“We’re suddenly in a period when it’s de rigueur to buy records” – Alan Scholefield, Honest Jon’s Records, London
“… but those clerks are still there, still sneering at your bad choices, offering you an understated but supportive raise of the eyebrow for your good ones.” – Nick Hornby, writer
“There was always interesting music playing, but I was too timid to actually buy a record, you know, in case I bought the wrong record” – Damon Albarn, musician, singer-songwriter
Chapter 2: Record Stores
At different times in my life, I have daydreamt about owning a record store. These days however, running one seems like a first class ticket to financial disaster. Apart from the obvious incentives, including satisfaction of my vanity and intimidation of unsuspected customers (Jack Black’s portrayal of an erratic assistant in “High Fidelity” has brilliantly set the bar too high), I have very fond childhood memories from my casual visits with my dad to the local record stores in the late 80s. I still remember a particular owner slipping mix-tapes in the bag for my school parties (an early form of piracy I guess, but this is for another chapter). I was exposed at a very young age to various musical genres, which I regrettably snubbed or simply ignored, due to immaturity and stubbornness. Very late at the party, but after a long time I gradually started to appreciate and embrace various genres and styles.
Living in Greece in the 90s, thousands of miles away from the main theater of musical developments, the exposure to new music and movements used to come with delay. The access to information was still in an embryonic state; however a handful of record stores, radio producers and club promoters managed against all odds to create a small, but demanding and educated community. Nonetheless, keeping up with the rapidly evolving and mutating music landscape has always been a perpetual struggle.
I was introduced to electronic music by a friend in the early 90s and a whole new world had opened before my eyes, a sort of an epiphany. By that time, I was old and cheeky enough to pay a visit to a record store by myself and spend the meager remnants of my weekly allowance. I was very reluctant at first, almost intimidated. I will borrow a quote by Damon Albarn that eloquently summarizes the picture of those days: “There was always interesting music playing, but I was too timid to actually buy a record, you know, in case I bought the wrong record”.
The occasional trips downtown soon became more frequent. Then it was every Saturday morning and soon after, more than once a week. I will spare you the usual clichés (regardless, most of them actually hold true) about the touch and feel of vinyl, the rituals, the atmosphere, the social nature of record shopping, the hierarchy among the customers, skipping school or work, counting the nanoseconds freezing at the doorstep until the store opened, skipping sightseeing at a foreign city in order to accommodate time for a decent record digging etc. I have met actual vinyl junkies, who would prefer to buy the same record in a test press, promo and full artwork format, than have dinner. Although I am pretty obsessed with music, I don’t consider myself one of them, even remotely; a full artwork copy would do.
I haven’t been a dj, a radio producer or an eccentric millionaire, so buying music has been exclusively for home listening. In that regard, the financial constraint has dictated many of my choices. If I could afford one record per week for instance, then it had to be something I really liked. Well, that hasn’t stopped me from buying records that I haven’t listened to for a second time, since I bought them. That being said, I inevitably decided that I should focus on a single genre; electronic music and jungle/drum & bass in particular.
The shops I was visiting at the time would not stock what I was looking for, and even if they did, the stock would be for small numbers. As a result, it was mainly a matter of luck and persistence to secure the records I was after. At first, unless you were a regular, saving records under the counter for a later purchase wasn’t an option, as anyone who would ask for them would eventually have them. So, I had resorted to various tricks, like hiding records behind the Greek folk music rack for another day and prayed that no other customer would be cunning enough to do the same thing – well apparently I wasn’t the only sharp pencil in the box. Another one, which I am not really proud of, was to buy all 3 copies of a particular record, so no-one else would have it. These were the first signs of the obsession that was creeping in and escalated over the years to paying ridiculous money for second-hand records or for classics I had missed in the first place; the analogy being the James Joyce or Dostoyevsky classics everyone has on their library, but a few have actually read.
The years went on, the digital age emerged (I will elaborate on another chapter), my priorities changed, many indie record labels decided that it wasn’t financially sustainable to release music on vinyl and even if they did it would be for limited numbers. The lust for vinyl gradually faded, only to be replaced by another addiction; collecting digital media. Like millions of people I swapped aesthetics for convenience, when I discovered the online record stores. Very reluctant at first, totally frenetic once I got familiar with the process, I was trying to re-live the old rush. Of course, digital files cannot be compared to a physical product in any way, in the same fashion a high-resolution digital poster cannot be on a par with a hand-made painting/drawing. Nonetheless, online music shopping has been easier, faster and less frustrating, unless a package has been lost or delayed. Ah, and the unlikely case the postman has the same musical taste with you.
Fast forward to the present, I still buy records and visit the occasional record store every now and again, especially when I am on a trip abroad. Bad habits die hard, let alone obsessions. The unlimited access and exposure to all kinds of music have expanded my musical horizons and helped me slowly abolish stereotypes and blinders that have hindered my insight. My mail inbox is flooded every day with newsletters, so I can discover new exciting music and keep up-to-date. The supply of music nowadays though seems far higher than the demand, so the new challenge is to find a way to apply the right filters. However, back in the day, these filters were pretty much straight forward and this will be the topic of the next part of the series.
End of Chapter 2
Next Chapter: Part 3 – Record Labels