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Why shop at high street record stores?

Why bother flicking through racks of vinyl or CDs in a store, when you can search, buy, download, stream and play music using only a smartphone? There are arguments about formats and quality (analog or digital for example), but in the end, portability and convenience usually win out over quality for most people.

Music fans still visit the ever-dwindling high street retail chains, but many now pay subscriptions to stream, buy downloads, or order online from vast ecommerce warehouses. All the expected artists and discounts are online, the merchandise is online, and no one is judging your musical taste. It’s a painless purchasing experience and you don't even need to leave the house - it's as easy as ordering a pizza.

As for recording artists, digital output is a cost effective way to distribute music. Copying digital files is far easier than pressing records and printing sleeves.

Extinction of the Vinylsaurs?

The above are some of the reasons why physical music formats such as vinyl records and CDs, and the independent record stores that sell them, should no longer be around. The final nail should've gone in a while ago, and yes, unfortunately for some independent stores, this was indeed the case. But not for all. Some downsized or went through hard times, but they’re still there, even after the additional financial death-grip of gentrification, which continues to sweep through places like London.

It’s Back!

There are now reports about a resurgence of interest in vinyl. But as independent record stores will politely tell you, vinyl never went away. It’s very much alive and always has been.

For a while, CDs ate up the vinyl market. Tons of money was made from re-issues on CD, and production was more cost effective. But then, distribution became a little wild and uncontrollable once digital file sharing first became an option in the mid to late nineties. Everyone lost out until things began to stabilize with new streaming platforms and more secure technology. Streaming now dwarfs other music formats and is the way most experience or discover music, and it's likely to stay that way.

However, vinyl has always been there, and likely to stay around for one simple reason. Aside from an early start with wax cylinders and shellac, vinyl has been the way to capture musical performances from day one. During the 50s, 60s and 70s it was the main vehicle for distribution through radio stations, jukeboxes and home music players. These recordings are still around. Some may be a little worn, but an extensive history of music has been preserved, and it's all out there on vinyl. Collating and redistributing this massive archive is what the independent second-hand record stores have always been about.

Vinyl Kudos

From an artist’s point of view, yes, digital provides convenience, but there is often a deep sense of satisfaction once an artist has a copy of their own output on vinyl. It’s real. It’s tangible. It also places them with all their peers and musical heroes who did the same thing. This feeling of association and ownership is passed on as the fans buy the records.

When Music Meets Art

Getting to know who's behind the music is essential for the complete picture. Vinyl, and CDs to a certain extent, offer a lot more real estate in terms of what the artist is about. Cover space or CD booklets help to disseminate visual fantasy, creative themes, social attitudes, and pictures of the musicians themselves through cover art, photography, album titles and printed lyrics. This was especially important in the early days when distribution was mostly via vinyl or cassette, and opportunities to communicate visual ideas and attitudes were limited, or selectively passed on through radio DJs, and the music press.

The imagery of album artwork often sparks an interest in younger music fans, who have always emulated fashion and trends offered by the visual side of music. Even today, a vinyl album is more visually appealing than the semi-existent digital file. Flipping through records in a store can be a far more inspirational and absorbing experience than scrolling through endless lists of titles on a player, or online.

Your first record?

Vinyl has become a nostalgia trip for the generation who grew up with it, and these are the people who are buying newly pressed classics, or seeking out second-hand copies of the music that influenced their lives and memories. They haven’t thrown their turntables away, and many continue to buy and collect new releases and retrospective box-sets on vinyl by default.

Vinyl is not really new to the younger generation either. The DJ, electronic music, and hip-hop cultures have been instrumental in rediscovering music of the past, and vinyl was the source from which samples and beats were first explored by artists such as Del La Soul and DJ Shadow. Some post-vinyl artists, who could choose from a range of new formats, still included the vinyl aspect in their productions, with added scratching and crackle to emulate a vinyl experience that was baked into new tracks and mixes, even though the output was digital.

Don't Break the Spell

Vinyl also plays an important part in the creative process. Artists often arrange the playing order of tracks as a complete, and carefully curated listening experience that can lift and drop feelings during the musical journey they have created for you. Breaking albums into single digital tracks and shuffling destroys the mood and context in some cases, and is not what the artist intended.

Polyvinyl Chloride is Addictive

Music on vinyl in particular seems to be addictive. Collectors can get pretty serious about the value and rarity. A few become obsessed to the point of madness, but this is not the whole story.

There is a misconception that buying from independent record stores is somehow nerdy, or the environment is unfriendly to those without a collector’s knowledge. The music will be on vinyl or CD and yes, you could be faced with racks of music you’ve never heard of, but this doesn’t mean you should be apprehensive about visiting these stores, or approaching staff if you're not a music expert.

A Deeper Musical Dive

The truth is, independent stores can offer unique collections of vinyl and CDs that are a lot more interesting than the generalised commercial outlets. These people know their stuff, and are savvy about titles and particular artists. Some specialise and focus on particular genres or eras, and most stock new releases and copies of albums you would be familiar with. Some run small independent labels, or have connections to the music business in one way or another, which leads to exclusive or hard-to-come-by releases.

I remember this!

It’s all about discovery and re-connection; that moment of excitement as you flick through, and stumble across albums you never got around to getting, or albums you once had, but have since lost. There's also music from new or less mainstream artists, and albums that have long since disappeared from the more commercial mainstream stores.

Buying second-hand records online is convenient, but titles can quickly go out of stock as available copies can sometimes be in the ones and twos. If you're in the store, you can take your pick from the very latest arrivals, and buy them there and then. You're free to browse through all kinds of collections and genres, and if you avoid the rarities and special editions, prices are generally low enough to indulge in a purchase or two. You can also trade-in your old records for cash, or exchange them if you want to refresh your collection.

Make every day a record store day

Independent record stores are just as important as independent music labels and venues, in that they provide a way to discover music you couldn’t find in any other way. If you haven’t been in a second-hand record store for a while, or you’re totally new to the experience, one thing is likely once you go in - you will come out with something. This could be anything from a copy of a cherished record, to a whole new listening experience.

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The giant ecommerce stores often use automated algorithms and your own data to push stuff back at you, and represent a world where subscription or unit numbers are the focus. But, do they really know or care about what you might also like?

Try a different ethos. Smaller high street outlets have to be about the music, and a shop environment allows you the time and space to browse and select for yourself. There's room to experiment with music unknown to you in terms of price and titles, and there's staff on hand if you want to have a listen, or need a few pointers to help you along.

Streaming or downloads may be the new way to discover music, but an opportunity to become tactile, and to actually own real physical copies, can be a satisfying and highly personal experience.


Matt Sheen ★webstar MMXXI

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