We’re in the car to Dumfries. It’s the day after the day after Christmas, and the day before HMV announces it has called in the administrators for the second time in six years. We’re listening to the radio, because we know it’s going to cut out about 10 minutes outside of Abington, and my mum, on hearing I got a new turntable for Christmas, asks me the one question I never have an answer for
Does vinyl really sound better?
I was reminded, thanks to its recent appearance in BBC’s The Apprentice (btw guys, does watching this mean I’m complicit in the continued funding of Donald Trump because ew), of the interview I had at Linn Records over a decade ago. It was for a marketing role in their newly-inaugurated digital department, and it’s a relief I never got it because fucked if I can tell the difference in sound quality between different types of digital file. My hearing is garbage from 20 years spent in front of the sound desk and the compression rate on my iTunes library would make you, genuine music lover, weep. I ruthlessly prioritise disk space in the very personification of quantity over quality (seriously, dude I’ve never heard of, get the hell out of my inbox with your untagged .wav submission).
But for me, it’s about the ceremony. The owning of a tangible product. It’s the reason behind the hall cupboard stacked high with CDs I lack the immediate capacity to play, and the records that take pride of place in the living room. It’s why I’ve never gotten on board with streaming, preferring the relative “ownership” of a digital download when it’s the cheapest, easiest way to get my fix. Right now, it’s vinyl. But over the years, it’s been just about everything else (and my mum lacks the garage storage space to prove it).
I was in HMV on Argyle Street a couple of days ago: I was after a pair of wireless earphones with my Christmas money, and it seemed like the best way to mark the news was with my custom. As ever, the service was flawless (my new earphones were half price, down from £100, and come with a manufacturer’s guarantee since you ask) and the staff in good humour despite what can only have been a difficult day. I hope the chain survives. I can’t promise they’ll get much of my custom if they do, although the Union St branch of their sister chain Fopp remains my favoured new release day lunch break go-to for the stuff I don’t want on vinyl. I desperately need to cut my discretionary spend this year, and Glasgow is blessed with plenty of indies which are more likely to stock the stuff I’m looking for (but who, incidentally, want HMV to survive to keep demand for new vinyl pressings high and costs low).
But I also don’t like the idea of a UK without a high street music retailer. I’m an indie shopper, sure, but it wasn’t always thus: as the music journalist Pete Paphides wrote in the only article worth reading about the whole sorry mess none of us became indie shoppers overnight. The music writers you love, those my age and older, grew up on a diet of Woolworths, Our Price, Tower Records and even supermarkets, and while part of our sorrow is a hefty nostalgia for the way we used to shop Back In The Day those retailers were as vital to the formation of our taste as social media, Soundcloud and those Spotify new music Friday playlists are now. In an age in which any song ever recorded is a few clicks away, it has arguably become more difficult than ever to stumble across a song, or an album, that will change your life. I refuse to believe that the commuter town kids that came after me don’t want that.
I guess I wanted to close this post talking about the UK high street record shops of the 90s and 00s that changed my life in some way, who introduced me to the first music I loved and whose influence resonates with me now as a 36-year-old music writer to the extent that, a quarter of a century later, I couldn’t sleep for jotting them down. Shops like:
Woolworths on Johnstone High Street where I used to get 99p “cassingles” every Friday and spent my first-ever wage (£20, in a little brown envelope, for appearing as an extra in Peter Mullan’s Orphans) on my first two albums on cassette: Moseley Shoals by Ocean Colour Scene and Alisha’s Attic’s Alisha Rules The World;
Safeway in Ludovic Square, Johnstone, which always had a good selection of chart albums, so imagine my delight when the release of Oasis’ Be Here Now coincided with my mum’s weekly shop;
Our Price in the Paisley Centre, where my dad once returned an album I’d bought for his Father’s Day somewhere else entirely and where I bought my first Ryan Adams album the day after hearing “Answering Bell” on a Q magazine CD sampler;
Glasgow’s big Tower Records, right by Central Station, where I don’t remember buying anything but I do remember wandering its two floors, transfixed, for a good hour on my first solo trip to the big city;
Virgin Megastores on Buchanan Street, where I queued to meet the Manic Street Preachers with my friend Pragya from Diaryland and where we befriended a girl in the queue who we went for cheap cocktails with somewhere on Sauchiehall Street that has almost certainly burned down by now and never saw again;
the original Fopp on Byres Road, itself rescued by HMV in 2007, and which probably continues to account for a healthy percentage of my outstanding credit card debt. The foundations of my CD collection came from Fopp’s racks of £5 “classics”, but my most treasured purchase was REM’s New Adventures on Hi-Fi on cassette, for £3, the day I found out I got five As in my Highers and would be going to university. I wore out that tape staying with my Grandad over the summer. It was replaced, later, on CD by my first boyfriend, and while I may no longer have the cuddly seal pup I can tell you exactly where that album is.
As for HMV? My most treasured memories are of the old shop on Edinburgh’s Princes Street, now Waterstones, which was my “local” during my Masters year and the scene of many new-release Friday purchases at the height of a year haunted by homesickness and the music I loved. It’s also where I purchased my first-ever record(s) – Ryan Adams’ “So Alive” 7′ singles, long before I ever owned a record player, and whose b-sides probably remain a mystery to me. I’ll fix that one tonight.