The outpouring of nostalgia and affection inspired by Record Store Day (April 18) – Metallica and Franz Ferdinand are among the artists to pledge their support – proves how far attitudes to record shops have changed.
Ten years ago, the ‘snooty record store guy’ was a widely scorned character type – the kind of joyless snob who’d sneer at your inferior purchases while lovingly fingering his limited-edition Warp Records compilations under the counter.
Back then, the local record shop was a zone of low-level intimidation and fear. Now, it’s a cherished emblem of a vanished era. The balance of power has shifted. Hence, as downloading and piracy rip their profitability down to zero and beyond, suddenly we value the few remaining shops as strongholds of authenticity in an industry that has changed beyond recognition.
Trouble is, it’s a bit late to get misty-eyed about record shops now. They’re already screwed. In the UK alone, 540 stores have closed in the last four years. The distribution giant Pinnacle collapsed in 2008, leaving many outlets massively out of pocket.
And this trend is not going to be reversed. A generation has grown up expecting music to be free. The next generation will have no concept of music in a physical form. Those kids will regard record shops, if any remain, as nothing more than weird, cobwebby museums.
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 help them discover new music? 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.
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Perhaps if the people bemoaning the fate of record stores spent a little less time romanticising them, and more time spending money in them, they wouldn’t be in such a desperate position.