I have a confession to make, despite the fact I love buying music & I always have, I’ve always felt pretty indifferent to independent record shops.
Now I’ve got some skin in this game, I’ve worked for a high street entertainment retailer for nearly 20 years. I’m the enemy, at least for many years I was perceived as the enemy. However, my indifference to indie record shops pre-dates that. As a teenager in the 90’s hanging around Glasgow city centre on a Saturday afternoon I had a feast of record shops to choose from – 3 HMVs, 2 Virgins, Tower & at least half a dozen indies within 10-15 minutes walk of each other. I’d quite often get round them all. My favourite was probably, at a push, Tower followed by Virgin on Union St because those two seemed to have the most interesting stuff – the imports & the extra things you wouldn’t find anywhere else, be that books or t-shirts or fanzines or whatever – they were also the biggest. I preferred a record shop that I could spend a good amount of time looking around at everything.
I could say that the difference between the big chains & the indies was because of the old, cliched snobbish record shop attitude of sneering at customers was worse in the indie shops but, in my experience, that wasn’t true. If anything I found that attitude was more prevalent in the big chains (I especially found that with some of the people I worked with in my early days employed by a big chain). My issue was more that in the days when there were dozens of indie record shops in every city, & at least 1 or 2 in every town, so many of them were just plain rubbish. Often run by guys (always guys) who thought music peaked in the 70s & hadn’t bothered much to update their stock since. These guys in their ten years out-of-date leather jackets & tragic Marillion t-shirts would sit there all day doing very little & any bold punter who dared to cross the threshold would be considered a nuisance. The shop would be a mess. The shelves half empty. The ambience would be brittle. Those type of indie shops were ten-a-penny. I encountered dozens of them over the years.
Then through the 00’s they all started to close. Weeping words have been written in their thousands bemoaning the loss of the humble indie record shop. Top two reasons cited was always the internet & the big high street chains. No one ever said, “aye, but most of them were shite”. Well I did. I said that. Most of them were shite. I worked in a few different towns in the 00s where I was part of the big, evil Goliath dwarfing these plucky Davids. In almost all of those towns an indie competitor closed down during my time there. I swear to you, every single one of them only had themselves to blame. They were rubbish. When times got tough they did nothing to arrest their decline. They sat on their hands blaming the big brute round the corner & dreamt of the 70s. They all could have done more, they all could have offered something different to the high street chains, some of them did.
The best indie record shops survived, they’re still going now. The ones that cared about what they were, loved what they did, treasured their customers. They are still out there dotted across the country (not the guy in Edinburgh though – fuck that guy). My indifference has carried on though I’m afraid. I’ve had staff discount for nearly 20 years so I’ve never had the chance to build up any love for the remaining indies in the intervening years. My desire for authenticity has never been strong enough to tempt me to pay full price. Record Store Day leaves me cold – I mean I’m right into the old-fashioned romanticism of profiteering on eBay as much as the next man but thus far I’ve managed to do without. Also I had a bad experience about a dozen years ago, I was in a (then) indie shop in Glasgow’s West End. I heard a song playing that I instantly loved but I didn’t know who it was, which isn’t something that happens to me very often in record shops, so I asked. The assistant looked at me like I’d just asked him who the Beatles were & huffily sneered at me that it was Sufjan Stevens – an artist that it’s unlikely my mother would know even now but then (pre-Illinoise) was virtually unknown with very little press coverage & almost zero radio play. I still adore Sufjan Stevens. I bought 3 of his then 4 albums in that shop that day – in some part out of spite for the arsehole sales assistant. I’ve never been in that shop again though. It set my indie shop indifference in stone.
I’m not going to bother writing a long diatribe now proclaiming the merits of my own employer for the last 19 years – I sort of did that a few blogs ago – I’ll say this though, I’ve always taken exception to the notion that real music lovers can be found working in indie shops as opposed to the chain store staff. The vast majority of folk I’ve worked with over the years are real bona fide music (and film) lovers. Plus you won’t find any sneering (certainly not in my shop anyway). I said in my last blog that I despise musical snobbery, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the big mainstream blockbuster releases pay the bills & that allows there to be a business that can also sell the small, interesting releases by less mainstream artists. One Direction & Michael Buble & Adele put my boy’s presents under the Xmas tree year after year. Then I get to buy albums on Bella Union all year round.
I’ll be honest, some of this is borne out of bitterness. I’d love to have a record shop of my very own. I’ll never have the finances to do it but it would be the very best of indie shops. I already manage as good a high street record shop as you could ever hope to frequent (and when people occasionally comment that it has the feel of an indie shop, that is my favourite compliment). I resent all those people who’ve wasted the opportunity over the years & I’m envious of the ones who’ve been successful. Maybe I’m a little jealous of the kudos they get too. Also, in general, I hate hipsters. So there’s that.
Anyway, thanks for reading. Whatever you do, wherever you shop, buy music on a physical format (preferably vinyl, definitely vinyl – not for any audiophile sound quality bobbins, I don’t care about that – it’s just better).
I will now sell 5 copies of The 3 EPs by The Beta Band.