Apr 15, 2019 Music
Has Record Store Day become more a consumer orgy than a celebration of music fandom? So ponders music fan and author Garth Cartwright.
This story was first published in the Listener.
Indeed, the red-eyes shivering at 6am as they patiently wait to get their hands on “limited edition” 45s and LPs made “exclusively for RSD” could probably use some help, especially if, on entering said store, they find it doesn’t stock their desired product. Here is where obsessive fanboy behaviour and consumer madness meet.
Much as I love record shops, I’m not a RSD devotee. The day was founded in Baltimore in 2007 by a group of record-store workers who wished to draw attention to the plight of their trade, and they succeeded far beyond their wildest dreams. RSD is now a consumer orgy akin to Mother’s Day and Christmas. Although the event has helped independent traders, RSD is the one day a year that I’m highly unlikely to go record shopping. That major labels now issue everything on vinyl means the best independent labels – those who have championed vanguard music across the decades and kept vinyl alive during Peak CD – struggle to get access to pressing plants. Also, retailers can’t survive on being busy one day a year or on a fleeting fashion statement, which the vinyl revival may turn out to be.
Cynical commentators dismiss RSD – and our renewed enthusiasm for records and record shops – as nostalgia for a lost era, given that downloads and streaming now dominate recorded music. This overlooks both the superior sound and the tactile beauty of a good LP, 45 or CD (yes, I still buy them: many independent labels trading in niche genres – world, jazz, folk, blues – find vinyl too expensive for the small numbers they produce). And the fact that good record shops are more than simply retail units. Instead, they are temples of sound that facilitate conversation, creativity and community alongside laughter, gossip, enthusiasm, empathy and knowledge.
In short, they enrich existence. So much so that I wrote a book about them. Going for a Song: A Chronicle of the UK Record Shop was prompted by what appeared to be a virus wiping out music emporiums across the UK. I live in London and, a decade ago, witnessed the huge Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus shutting. This was followed by the collapse of Virgin and Our Price chains. And all the independent traders were folding: Soho’s Berwick St once had 24 record shops – everything from big indie-rock vendors and tiny dance-music outlets to celebrated reggae shop Daddy Kool (run by the rudest owner ever) – but now has three.
That the record shop had played a central role in developing music in the UK since wax cylinders first arrived in the 1890s ensured there were plenty of stories to tell. Brian Epstein discovered The Beatles as manager of Liverpool’s foremost record shop; Richard Branson set up Virgin’s original shop to cater to long-haired students and made his initial fortune via VAT scams; four punk-rock shops set up record labels in their basements to document the new music; all kinds of dance music took shape as DJs working in record shops set up labels to issue the tunes they and their pals were creating on their PCs – and it was a pleasure to tell these untold tales.
I found myself documenting a British century as technology, immigration, youth fashions, music movements and the rise (and fall) of the high street were played out via record emporiums.
Aotearoa’s music traders have a humbler history, but they certainly proved influential. In 1979, Auckland’s Taste Records employed Simon Grigg who, between selling LPs, set up Propeller Records, a pioneering post-punk label. In 1981, Christchurch’s Roger Shepherd founded Flying Nun Records from the storeroom of the EMI Shop where he was a clerk. Gore-raised Nathan Graves entered the industry by working at Invercargill’s EMI Shop: he would later become head of jazz for Universal Music Group, the world’s largest record label.
Back in New Zealand earlier this year, I hit the record shops. Marbecks is still trading at the bottom of Auckland’s Queen St and Real Groovy has shifted up the top. For this seasoned crate-digger, Real Groovy had all manner of delights: an LP of Maori choir songs on the Viking label, The Bob Seger System’s Mongrel and plenty of US R&B 45s. Nearby, in the Cross Street Market, is Rebel Soul Records. Here, I found LPs by Candi Staton and Chet Baker that I’d never seen before. Symonds St is home to Southbound Records, the country’s premier importer of new LPs. Working behind the counter is Kerry Buchanan. When I was a teenage music novice, he worked in a used-record shop near the docks and then, as now, he always shared his droll wisdom with customers.
Wellington’s Slow Boat Records was founded by Dennis O’Brien in 1982 after he enjoyed a degree of European success as a singer-songwriter. Here, I found an LP by Romania’s foremost folk singer, Maria Tanase. It’s a beautiful pressing on Electrecord, the state record label under communism. The pleasures of crate digging involve discovering such treasure.
Christchurch has Penny Lane Records, a shop so tough that it survived a ceiling collapse in the 2011 quake. Among my discoveries here were Sérgio Mendes’ Stillness, an LP I’d long wanted; Ken Colyer’s In New Orleans (10-inch LP, Vogue, 1953); and a 78 of Johnny Cooper’s Haere Mai (1955). Indeed, I do own a wind-up gramophone. And, yes, I know, I’m a nut.
Dunedin has Relics, a very well-stocked shop. Here, I picked up a Ron Carter LP and convinced my friend Petra to buy Miles Davis’ On the Corner.
Over the decades, such noted visitors as Julian Cope, Robert Plant and Gilles Peterson have sung the praises of digging away in Kiwi record shops. Well, if they’re good enough for them – and me – then they’re good enough for you. Support your local record shop. And not just on RSD.
Going For A Song: A Chronicle of the UK Record Store is published by Flood Gallery Press. Record Store Day is April 13.
This article was first published in the April 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.