Uplifting News

As the HMV culling begins, with eleven branches and a Fopp having shut their doors this weekend, it’s a pleasure to be able to inform you of some rather more positive news in the world of music retail. Rise, 2010’s winner of the UK Independent Retailer of the Year award, has finally unveiled its online store and it’s none too shabby. Competitively priced, beautifully designed and with a comprehensive search option, navigating your way around it is actually a pleasant experience.

rise web1

You’ll find some startlingly good vinyl prices at the moment on numerous indie label releases from the last couple of years, along with some genuinely rare stuff at silly prices. Even more vinyl goodness is going to be listed on the site by the end of this week, so I’d keep your eyes peeled for what are some undeniably ridiculous bargains. Now, drenching Rise in hyperbole as I am, I should declare again my minor involvement in this music retailing behemoth. I’m doing some of the reviews for the site and you can already find my wordsmithery on the pages for the newies by Iron & Wine, The Decemberists and Jonny. In addition to this, you can find my sizeable review of the new album by The Low Anthem, ‘Smart Flesh’, here. The album’s great and I’m rather pleased with the review too. It’ll appear here in due course, but why not pop over and have a read. Then buy some stuff. I’m deadly serious about that. As we continue to see shops struggling to stay afloat, the old adage of ‘use it or lose it’ has never been more apt. If you want Rise to open a store near you then you’ll need it to be operating as a viable and successful business, which means supporting it however you can. Don’t read into that, by the way. I have no insider knowledge, but as their Warwick Arts Centre branch will close in the coming months due to lack of custom, it’s worth remembering that these places are few and far between. Continue reading “Uplifting News”

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A voyage of disc-overy. And the come down.

Last month, I reflected on the early years of my CD collection and how, as a latecomer in small town Wales, I took a little while to get up to speed. I left the story at the early days of university life, grabbing music from every direction and pouring my student loan away at a genuinely terrifying rate.

fopp

Things didn’t improve massively in the immediate months thereafter. By Christmas of the first term, I realised that the food budget probably should have been the priority ahead of the musical free for all. Still, I had a massive pile of CDs to show for it and several weeks to do even less than I had been for the term I’d just completed. A few weeks of parentally sourced food had me back to relative normality and the obsession was well and truly underway. I would never fly quite so perilously close to financial ruin again but, in the same way that I was already figuring out what percentages I needed across my course to get what I wanted, I had taken the time to deduce exactly how far I could push it. The early noughties represented the boom time of the remaindered CD. We’d all spent most of the nineties being robbed blind with prices starting at £12.99, often heading on upwards, and it was time for a change. Shops like the original incarnation of Fopp and the slightly ugly imitation, Music Zone, tapped into this market and took off. We were buying any old shite because it was £3. Ok, so that may not have been you precisely, but enough people were that these shops began to expand across the country. The first Fopp I ever encountered was in Nottingham, one of the most successful stores and, as a result, still open today under HMV ownership. It was genuinely overwhelming. Here was all of that music I’d read about, heard about and had played to me over recent years. And priced at £5 or less. I rarely left without a bag full and the sheer novelty of inflating your record collection without deflating your bank account massively was an addictive thrill which never wore off. Their genius positioning of piles of truly unwanted albums at £2 and £3 all along the front of the tills ensured that you ended up purchasing all kinds of stuff as a result of impulsive grabs whilst waiting to be served. Occasionally this was successful – Neil Finn solo albums, Ron Sexsmith, Pulp – but more often than not it was foolish decision.

selectaclosed

Not that such logic ever stopped me, you understand. Indeed, the success of these shops encouraged many indie stores to develop their cheapo back catalogue sections in order to compete and the end result was yet more low price music upon which I could binge wilfully. The dear departed Selectadisc did a fine job of locking horns with Fopp and, after a couple of years of taking it on at its own game, appeared to be emerging victorious, offering better stock at even better prices and, for some time, the lure of Fopp was diminished. My time in Selectadisc resulted in a reignited affection for vinyl, the lure of their upstairs department of wax too tempting to resist. And so, to a room barely big enough for me, let alone any actual stuff, was added a cheap turntable from Argos and I was back up and running. Vinyl purchases were few and far between, mainly as a result of cost, and my love for the 5” disc was sustained. This was, at least in part, down to its convenience, used as it was to soundtrack frequent bus and train journeys, along with the fact that I could easily transport my current favourites with me wherever I was planning on being each weekend. I wasn’t yet an audio geek and the loudness wars hadn’t really got going. It was a handy, increasingly cheap format. What was there to dislike? It was destined to be the invincible format, no?

25966-hi-napster

No indeed. Just prior to university, one of the last big releases of my school days was ‘Know Your Enemy’, the Manics album where they temporarily lost it and started loitering about in Cuba and making sweary, so-bad-it’s-good disco songs like ‘Miss Europa Disco Dancer’. As it turned out, it wasn’t worth all the excitement, but it provided me with my first taste of how internet piracy would be a thorn in the side of the bloated music industry. News was circulating amongst what was still a relatively nascent internet community about tracks from the new Manics record being ‘out there’. And so, there I was installing this thing called Napster to try and figure out what was going on. Next thing I know, Sony have had loads of users banned for sharing these leaked tracks and the ‘us and them’ approach becomes reality. From that moment on, I figured that the record companies had no idea what to do about this new opportunity to acquire music without paying or, to sum it up more succinctly, steal stuff. In retrospect, at the risk of sounding a little holier than thou (but fuck it, it’s Sunday), I’m quite glad we had the slowest dial-up connection in the world being run through one of the slowest computers in the world at home, because I never really saw what the fuss was about back then. Now, I don’t have a blemish free record, and I did briefly flirt with SoulSeek but I’ve never really seen the point of downloading day and night in order to have so much music you couldn’t actually listen to most of it even if you wanted to. I don’t get a thrill from a digital file, I don’t enjoy unzipping folders or making massive computer based playlists. It just doesn’t do much for me, despite my music geekery.

However, my mildly pretentious dislike didn’t count for much in a world let off the leash with broadband and a spindle of CD-Rs for company. Cliché though it sounds, I lost count of the number of times I overheard people in record shops saying, “Oh, don’t bother buying it, I’ll download and burn it for you.” There are those who want to say there’s more to the demise of record shops than downloading and, to a certain extent, they’re right. But I refuse to believe that a little box in the corner of people’s rooms, pumping out as much ‘free’ music as they could get their hands on didn’t fundamentally alter the way many thought about the value of music. Add in the bloated gluttony of the supermarkets as they tried to hoover up any remaining areas of possible money making that they didn’t already have under one roof and the increasing prominence of magazine and newspaper freebies and music was no longer something you saved each week for. You didn’t have to wait for Saturday, in fact your barely had to wait at all if you had decent enough bandwidth. I watched as the record shops in Leeds started to suffer, I saw stores around the East Midlands looking truly unwell before taking their final breaths.

fopp closed sign

My habits were changing by now. Forced onto the internet by decreasing local options, I was now lured in by the ‘cheap’ new releases that could be bought via places like CD WOW! and Play.com as a result of their geographical locations. And so yet more CDs ended up piling up in every corner of the room. While I never fell for the charms of downloading more music than I could even dream of,  I think it would be fair to say that I had my own, far more expensive, version of that disease. I’m a little ashamed to admit that, for a little while, I think I gloried in the acquisition a little more than the listening. It was just so easy, so tempting and so exciting. Double CD reissues, limited edition digipacks, bonus tracks and bonus discs all kept me coming back for more. And then, ALL of the independent record shops anywhere near me closed. And it ended. The constant flow of ludicrously cheap, and often simply ludicrous, bargains dried up overnight and I was suddenly confronted with the strange experience of my own critical faculties sharpening up in front of me. CDs sounded like shite, looked like shite and were increasingly associated with a time of overindulgence. I’ve written before about the compression and loudness of modern records, apparently in order to make things sound good on iPods and in cars, and how it frequently results in vulgar sounding records and a complete lack of sonic excitement, but it was the final straw.

It was only a couple of years ago when things started to shift and only within the last twelve months that I’ve actively been reducing the number of CDs I buy quite drastically. I’m very much a vinyl man now. So much new music is now back to being released on the format that it’s far less of a problem to find things than it was only two or three years ago. Pressing quality is often excellent, even if prices are a little on the steep side at times. What was the precise breaking point? Last year, I returned from a holiday with a sturdy ‘bag for life’ from one of the nation’s supermarkets, full of CDs. An entire row of spine-up titles ran along the bottom of the bag, from end to end, with further bits and bobs stacked on top which had been picked up at various record shops I’d sought out across a week. Yes, most of them had been cheap but what was the point now? How many had I wanted beforehand? How many were impulse purchases? How many were simply because I could? How many was I still playing by the time I reached the end of 2009 and was rummaging through the racks? The answer, as I suspect you’ve already guessed, was not all that many. The return of vinyl to my affections, which began to gather pace around five years ago but truly took of in the last eighteen months, has reinvigorated my listening and returned me to fully appreciating the album as an experience, an intentional collection of songs in a particular order. It’s reignited my desire to seek out record shops wherever I am and to support independent retailers as often as I can. It’s put me in touch with music sellers as enthusiastic and passionate about the things I listen to as I am. And it feels very good indeed.

It was a ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ reference.

Regular readers of the blog may be aware of my penchant for record shopping on a Bank Holiday Monday. It just seems so right. Not that it ever seems particularly wrong. Hmm, this may just be a thinly veiled excuse for buying more records. Anyhoo, as I had a wander round my nearest music emporiums of choice I noticed that Elvis Costello‘s ‘Momofuku‘ had indeed crept into the UK shops. Fopp were blasting it out at a quite magnificent volume and had it prominently displayed on their new releases shelf. However, the most disturbing moment of the whole process was the discovery of a copy of the vinyl in their meagre racks. £13! Bargain. Pretty much the price I paid for the US import that’s not proved to be particularly speedy. It’s moments like this, moments when you think that you’ve cleverly circumvented the machinations of ‘the man’ only to have your face – or ears, I guess, as this is music related – very much rubbed in it (whatever the figurative ‘it’ is), that really piss me off. I shouldn’t be annoyed. I’ll have the album in no time at all on vinyl, a kind soul shared their bonus download code with me so that I can actually enjoy it already and yet, there I was smarting at its presence in the racks. I have to confess, dear reader, that I did spend a minute or two attempting to conjure a reason why I needed two copies of ‘Momofuku’ on vinyl thus rendering the purchase of this copy an absolute necessity. Thankfully, common sense kicked in (a new experience in a record shop) and I left without it. That said, if it doesn’t turn up soon I may lose the plot.

Fopp are in the middle of a big clearout, with plenty of CDs at £3. Once the price is this low, I find it quite hard to avoid temptation and duly left with six titles from the vast range on offer. I still feel a little dirty shopping in Fopp in the same quantities I used to. It’s a bit like when you see celebrities so desperate to appear ‘trendy’ that they start wearing a Stooges T-shirt for every TV interview they do. Fopp is HMV in a Sex Pistols T-shirt, and it’s not quite right.

Oh, and this blog proved how scarily instant the interweb can be yesterday. Mere hours after I’d posted about the new Costello album, a quote of the entire post appeared on the exact forums I referred to, link and everything. Kind of appropriate once you’ve heard the lyrics to ‘No Hiding Place’, the opener on ‘Momofuku‘. Hi all. Be regular readers, won’t you?

Noisemonger utters a cautious squeak once more

Right then, who’s got all of the vinyl copies of the new Super Furries album? Can’t find it in the shops, and my online order still hasn’t been posted. Tut-tut. Mustn’t dwell.
Went into a re-opened Fopp today and I have to confess it was a little bit weird. I spent most of the time thinking, ‘wow, this is exactly where it was before they closed,’ which is felt rather odd. I was almost surprised at how normal it all felt. The stickers have changed over to the ones HMV have been using for a little while, but the pricing seems mainly the same. Obviously the odd title has gone up, but I think it’s important to avoid rose-tinted spectacles when looking back at Fopp simply because then it was technically an ‘indie’ and now it’s owned by HMV. I spoke to one of the staff who’s been there as long as I’ve been meandering through the doors on a regular basis, and he seemed made up about getting his job back. I’m aware that there are plenty of ex-Fopp staff for whom this won’t be the most pleasing news, but something’s better than nothing, no? Anyway, they’ve only been open since Saturday, and he said things have been pootling along slowly as trading resumes. Naturally, his pay from the old days is still in limbo because it’s in the hands of the administrators, not the new owners. Still, the problems seemed to have been surpassed by being back at work, and it was strangely reassuring to see him there again.
As for the stock, I was quite impressed. There appears to be an increase in £3 clearout stock – with a lift in quality, with the like of Blur‘s ‘Think Tank‘ and the deluxe edition of Morrissey‘s ‘You Are The Quarry‘ the highlights. In addition to this, there’s plenty of £4 stock now, before we even get to the old school £5 bargains. Loads of excellent soul bargains in the £4 category, including some of the Sly & The Family Stone reissues from a few months back. I noticed that plenty of titles I’d meant to get just before the problems at the end of June were now a quid cheaper. Now, I’m not saying that that means everything is cheaper, because it clearly isn’t going to be, but ultimately I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t expect to buy much, but it was as satisfying a bagful as I’m accustomed to from Fopp.
I’m well aware that this isn’t the most exciting of posts, but then I’ve been trying to get info about the re-born Fopp through the internet for the last few days, and have found bugger all, so hopefully this’ll be of use to someone. It was like having an old friend back, and while I knew something had changed, I couldn’t quite pinpoint what.

Relevant links (and other bits to make this stick out in search engines):

The Help Save Fopp Myspace

Fopp Returns

Fopp is open again
Fopp reopened

It’s just MVC repeating itself…

And so it was confirmed today – Fopp is dead. Internet rumours suggest that the staff were told in an email, yesterday afternoon, that they were out of work and would not be receiving their pay for June. A fairly shabby way to treat your staff, especially when they’ve been having to trot out nonsense excuses to the public for the last week.
I used to love Fopp. I first discovered it whilst at uni. The first few visits were slightly too overwhelming to result in actually spending all that much. That was a problem I soon ironed out and was frequently to be found exiting with £40 worth of CDs and books every couple of weeks. The nearby rival in Nottingham is ‘Selectadisc‘, who altered their pricing policy to be competitive against Fopp’s ‘pile it high, sell it low’ approach. It was at this point that I realised that if continued to do what I was doing – and, let’s face it, many other people in the city were doing the same – then one of my favourite record shops, Selectadisc, was losing previously guaranteed custom. This wasn’t so much of an issue while Fopp was still genuinely different to all of the big stores, but in the last few years it was becoming predictable and faceless. Far too much of the stock and pricing was interchangeable with HMV and Virgin. Vinyl disappeared from many of their stores and the few remaining bargains tended to be in the book section. My spending in Fopp tailed off dramatically, and while I’ve still used them in recent years (£25 last month on the Sly & The Family Stone reissues alone) it had lost that excitement factor that musos feel when going out record shopping.
My loyalties were even more torn in recent weeks when I found out about the plans for a new Fopp in the Eagle Centre redevelopment in Derby. As I may have mentioned in the past, I have an unhealthy love of Reveal Records in that their city. It’s like a big blanket in winter, and a chilled foreign beer in the summer. I can never buy only one thing in there, and their constant 2 for £20 and 2 for £18 offers (on vinyl as well as CD) ensure that each desired item is suitably paired off. I popped in today and spent twice as much as I had intended to. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable. The stock is varied, well-presented and competitively priced. They’ve got a healthy vinyl section and the shop is light and airy. It is, to my mind, the best record shop in the UK.
Another rumour that circulated the internet in recent times (and I restate that this is nowt but a rumour) was that there was a bonus available to Fopp staff in new branches, if they killed off the local indie store within months of opening. Now, this does sound rather like fanciful nonsense put about by those poor indie stores that are on their last legs, the length and breadth of the country, but it does fit with the increasingly sour image of Fopp in recent times.
I hope to see them breathe again in some capacity. If only so I can have one more visit. But it’s unlikely that it can be a going concern as a business. I can’t really envisage a time without physical record shops, but it’s clearly becoming harder and harder to even break even. I was worried the day that it was announced that Fopp had bought up the Music Zone stores and sadly those fears have proved to be justified.
They treated music fans well for a while. How about justice for the staff?