employee discount has moved on to blogs, where the proprietors can do what they love on the side, with the possibility of making a little extra cash. Sure, it’s nice that labels and stores are getting together on Saturday. But how long can it last?

‘Record Store Day’ Masks A Depressing Truth – We’ve Fallen Out Of Love With Buying Music [NME]