Perhaps this will come as a surprise to absolutely no-one, but we are fast approaching the death-throes of record retailing in the UK. Of course, we've all been predicting it for years - how online purchasing would lead to the demise of retail - but rather like the possibility of a death in the family we've tended to put it out of our thoughts until it actually happens. Sadly it's about that time - I think I can well and truly declare that the grieving process needs to start, as all around us our loved ones become only memories.
I live in the 52nd most populated settlement in the UK - the much maligned Berkshire town of Slough - a community with a population of around 126,000 people, roughly 50% 'Caucasian' and 50% 'Asian / Other'. When I moved here 15 years ago, Slough was able to support at least 6 record shops including an outlet for each of the major chains - HMV, Virgin, Our Price - plus several indie shops including the magnificent Slough Record Centre on the Farnham Road. Last month the HMV store in the main shopping centre shut up shop and removed the racks - a shabby printed note on the shutters proclaiming that Slough residents need not worry, they could take the train to Windsor to buy records from the HMV there. Slough residents will need to take the train because the HMV was the last record shop left in town (with the exception of one remaining Asian music record shop).
First to go was the Our Price (remember them?), which was a single unit shop on the High Street, followed by the steady demise of the independent dance shops - Ruff House, Monty's Record Bunker, Salvation and the like. Then Virgin fell- an abysmal store at best with it's unhelpful layout and poor selection, no wonder it didn't survive long enough to get re-branded with the Zavvi kiss of death. The next sad loss was that of Elusive Vinyl - a long-standing feature of the "shopping village". Elusive's charming and helpful owner Steve Nash felt the pinch as the decline in vinyl sales dropped alongside the public's interest in DJ'ing, finally shutting up shop in 2005. The biggest blow came next with the tragic closure of Slough Record Centre, a family owned and run business established 40 years ago. The Cherry family (Mum, Dad, two kids) all worked in the shop - which catered for general tastes in music CDs, a decent selection of specialist music, and a very well stocked vinyl section overseen by sister and brother Sam and Simon. One thing I know is that it wasn't my fault :- I spent several thousand pounds there over the years when I was DJing, plus I used to browse the CD racks for other items of interest. Everyone who worked there was really helpful and friendly, and the shop occupied a spacious double-fronted unit with easy parking outside. The significance of SRC closing will not be lost on the citizens of Slough - it had stood in the same location for more than 40 years, providing millions of records to 3 generations of music buyers. When SRC shut up shop in 2007 it was a loss we all felt.
The next to fall was Sovereign Sounds - one of two Asian Music specialists in Slough - their retail unit in the monolithic Tesco now staring glassy-eyed at the supermarket checkouts from whitewashed windows. That Slough with two record retailers - Music Station (the other Asian Specialist) and the HMV in Queensmere shopping centre. To be fair, the HMV in Slough was pretty good for a retail chain. It was a large unit, with plenty of space for regular browsing racks and the seemingly endless 2 for £10 sale items. The staff were also really helpful and knowledgeable - with obscurities finding their was into the store alongside the latest disposables from Simon Cowell et al. Why, I even bought a Melvins album there in it's week of release for only £10 (A Senile Animal, in case you're wondering). The store had been gradually given over to more Blu-Ray and electronic entertainment devices in recent times, but the record browsers still maintained the lion's share of floor space. It was still the sort of store where you could wander in with £20, spend half an hour or so browsing and usually come away with 3 or more CDs at a decent price - impulse purchases because they were there in your hand at a decent price. Then all of a sudden it was shut. What the hell happened to the tattooed guys and gals, the music fans who worked there? Working in a record shop used to be a rite of passage for the music-lover, but that career option is now no longer available.
That leaves us with Music Station, the asian music specialist who stock a wide range of Asian music, selling mostly Bollywood and Bhangra. "It's the piracy" says owner Prateesh, "And it's everywhere. We were a record label ourselves, we used to produce as well but we've stopped now for the last four years. I think (record retailing) is finished, there's no future in it. I think the artists will suffer, we used to have ten bands on our label - all UK artists - but we had to release all of them (from contract). People are file-sharing, downloading, and I don't think any record label is making money these days. There's plenty of talent but nobody's going to take any more risks." Prateesh is not optimistic that he will stay in the music business, and it's easy to understand why.
Personally I think the record shop will live-on in one form or another. Right now is a bad time and we're going to see closure on a grand scale, but extinction? I think not. To start with, a handful of specialist shops will survive - Ray's Jazz and similar classical music shops normally run a good mail order service - shops for the collectors, the serious music fans, and the bargain hunters. And then there's the record fairs and the music exchanges - as more freshly digitised CDs become discarded, the next layer of music trading is replenished with thousands of CDs being taken to charity shops or sold in bulk online. For many people, online will be the only way forward now - that, or whatever Tesco has for sale. But I remember this cycle last time around with the near-death of vinyl. Who could have predicted that vinyl would have re-emerged to such an extent that the surviving pressing plants struggled to keep up with demand? During that bleak time, vinyl-heads didn't just give up - they sought out their format in charity shops, record fairs and specialist outlets. This is what I think will happen with CD - a format which, although limited by today's standards, is indisputably better in sound quality than the file-compressed compromise that is mp3 and it's ilk. I think people will miss the sense of owning the music instead of just having it, because a data file does not make for much of a gift. A nicely packaged record - new or otherwise - does.
Perhaps I am over-optimistic, but either way something is slipping away from us right now, and so I urge you (wherever you live) to go to your local record shops and photograph them while they are still there. If it's too late, photograph the closed store and send them into us here at Chimpomatic. Quick - before it's too late.
23rd Oct 2009 - Tumblr
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