Despite a glut of doom and gloom articles, sales of the black stuff have increased for the fourth year in a row in the UK. Rob Flynn from Cork bass merchants Dubculture considers why.
Record stores through Ireland and the western world have been closing for some time now and its no secret what the main reason for this is. The digitisation of music was predicted to revolutionise the industry and certainly hasn’t come up short in this regard. From early on it was clear that digital music was always going to be a contentious matter. In 1999 the Napster saga caused widespread debate on the pros and cons of illegal downloading and since then, for better or worse, people have found creative ways of sharing digital music for free, cutting a huge chunk out of record shops market share. Brian O’Kelly, founder of Comet Records, formerly Ireland’s longest running record store sums the current situation up well, “There is a whole generation who have never paid anything for music and I don’t know if they will ever be prepared to pay anything for music.”
Digital music has long been controversial for other reasons: sound quality. Club owners, Djs, sound engineers and audiophiles have long railed against mp3 format and its inferior and inadequate sound quality. Sizzle-sounding, highly compressed mp3s have become par for the course for a whole new generation who are unfortunately more than happy to sacrifice higher sound quality in exchange for easily accessed free files.
Recent years have brought an interesting development – enter vinyl from stage left. UK vinyl sales were up for the fourth year in a row in 2010 and rose by 55% year on year for the first six months of 2011 according to figures from the ERA (Entertainment Retailers Association).
A lot of the resurgence in popularity for the format can be attributed to it addressing all the failings of the mp3 format. Comparatively expensive, hard to duplicate, physical, highly collectible and of consistent sound quality, vinyl appears to have spotted a gap in the market and filled it.
There have been many contributing factors to this. This year the release of Radiohead’s King of Limbs album has been cited as a major driving force in of this growth spurt. National Record Store day also seems to gain momentum every year and puts a lot of attention on the format. Vinyl also seems to be under-going a shift in its market tactics. Critically acclaimed underground labels such as Swamp81 have begun pushing the format by employing new marketing techniques to great effect.
A large viral marketing campaign was undertaken online and on radio to generate hype around their recent Sicko Cell 12’’. Playing to the format’s strengths such as its exclusivity and collectibility appear to be working well for many labels now who release solely on vinyl. Several Swamp 81 releases come with high quality artwork and the message with the music is clear, if you’re going to commit something to wax, it had better be worth it.
So where does this leave record stores? In Ireland we’ve seen both independent and high street chains closing left right and centre over the last 10 years. Could the resurgent interest in acetate buck the trend? Its too early to call on that one but perhaps we should be questioning the logic in removing record stores as a marketplace and purchase all our music online.
Despite their popularity sites such as Beatport or Amazon are not a place to discover music and trying to locate some new music amongst the foggy mire that is these sites is an exercise in futility. Almost non-existent distribution costs has meant a significant lowering of the bar for what meets the standard of good-enough-to-be-signed and has seen digital labels throwing great big globs of inadequate tripe at the public wall in the hope that something will stick.
Online music shopping is never going to promote music that’s important to us, the Irish, in a cultural context. But perhaps it never did argues Borderline boss Derek Larkin, “You’d be a fucking mug, this year, last year, twenty years ago to open a shop saying ‘I want to promote local bands.’ When local bands actually sold the shit, I used to let them take all the money. The percentage they could give me would be so worthless that they’d be better keeping the money themselves”. He points to the notion of a benevolent local record store being a creation of the music press “People make up all this shit…but they’re the biggest parasites of the whole lot, the people who write this shit… they’re not paying rent to have a shop, they’re injecting nothing to music but their own bullshit opinions and listening to the records they get for free.”
Barry Lennon from Irish label The Richter Collective has a different take on the Dublin record store scene, “You could walk in, hear a record and be like “who’s that?” and you would pick it up. Or having a section of the recommended records from staff was cool. It maybe is more human and created good discussion points on new music and stuff going on within the music communities”. The music people are exposed to in these shops is based on the opinions of the staff, not the A&R and marketing departments opinion of a record label far far away, and therefore more relevant to the Irish music fan.
Illustration by Lisa Crowne.