Record Store Day – Tales From The Shop Floor

Record Store Day is a fundamentally good thing. It gets people talking about shops which had otherwise only been mentioned as part of features on the death of music retail and, in light of the number of independent stores closing finally reaching a plateau, demonstrates that many of these emporia still have plenty of life in them. Back in February, I raised a few concerns about how the stock was distributed and exactly how keen the labels are to actually help out the nation’s indies. Since then, I’ve been in touch with record shops across Britain to seek some clarification and there’s plenty to tell. The NME having hosted an intellectually flatulent piece about record shops in recent days, I’m keen to stress that any moans in this article are not directed at the record shops themselves and I urge you to get yourself down to your local palace of glittering delights this weekend and spend as much as your food budget will allow. In return for their honesty, I intend to keep all contributors to this article entirely anonymous.

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With the list of exclusives for this year’s event now at over 200 items, it gives the impression that the big labels are falling over themselves to help out the indie stores of the UK. However, prices seem to be rocketing and several retailers suggested that labels were “pushing their luck” with one observing that these labels “spend 364 days a year trying to take business away from shops.” The massive reduction in the amount of sale or return stock, meaning that shops either pay for things upfront or don’t get any copies, increases the risk factor in buying big or even buying at all in the case of some of the deluxe items. For Record Store Day, nothing is sale or return. With a Saint Etienne box set containing only six 7” singles clocking it at almost £50, it’s a costly gamble to take in a time when the economy is supposed to be on its knees. Some shops have reduced their dealings with the big labels, with one owner telling me, “when shops can consistently order from Amazon cheaper, and receive the stock quicker, it makes ordering from the majors a luxury they can’t afford.” Another store took up the story: ”The majors look like they’re helping, by whacking out these releases, but come the Monday we’re still meant to try and sell the latest Universal releases for £13.90 (standard mark up) when you know Tesco will have it for a tenner or less.  The EMI, Sony and Universal sections in my shop are now tiny, I don’t order CDs from them unless I have to.” While I continue to believe that it is crucially important for music fans to support their local record shops on April 16th, it seems pretty clear that the big labels are only bothered when they have high-priced, attention-grabbing stock to shift.

Continue reading “Record Store Day – Tales From The Shop Floor”

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Record Store Day: If you’re gonna do it, do it right

A number of independent record shop owners have told me of late that by surviving the really dark days when music retailers were closing left, right and centre, they’ve found circumstances have improved a little. For a start, once we’re down to the bare minimum, we need every record shop we can get and, secondly, with HMV seemingly now of the opinion that music is toxic, they’re the only places to get hold of anything even slightly obscure. I’m thrilled when I hear of shops extending their leases or expanding their business as it gives music fans the length and breadth of the country hope. As these centres of cultural relevance increasingly become museum exhibits for the media to visit once or twice a year for “is music retail dying?” style stories, the push continues to engage local communities. At the forefront of this is Record Store Day, an annual celebration of the humble indie store, peppered with exclusive releases and live performances. It is, fundamentally, a marvellous idea and last year was the point where it really took off here in the UK.

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The 2010 event was catapulted into the spotlight with the news of a number of very limited 7” vinyl releases by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pet Shop Boys and Blur. Much was made of the fact that there were only 1000 copies to be distributed across the UK’s independent record shops and how rare they would instantly be. Sure enough, people who never really bothered to visit their local record shop were now interested in popping in. A good thing, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. Those who ambled in at 11am, having seen some news coverage and wanting to pick up a few interesting bits and bobs will have been left a little deflated. For all but the biggest shops, the really limited stock was gone within minutes, at most an hour. Plenty of other people who never visit the shop were out in force a little earlier too, queuing up to grab their copies of the truly limited titles before the frantic dash home to get them straight up on eBay. I wonder how many of these people have popped back in over the last ten months to purchase a few new releases or to dig through the vinyl racks. In the whole of the East Midlands, I’m fairly certain there were no more than 10-15 copies of Blur’s ‘Fool’s Day’. Partly this is down to there being less record shops than there used to be, but also due to relatively sizeable stores having one or two copies only. Continue reading “Record Store Day: If you’re gonna do it, do it right”

A Week With… 15. Blur – Fool’s Day

Setting out a little before seven in the morning seemed a relatively minor undertaking considering the prize that was there for the taking. The week beforehand had witnessed a military operation involving communication with a number of potential suppliers. The final decision had been left until the Friday once quantities had been confirmed. Seven years on from the band’s last album and almost ten since their last single as a four piece, Blur had reunited to record and release a new song.

And so I found myself stood outside a record shop at ten to eight on a not especially warm April morning, reading ‘Love And Poison’, a book about Suede, and listening to the new Ed Harcourt album on the increasingly erratic iPod. This, I can now confirm, is a way of ensuring more than a couple of odd looks from passers-by. Having strategically chosen a shop less likely to have an enormous queue from the early hours of the morning, it meant I was the solitary oddball standing in the doorway of a quite demonstrably closed shop. The staff started to arrive around forty minutes prior to opening and engaged me in a brief chat about what I was after. With twenty minutes to go, I’m advised to head over to the other entrance to the shop, via the city’s gigantic shopping centre, as it’s the door they’ll open first, it’ll be a little warmer for me and because there was another lady waiting there. It was said in a friendly fashion and so I was almost entirely not paranoid about making the switch. Still, I couldn’t breathe easy until the shutters were up and the record was in my hands. They had two copies. My partner in queuing, who was, quite impressively, even more anxious than me, had also established this fact in advance and, as the clock ticked past nine, our pawing at the shutters grew ever more rabid. Finally, some hundred and eighty seconds later, the shop declared itself open for business and the two rabid Blur fans were rewarded. ‘Fool’s Day’ was mine!

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It’s two weeks on from that rather surreal day, one of the most memorable record shopping trips I’ve ever had, and I am happy to say that the thrill of the chase is minor when put alongside the thrill of the music. ‘Fool’s Day’ is a marvellous pop track, shambling along like a frivolous The Good, The Bad & The Queen track, with faint echoes of the wonder of the ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ period. Lyrically, it’s a song about itself, with Damon recounting his day, en route to the studio. While acknowledging the potential pitfalls of reconvening, the euphoric tone which pervades this track makes me grin like an imbecile. Talk of walking past “the pound shop Woolworths” is one of my preferred lyrics, capturing the peculiar melancholy I still feel every time I see a defunt, or even bargain shop rebranded, branch of the store where so many of us bought our first records. There are many more impressive lyrics than that, but I’m almost tempted to argue that they are largely overshadowed by Graham’s magical guitar break. It ain’t complex, it ain’t clever but it’s pretty much bloody perfect.

I had resigned myself to the fact that last year’s reunion tour was the end of something, finally putting to bed previously unfinished business. Watching ‘No Distance Left To Run’ and listening to Damon in recent interviews to promote the Gorillaz album, it really did seem like there was no point even clinging on to desperate hopes of more from the band that mean so much to so many. But there I was, in Avalanche Records in Glasgow, just over a week before Record Store Day took place, being told by the shop’s staff that there would be a new Blur 7” in eights days’ time. In light of the song’s quality and subsequent comments from Damon that recording one off songs in the future is not something to which he’s averse, all bets are off and I’m clinging on to hope.

As I type, ‘Live At Hyde Park’, the bonus disc with the ‘No Distance Left To Run’ DVD, is playing and hugely fond memories of a sweaty night in Wolverhampton last June are being revived. They were, are, a magnificent band and those reunion performances were genuinely mesmerising events. The interplay between Damon and Graham on stage is thrilling to see while the reaction of the crowd only serves to underline how seismically important they were within the British music scene in the nineties. Even reprobates like ‘Country House’ sound worldbeating in this context, while genuine classics like ‘Beetlebum’ and ‘The Universal’ will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. We all know about the ‘Tender’ singalongs now, but the band themselves admitted some surprise at just how well received it was, prompting gargantuan audience participation at every gig and, most famously, at Glastonbury. Clips from that performance appear in ‘No Distance Left To Run’, the documentary film which manages to strike the perfect balance between old and new, splicing together archive footage and recent live material to great effect.

For what must now be getting on for the fifth or sixth time in less than eighteen months, ‘Fool’s Day’ made me fall in love with Blur all over again and they’re probably now as consistent a part of my regular listening as they were fifteen years ago. Some reactions to this sole new track have been rather sniffy, but I think it helps to keep in mind that it was written, record and released with a couple of weeks and is only a single by virtue of being a special release for Record Store Day. It’s not the lead track from a new album, it’s not being held up as a triumphant statement of intent. It’s a show of support for a beleaguered industry, a tantalising glimpse for the fans and, I would posit, a quick way of establishing likely interest in any new material. But, despite all of this, it still turned out to be a sodding splendid little tune. Having been available as a free (and lossless, if you so desire) download once the physical singles were long gone, it will provide a very clear guide to just how many people want new music from Blur. I would hazard a guess that the number of downloads is none too shabby.

Whatever may yet appear, 2010 has been graced by two of the most exciting Blur products in some time. The DVD set is one of the most meticulously produced and out-and-out entertaining music video offerings I’ve ever encountered and, unlike so many of them, is perfectly suited to repeat viewings. Despite being almost a year on from the first of the reunion gigs, there’s still something genuinely magical about watching the four of them performing together again after all of the animosity, false starts and side-projects that seemed to have consigned the band to the annals of history. Clearly, it’s not worth £250 on eBay, but I’m so very glad to have my own physical copy of ‘Fool’s Day’. Quite apart from being an important addition to a sizeable collection, it is testament to a band returning as strong as it ever was, thrilling crowds nationwide and falling in love with music and each other again.

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