I was unfortunately and personally reminded of a trend today: the demise of the independent record shop. I’m not ignorant of what’s been happening: as an independent musician, these were the only places that would stock my albums; as a music lover with growing purchase power as I left my teens, I knew these were the places that carried the music I wanted to hear and where my dollars would go farther in support of that music; and as a moderate Nick Hornby fan, I felt a twinge of hipster duty to eschew the big retailers.
As music sales have increasingly moved online (tardily following “file sharing” or “piracy” – take yer pick), I participated cautiously. I still preferred CDs, for my own enjoyment and increasingly for the ease of my young children finding something and putting it on, and when we lived in Canada, where CDs are generally cheaper and where there was a great indy shop just around the corner, it was easy. Moving here was more of a challenge, but it coincided with studenthood and its accompanying penury and parenthood and its accompanying fuddyduddyism.
When HMV went bust, I thought mildly, Good riddance. It was sad to loose a shop selling physical music, but most people were buying crap online, and when I wanted the music I wanted, there were always the indies.
Brings us to now.
It was my birthday not that long ago, and my parents put some money in my bank account so I could get a present of my choosing. Or just buy groceries: they know. But I held off committing the cash, and then got wind of two events: the CD release of what had been a vinyl issue for (ironically) Record Store Day from the defunct REM. The Unplugged sets from their MTV broadcasts in 1991 and 2001, including tracks that did not make the broadcast. And Neil Young‘s pressing of his singing in a can, complete with Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.” I had read the reviews, and I know the audiophiles and snooty critics were down on the sound and already considered it one more unnecessary Neil record, sullying with rust an impressive career that could have burnt out happily a couple of decades ago. Whatever, right? I have long attachments to these artists, and if the CD is a legacy medium, then it stands to reason it’s the legacy artists I will put down the bills for.
To wit: Paul Simon’s complete solo recordings – a Christmas present. And Pearl Jam’s Lightning Bolt. When this one came out, I made my way to the localest record shop, on Southbridge, to proudly buy it from an independent retailer. Only, he said he wasn’t selling: if he couldn’t sell new CDs for a fiver, customers were unlikely to buy them, so he just didn’t stock it. Ancient copies of Dark Side of the Moon? We got ’em. I dug around online and found a place in the Grassmarket called Avalanche, and I called first to save me the disappointing walk. Yes, he carried it. No, he didn’t have any, because they already sold out. (I thought this was encouraging until I learned he had ordered three copies.) Yes, he would be getting more in, so call back. And I did. And finally made the journey down, suffered the conversation with a guy who’d really rather be selling challenging music on vinyl but shows some interest for the guy with the funny accent who wants to buy a CD of embarrassing has-beens.
I wrote that last phrase with some sadness. I don’t like to think of Pearl Jam as embarrassing has-beens, though the “classic rock” tag has been dogging them for a while. But really, I don’t care. They continue to devote themselves to the live show, and they have kept their music engaging for me for two decades. I will never lose my love, and I owe them my commitment to buy their records. Even though I already suspected this one would be a stinker. And it sort of was. I can’t really say – I played it all through once, with my daughter. I haven’t found an excuse to go back to it yet.
Well, now it’s Pearl Jam’s alt-rock pathmakers REM who have a new music (or a new release, at least), and their spiritual godfather Neil Young. So I go back to the indies. First, Coda Music, prominent on the Mound and specialising in folk music. I thought the Neil record had a Smithsonian Folkways quality, so I figured they’d have it. And REM are, well, acoustic. I’d seen similar bands in the window, so I thought it wasn’t unreasonable. Sadly, no REM – she thought they might have it on vinyl, which they didn’t but would have done me no good anyway. And Neil? Well, they’d ordered it. Supposed to arrive yesterday. “You could try down the hill on Rose Street. I’m sure <insert big music retailer here> got their order in,” she said with a grim face.
Starving the indies to feed the remaining big retailers? Terrible.
This was not on, so I climbed down the hill in the other direction, back to the Grassmarket. Avalanche’s stock of new CDs seemed slim and on-demandy, but I felt good about my chances. And crumpled when I reached the doors, shuttered up and festooned with a “to let” sign. They were done – artisan-roast coffee and all. (This is gladly not quite the case: they moved to a location on Blair Street at Cabaret Voltaire, but alas, I found out too late.)
I’m really angry about this. It’s not enough that HMV has been basically mothballed, its location in the Leith Walk shopping centre taken over by (good luck, fellas) a video game shop. In a few months, a precarious business has closed its doors and moved, in a compromise that they are painting (understandably) as a really positive event, and another one, with a more niche specialty to help it survive, is being starved of the mainstream product that will help float it from specific customer to specific customer. I’m angry that I could not make my purchases at the kind of place the artists I’m buying want me to support. Pearl Jam, REM – they do special things just for Record Store Day.
I’m going to have to concoct a non-dinosaur music need so I can go back to Coda and put some pounds in their till. I don’t want the phenomenon that just sounded like a journalist’s ominous warning to be a complete reality.
No review of the new records yet. I literally bought the records, went home for dinner, put the kids to bed, and wrote this. I have no thoughts yet to share on scratchy Neil, but we did give a listen to the 1991 Unplugged set over dinner. I have another Nick Hornby problem, because I want my kids to hear and be familiar with the Out of Time versions of “Losing My Religion,” “Low,” and the immaculate “Half a World Away.” Are these live versions an improvement? Is lo-fi Neil more honest and gritty than what he gave us on Harvest? It’s the Juliet, Naked problem (especially apt, because of the REM-worthy inclusion of the comma in the title). But my kids first heard “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” from singing along with me as I banged it out on the guitar. So it really is songs more than performances for them, at this point. In time, we will be reunited with the remainder of my ancient CDs, currently stored at Granny and Grandpa’s in Nepean, Ontario. What I can tell you is this: “Fretless” is intriguing, they do a stunning rendition of “Losing My Religion,” and I felt gratified at the cheers when they’re just a couple of bars into “Swan Swan H,” considering how dismissive Uncut magazine was of it in their post-break-up retrospective special issue. I love the song, and I am pleased that, circa 1991, some friends and fans at the MTV studio loved it as well.