Word is HMV is closing shop. This follows a trend that started over a decade ago and appears to be coming to a final curtain. Which is, the end of the chain record store.
For my entire life, record stores have been like church to me. They were where I went be around my favorite thing. Music. Which records, more than anything else, represented.
When I was a kid, we didn’t have a lot of money. Buying a new record was a pretty big deal. That didn’t stop me from hanging out at record stores. I’d spend hours just looking through the racks, reading the credits, making a mental wish list and just enjoying being around records. I remember gong to what many would call the fair, which in our case was a carnival, midway and exhibition called Klondike Days. There were rides and games and carnival food. There was also a marketplace and in it was a pop up record shop. Instead of going on rides or playing the games of chance, I would spend a big chunk of my time at Klondike Days just perusing the records, even though I didn’t have enough money to buy one.
The only time I almost stole something. There was a $2.99 sale at Kelly’s in Edmonton. Previous to this, my older brother John had bought both Masters Of Reality by Black Sabbath and the original Rock Opera version of Jesus Christ Superstar, the real one with Ian Gillan. I loved both of these records and played the crap out of them. In the sale bin there was Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and the original cast recording of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which I’d never heard of but was by the same guys who wrote and produced Superstar. I could only pick one so I went for Joseph. As it turned out, the Joseph record was a London cast recording of the stage play and kind of sucked. Or didn’t suck but wasn’t what I was expecting, which was a rock opera like JCS. Disappointed, I took the bus back into Edmonton the next week hoping I might be able to exchange it for Paranoid. I was a very nervous kid and edged my way up to the counter and said, “do you give refunds on the sale records?” to which the clerk of course said, “no”. I meant exchange. Feeling angry about it, I thought about tucking the Joseph record back into the bin and slipping the Sabbath record into my Kelly’s bag. But I didn’t. I went home and listened to the Joseph record 40 times to try and like it. Because that’s what you did when you could only buy a small amount of music, you gave it a chance.
Diversions were few when I was a kid. Television was terrible. So finding time to listen to music was easy. On those days that I actually had enough money to buy a record, I would take it home and listen to it. Not listen while I was doing something else. Just listen to the music. I would listen to any record I bought hundreds of times. This experience was not unique to me and I’m sure many reading who are of a ‘certain age’ can relate to what I’m saying. I remember an interview I once read with Pete Townsend where he talked about loving books. Just touching them and having them in your hands. I have also felt that way about books and book stores.
My obsession with records and record stores lasted well into my adult life, actually until very recently. When we were on the road, I’d go to the local Towers or whatever record store was handy and check out what they had that I couldn’t get back home. Sometime’s our record company would let us pick out a few CD’s after an in store and I would drive the band batty while I meticulously combed the bins to find exactly what I wanted. One of my big regrets is leaving a sealed, vinyl copy of Music From The Magic Christian by Badfinger under the mattress of my bunk on a tour bus.
When Sonic Boom opened in the Annex, I was there pretty much every day. At that point I was flipping through CD’s instead of vinyl but I was still spending an hour or so, checking out what they had and what I might be able to buy. This was post Napster. Some habits are hard to break.
I imagine people look at the generation that follows them and wonders if their experience of the world is as idyllic as their own. So I ask myself, are kids missing out on something because most of them never set foot in a record store? Most of them don’t buy music in the way we used to. (This doesn’t even address radio, which was another bounty of musical experience that shaped me as a kid).
Let’s examine how a young person might access music today. They can purchase music online without ever leaving their house. The catalog of recordings that is available through iTunes outstrips any record store from my youth. Then there are sites like Bandcamp, Reverbnation and Soundcloud where they can discover indy music. Finally there is YouTube where almost every recording known to man, not to mention live performances and more amateur music than you could listen to in a lifetime, exists. There is also Spotify, where kids can listen to music without having to empty their bank accounts to buy it. Just pay a few bucks a month to have access to a wide catalog of music.
If I think of a song, or am wondering about a song, or am trying to tell someone about a song, I can access any of these sites and be able to hear the song pretty much instantaneously. If I could have done this as a kid, you would have had to pry me away from my computer.
The downside, of course, is that the internet has devalued music. Because music was so ‘rare’ in terms of my ability to access it, I was happy to pay for it when I was able to. A kid once said to me, “if I had to pay for music, I wouldn’t have half the music that I do.” Yes, you would be me as a kid. I didn’t even have 1/50th of the music that I wanted.
So are things better now? I guess it’s all about context. Was my experience as a kid better than the experiences of a young music listener today? I’m going to say no. Here is what was bad about my experience. Early on, the supply of music wasn’t so vast and most music could be found in your local record store. As popular music grew and certain recordings became hyper successful, I’m talking about you Frampton Comes Alive and Saturday Night Fever, both record companies and retailers became fixated on making and selling recordings that would sell in huge quantities. So records that didn’t or stopped selling as many copies as labels and stores wanted them to, were deleted, banished to history and obscurity. This got worse and worse over the years. So finding a song like, Mr. Dyingly Sad by The Critters or Crazy Jane by Tom Northcott was virtually impossible unless you could find it in a used record store.
The internet has given people access to songs that have been abandoned by the powers that controlled music. This is the best part and is the part that trumps any nostalgia that I can conjure up about record stores. And while I may lament the closing of HMV and before them, Tower, A&A, Kelly’s and Cheapies, for my own personal reasons, it’s been replaced by something so magical, my younger self wouldn’t have been able to imagine it.
And the fall of the chain record store doesn’t mean the end of the record store. The resurgence of vinyl has created a boom for the independent record shop. So as much as I remember my youth with fondness, life for the music fan has never been better. Now for the musician….
Post Script. It is now looking like Sunrise Records might be buying some of the HMV locations. Not sure how they are planning to make that work but stay tuned, maybe this isn’t over?