Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Went to the closing-down party for Sound 323’s shop in Highgate recently, which has joined the list - along with Disque on Chapel Market, Mr CD, Reckless Records, Beano’s in Croydon (not that I ever went) and that one in the corner of Greenwich Market whose name always escapes me - of record shops closing down in London (though Sound 323 will carry on online just as Smallfish have done). Sound 323’s focus on modern composition, field recordings, experimental, free jazz, improv etc. was always going to be a niche market, and while it’s sad to see another independent shop closing its doors in an increasingly homogenised market, there’s always Second Layer Records in the basement – with its focus on noise, psych-folk, drone, out-there, etc – taking over both floors. Sister Ray, too, has managed to stay up despite its much-publicised recent problems, while Rough Trade and Pure Groove in the East End have done well.
Perhaps you could blame downloading culture and the iPod (though admittedly I have one myself, so am not immune to its charms) for the problems that some of these shops appear to be having. The question of where the album format is going next is a moot point, and something that this article addresses. The god-awful Shuffle function – which Goodnight London never uses – decontextualises the album format, so that songs are just that: a collection of songs played in completely random format, rather than sequenced in a carefully thought-out order, designed to ‘complement’ each other and introduce texture and progression into the listening experience. The Shuffle function negates any sense of the album as a linear, conscious progression of songs whose dynamics when set against each other bring focus to the whole recording. To give you an example: the juxtaposition between loud, crashing noise on ‘Ascension Day’ suddenly giving way to the serene, beautiful calm piano of ‘After The Flood’ on Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. It’s not inconceivable that future generations of iPod users will hardly bother with the album format at all, and will instead randomly rotate individual tunes – which they’ve downloaded from iTunes or wherever rather than buying the whole album - using the Shuffle function. It may be for a long time just yet, but it could happen. Then again, it’d be unfair to demonise all download sites – Bleep cover some brilliant left-field music, for example, and there’s an argument that magazine cover mount CDs are equally to blame.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that music, like everything else (including maybe even books one day, what with Google’s new service), is becoming digitalised.
And perhaps too I’m sounding like an old fart here who’s too stuck in the nostalgia of being thrilled when going to Our Price (remember them??) all those years ago and seeing New Order’s back catalogue of albums on display, as well as purchasing Daydream Nation on tape (does anywhere apart from Second Layer and online enthusiasts still sell tape these days?). You can, of course, still go to HMV and see those albums in pristine condition on CD. Perhaps, too, as that article notes, the popularity of downloading individual tracks off iTunes or wherever has meant that there’s a weird return to the idea of singles as a dominant format – stretching way back to 7-inches and 45s - so that we’ve gone full circle in a strange way, albeit updated for the digital age. In it’s own way, this is no bad thing.
Furthermore, just as there still exist those second-hand bookshops whose musty smell and cobwebs remain part of the charm, there will be always be those ‘niche’/second hand/collector record shops around for the purists – I don’t just mean Second Layer, which covers genuinely challenging left-field music, but places like Haggle Vinyl on Essex Road, Intoxica in Notting Hill, and even the tiny store next to Chingford Station who don’t even seem to have a name, but who has some cheerful old bloke running it. The last time Goodnight London went through its hallowed racks (including some serious Joy Divison/New Order/MBV etc back-catalogue stuff on vinyl), even he admitted that business isn’t easy, and he would know, having ran the store for 25 years. Check it out if you, erm, ever fancy going to Chingford Station.
There’s also The Dream Machine in East Dulwich, which continues the fine tradition (took up also by Second Layer) of being in the basement of a building. There’s just something about hermetically-sealed basement record shops, the thrill of descending a flight of stairs to another world completely, one that’s different to your own, which is the feeling indie record shops should elicit. It’s a feeling I always got with the Covent Garden branch of Rough Trade (since moved to Brick Lane, of course).
Anyway, I will be playing with Fractured Waves at an in-store on Friday 28th November at The Dream Machine, on around 7:30 or so, if anyone fancies coming down. Map here; nearest train is East Dulwich. It promises to be a pretty interesting evening.

1 comment:

Tuppence said...

Good little article.

I love albums, but then its something to do with type of the music I like. Imagine Dark Side of the Moon on shuffle - it wouldn't make sense.

The disposable generation is, to a certain extent, in the ascendant. Download a tune you heard on TV for 69p, erase it when you’re bored with it. People have replaced quality with quantity. Imagine being a teenager in the late 60s. Virtually every week there would have been a 'classic' album to buy. And you save up to get it. We are now - all of us - a generation seeking instant gratification. All you need is a Paypal account and an internet connection.

Then again, you would also remember the mix tape - the 80s/90s version of an ipod. Then again, the mix tape was usually a labour of love, often allowing the recipient to discover artists or genres they would have never known otherwise. Websites like Last FM can help you discover new artists, of course, but it’s a lot of effort to sort the wheat from the chaff.

We are in an age where we have access to virtually everything, anytime - swamped with a torrent of media, if we want it. In such times, a little specialisation of interests isn't such a bad thing.