So… Today is “Record Store Day”. What does that mean to you? Does it sound like the death throes of an anachronism? Does it inspire a little guilt?
Some sense that by downloading you have been contributing to the break in a community chain, which leads from shop, to label, to artist (don’t forget the many middlemen). Or does it sound like the impact of one more hammer blow on the shackles which the recording industry clumsily forged around its own feet?
Yesterday’s results in the Pirate Bay trial will likely colour how this article is read, but I have to say that I don’t even know where the Bay is, or what the populations take is on Piracy. If you support it, do you support the Somalian’s attempt to create a maritime tax infrastructure by force, while they lack an organised government capable of doing so bureaucratically?
That all sounds too lofty to me, based on the kind of concepts that are traded by shady dealers, removed from an understanding of the experience. So I am going to explain, in a roundabout way, why I choose to buy the majority of my records in one small independent shop, by the name of Jam, on the old high street of Falmouth in Cornwall. I’m going to drop the Somalian issue. One thing to get out of the way: it’s not just because I work there on occasion (at Jam, not as a pirate off the coast of Somalia, though I do love my airgun and have just got hold of a small boat).
I moved to the Falmouth area of Cornwall when I was nineteen. It’s a small town, despite its growing student population, so I was surprised to find Jam when it opened in June 2003. It was different to most record shops I had been to so far, it wasn’t musty and it wasn’t crowded with items. The staff didn’t seem to be engaged in proving their musical calibre or projecting it on to you to sell you something you didn’t really want. Upstairs housed the traditional folk, jazz, soul and music from Africa, Asia and beyond as well as a coffee machine, flock wallpaper and some very comfortable leather sofas. Downstairs was where the indie, electronica, rock and underground folk resided. There is a diverse collection of dvd’s, magazines, journals, novels and art books scattered about. It was in that basement that I stumbled upon the musical trails that I am still treading today. I don’t believe they would have yielded the same inspiration if I had been travelling through a screen.
I can still see why I got into Devendra Banhart when he first cropped up and despite having sold or given away his records I still keep hold of a copy of his ‘Golden Apples of the Sun’ compilation that he put together for the excellent Arthur Magazine. That CD got me interested in a few bands which I have since left behind like Little Wings, Iron and Wine, Coco Rosie and Viking Moses but also musicians and bands who have made some of my all time favourite records. If it wasn’t for the oddity track ‘Hazy SF’ I might never have found Six Organs of Admittance and had a major experience with the album ‘School of the Flower’ before I delved deeper into their discography. If it wasn’t for finding ‘School of the Flower’ in Jam I might not have heard Hush Arbors, or Sunburned Hand of the Man. If you want to put some money towards Arthur Magazine, currently hibernating in web form, then you could do no better than order this forthcoming benefit CD compiled by Al Cisneros of Om. Seriously, this thing looks like a killer mix CD, click that link.
‘Golden Apples…’ also featured a track by Philadelphia guitarist Jack Rose, who I subsequently put on a show for at Jam; crowded with 40 people who couldn’t believe he was playing in Cornwall, that they didn’t have to drive to Bristol and back. This record shop has been central to many of the musical experiences that keep a place in my heart; I can’t say the same for the day I tried learning how to use file sharing software (and gave up). Mandy Kemp, owner of Jam, took some time on the eve of Record Store Day to answer a few questions.
Strange Glue: How different do you feel about the record industry now compared with the days before you set up shop? How much has it changed what you enjoy listening to?
Mandy Kemp: My own taste has changed a lot over the years. I'm more open to new things but still like the old stuff too.
SG: What’s your favourite thing about running Jam?
M: Getting to hear new music all the time and meeting some really interesting people who share our passion for music. Also listening to great music and sitting drinking coffee is not a bad job.
SG: How is all this fuss about the death of physical releases affecting you as a music listener, and as a shop owner?
M: As a music listener I am a bit of a Luddite. It took me a long while to be convinced by cd’s. I was still buying vinyl long after it had died its first death. I think there is something special about the physical nature of an album, the artwork, sleeve notes, lyrics if you're lucky. You get to know who's playing what and maybe something about why they've done it. And it's always best to hear an album in its entirety not just download the ear catching tunes. The idea of downloading data really doesn't excite me, I'm not even keen on copies, if I like an album I want the real thing. And really it's the least you can do to part with some cash for someone else's creativity.
As a shop owner, anything that affects your business is a potential worry but I think there's a core of dedicated music buyers who appreciate what we provide. You just have to be more creative about what you provide and how you present it. Maybe there's a generation who believe music should be free and who download more stuff than they ever have time to listen to, and some people love the ease of buying off iTunes etc. But some people love 180grm vinyl in gatefold sleeves…
By the way I was reading your review of Bill Callahan the other day (great rant and the article you linked, by six organs man? Really interesting ...)
SG: It seems like despite the small size of the shop you make a concerted effort to represent obscure titles in the indie/folk/rock sections as well as in the electronica, funk, soul, jazz and ‘beyond the western world’ musics, sometimes ignoring major label releases that could bring in a lot more revenue. Could you say what motivates that choice?
M: On the major label thing it's partly financial, I could buy some things cheaper in Tesco or Amazon than from the distributors so stocking them would be pointless. Also it would make the shop a bit dull I think. I can't afford a vast stock so I try and pick stuff that's interesting alongside things I know will sell.
Choice is a hard one to answer.. Personal preference definitely plays a big part but I certainly don't like everything we stock… For the most part it’s stuff that I appreciate or recognise the worth of, alongside some plainly bad choices. But that's the nature of trying new things.
SG: Why did you start your website?
M: To make some more money! Not because I'm motivated by money, just a bit of time off from the shop would be a nice thing.
That new website can be found at www.jamrecords.co.uk. You know what’s coming, I’m going to encourage you to go there and buy records. But not without good reason. Despite only going live a couple of weeks ago recent albums rated by Strange Glue as 8 or above are there aplenty. Including Bibio’s ‘Vignetting the Compost’, Arbouretum’s ‘Song of the Pearl’, Pontiak’s ‘Maker’, Neko Case’s ‘Middle Cyclone’ and the wonderful ‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle’ by Bill Callahan.
It might not be in your hometown, but why not support an independent, individual shop that operates on a human scale and not a warehouse? As Mandy has already hinted at, multinational warehouse chains can buy records in such bulk that they receive phenomenal discounts but you only save a pound or two, which more likely than not eats away at the artist’s already low share. A lot of people, visiting Cornwall on holiday, ask if Jam has a website because there isn’t one in their hometown and they’d still like to support independent traders. Okay, enough with the soap box, enough with the pseudo-socio-politico-economic yammering. Well not quite, I just want to explain my strong feelings a little more clearly.
Being a reviewer places me in a fortunate situation: I get to legally obtain a lot of albums for free, often well before release date. But I’d like to tell you that if I score anything with an eight or above, I buy it on vinyl from Jam. It doesn’t feel right otherwise. I feel that by having my life enriched, elucidated or blown apart by music, I have entered into some kind of wordless contract with the musicians who made the sound. If I were not to honour that by paying a small (and in my mind justifiable) sum, divided between the musicians and the manufacturers and the labels and the distributors and the delivery firm and the shop, the experience would be tainted somewhat.
After all, if the band were to try and do all those things on a scale large enough to support a career they wouldn’t have the time to make the music. This is where an argument for digital file sharing and vending rears its head. I can see the point, but I like human interaction. Interaction through screens is not human interaction, it is a pallid imitation and a cause of a great many ills. I enjoy the physical interaction of listening to records. I like putting them on, I like the tactile experience, a statement which seems to elicit a sense of distaste in some as if it were akin to choosing to wear a corset.
Personally, I think it is the other way around. In my experience the obsession with unauthorised downloading constrains and contorts people’s perceptions. It doesn’t change the music per se, it’s more subtle than that; a stolen chocolate bar always tasted different right? I know people who download a hundred albums a month, but they don’t seem to like music anymore. It seems to me that it’s another facet of the senseless, illogical greed that dominates our culture, like fat people on Supermarket Sweep running faster than they would for their lives. There have been times in my life where I’ll listen to just one record for much of a month. Nowadays you don’t need to tell your doctor much more than that to get a prescription for anti depressants.
Collecting real records (I am happy to use that term, fully aware of its connotations) can certainly be identified as a fetish and as consumerism and I can imagine that my life might be no worse off without them. The susceptibility of the record industry to the march of technology is inevitable, bar the collapse of society; a logical outcome you might say. But televisual programming/propaganda could be described as the logical outcome of storytelling and I would be more than willing to discuss my thoughts on the evil of the former and the human necessity of the latter, (comment below, or email me via david [AT] strangeglue [DOT] com if you’d like to talk about it). Just because something is “moving forward”, doesn’t mean it has taken the right turns. I hope to be back to re-visit this subject on next year's record store day.
Jam Records: Website