The record shop – an endangered species

Music to manikins: a record store finds a new roleMusic to manikins: a record store finds a new role

When did you first suspect that record shops might be sinking in the uncharted waters of digital downloads, online sales and the stack ‘em high-flog ‘em cheap attitude of supermarkets who, actually, couldn’t care less about music?

Was it when, one day, your friendly high-street independent record shop wasn’t there? When your local branch of HMV did away with their dedicated classical, folk and jazz sections, re-branding as “specialist music” anything not pop? With Tower Records’ crash-and-burn, followed by the downfall of the Virgin/Zavvi high street shops? Was it when “Amazon.co.uk” became the most ubiquitous entry on your credit card statement, transactions that, ten years ago, you’d have necessarily made over the counter?

I had my own epiphany in New York a couple of years ago. “So why are you moving premises?” I asked Bruce Lee Gallanter, proprietor of Downtown Music Gallery, the CD shop in New York for contemporary jazz, avant-rock, free improvisation and contemporary composition. After two decades of operating from a shop on The Bowery, DMG were now being forced to relocate. “Look over the road at where CBGBs used to be [the legendary rock/punk club, which closed in 2008, where bands like Blondie, The Ramones and Television were discovered],” he told me. “It’s now a clothing store selling T-shirts for $250. Rents have rocketed and we just can’t compete.” And as two thriving artistic institutions, telling us things about the world we didn’t know, were snuffed out by a boutique selling pointless designer vanity-wear, little wonder Cheetah Chrome, guitarist in another CBGBs regular, The Dead Boys, claimed: “Manhattan just lost its soul to the money lords.” To misquote Gore Vidal: whenever I see a record (or indeed book) store taken over by a clothes shop, a little part of me dies.

When I started visiting New York regularly in the early 2000s, choice for the serious-minded music collector was overwhelming. Although CD sales for classical music were in a steady descent before downloading, Tower Records and Virgin were still flourishing, selling discs not easily available in the UK. Meanwhile shops like DMG, the Jazz Record Centre and Academy Records & CDs (second-hand classical CD nirvana) were where you went to dive deeper inside niche labels. How quickly things change. Today not a single big name, chain record store exists in New York City. DMG, thankfully, hung on by taking basement premises in China Town and expanding their mail order catalogue. The legendary Record Shack in Harlem was less fortunate. It’s still business as usual at both JRC and Academy, but if the money lords muscle into their patch too, who knows?

New York record stores are sneezing – will UK shops inevitably catch cold? And if all our record shops did disappear would anybody really care?

Why should anyone care? Isn’t sentimentality over what, when all said and done, are just retail outlets wasted? Amazon does the job just as well. You don’t even need to leave your living room! And my credit card is as stuffed as anybody else’s with purchases from Amazon.

But the more I feed my Amazon habit, getting high as jiffy bags drop through my letter box, the more guilt I feel about stealing revenue from people who care enough about music to devote their lives to treating us as grown-ups – defying a corporate music-machine creating ephemeral crossover simply to cover the bottom line, defying supermarkets flogging Susan Boyle CDs as Simon Cowell pulls the levers of his soulless, synthetic, lowest common denominator-chasing empire. About people who, knowing there’s no real money in it, view music as noble and life-enhancing, something with spiritual worth beyond Pound, Euro or Dollar. About people who give a damn enough to run independent record stores.

If you really care about music, such shops ought to be a sanctuary, a place to find out about music you don’t already know, a place where the discovery of a previously unknown album/recording by a favourite artist/composer can send a shiver of excitement down the spine; it should be a place to meet – and make – friends, a one-stop hub to find out about gigs/concerts, to buy magazines/books, to hear in-store gigs/performances; a place for the music industry to proudly trade its wears and where music-lovers put something back by paying an honest price for a CD made simply for the love of music.

For a halcyon period such a haven flourished in central London. Ray’s Jazz Shop – for many years an independent store on Shaftesbury Avenue – was bought by Foyles Bookshop in 2002 and installed on the first floor of its famous flagship shop on Charing Cross Road, alongside free WiFi and a not-bad café. It was brilliant: knowledgeable and welcoming staff were there to help – rare Anthony Braxton vinyl for £50, or a Best of Acker and Humph compilation for a fiver, they’d sort it. Musicians, writers, the merely curious and people who loved jazz, gravitated to Ray’s. Gigs were played, musical associations were formed. Then, for reasons best known to themselves, Foyles shunted the shop up to its third floor, diluting core Ray’s stock with cheap box sets and – why? – world cinema DVDs. Key members of staff moved on. The magic evaporated.

Ray’s aside, however, we are weathering the storm better than in New York, although recent travels around the UK would suggest with differing degrees of success. In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Windows is a shadow of the highly respected shop I remember from my childhood; stock is functional rather than exciting and, tellingly, racks displaying CDs likely to be of most interest to Gramophone readers are labelled “classic music”, a genre which, last time I checked, doesn’t exist.

Newcastle, at least, still has its shop. In Brighton, the city’s long established Classical Longplayer is no more. But bravo to Bath Compact Discs and others like it, who refuse to compromise on the range or depth of their stock.

In London two radically different shops also keep the flame burning. In its Great Marlborough Street basement, Harold Moores stocks by far the best range of second-hand vinyl I’ve seen. It’s pricey, yes, but you try keeping a shop in the west end that sells second-hand classical vinyl. On the first floor are new and second-hand CDs, and the shop has recently branched-out into jazz. Harold Moores’s Andy Wiersma tells me: “I look at EMI struggling with their pop catalogue and I’m grateful that our shop isn’t part of that world. We’re here because classical record companies are still producing CDs and people who buy classical music, not impressed by the often poor sound-quality of downloads, want to buy a physical product. Despite the recession, this year our sales matched last year’s.”

Over in Bethnal Green, Rough Trade East operates from a courtyard off Brick Lane and is London’s counterpart to the Downtown Music Gallery. Readers interested in the more adventurous range of New Music Gramophone covers will find pickings aplenty here. Go to Rough Trade to buy electronic music by Stockhausen, Cage or Kagel and it’s likely you’ll come out with a stack of electronica from other disciplines too – the layout of the shop, the sheer abundance of music available, encourages cross-genre discoveries. It’s a place to listen, read, think, discuss, enough for a whole afternoon. There are live gigs too – something more classical shops ought to consider as a failsafe way of getting customers through the door. Rough Trade has thoughtfully cultivated its customer base by sidestepping the mainstream, stocking labels you’ll never find in HMV – or on dedicated download sites like eMusic – appealing directly to hearts and minds. It’s quite obviously run by people for whom recorded music is some kind of religion.

Amazon, though, isn’t going anywhere and traditional shops are learning to coexist. Amazon too has built a global network of vendors selling niche music, especially through its “Used” section. Once upon a time records were either current or not, but on planet Amazon items technically deleted remain available long after their rack-life. Label owners who built their labels around relationships with traditional record shops have been obliged to embrace Amazon. But it’s an often strained, tense relationship.

Amazon’s ability to discount new CDs causes grumbles (and that’s the big distinction between them and traditional shops who offer a mail-order service on the side) but their policy of remunerating labels for downloads has become a massive problem, hitting smaller, vulnerable independent labels especially hard. Brian Brandt, owner of New York-based Mode Records, an inspiring label that specialises in composers like Cage, Feldman, Scelsi and Xenakis, finds the basis on which he ran his label for 25 years is changing – and, guess what, those changes benefit others rather than supporting his efforts to keep on releasing music. “At least I received a fixed price for CDs,” he tells me, “but sometimes an album download sells for as little $2.10. And streaming often amounts to a fraction of a penny per stream. Once the artist and publisher get their royalties, and the distributor of the download takes a cut, that leaves a tiny percentage to cover my costs: recording, editing, mixing, mastering, and licensing. If you want a quality product, primarily with acoustic instruments in a nice sounding space or studio, you are talking real money in pre-production costs.”

And there’s the thornier issue of illegal, pirated downloads. Brandt chanced on a website recently offering all seven volumes of his Scelsi cycle for free download via Rapidshare. “I contacted Rapidshare to tell them that this is copyrighted material and ask them to remove the links, which they have now done. But how many free downloads were made before I stumbled on this? Must record labels now be full time policeman on the lookout for online thievery?”

Steven Joerg, owner of Brooklyn-based jazz label AUM Fidelity, makes a direct link between downloads and the problems facing record shops – and, by extension, online piracy. “The turning point, when a much larger group of customers began downloading our music rather than purchasing CDs was 2006, when Tower Records – other stores too – went out of business,” Joerg explains. “CD sales aren’t matched by paid downloads because the per ‘unit’ income is not equal to a CD sale.

“It’s impossible to know the impact illegal hi-resolution file sharing and blogs that post entire albums for free download has on sales, but it certainly doesn’t help,” Joerg continues. “The common response I’ve heard from folks who practice the latter is that they are helping to promote the artist. But they are fooling themselves and insulting the artist. Folks that engage in file-sharing of work by living artists, especially work that operates on the margins culturally and financially, are morally suspect.”

Music streaming site Spotify, perfectly legal of course, raises equally uncomfortable issues. A recent report in the Daily Telegraph claimed that Lady Gaga earned $167 for one million plays of her song “Poker Face”, while a spokesman from the PRS put Spotify’s minimum rate at 0.085p per stream. I suspect there won’t be many tears for Lady Gaga from this quarter, but extrapolate those figures to classical labels that already exist hand-to-mouth and the injustices are obvious. The recently launched Mflow allows subscribers to recommend favourite tracks: when five people download your track, you earn a free download. The margins for record labels are, however, just as tight.

Online forums can (and do) promote healthy advocacy and discussion of albums, composers and artists, especially beneficial for music that falls under the radar of the mainstream music press. Arguments in support of sites like Spotify and Mflow invariably propose: anything which encourages interest in music has to be unquestioningly a good thing – people who download one movement of a Bruckner symphony “might” go to the Royal Festival Hall to hear a complete performance and “might” go to Harold Moores to buy the complete disc. Music, apparently, wins.

But treat music like a supermarket commodity and ultimately everybody will lose. Spotify promotes the idea, along with your free online newspaper and that implausibly cheap book you’ve just downloaded onto your Kindle, that everybody is entitled to music for free (or so cheap it might as well be free). But Spotify feeds off existing recorded music without putting anything back: moreover it undermines the efforts of financially strapped labels like Mode and AUM Fidelity to record and promote new music. It’s the ultimate relativist nightmare. Alongside that stream of a Bruckner movement, you might catch Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” and then, perhaps, something by Iggy and The Stooges, with a dash of Schubert or Schoenberg…or Cliff Richard – music papering the background like homogenised fridge noise, raw consumerism taking over where proper listening left off. However much music you stream, download or buy online, don’t forget your local record shop. It’s a future fair for all.

 

Do you have views about how you buy music today, and how it has changed in recent years? Why not log in to the Gramophone Forum and share them.

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