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.

RSD 11

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”

Advertisements

Lists and High Street Losses

I love a good list, me. The end of year issues of all of the music magazines are an absolute delight, allowing me to peruse vast swathes of numerically arranged albums deemed to be the finest from the last twelve months. Invariably, one or two records pop up so often that I realise I must have genuinely passed on something suitably splendid and onto the ‘to buy’ list they go. However, there is a distant cousin of these lists, one who only visits occasionally but always kicks up a fuss when he does. This particular breed looks to provide a guide to the best albums not just of one year but of many, such as “The 250 greatest albums of Q’s lifetime” in this month’s issue. This gave voters twenty five years’ worth of releases to select from and, of course, they chose magnificently. I mean, it’s not like Q readers would have Mumford & Sons in their top 100 or ‘No Line On The Horizon’ anywhere near even the lower echelons of such a list, right? Right? Stop backing away from me.

q 250

Such inclusions are so utterly breathtakingly bizarre that the presence of ‘K’ by Kula Shaker at 211 is something I’m finding considerably less offensive than I thought I might. Internet campaign, anybody? The incessant jizzing over all things Bono leaves a sickly taste in the mouth but things get truly hilarious when you move further up the list. Apparently, ‘Under The Iron Sea’, the second album by Keane is at 51. If you’re anything like me, this prompted an even more horrifying thought than the simple recognition of this particular placing. Yep, if this is as high as 51, where the fuck has their debut managed to get to? 34 is the quite staggering answer. As if in some kind of cunning PR move to avoid people totally incontinent with rage at such idiocy, the Q readership ensured that everybody was distracted by the record reaching number 32. ‘Sam’s Town’ by The Killers.

These lists are always worth a browse, reminding you of records you used to love, if nothing else. They’re always topped by ‘OK Computer’ and Oasis’ first two albums and there’s always a sizeable spattering of albums released close to the point of compilation. But this one does seem worse than most. It’s probably worth the £3.99 for the laugh it’ll give you.

Perhaps buy it from HMV, they could do with the extra pennies at the moment. Music writers seem to be split between dancing on its sorry music hating grating and agonising about the possible impact upon labels and artists. It’s odd, I can’t really imagine high streets without HMV but at the same time I’ve pretty much adjusted to that state of affairs already. I only really go in now to sort of my monthly quota of ‘facial displays of scorn’, actively looking to be annoyed in much the same way as people actually buy the Daily Mail each morning. It’s been an abysmal place to try and buy music for several years now and it’s fairly clear that when it comes to what used to be its core business, management don’t really give a shit anymore. It’s quite understandable that music is no longer the priority in this climate, but that doesn’t automatically necessitate it being sidelined to the point of decay. By also continuing to shoot themselves in the foot by running their own VAT-avoiding Guernsey based website in direct competition with itself – serving to highlight just how expensive their high street shops are – they display the same lack of self-awareness that keeps Nipper, the gramophone loving dog, as their logo. I can’t say I’d be especially sad to see HMV go, not that I think it’s likely to happen any time too soon, but I understand what its symbolic value is. One has to wonder, however, were the entertainment monopoly suddenly removed, could independent retails begin to crawl back out of the woodwork on the outskirts of towns once more? As Oxford prepares to welcome a new indie store and Derby delights in the return of BPM, we can, perhaps, begin to hope.

A logo written in toothpaste

Mmmm. Another record shopping-based outing today. A small, but splendid, pile of records are being aired as I type. Currently, it’s the new Stereolab, which is better than I’d expected after reading some mixed reviews on the net. The limited edition Japanese-style CD is rather fun too. Anyhoo, said record shopping expedition leads me to my (main) two topics for today.

Firstly, the Coalition of Independent Record Stores and secondly, the changing ways people purchase music, with a particular focus on those young rapscallions, Bloc Party.

I’ve mentioned the ‘Coalition’ a few times already and I’m still not convinced that it actually counts for anything. I’ve previously expressed my misgivings about the elitist approach it’s taking and this has been underlined by my experiences over the past couple of weeks. As is my tendency at this time of year, I’ve been working my way round many of the independent record stores of the UK and, not being an especially shy chap, I’ve taken to engaging the staff (generally the owners, it must be said) of these stores in conversation about how business is going, which has, inevitably, brought us round to the topic of the Coalition.

When I first mentioned this idea it was alongside a blog post by the good folk at Norman Records that didn’t paint the project in an especially pretty light. It would seem that the initial fears have proved absolutely correct. One of the main reasons quoted to Norm as to why they wouldn’t be allowed into the Coalition was that this initiative is all about driving people back in to actual record shops rather than simply adding to online sales. As Norm pointed out at the time, many of the shops allowed in to the Coalition actually do a brisk trade online. Thus, it came as no surprise to me today to find that, upon visiting one of the Coalition stores – I’ll not mention which one to avoid any assumptions about who said what – the Brett Anderson album, ‘Wilderness‘, that is, apparently, exclusively available in Coalition stores in August ahead of its main release in September, had yet to arrive. It was officially released to these stores last Monday and yet this store had had none, and had no idea when they would actually arrive. However, Avalanche Records, who, if you remember, are the initial torch-holders for this endeavour, had plenty in stock from the off and have been merrily flogging them to anyone who wants them…via eBay! I know, just sit back and bask in the insane hypocrisy of that for a moment.

During the numerous chats I’ve had with Coalition members of late, it has been noted that a Brett Anderson album is hardly going to set the charts alight or keep the tills ringing for weeks on end. Surely, you don’t release an album in a limited edition of 1900 if you think you can flog 1901, or more, copies of that title? That said, not even a handful of those 1900 copies had made it to at least one of the Coalition stores by this morning. When I last checked, Avalanche’s eBay shop had put up 50 copies, and already sold 21 of them. Still, at least Avalanche aren’t letting their position as ‘head honcho’ distort things in their favour. Oh, hang on. For fuck’s sake, you’re either trying to help out all of the people in the same, dire position or you’re not.

Apparently, during the heated meetings that occur from time to time between representatives from the Coalition member stores one of the most recent (and I think you’ll agree, brilliant) ideas was to have exclusive Coalition T-shirts that can only be bought from Coalition stores. Have you seen the Coalition logo? It’s over to the right in amongst the links to independent record stores. It’s truly appalling! The title of today’s post is the best description I’ve been given of what the T-shirts look like. The most important point that’s been raised, however, is who the bloody hell would actually wear one of these things, let along buy it? Furthermore, who even knows that the Coalition exists apart from over-keen people like my good self and you, my loyal readers? It seems like an exercise in dithering thus far. A Brett Anderson album that you couldn’t pay most people to take away is exclusively available from Coalition stores – unless it’s not of course. It’s intended to provide an incentive to shop in a bricks and mortar record shop, and yet it’s doing steady business on a world-famous, online – and let’s be pretty fucking aware – corporate auction site. Mission accomplished.

Some readers may remember the joyous days of the ‘Chain With No Name’, regularly labelled as CWNN on adverts in the music press. Regular pages would tell you what the latest indie releases were and then, at the bottom of the ad, you could find out where to buy them from. CWNN occasionally led to little perks like bonus discs or posters you couldn’t get elsewhere. Not CWNN T-shirts, you’ll notice.

Some questions remain about the Coalition:

1. Who’s it really for? Does the consumer really benefit when there’s bugger all advertising, the stock isn’t actually in the shops that it’s supposed to be in and those in charge don’t appear to care too much about other shops.

2. What’s it really for? If it doesn’t actually alter the record-buying experience, how will it have an impact? Is anyone going to think, “Balls to buying that CD on play.com for £6.99, I’m going in to town, to my local indie so I can get it for £9.99, but at least I’ll have the chance to buy one of those lovely T-shirts?” I suspect – and I’d so dearly loved to be proved wrong on this – that the answer is no.

3. Does it actually have any meaningful principles? If web-only indie stores aren’t going to be allowed in on the grounds that they don’t cause people to tend towards independent stores on the high street, shouldn’t all Coalition exclusives be store sales only? Isn’t it a really shitty tactic to ostracise online-only dealers and then fill your pockets with eBay funded cash?

As virtually nobody knows about the Coalition and even fewer care, I think that’ll have to be my last word on it for the time being. I’m sure I’ll be whining about it again by this time next week.

And so, eventually, we come to the other topic of note. Bloc Party‘s new album, ‘Intimacy‘, is out on Thursday, at 9am. No, really. Out of nowhere, they’ve come up with the idea of announcing an almost immediate download of an album, with a CD version to follow. It’s revolutionary, I tell thee. To be fair, the manner in which they’ve done it is quite neat. It was only announced last night and yet, in a couple of days time, the album will be all over file-sharing networks the world over. And a few people will pay for it, I’m sure. However, it continues the logic I was touching on yesterday with my post about boxsets. The bands and record industries are desperately looking for anything that will give the business a quick cash injection. Using upfront, and unexpected, paid for downloads is a very simple way of avoiding the ‘leak’ issue that can cause untold damage to physical sales, as everybody illegally downloaded the album six weeks before it came out for real. Not the case with this. However, if you look at the new David Byrne and Brian Eno release, ‘Everything That Happens Will Happen Today’, which went on sale digitally yesterday. A CD will follow, if you took that option on purchase, but for now you’ve got the MP3 or flac files to play with. However, disproving the theory that this makes leaks less of an issue, within an hour of the webshop going live, the album was available for illegal download all over the internet. I’d recommend the Flac + CD option, personally, but the point remains that plenty of people don’t expect to have to pay anything and giving them a good deal does nothing to change their minds.

Oh, and if ‘Mercury‘ is anything to go by, it’ll be a big bag of arse anyway. That said, I’m sure they’ll get my tenner and I’ll have a grumble about it on here at the end of the week.

That’ll do for now, eh?

 

I stand before you to urge you towards Action

On Saturday, I spent a couple of hours sampling music on the MySpace pages of acts tagged as ‘friends’ on Steve Lamacq‘s page. In that time, I found one act I liked the sound of. One! My new found enthusiasm for tarting around on MySpace was quickly extinguished. The one act I liked? Well, for a start, they’ve already split up but, on the plus side, you can download their music for free from their site.  They are The Arrogants and their music is essentially a rockier Sundays. Occasionally somebody gives them a few too many blue Smarties, but I suggest you have a listen. Go here for free audio goodness.

I finally visited Action Records in Preston yesterday. I’ve used them for mail order from time to time over the years, but I’d never previously experienced the shop. It was a delightful (and costly) experience. I’ll get my one concern out of the way immediately: For most of the time that I was in the shop, there was no music playing. That’s not right, is it? I used to have to budget extra when shopping in the now defunct Reveal Records of Derby to allow for the inevitable purchase of whatever was on the ‘now playing’ shelf. I expect to be bombarded with tunes and I don’t remotely care if they’re actually toss, just so long as they’re there. Which reminds me. The other week, whilst browsing the vinyl department of a well-known Midlands indie store, the young lad behind the counter decided that the next record we were going to hear was the current (and oh-so-very-perfect) Elbow album, ‘The Seldom Seen Kid‘. He’d been playing a dance 12″ previously and so, just as the record was starting, he flicked the speed from 45 to 331/3. Unfortunately for him, that particular album is pressed on two 45rpm discs. Plus, the opening track has a long, instrumental build-up before the vocal arrives. Hoping to communicate in the way only slightly anti-social, slightly hairy musos can, I looked across at him trying to convey my confusion about what was coming out of the speakers. At this point, he gave me a look that I can only describe as, “What, peasant? Haven’t you heard this great record?” Once Guy Garvey‘s delightful voice grace the speakers, he hurriedly (and, agonisingly, audibly) dragged the needle away from the vinyl. A few seconds later, it returned at the correct speed. As I was leaving, I looked across and he scowled at me. If you’re going to be an indie snob, know your bloody tunes. Like me, for example!

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, Preston. Action Records is packed full of quality stock and disturbingly good prices. In particular, the new vinyl section is very reasonably priced. For example, the Johnny Flynn album, ‘A Larum’ is available as a double-vinyl, pop-up gatefold sleeve, limited edition for £20. In Action, £18. And such was the case for many other titles I could mention. There’s a huge CD sale with piles of stuff reduced (admittedly not all of it worthy of your attention). Back catalogue isn’t marked up ludicrously and it’s clear that their approach to stock control is to keep prices low on stock that isn’t shifting. Seems sensible, but so few other record shops do it. I won’t say much more other than to once again recommend their excellent mail order service which is available on their website here and to reiterate how delightful I found to be.  A rare beacon of splendour on an increasingly dour music shopping landscape.

On that note, I’ve put up a link to the ‘Coalition‘ site along with the other record shops on the right-hand side of the page. I mentioned it a few months back and how it’s meant to unite the remaining indie stores in the UK to make them stronger and to help with business. However, they’re still not involving the good folk of Norman Records (or some other indie mail order types I can think of) because they don’t have an actual shop. Surely, for something designed as a means of fighting the big companies who shut off doors to small companies, being elitist is rather anti the ethos of the Coalition? Who knows.

 

The Kids Aren’t Alright…apparently

I’ve just returned from a week in Northumberland. Very nice, thanks for asking. While in the area, I took the opportunity to drop in on the independent record shops of Newcastle. Before I go into any kind of detail, I should point out that I tried to go to Steel Wheels, but I’m fucked if I know where it is. Apparently it’s now called Beatdown Records and I found their old store and…  oh, forget it. I’m still bitter, ok?

Anyway, I very much enjoyed my time in both RPM and Reflex. RPM smells like a proper record shop. I’d feel obliged to explain that statement were it not for the fact that I’m making it on this blog. And if you’re reading this blog then I’m fairly certain that you know what I’m on about. In addition to this, they were playing ‘The Good, The Bad & The Queen’, which I’m not sure I’ve ever heard being played in record shop previously. It was a promising start. As it happens, I didn’t actually spend any money in there. Not that their stock isn’t splendid. There’s racks of vinyl at reasonable prices, a reasonably clear filing system for the CDs and a few sale racks. I have nothing but praise for RPM, it’s exactly how I would describe the model independent record shop. Ticks every box.

I also visited Reflex, where I confess a number of my quids were liberated by the fine tune-age of Terry Callier and Micah P Hinson. It’s a bit more sanitised than RPM – which is to say everything is very neatly arranged and not an inch of display space is wasted. It’s clearly a very efficiently run business and you have to applaud any shop that employs a Lurch looky-likey to stand at the end of the road with a large sign directing custom shopwards. I was served by a slightly hyperactive woman who offered up the kind of banter you just don’t get in your enormo-stores. Just as I was about to pay, I noticed ‘Old Rare New’, a delightful tome about independent record stores, up on a shelf and thus double the cost of my shop. Still, another great indie store. The people of Newcastle are spoilt.

In amongst the many tales told in ‘Old Rare New’ is a page by Sister Ray owner, Phil Barton. I enjoyed his words and offered a token world-weary sigh as I read his comment that,  “kids don’t collect records anymore, they steal tunes instead.” He may well have a point, I thought. Then, I got back yesterday and found my weekly email update from Sister Ray, in which the news was imparted that the shop is in administration while a new buyer is sought. I’ll be honest, my first thought was, “Shit! Don’t they own Selectadisc in Nottingham too?” I’ve since had most of my fears about a knock-on effect allayed, but I’m still rather dismayed by the news about this Berwick Street great. It’s a cracking shop, full of the sort of records any self-respecting collection requires and not unreasonable prices. A few years back it moved across the road into the old Selectadisc store when that particular business opted to concentrate on one city only. I’ve not been since the move, but I remember, in its slightly pokier previous location, being thoroughly chuffed with its stock. It was in Sister Ray that I finally managed to buy a – not 100% official – copy of ‘Fanfare For The Comic Muse‘ by The Divine Comedy, back in 2001. I’d spent years looking for it and was happily dispatched with a copy, some sixteen pounds lighter. I’m sure I’ve moaned about the state of Berwick Street in the past, but only a few years ago it was the ideal day out. A street full of record shops, each offering different things for the rabid collector, but it’s now flagging seriously. I hope that Sister Ray finds someone willing to stump up the cash, but its potential demise is yet another sign that the physical product isn’t winning over the latest generation of music fans.

I’m still a little concerned about Selectadisc. I wrote about the reduction in floor space a few months back, and while the shop isn’t part of the same company as Sister Ray, I know there are some financial links. I can only hope that its legacy and seemingly continued popularity with the good folk of the East Midlands will ensure its survival for some time to come. If that fails, does anyone know what house prices are like in Newcastle?

Mixtape…blah, blah, nostalgia, blah…

I was about to start with a profound and incisive statement, but that new Bloc Party single really is fucking dreadful, isn’t it?

I’ve spent a thoroughly enjoyable day rearranging bits of the record collection and ripping assorted tracks to the computer in order to refresh the content of my mp3 player and contruct a decent mp3 CD for a long car journey that’s coming up. It’s wonderful just browsing through the tunes that have, at various times in the last few years, meant rather a lot to me. I did the slightly embarrassing, but hugely popular, swivelling-a-little-bit-in-a-computer-chair dance to Stardust‘s Music Sounds Better With You‘ earlier and it was hugely satisfying. And what about ‘Forever J’ by Terry Hall? A beautiful, beautiful song which was sampled on ‘Life In Mono’ by Mono, which I’ve also ended up digging out. However, whilst finding out more about it I stumbled upon the Emma Bunton cover version. Eugh. Now, I actually really liked that soul-pastiche album she did a few years back. The one with pink cover. But this is not good. At all. The original is, however, and it would seem you can still buy it via the iTunes empire.

The mp3 player will soon be receiving a number of albums that I can’t believe I haven’t felt the need to put back on there since reformatting it a few months back. Most of Supergrass‘ back catalogue is still absent, as are the first two Portishead albums and Thom Yorke‘s ‘The Eraser’. Not for much longer. Also going on will be Madness‘ wonderful track, ‘NW5‘ that came out as a one-off single a little while back, but which will feature on their forthcoming concept album, ‘The Liberty Of Norton Folgate’. If you’ve not heard it, I would put it up there with pretty much anything else they’ve ever done. It’s great.

And with that cunning link (that’s great and so is this) I should probably say a few words about the Jamie Lidell record I was on about the other day. Gilles Peterson has started offering a splendid service via TellJack that allows you to hear albums, in full, before deciding whether or not to purchase. You don’t download anything, it’s all done via high quality streams, but it’s splendid. That’s how I got to hear ‘Jim‘, by Jamie Lidell. I keep calling it ‘Son of Stevie’ because it sounds like that sort of record Stevie Wonder would be making now if he was a) younger and b) as good as he used to be. To me, this album slots in quite neatly alongside ‘Innervisions‘ and ‘Talking Book’. High praise, I know, but it really is the best soul album I’ve heard in yonks. And, I’ve heard Sharon Jones and the new Al Green. Anyway, there’s a track on the newly updated Mux (click on the tape in the right-hand column) along with a chance to hear the Terry Hall track ‘Forever J’ and the Mono track that sampled it. Plus other stuff. Stuff you’ll like, I’d imagine.

I remember now what it was that I was going to talk about when I was going on about mp3 compilations. I was listening to Jeremy Vine‘s show on Radio 2 yesterday (the outraged voice of middle class Britain©) as he discussed the possible charges for broadband customers in the UK. Apparently, devious downloaders will be receiving angry letters in the near future, explaining that what they’re up to is illegal. Assuming, of course, that they are downloading illegally, that is. They wouldn’t make any mistakes, would they? Judging by some of the calls to the programme, mistakes have already been made and there will be more on the way. Predictably, one of the ‘I ain’t paying for it, why should I? I’ve ten CDs over the last twenty years and they were, like, £16 each, so why should I pay now?’ brigade got on air. I’ve never really had a strong opinion about it one way or another, but with the number of independent record stores dying on their arses and bands failing to keep hold of their record contracts, you do have to wonder. Ok, so it’s a symptom of a jaded industry, rather than the cause, but surely nobody who loves their tunes thinks it’s a long-term approach? Weirdly, I’ve just noticed that the good folks at Norman Records are having a similar debate on their blog.

And finally, the nominations for the Mercury Music Prize came out t’other day and I was amazed by just how many I’ve actually heard and liked. The list is as follows:

Adele – ‘19
British Sea Power‘Do You Like Rock Music?
Burial – ‘Untrue
Elbow‘The Seldom Seen Kid’
Estelle – ‘Shine
Laura Marling‘Alas I Cannot Swim’
Neon Neon‘Stainless Style’
Portico Quartet‘Knee-Deep In The North Sea’
Rachel Unthank & The Winterset‘The Bairns’
Radiohead‘In Rainbows’
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss‘Raising Sand’
The Last Shadow Puppets‘The Age Of The Understatement’

It’s only Portico Quartet that I need to do any real research for – and I will, I’m sure. I can’t think of a time when I’ve been so in line with the Mercury choices. It could just be that I’ve bought far too many records recently, and therefore whatever they’d gone for I’d have been in this position, but I’d like to think not. From my perspective, it’s got to be between Elbow, Laura Marling and Radiohead. Radiohead are getting a bit of negativity thrown their way regarding this because of how established they are, but ‘In Rainbows’ really is one of their best albums and definitely one of the best albums of the last twelve months. Laura Marling is someone that I’ve raved about on here for almost a year now and I certainly don’t intend on stopping. ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ will be in my end of the year list and it’s a near-perfect folk-pop album. It’s an exercise in measured understatement, and it’s all the more beautiful because of that. However, I think it should probably go to Elbow. They went off, not in possession of a record deal, and did it all themselves; recording a record that they would want to listen to. It’s a wonderful, wonderful collection of songs and ‘One Day Like This’ could well end up as one of my all time favourite songs.

Any thoughts? Perhaps the blog will get spammed again by the vinyl collectors of Idaho. (See comments for previous post) I’m with Neil Hannon on Idaho.

Like I said, have a listen to the Muxtape.