Anyone interested in the music industry, in record shops, in independent music, should know by now of Graham Jones' excellent and witty book "Last Shop Standing".
So given our passion for music at Chez Rullsenberg and Roberts, we couldn't pass the chance to go and hear the man himself recount some of the best anecdotes from his book in conversation with the great Jim Cooke, formerly of Selectadisc fame. Presented as part of the ever-wonderful Lowdham Book Festival, Graham was talking at St. Mary's Church --- home to many of my maternal grandparents family as the Chapmans et al scarcely moved from the area until around 1900.
We have just 269 remaining independent records shops standing in the UK in 2011.
Whilst the frightening drop-off that coincided with Graham writing 'Last Shop Standing" has at least been halted - albeit sadly too late for Selectadisc to survive - this remains a precarious time for record sellers. This house does its best to buy the majority of its music purchases from record shops --- readers here will be familiar with pilgrimages to Rough Trade off Brick Lane in Spitalfields, and to Sister Ray on Berwick Street (aka the Selectadisc of the South). Our local Classical CD also regularly gets our attention, and though in sad decline I've never neglected visiting Swordfish in Birmingham whenever we're that way. Rock-a-boom in Leicester has also parted us from our cash on many occasions and One-Up in Aberdeen has a similar ability to get the wallets open (wonderfully, one year George got us vouchers from the store: a great incentive to make the long and complicated journey into Scotland to see him!). Moreover, we don't leave our purchasing desires at the UK border: Slow Boat Records in Wellington New Zealand and the mighty MIGHTY Amoeba Records in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco USA have also captured our attention with their eclectic collections of CDs to browse and buy.
And that's what I love about a record store: the juxtapositions, the categorising (doesn't matter how mad or pedantic these divisions may be - it's fun to look!), and the people.
Downloads don't really DO memories: whilst the purchasing of an actual object carries with it notions of place, selection, winnowing the large pile of possibles down to manageable purchases, it's hard to feel the same way about being sat in front of your computer. I can still recall my many visits to Revolver records in Nottingham, buying my obsessive way through Beatles and John Lennon albums. I remember plucking up the courage to ask a record store what was playing, and promptly purchasing the single of "Birdhouse in Your Soul" by They Might be Giants. I still have my signed copy of James' Gold Mother album - and even more fond memories of the photo I took of Tim Booth catching me take the photo as he supped a cup of tea. I remember meeting Billy Bragg at Selectadisc in October 1991 on the afternoon after I had taken one of my Open University exams and having a beaming picture taken of me with Billy. I went home and tore up my revision plan to the sound of "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward" from my copy of Worker's Playtime (now newly signed), and promptly returned to town for the evening's Rock City gig (with the much mentioned version of "Groove is in the Heart"). In more recent years, I gambled many a tenner on CDs where I just liked the description on the sleeve (Selectadisc et al who use this quick review strategy are MUCH loved for having introduced me to so much good music this way - the payoff have far exceeded the disappointments). The Mummers - Tale to Tell is one such boon, only for me to find the ultimate approval for my gamble when George turned up praising the same album a month or so later).
So many memories tied to the purchase of the physical thing: albeit the tiny frame of a CD rather than the lush 12 inches of beauty that is vinyl.
Having said all that though in praise of shops selling the physical object, something that could have saved some stores may have been to move into offering download stations - something akin to a system that Big Finish has sometimes offered on its CDs: buy the CD and you get the download along with it. By now of course, though getting many to pay to download at all is nigh up. Additionally, many artists sell direct to their public - cutting out the middleman, sure, but cutting their own throats somewhat in the process in terms of longer term survival of the medium. It was good to hear someone from Universal Music chip in that record companies have (more or less) agreed that once something is now played on the radio it should be quickly available for at least download purchase --- but this feels like too little too late (and given some of the criticism that Universal comes in for in Graham's book, it was a rather odd semi-corporate voice in the proceedings)*.
Indeed, it was that issue of advance radio play that was the basis of my 'question' at the end of the discussion. Cloud and I have long talked about the infuriating issue of hearing a track on the radio only to find - if its mentioned at all - that said track would be released in 12 weeks time. Frankly by then most people have gone off any playlisted track and/or downloaded it illegally. Dumb: it nailed further lids onto the coffin of record shop sales when it least needed it (remember when you'd find out there was a new Duran Duran single out on Monday? A whole week away? Shocking.)
The afternoon was a delight: the anecdotes of worst shops, most hysterically wrongly identified song titles - I rather liked "The song about the trans-sexual who nearly misses the train" (predictably, but still amusingly, Last Train to Tran-Central by KLF) - and the injustice of the VAT/Jersey scam that continues to plague online purchases from big companies like Amazon and Play.com --- personally, I'd recommend Norman Records, but that's me. the conversation was never less than amusing, and always heartfelt: Graham clearly LOVES music despite his first hand experience of the corruption of chart sales. And he's a top nice bloke too - complimenting me on my choice of Selectadisc t-shirt to wear for the occasion ("the lady with the coolest t-shirt in the room" --- well, bless, he wasn't to know I'm no lady...)
With a copy of the book signed, we headed home, happy and ready to listen to some new purchases courtesy of the Music Exchange stall that had also been at the event. Ah bliss. Independent music...
* Actually, as a promoter for independent labels, and for sales direct from music sellers via Amazon Marketplace, he clearly wasn't bad, but the irony was still there.