Comment: What we can take from Record Store Day – and what we can leave

Buying music in person is awesome. But after Record Store Day's annual spendathon, we should remember there's more to life, and music, than record shops.

15.04.11

Words by: Charlie Jones

Yesterday, when I was supposed to be researching this piece, someone sent me a clip of a toddler dancing to Waka Flocka Flame [below]. I rinsed it as you can only do with YouTubes when you have an article to write, but for once, it wasn’t a complete distraction. Because this piece is about Record Store Day, and why we should – among all the rush-buying novelty 7“s – remember how awesome music is as an ecological whole, and how little that has to do with the purchase of physical objects from bricks and mortar stores.

First things first – I’m afraid that this won’t be a trolling piece along the lines of Rick Martin’s astoundingly unconsidered NME blog. Record stores are beautiful places that form and develop local music. They should exist. Records should exist. But the idea of a day to save record shops falls on two pretty weird ideas: first, that purchasing a physical object from an independent shop is the most authentic way of being into music, and second that record stores need saving.

Record Shop Day started in 2007 as an SOS and though today it’s more of a celebration than a last resort, it plays into that 00s idea of the music industry as so interminably fucked that something would have to be organised. It’s not. Despite a heartbreaking number of record shops having had to put up “Everything must go” signs (what must it feel like to write that about your own shop?), a few continue to do brisk busines. Some new ones have even opened. Shops like Mexican Summer in New York, Clone in Rotterdam, Phonica, Sounds of the Universe and Honest Jon’s in London are not relics of the past hanging on through the goodwill of an annual day, but progressive, fascinating institutions, each playing a vital part in shifting music in their city and beyond. Moreover, they are businesses that have adapted to a changing marketplace by keeping their heads down and flogging stuff to people who want it.

And while I love these shops and am always chuffed to hear about one doing well, we make a mistake when we think that we have a moral obligation to shop there. Not that you’re going to get off lightly round here if all you do is Mediafire albums – if you don’t consider a pop album the single most perfect cultural invention in human history, and the endlessly profound experience of listening to one worth the price of a Wagamamma lunch, we’re not going to have a great deal in common. But your obligation is to the musicians who made the music, and the labels who put their time and money getting it paid for and talked about, not to the people who work behind the till at the places where this music is sold. Not to say for one second that they aren’t important or deserve to exist, just that we should not confuse what is a retail business with the experience of music. There have been countless fluff pieces written about going to the local shop on the bus, pocket-money fivers in hand, and coming out with a sparkling record that changed the writer’s life. But record shops are not charities, and do not deserve ours – nothing can exist on sentimentality alone, still less a business.

This year, physical music has finally shifted from a mass-market commodity to a folk object. People expected that by now records would either be obsolete or luxury items – instead they’ve used online hype to turn what once seemed like music into merch. Records are not bought to be heard, not anymore, but to be bought. Which I’m 100 per cent down with – a 12” is an exquisite object, and putting some more effort into the artwork or whatever to make them even more desirable is a pretty cool example of recessionomics at work. But let’s not slag off those who are happy with MP3s because they aren’t quite as obedient commodity fetishists as us.

Record Store Day – and the in-no-way-cynical bandwagoning of it by so many labels – has capitalised on this by creating a huge number, 250-odd, of objects to covet. From the View cover themesong [below] to the reams of canonical reissues, it’s got more than a whiff of rockism. But if the ideology is locked in the 1980s, the business idea is totally 2010s – involved shops and the companies who supply them have artificially induced a demand by keeping stocks low and not releasing the files online, at the same time creating enough of a media storm that every music magazine, Dummy included, reports on what seems like a movement. It’s a brilliant idea, but not a romantic one.

I Need That Record by The View

In most of these pieces is a side-swipe at the MP3. While there’s been a lot of very well written and thought out articles, there’s always an implication of hierarchy, with buying from a bricks-and-mortar store the highest form of fandom. Personally, I think there’s something rather magical about being able to click on Boomkat and receive a simple string of code that tells your computer to do something life-changing, but that’s beside the point. It’s cruel to call someone out for how they get their music, where it’s through Bluetooth or Rough Trade. It’s also rather ludicrous.

Let’s realise what a radically exciting world the ability to enjoy and exchange almost any music in any place at any time has created. Music exists not as a square shop but in a rainforest of sound – from Youtube clips to vinyl purchases to to Gmail attachments to Soundcloud links to radio rips to live events, all mutually enforcing, self-creating. Just this week, I read that one of the most exciting new hip hop producers in the world, Clams Casino, used to select samples by typing in “Blue” or “Cold” into Limewire and downloading the first ten hits, grabbed a set of tracks Saharan traders would swap over their Bluetooth cellphones, listened to Christina Milian’s astounding, still unreleased Chameleon on a rip for the 300th time and watched a three year old bounce around to Waka Flocka Flame. These things are exciting, and have nothing to do with whether or not you shop on or offline.

So go to Record Store Day, pick up what you can, and buy as much as you can the rest of the year. But remember that music is not a record, nor a song sheet, nor a file. It’s the vibrations in the air worth giving your life to, and its appreciation cannot be tied up with its method of purchase.

Record Store Day is held on 16th April 2011