Independent Record Store Day

Johnny Marr blogged this week regarding record stores in support of Independent Record Store Day. His opinion is quite different to what I posted earlier this week. On two levels ...

Firstly he argues that the record store has been forced off the high street by major retailers. I've always felt this is difficult to defend. Consumers make choices based on what they want. Great record stores - like Rough Trade - still exist and are doing just fine. They have built a strong business with clients who keep returning. Other stores - like Pure Groove - have decimated their retail stock in favour of a bar and performance space. I'm not sure many people wander past the meat markets into Clerkenwell to browse their selection, but they have a place in the community through the great free live shows they put on.

It seems to me that no one in this debate - like many other discussions about the music industry - is listening to the consumer. When we get nostalgic about record stores, we are thinking primarily of the experience that shaped our youth. Kids are clever - they don't need a high street to find great stores. Simply put, their high street is becoming digital and they choose where they shop.

Marr's second argument is that records are a great piece of art. We really need to move away from this mindset. Music is art, and the musician is an artist - who often works with great visual artists to create a beautiful experience. The CD you purchase in Tesco is not art - it is a commodity, just like the cereal and pizza you also put in your basket. Downloading an MP3 of music that creates a change inside of you - gives something back to you - is still art. We don't need a physical form with a store/label/distribution network attached to it in order to experience the art of music.

Tracey Thorn made a great comment in yesterday's Guardian. She reflected on the influence record stores have had in our lives, but then noted that we mustn't look back. Today's celebration should be less nostalgia, and more a vision of where we are going.

But in respect of today's observance, I'd like to give thanks to South Side Sound and Sound Connection in Edmonton, along with all the amazing shops on Seymour Street in Vancouver. And to the Music & Video Exchange on Berwick Street in London. But I'd like to give a giant thank you to the internet, my new independent musical universe, for connecting me to so many brilliant people and musicians over the past decade. I can't wait to see what's in store for our future!


Observing the End of Record Retail

This week marks the arrival of the so-called "Independent Record Store Day". The observance hopes to highlight the demise of the shops which for so many of us formed a key building block of our youth and musical upbringing.

This is in light of the fact that the number of independent record stores has fallen since 2005 from 734 to 305. The Independent on Sunday reports the decline is due to the recession, downloads and major retailers taking their piece of the pie.

This misses the point entirely. People are now choosing not to go into record stores. The internet has created a new experience for music fans who can now get what they previously needed from indie stores in a much more rewarding way.

While some of us may have marvelled at the encyclopedic knowledge of the boffin behind the indie store counter, the musical resource that the wikiuniverse provides is infinitely more accessible. This comes with the added benefit of the intimidation removed. I can count on one hand the number of times where I haven't been insulted by the fool on the other side of the counter (invariably male, in a band or a DJ themselves) who felt the need to gratify himself by mocking my requests for information on an artist or release.

The web can get us the info faster and whenever we need it - often direct from the artist themselves - thereby removing the barrier provided by record shop guy's ego. Bloggers have also contributed to keeping us informed - and should they suffer from their own opinions, readers can choose to simply click away.

While shuffling through new releases has always satisfied our hunter gatherer instincts, getting musical tips from biased self-declared experts has never been rewarding. In fact our recent Gaymonkey poll revealed that most of us (75%) still prefer to get musical recommendations from friends. We don't need four walls full of dusty plastic to find new music.

Nick Hornby comments in the IoS that the indie store was a great place to meet like minded musical souls. And while we owe so many important musical unions of the past to this, the web has been allowing us to make lasting connections on a global scale. People are forming their own creative communities online, resulting in brilliant collaborations.

We needed record stores in the old industry to help us develop our musical knowledge and connections. It is a shame that their time is fading - but what replaces their function in our lives is a deeper, more tailored and rewarding experience. Sadly, the days of Duckie crashing into Trax to serenade Andie are over.



I had a request this week for some of our music on vinyl.

We pressed only six of the Gaymonkey singles/EPs to vinyl. Each was a labour of love - carefully designed cover sleeve, selecting high quality paper stock and finish. Choosing the tracks to be included that would work best on the format.

Not many remain from the pressing - most that weren't sold initally were lost when our distributor went bankrupt. As I found the requested copies from our archive, it felt great to hold them again - memories of achievement.

It also reinforced the reasons why I have become opposed to the physical format. These relics reminded me of the past, but not so much the music contained on them.

Primarily, they are unsustainable, taking up resources and energy to produce that exceed their value. The investment in vinyl and CDs for an artist/label is massive, and a huge barrier to getting your art to the world. Digital formats have revolutionised this.

Physical formats also take control away from the artist. They dictate the use of distributors who retain stock and mark up the retail cost for the consumer. With this in mind, the format actually becomes a barrier between the creator of art and the listener.

And in the digital age, where our music collections are accessed instantly, these relics simply collect dust. Vinyl may look impressive, but CDs lack any aesthetic charm. Vinyl may be recycled and collected, but unwanted CDs tend to end up in landfill. It is sickening to think of the millions of unwanted records that have become waste.

The industry must take responsibility for this - while vinyl has found a niche, the time has come to move away from the CD format altogether. Not only for sustainability reasons, but as part of a journey to align how we see music in our lives - from commodities and things we consume to art made to enhance our lives.

If you don't want to spend the time reselling your old CDs, its good to know that they can be recycled - this is a good resource for facilities in the UK.

Image on Flickr by swanksalot


Ricky Martin's Revelation

It's quite shocking how Ricky Martin's "coming out" announcement this week has been handled. Along with the support was indifference and criticism for taking so long to tell the truth. It demonstrates how little we really understand about the pressure of coming out - and how far we still have to go before being gay is accepted in our society.

Most fail to see the music industry for the beast that it is - one that strives to shift as many units to as wide an audience as possible. It seems rational to argue the poplarity of Elton John, George Michael or Michael Stipe - which should appease any fears that the industry may have about gay popstars. But we forget that these individuals also hid their sexuality for years until their fanbase was sufficient enough to protect their ability to continue to have a career.

You may think times have changed, and so the pressure or fear on artists coming out should be minimised. However, George Michael started as a teen idol, and so did Ricky Martin. His sense of self - and indeed the brand created around him as sex symbol - is positioned within this market. Those that dismiss Martin's actions this week as cowardice due to coming out so late in his career neglect this fact.

We like to believe we exist in a liberal, tolerant world, and using the handful of mainstream artists who are open about their sexuality to support this is purely confirmation bias. It is the equivalent of assuming there is universal racial equality because there is finally a black President in the White House. In fact we know that prejudice continues to exist - and while society has moved significantly, equality is still not the norm. Indeed one only needs to look at Ricky Martin's primary audience - North/Latin America - to see that being gay is not accepted by the majority.

The industry also does little to stamp out prejudice. Radio One DJ Chris Moyles can hold a primetime position on the air despite re-introducing "gay" as derogatory playground slang. From personal experience I can assure you having a label named "Gaymonkey" within a heterosexual male dominated industry has rarely won us favours.

However, any artist could choose to rise above these obstacles, to put fear of retribution aside and ignore the prejudice that still exists in society. There are still two main reasons why a new artist today would choose to hide their sexuality:

To avoid being labelled as niche

If your ego - and the industry - expects you to be instantly huge, it will not be satisfied with a niche audience. A "gay artist" has traditionally found themselves building their career within the gay community. Greedy egos and labels strive to bypass this step and aim straight for the mainstream.

This pressure will continue until long tail thinking is encouraged and major labels discontinue the practice of dropping artists who fail to reach the top ten with their first release. Until then, no level of perceived acceptance will satisfy an artist whose intention is to be an instant superbrand.

To have your art accepted for what it is

For those that can quell the ego, a further barrier exists. While they themselves may have no apparent problem with being labelled as gay, they believe their art stands outside this and wish their creation to be judged on merit without bias on either side to their sexuality.

Aside from the blatant prejudice that continues to be rife within the sports community, athletes must also consider this factor to be one that stops them from coming out. No one with dreams of being a top footballer would like to be remembered as a "gay footballer". Our visions of our legacy shape our present reality - and for the ambitious the choice to come out will be influenced by this factor.

Until every musician, athlete, actress, teacher, politician and parent feels that their opportunities in life will not be threatened by how society perceives and labels them, we must only be proud of everyone who has the courage to step forward despite whatever makes them different. Each individual that takes that leap makes it easier for the next. Ricky Martin is a leader - and should be applauded as such.