MUSIC is a part of us. Like literature, it speaks to us about who we are, where we have been and how we understand our journey through life. It’s one of our key forms of expression.
That is why independent record stores have a very special place in our culture, a place that will be celebrated on International Record Store Day on Saturday.
This event, in its 10th year, will be celebrated in 30 countries as a tribute to the importance of independent record stores in our culture and our economy.
In the words of the late, great Chuck Berry: “Music is an important part of our culture and record stores play a vital part in keeping the power of music alive.”
Down the generations, just about everyone has spent time in independent record stores, thumbing through record and CD racks, looking at band T-shirts or posters or buying tickets to live performances. We might have been after something specific. We might have been just killing time.
In 2017, digital technology allows us to buy or stream music without leaving our lounge chairs. We can go online and immediately download or stream the latest song by our favourite artist.
But it’s just one song. You don’t hear it on the album with other songs that were carefully chosen and placed in a specific order by the artist. You don’t get to feel the CD or record in your hands, read the liner notes or look at the pictures and artwork.
And because you don’t have those experiences, you can’t discuss them with your friends.
Australian band Grinderman, a side project of the great Nick Cave, put this concept somewhat more colourfully in a statement released for a previous Record Store Day.
“Do yourself a tremendous favour and go to a record store today. The relatively mild exertion of getting off your fat, computer-shackled ass and venturing out to find the object of your desire, the thrill of moving through actual space and time, through row upon row of records and the tactile ecstasy of fondling the freshly discovered treasure — all this will augment and enrich the mental associations the music invokes in you for the rest of your life.”
Record stores also enrich social links. Who hasn’t seen groups of young people milling around CD racks, exploring their growing independence while schooling themselves on our cultural history, as illustrated by our music?
Back in 1970s two young men were browsing in a record store in the US state of Georgia and stopped to have a chat about common interests. Michael Stipe and budding guitarist Peter Buck went on to form one of the most influential American bands of our times — REM.
And Nick Hornby’s awesome novel, High Fidelity, perfectly outlined the record store culture. Later turned into a movie starring John Cusack, the book told the story of Rob Gordon, whose life and relationships are centred on his record store and compiling endless lists of his top five records in any particular category.
Australian independent record stores also play a critical role in local communities. The musical development of just about all professional musicians in this country would have been very much influenced by their patronage of independent stores.
Independent music stores are often the only places you can buy recordings from local bands who are just embarking on their careers. If you go to a department store or one of the big music chains, you won’t find that debut recording of the new band that plays in the pub around the corner from your house.
Record stores are important. It’s not just nostalgia or the revival in the popularity of vinyl records, welcome as that is.
It’s also about jobs, small businesses and the continuing expression of our culture through music.
In Australia on Saturday, more than 180 independent record stores will mark the event with live music, DJ performances and other in-store activities as well as fundraising for various charities.
Across the globe, the international music industry will celebrate the occasion with the release of many new musical recordings, not just from new artists, but also from established names.
For example, previously unreleased recordings of songs from one of my favourite bands, The Smiths — The Boy With the Thorn in his Side and Rubber Ring — will be released on a limited edition, 5000-copy run.
There will also be new recordings by the late David Bowie, Lou Reed, Pink Floyd and Prince.
As the enigmatic US singer Tom Waits says of music stores:
“Folks who work here are professors. Don’t replace all the knowers with guessors.
“Keep’em open. They’re the ears of the town.”
This piece was first published in The Herald Sun on Thursday, 20 April, 2017