A good friend of mine & I were talking a while ago about the demise of the small independent record shop. It seems that from the early ’90s onwards they have been closing at an alarming rate as the record buying public were lured away, first by the big music retailing chains, then in recent years by online music sales. Most of my early record collection came from the Teesside institution that was Alan Fearnley Records in Middlesbrough. Alan finally pulled down the shutters for the last time in 2004, and it felt like the end of an era.
Shops like Alan’s were more than just the place you went to buy a copy of your favourite band’s new album. They were an essential part of a Saturday morning. The whole weekend stretched ahead of you, and what better way to start than at the record shop? A place where you knew you’d run into your mates; where you might see that girl you fancied (and what better way to impress her than make sure she saw you browsing through all the “right” records); where you could chat about music with people who were as crazy about it as you were.
Then there was the excitement of sitting on the bus on the way home with your newly purchased 12” long player, reading the sleeve notes, admiring the artwork, looking at the song titles and imagining what wonderful music they were going to reveal once you got that big, black circular vinyl treasure onto the turntable and plugged in your curly-cabled headphones. The anticipation was delicious!
Having said all of that, you might imagine that the rest of this week’s blog will consist of a misty-eyed, rose-tinted nostalgia-fest. A middle-aged man bemoaning the loss of a fondly remembered part of his youth, and it’s all the fault of progress and modernity. Not a bit of it. Bring on the brave new world of downloads, streaming, and online subscription services, I say!
Let’s pretend you could jump into a Tardis and travel back to some point in the late ’70s or early ’80s. You could meet up with your younger self and tell them how the future would shape up. You would find yourself describing a world where the music you want could be had instantly. No more waiting for the shop to order that obscure foreign import you desperately had to have; no more hoping you can find something in the racks by that new band who piqued your curiosity in an article you read; no more getting home from the record shop and discovering the album you’ve been waiting weeks to own skips when you try to play it. No… you can have it NOW, without leaving the house, and it will be superb high quality (much like those new-fangled compact discs that were just coming onto the market back then).
Next, imagine the look of wonder that would cross your young face when you tell yourself about how little this all costs. Here’s how I would describe Spotify to my 19-year-old self…
“You can listen to pretty much the whole back catalogue of just about every record label in the world, and all the new releases which come out by all your favourite bands. You have what amounts to unlimited access to every piece of music ever recorded, and it’s FREE… as long as you don’t mind the occasional advert in between songs. You music collection is infinite!”
“Can I tape it all and play it on my walkman when I leave the house?” is a question your young counterpart may venture.
“Well, not exactly…” you’d reply. You’d then continue with…
“But for £9.99 a month you can save it all to a device the size of a single cassette case and take it with you wherever you go. That’s right… for the paltry sum of a tenner every four weeks, you can have, to keep, a CD quality copy of every album you ever wanted, or ever will want and you can listen to it all anywhere you like… at home, on the bus, in the car, or even out walking the dog.”
Just think how someone from the relatively recent world of the 1990s would react to that image of the future. They would, quite rightly, be amazed and impatient for the future to arrive.
I know I will never convince the hard-core vinyl junkies out there. To some folks, the smell of the record sleeve, the ritual of handling the LP by only the edges as they reverently place it on the turntable, and the perceived warmth of the sound are a vital part of the way they appreciate music. That said, I’ve yet to come across a person of this persuasion who will agree to a blind test to see if they can actually distinguish vinyl from digital. Even if they could, I’d wager it would be the surface noise – the inherent imperfections in sound reproduction caused by the needle on the record – that would tell them they were listening to music on technology perfected in the 1950s.
For me, enjoyment of music is all about losing myself in the emotional response created by the interaction of melody, harmony, lyrics and rhythm. I want to hear the music as I would if I’d been in the studio listening while the band were performing it, without anything (like tape-hiss or the sound of a stylus in a groove) colouring it or getting in the way. The medium it is stored on, and the packaging it is sold in matter not one jot. That great visionary, Arthur C. Clarke once said “Any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic.” When it comes to the infinite wonderland of instantaneous music we now have I can’t think of a better way to describe it. It’s magical.