“That is where it all starts really isn’t it?” Bella Union boss Simon Raymonde said to me early last week as we sat drinking tea and chatting about independent record stores near the label’s HQ in East London. Delivered with such earnest conviction, this understated and beautifully simple notion struck me at the time, but I didn’t quite realise how apt it was until I started replaying all the conversations I have subsequently had about Record Store Day.
For Simon it all began at Beggars Banquet Records in Earls Court, where he had his “first, and only real job”. For Heavenly Recordings’ Jeff Barrett it was Saturday market stalls and Revolver Records in Bristol. These are the places that started it all for the hundreds of journalists, musicians and music lovers today who have been quoted saying they are not sure what they would be doing now if they hadn’t discovered the joys of an independent record store.
For me, it all began in a little independent record store called Solo Music, tucked away in the deepest darkest depths of Devon. Instead of an overwhelmingly large warehouse aesthetic with uniformed racks of 3for2deals set to bombard you upon entry, Solo is a long narrow shop that is divided in two. The left hand side of the shop had a small rack of CDs at the front featuring more mainstream albums and singles from the charts, but the moment you took more than one step in the door you would find an amazing selection of alternative CDs, with little staff recommendation stickers scribbled in biro dotted around the place. Then towards the back you could head on through to the other side of the shop and into a room that was basically just wall-to-wall vinyl and there was always something incredible filtering forth from the speakers.
Going in there was always about so much more than just buying a record. The people behind the counter didn’t conform to that trite snooty record store employee stereotype, they were friendly and always took the time to recommend something you might like. Eventually I got to know the people who worked there, we had some really fun afternoons just hanging out and talking about music. There was always a hand-written piece of paper on the counter with local gig listings for the week or month, and I got to see some great shows because of it. In fact because of Solo Music in Barnstaple, I found out about their sister shop in Exeter, where I then discovered a place called Martian Records and a venue called The Cavern. The Cavern was where I saw my first real rock show and decided to write about it! Solo Music started everything for me.
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss stories like these as misty-eyed nostalgia in a climate that is currently seeing record prices rise, sales plummet, stores close and everyone downloading everything from the Internet for free anyway. With Mercury records announcing they are stopping production of physical singles and HMV having to close over 60 stores whilst they teeter on the edge of liquidation, it’s impossible to deny the record industry is in some serious trouble and it’s easy to understand why some people see independent record stores as an expensive bastion of a lost era.
There are 187 stores taking part in this year’s Record Store Day across the UK, from Aberdeen to Yorkshire, and yes Solo Music is one of them. There are 22 official stores in London alone, from Rough Trade West and East to places like Sounds of The Universe, Phonica and Sister Ray on Berwick Street.
My love of physical records and independent stores didn’t stop simply because something more convenient came along with downloading. Obviously I find myself listening to a lot of new music on the Internet as bands set up bandcamps and soundclouds to showcase their songs, but I love buying records. Most people I know still love buying records: the physicality of having a record collection, rummaging through racks of vinyl in the excited hope they might find something extra special, the beauty of the artwork and the sound quality of a pressed 12” is something they cherish.
Oh and that bygone era – you know the one where the local indie shop would be the place to hang out, the place where everything started, a creative melting pot where you could talk about music, maybe form a band, change the world and genuinely meet some incredibly interesting people – it’s not gone. Maybe you just stopped looking for it as you digitalise your life or maybe you lost touch just as major retailers have lost touch of what it means to sell music, but it’s still here. And Record Store Day, well it’s here to celebrate that: to celebrate the stores and their independent ethos, their personal touches and their love of good music. In my books, anything that actually encourages the world to support the musical community instead of idly lamenting its demise is nothing short of amazing.