“And every teenage afternoon spent rifling racks in record stores in search of gold and every compilation tape rewound until it broke on rusted Walkmen heads and every single special song it only took two listens through to learn the words were hours cherished and lessons learned.” Million Dead, ‘It’s A Shit Business’
People have been eloquent about their love for the physical. Wendy Roby of Drowned In Sound singles column fame has done the utter best:
All I can be is honest.
I despise shopping. It’s a fruitless waste of everybody’s time because it actually involves, generally, a lack of honest human interaction. And, just like driving, the only human interaction you remember is when someone crosses you. Shopping is stressful and hard. It’s often at odds with what I’d rather be doing with my time ie. other things. Though, really, it’s probably because I’ve always been a horrendously low earner, mostly because of my silly silly choice of work - but that’s an analysis I can do without right now - and therefore I’ve only ever been able to browse and sigh discontentedly at the myriad things I convince myself I really don’t want or need. I DON’T! See.
Except when it comes to records. Records are different. I couldn’t care less what shape, size, colour or format they come in. I’ve bought 7, 10 and 12 inch vinyl, cassettes, CDs in special limited editions with extra tracks, transparent or colour splattered plastic, cut out sleeves, embossed cases and all for the dual purpose of listening to and staring at in wonderment.
Rifling racks in record stores in search of gold, indeed. How many times have I done this in my little life? I couldn’t tell you. But I can blow it up on widescreen, in technicolour and 3D and HD in my head (I’m clever like that).
Flicking excitedly through the ENORMOUS Sonic Youth section was like prising open a treasure chest full of knowledge - being able to choose one of these mysteries and absorb the contents, become more than you were before. As each one revealed itself I stood there wondering what tunings they’d employ on each one, what noises that I’d never heard before were contained behind this realist painting on the front, or that aggressive black and white sketch by Kim Gordon, or that stuffed animal toy. What’s more, there were HUNDREDS more bands to look through, to imagine what was inside and to be tempted by.
Record shops are just as much about disappointment as success of course. Where’s that Appleseed Cast section? Momentarily I forget that it’s alphabetical and even when I’ve worked out that Appleseed Cast is two p’s and that p comes AFTER r, I’m frantically searching with hands and eyes on tip toes to see if I’ve missed it. It’s here! But inevitably, Mare Vitalis isn’t there. Crushed. Defeated. The search for what would become my favourite record for a decade continued.
I remember finding it, though. That incredible mottled painting of the ocean, the heart in the middle splattered centrally, bringing the themes of the record into sharp focus without ever hearing a note. The concept of playing like the sea while the waves lap at the heartstrings is all expressly signposted by the cover. It was a delight to lay my eyes upon. When bringing the empty case up to the counter, the shop assistant behind the counter grinned. “This is the manager’s favourite record. Our only one. He’s gonna be sad it’s gone. But he’d be pleased you bought it.” That will stay with me forever. Do you understand what I’m saying? NO SHOPPING EXPERIENCE WILL EVER DO THIS AGAIN. Bad, good, average…I can’t see me remembering any shop girl I developed a spontaneous crush on, the dismissive silence of the bored till person or even the extremely friendly, helpful service I receive from a fellow bookworm. There was, and always will be, something inherently different about record shops. The human interaction is somehow stronger. If someone approves of your purchase, you engage in conversation, and that conversation goes beyond the sale into the next person’s sale. Perhaps that next customer joins in and suddenly you have a shop with a lively atmosphere, the records waiting to be bought springing to life, meaning something, becoming something more than mere objects to be bought.
Because music is one thing. I can make music anytime I like. Get my guitar and bellow over the top. It’s easy. Seriously. Try it. You’ll be making tunes within a few hours. BUT to make a record, to sell it, to see people buying it, to see people touching it and discussing it - THAT must be something truly special. Crafting a couple of tunes that are affixed to a circular disc that somehow becomes a sought after object for people to appreciate - as well as to enjoy the undoubtedly excellent music therewithin - and that you purposefully chose or designed the sleeve for, that you worked hard to present your vision upon. That’s when music really can be described as art. And we go and buy it and we have bought art. We have not stored it on a physical device to point a mouse at it, prodding it to life through tinny speakers. We have not dismissed the jpg artwork into a something x something square thumbnail. We have not clicked shuffle so that the work has been messed up into bite size chunks of disposable tunage (although there’s actually nowt wrong with that, just like trashy novels and silly, entertaining films; they are important too - in fact entertainment is paramount, but you can’t help but make the difference between things you love and enjoy, and thinks you merely enjoy). If someone pours heart and soul into something, then they deserve to be able to make it special. Why should they leak it to you, the rabid internet fan, for you to simply parade on that blog where you pretend to be a writer? Why can’t they see it emblazoned in record stores, lying in the rack ready to be scooped up and lovingly cradled?
The reason I wholeheartedly agree with Ms Roby’s treatise on the physical vs. the digital is that I understand it completely. One of the most touching moments of my life actually happened to someone else. My editor-in-chief at the time brought our five strong team into a local branch of WHSmith. After four years of working upon a free magazine, his grand plan to produce a newsagents version of it - bigger, bolder, a massive gamble and a huge undertaking - had come to fruition. He stood in front of the magazine racks, plucked the impressively-sized tome from its position at the front and, as we stood from afar, he had a faraway smile on his face. The pride, the exhilaration and the impulse to grab the nearest browser by the scruff and scream “LOOK! I MADE THIS! I POURED MY HARD-EARNED HOURS, TIME AND SOUL INTO THIS PLEASEBUYITPLEASE!” must’ve been overwhelming. He kept his cool very well though, simply bringing it to the till and paying for it, essentially paying himself to continue doing what he had been doing for four years.
And this is essentially what we’re taking away by ploughing our capitalist fantasies into digital. We are removing the real sense that something that exists in the real world - far away from the vague realities of monitors and usernames and passwords, far away from the realm of secure identities, and of social sharing as opposed to social interaction - is worth anything anymore. As a fellow journalist suggested on Twitter, what happens when Kindles and other digital reading apparatus becomes the norm? Will we have a Book Store Day? Far more than records, books were once something upon which to judge a society’s civility. The amount of literature in paper - or papyrus - on a bookshelf tended to show a well-read, educated person and - far more importantly - one who wanted to explore life. Because stories and narratives and facts contained in books are poured over, are absorbed, and the physical act of turning a page, of going back to re-read a sentence, to appreciate it and record its meaning and that heavy weight in your hands commands you to dig deep into its core. To tear yourself away from the pages of a book is harder than to look up from a scrolling glass screen. You can smudge the ink of a page - alter the words physically - but you can’t even touch them through glass. You may think that this isn’t important. But then, perhaps the tactile doesn’t intrigue you. Running a finger across the grooves of vinyl or feeling the raised print of a CD label or pulling the magnetic tape back inside the plastic casing by sticking a finger in the reels and turning them are all proof that you’ve lived in these things you’ve bought. A postcard of a painting is nice, but you can’t detect the bump maps of texture. A gallery of beautifully posed photos of a loved one are great memories by it won’t beat the hug or the hand holding. Of course it isn’t necessary to have physical to live inside sound. I currently don’t own Baths’ Cerulean on vinyl (though I plan to rectify this somehow) yet that record has flowed within me for over a year now. I associate so much with those sounds and that has nothing to do with a record shop. But - just as I feel reading ignites a flame to discover and explore in children - I feel my appreciation of music hasnot just been ignited but fanned and spread (to the admitted arson of other things I deem less important) by my experiences browsing and buying and listening to people in record shops. I’ve worked in one. The knowledge and passion I gained from those people can never be replaced or replicated. And all because we could share music with strangers. MY love of words and of sound is down to the physical thing. And while I could never EVER say that those who will miss out on the physical and human interactions won’t ‘feel’ literature or music in the same way - because that would be horrendously elitist and ridiculous and just plain wrong - it has definitely made me who I am, in some ways. Shopping in record shops never feels like shopping - it feels like going to a library and discovering and learning.
If it’s all about the music, then I’d argue that you doing yourself and musicians a disservice. If you don’t want the human element - the person behind it, their artistic endeavours plain to see on a physical object, the socialising with those who understand you and your love of these otherwise abstract and indefinite notes, the satisfaction of crossing palms with coins in return for plastic and paper - then you’re not likely to invest your whole being into that piece of music. It may become background noise. It will not be the scintillating slippery riff of ‘Fishing The Sky’ which dissolves into a whirlpool of serenity before it bursts out of you with a tidal pull of a vocal line. It won’t be the unexpected scream that emits a contagious chill - one that you savour as if it was delivered by the person next to you. It won’t be the uncontrollable urge to leap around your room imagining all the things in your future in some ramshackle montage. It will merely be “a nice tune”, “good lyrics”, “a great chorus”, “a catchy verse” and “good pop music”. Nothing wrong with any of those things. But they don’t quite beat “an indelible arcane melody”, “words that empathise with savagery in my heart”, “a crescendo that shatters all that has gone before”, “an undulating combination of sounds” or “music that pushes me into territory I’ve never experienced before, and it makes me want to run outside, grab everyone I can and party for three days straight”.
That’s what records and record shops mean to me.