Tomorrow is Record Store Day, celebrating the few remaining small, independent record stores in countries all around the world. There are special limited-edition releases available from dozens of artists (if you get there early enough), and free performances in some locations too. While it's all well and good, and certainly a fun slice of nostalgia for those of us old enough to remember record shops at their prime, I do wonder what the purpose of it is. The cynic in me says it's simply to prolong a fatally outdated distribution system for the benefit of those who still have a stake in it.
I watched a report on TV from a record store in Bristol, England this morning. On it, a typical record store employee (an earnest chap who looked like he'd never had another job in his life), and a retirement-age businessman who once owned a string of record stores in Scotland, were lamenting the demise of record stores since digital made buying music so much more convenient for everyone, saying "we're passionate about music at record stores, and that passion is what only record stores can give music fans".
(My partner, by the way, who adores music and clubbing, said she'd never been in an independent record store in her life, and that if she ever bought a record, she'd have had to play it on her dad's player - no, she was too busy taping music off the radio, and hanging around in Virgin...)
The report continued with a lady who looked like she's been listening to The Smiths since 1984 saying how "MP3s don't sound as good as CDs" (ironic because when CDs came along, vinyl aficionados said the same thing about them).
It all felt to me a bit like a group of vintage transport restorers bigging up a Horse and Cart Day.
Why cars replaced horse-drawn carriages
You can imagine the arguments when cars came along at the turn of the last century: "cars don't have lovely saddles", "horses don't need petrol", "you don't see the countryside as closely when you're travelling at those kinds of speeds", "cars don't recognise you and become your friend like horses do...". Yeah, all true. But cars were still a million times better. It's the same with digital music. Digital is fast, cheaper, instant, never out of stock, and therefore simply, logically, a million times better.
People say vinyl sales are rising (maybe they are, from really low to just low), but hand-on-heart only the completely deluded would ever say they believe digital music will ever now be miraculously replaced by vinyl again. (Note how they want digital to be replaced by vinyl, not CDs. Two steps back, not one. Fat chance!) Yes, digital may still have its flaws; early cars did too; they were smelly, slow and unreliable in comparison to today's vehicles. So what happened? They got cheaper, faster, and more reliable!
So you don't like the sound quality of MP3s? If enough people agree with you, then (especially with higher bandwidth and storage), lossless audio will become a reality. Feel you can't replicate the record shop experience online? New services are springing up all the time for music discovery that aim to help you find what you want in ever-more innovative ways.
As for the elitist argument that the only place people are really passionate about music is in dusty old record shops? I'm not even going to counter that. Also, there's something that happens whenever new replaces old: people conveniently forget that they used to whinge about the old when it was all they had.
Through rose-tinted glasses, we tend to forget the downsides of record stores: the often surly, uninterested staff; the ridiculously high prices of imports and dance 12s (especially promos that DJs got given for free, sold to the shops for pennies, and which the shops then marked up sometimes ten-fold); the chronic lack of supply of the best stuff; the pure amount of time it took to find the music you wanted; the male bias; the sweaty smell; the queues for listening posts with broken, cheap headphones...
Downloads will soon be history, too...
There's another thing too, that really will put the final nail in the coffin of this tired old argument, and move the debate on to completely new ground: For those of us who've still got our eyes open, it's becoming clear that soon, practically nobody will buy music at all - they'll just subscribe to always-on services from which they can listen to anything they like, whenever they want.
Your music locker will exist in the cloud, streamed to your devices (much as Amazon's Kindle keeps all your book purchases in a certain place, the company is now replicating the Kindle Store's success with its Cloud Drive and Cloud Player for music, that automatically keeps your Amazon MP3 purchases online for you. It will be the first of many).
Yes, DJs may continue to keep copies of music in set lists for DJing with, but we're not like the general public. Music purchasing as we know it, whether vinyl, cassette, CD, MP3, WAV or any other format, will eventually disappear pretty much entirely as a mainstream activity.
Maybe then there'll be an Online Record Store Day, when Beatport releases digital download-only one-offs and we all have to be there early to get them!
Nothing personal, it's just progress
Don't get me wrong, I really don't mean to denigrate the good people involved in Record Store Day, although despite having spent most of my youth in record shops, I don't particularly miss them myself. But Record Store Day is celebrating a culture that's been largely lost. It's still close enough in history to make people who remember "the good old days" sad, and I respect that, but I don't want them telling em their way is the only way.
Times move on. And vinyl will no doubt never completely die, just like horse-drawn carriages won't. But while people still go to horse fairs, you can bet they drive there in their fast, warm, reliable cars. And you can also bet that most people who go and buy a limited-edition record or CD at a "real" record store tomorrow then go right home and rip it to MP3 so they can play it on their wonderful, modern iPods.
Will you be visiting your local independent record store tomorrow? Do you miss "real" record shops? Or are you completely comfortable sourcing your music online nowadays and can't see what the fuss is all about? Please let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.