Record Store Day, remember that? You know, that day the other week when every website, blog and even breakfast TV show under the sun was pissing itself with excitement over the notion that they could go and stand in long queues with High Fidelity-style music anoraks in the hope of picking up some ultra-rare, super-limited, special edition, hand stamped vinyls? Apparently that's a celebration of record store culture. Well if that's the case then don't send my invite 'cos that's not a party I want to attend. Firstly, I have to say that I love vinyl. And record shops. I love the whole culture that these objects and spaces symbolise. Sadly all too often you hear of record shops closing, distributors going bust or labels lifting the needle on their vinyl operations as they fail in their attempts to swim against the digital tide.
Don't get me wrong, like most people I listen to music online every single day. I'm not about to eulogise over the superior sound quality of vinyl or argue that digital-only labels have lowered the bar for musicianship in contemporary music. The internet has done many great things for production, distribution and consumption of music but it has also created a whole new set of problems to accompany these advances.
As Record Store Day attempts to celebrate and increasingly niche aspect of the music industry, I want to consider the continued sea change towards the digital music world - what it has in store, what we stand to lose - and the positive role concepts like Record Store Day can have in protecting some of the most important and treasured aspects of record store culture.
As the platters stopped spinning, the needles lifted and the music stopped on the fifth annual Record Store Day - the organisation spearheading support for independent record stores and physical music formats - there appeared to be a sense of satisfaction and optimism emanating from the satiated rarities crate diggers, in-store enthusiasts and the record stores themselves, such were the bristling levels of hive-like activity in independent record shops the world over.
But just two weeks later, as the hype has subsided and the crowds have dispersed, it seems no-one is paying attention anymore. Everyone has returned to Spotify, YouTube, iTunes and SoundCloud as though nothing had happened, unless you were trawling eBay for that overpriced limited edition you missed out on. What is the point of Record Store Day if it can't create a lasting interest in the physical aspect of purchasing music? Is it the last bastion of the physical format - the final stand against the burgeoning rise of digital music - or is it in fact the ultimate exemplar of vinyl's inevitable demise?
Whilst I concede that physical formats will, sooner rather than later, give way almost entirely to the digital realm - leaving behind a collectors and vinyl lovers market - the decline of traditional music outlets highlights the seismic shift in music consumption - and not necessarily for the better. In some small way I hope Record Store Day can play a role in preserving and even re-invigorating a physical interaction with music which is increasingly being lost.
Founded in the USA in 2007, Record Store Day proclaims itself to be a celebration of the unique culture surrounding independently owned record stores on both a national, and more recently, international level. So far, so admirable. Such shops, in my opinion, play a vital role for all music lovers in almost every corner of the industry in any given town or city. Acting as both a hub and catalyst for people to discover, share, create, buy, sell, promote, hear and love music in near infinitely unique ways, independent stores offer a tailored experience which chain stores and multinational (or online) corporations are neither willing nor able to provide.
Independent stores have always done more than just sell CDs and vinyls. Indie stores provide a concrete location for local music fans, labels, bands and live venue promoters to meet, network and sustain their passion. Shops like HMV and Virgin Megastore don't support new, grassroots music in any tangible sense and they don't create or provide a focal point for local music scenes to gain exposure, recognition or revenue. Corporations like these have made standardisation and commercialisation their mission and judging by their omnipresence, up until the late 2000s at least, they seemed to have achieved their target.
As such, it's fair to say independent record shops have been under threat long before Record Store Day had been dreamt up. There's not a single independent record shop in my home town and across the UK it's a similar story. Even in our larger cities such as London, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow, with rich dance music heritage, record shops are found in alarmingly fewer numbers than as little as five years ago. Whilst there is little doubt that HMV and Virgin have played their part in the decrease of indie stores, it’s the internet effect which has pushed the situation to terminal levels.
The internet fundamentally changed the music industry. It not only changed the way most people consumed music but it also had massive ramifications for the production, marketing and distribution of music for everyone from Madonna in pop, Metallica in rock, Richie Hawtin in techno and right down to the grassroots level of almost any music genre seeking to operate in the commercial market.
The affect of the online market has been two-fold. Firstly, it opened the flood gates for the illegal sharing of music in the most apocalyptic manner that even the most ardent opponent of CDs in the 80s could not have predicted. Music is leaked and illegally shared instantly, remaining largely un-purchased legitimately and ignored until it becomes available on cloud services like Spotify - all of which means artists, labels and physical shops are haemorrhaging potential income like never before. And whilst I care little for major label profit margins I do believe all artists have a right to make a living from the sale of their music, a right which has all but disappeared except for the biggest global artists.
This removal of the physical music purchase has helped create a disassociation between music buyers and artists. People aren't seeing the causal link between illegal file sharing the inability for labels and artists to continue creating and releasing music. What Record Store Day can help engender is an awareness and appreciation of artists' right make a living from their music through the purchasing of legitimate music formats. Rather than merely being a celebration of record store culture, it has the ability to bring music makers and buyers back together, face-to-face, in an attempt to re-write today's almost default belief (amongst teenagers and younger) that music is free - which, for me, is the single biggest threat in the music industry today.
If no-one wants to pay for music then who can afford to make it? Does it become the privilege of the well-heeled, those who don't have to worry about having a job to pay the bills? Who can release music if no-one is paying for records? Do we leave it the majors who can subsidise their labels via other business interests? What happens to the rich tapestry of small independent labels, do they merely all become hobbyists? These are just some of the depressing questions which highlight the necessity that consumers pay for their music.
Secondly, and by its very nature, we've seen digital spaces supersede physical spaces. Music scenes are born, bands and artists discovered, music shared and gigs streamed - people connect with their music online in the second natured way that we used to in the physical world - shops, studios, pubs and clubs. Whilst this shift can by no means be considered complete or wholesale, it does pose interesting questions about the effect this will have on the music industry in the long term.
Considering the consumption of music specifically, it's depressing to note the mechanisation of the process with sites like iTunes or Beatport. Music is an emotional experience so to almost completely remove human interaction from the music buying process seems to run counter to everything music stands for. I want to go into a shop where I can ask questions, have discussions and go off on a myriad of tangents in infinite permutations. Head to iTunes, Beaport or Amazon and no such mechanisms exist - instead you're left with arbitrary selections on home and genre pages, a search box and "other customers also bought" algorithms.
Who really wants to be recommended music by a line of computer code? Discovery through such channels on a macro level leads us again further and further towards standardisation and commercialisation - a kind of musical hegemony for the likes of Apple, Amazon and Spotify.
Record Store Day can, and is, trying to lead a charge against this. This is exactly what the day is about - celebrating the human interactions that music creates and facilitates - and for that I applaud and support them. However, there's more that can be done, and they run the risk of manufacturing their own downfall.
Most of the press I read about the day revolved around exclusives, rarities, one-offs, hidden gems, secret shows. And whilst I concede those who buy physical formats are in the vast minority I think it's dangerous to represent this position to the wider music buying public. Positioning physical formats as being for the anoraks, a few double helix of DNA from trainspotters, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy for independent record stores - niche, marginalised and unfashionable.
Record Store Day should instead be trying to pitch the record shop experience to the widest market possible, pushing beyond the limited edition schtick and pushing the other benefits of record stores that online can't ever match - interaction, adventure and discovery dictated by conversation not algorithm.
But this isn't a binary debate between physical vs digital. Both have an equally important role to play in the health of contemporary music. The internet hasn't put the music industry on its knees - if anything it’s made it stronger with its democratising abilities - but it has destroyed the recorded music transaction industry. And it’s this unwillingness to pay for music that could see more than just record stores shut up shop.