So Just Who Does Shop at Amazon?

Usual disclaimer: this is an old blog transfered from my old site to aid record keeping, and the record shop mentioned actually closed almost two years ago. Online shopping and the demise of our high streets are still very topical issues, though, and of course more recent revelations about tax evasion make buying from Amazon even more of a hot potato…

listening boothAs my town’s last independent music shop bites the dust I, like many others, am mourning its demise, fondly recalling the many hours of my yout’ spent ensconced in the listening booths of similar establishments nodding along gently to some neo-classical prog opus, or foot tapping and resisting the urge to play air guitar to the latest Punk / New Wave two minute sweaty singlet. Truth be told, though, I never actually went inside the now closed shop, despite hurrying past it several times on my way to other venues and thinking I really should. And there’s the rub, ennit.

Thing is, I gave away all my hi-fi separates on ‘recycle’ last year – wiping a teary eye as I waved bye-bye to my lovely (but if completely honest slightly ‘bright’) Royd Minstrel floor-standers and the turntable that hadn’t turned its table in years – for one simple reason; I do not have the time or space to listen to music that way any more. And if I haven’t got the time (or space) to listen to my music that way any more I certainly haven’t got the time to acquire my music in the manner that historically seemed to go hand in glove with that kind of time/space investment.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking people who can and do – in fact I’m green with envy – and I totally agree that vinyl has qualities that CD (or MP3 or whatever the next quantum leap might be) will never be able to capture. And it’s not just the ‘warm sound’ [not the Zero 7 track, just a general observation] of vinyl either: there’s a certain reassurance and emotional investment in listening to ‘Down by the Jetty’ and being able to anticipate the particular crackle where Oz bumped into the coffee table when he was drunk, or the high end wear-and-tear sibilance on ‘Trampled Underfoot’ from the time it was played on repeat ALL NIGHT at Sue and ‘Spanner’s’ (so named because every time I looked at her my nuts tightened up) housewarming party that no amount of remastering and ‘bonus tracks’ can compensate for. But at the end of the day it’s just not enough, is it, and neither are gatefold sleeves, coloured vinyl or ‘Porky’s’ scratchings (‘The Music’s in the Plastic’) on the run-out.

CusackThe closed shop didn’t sell only vinyl (in fact, I’m not even sure it sold any) but the shopping experience it aimed to provide was one much more aligned with the ethos of vinyl; an ethos that, like the vinyl itself, has largely become irrelevant to most consumers. As a concept it is a hugely appealing kind of marketplace, but the reality is there just ain’t, in most smallish towns, enough Greatcoat Gurus left as consumers to sustain it; which is a bugger, but a fact.

For most, the convenience of being able to order exactly what you want online, of being able to download it straight to your application / player of choice, of being able to take it with you to the car, to the pub, or even for a walk along the beach (my personal favourite on a sunny day) without having to worry too much about battery life or ‘tape-chew’ more than outweighs any losses. It goes without saying, too, that for a new generation of musos those losses aren’t even a factor; the experiences we’re trying to convince them should be an intrinsic part of the ‘whole’ music experience as irrelevant and archaic to them as Saturday night discos at the village hall and Thursday nights spent recording Top of the Pops direct from the telly with a hand mike onto a cassette deck the size, and with all the reproductive sophistication, of a biscuit tin. The only difference is the speed at which those changes have taken place; the references to tape and telly marking me as ‘middle-aged’ while the digital download revolution is something even the snappiest of whippers (or whippiest of snappers?) can remember (and perhaps, therefore, sympathise with) occurring in their own lifetime.

And it ain’t just music.

I used to buy my books in shops too, many of them second or third hand from a ‘book exchange’ which would give me fifty percent of the purchase price back toward a new purchase if returned in the same condition as sold. I realised when I was about 16 that even ‘cahnsil ahss’ neds like me could get a library ticket, but even now I still love browsing racks of browning, fly specked charity shop paperbacks if time and pocket money allows. As for independent bookshops – even the coffee and sofa ones – I hardly give them a second thought unless I happen to get given a token. The drive or walk into town, the inevitability of them not having what I want in stock and the fact that they’re probably charging at least 15% more than the mighty ‘A’ is enough to put me off, and the one big advantage they used to have of ‘browsability’ is pretty much eroded by the ‘Look Inside’ feature that’s fast becoming an online standard. I haven’t yet succumbed to the delights of Kindle, but suspect, like CD’s and MP3’s have with music, it’ll eventually ensnare me…

I think the worst part of all of this is that as our High Streets become less about shopping and more about eating (10 purveyors of Panini = 1 Woolworth) we see the things they once offered being sold at ‘value added’ artificially inflated prices at weekend food-fares to the very people who rejected that kind of hands on merchandising in the first place. People who rejected the local butcher in favour of Sainsbury’s or Waitrose are now, a few years on, happy to pay someone they presume to be a gentleman farmer (but who could well be a dustman) twenty quid for a bit of rancid mutton and gristle he nicked from the bins round the back of the abattoir, or shell out a fiver for a maggit and slug infested head of lettuce that Lidls would have lobbed as past its sell by…

vintage shopThere are ladies queuing at ‘vintage’ clothes fares to buy items other women have culled from charity shops (thus robbing those genuinely in need of charity clothing the opportunity to buy it) who completely fail to recognise that thirty years ago these sales had the word ‘jumble’ in front of them, were attended by people like my mum looking for woollies they could unpick to knit school uniforms, and were usually organised to raise money for the W.I…

There are boot fares selling dangerously wired table lamps made from Mateus rose bottles and scrabble sets with missing letters; tatty teddy bears that look a bit like Steiff and even have the ear tags but when you get ‘em home the eyes are held in with six inch nails and the ear tags only have one ‘f’…

Gastro pubs sell ‘peasant’ food, pushing up the costs of offal so peasants like me can no longer afford it (last summer at Whitstable fish market I bought a brace of good sized dab for a quid. Huge Ugly Duckingstool mentions them once on ‘food fight’ and last week I saw ‘em in Tesco’s for six and a half quid a kilo! :o)…

I’m not sure what any of that means, but it does seem to imply that somewhere in our consumer psyches we do have an inherent need or desire for a more interactive shopping experience, albeit one that we want to access at our own, rather than the shopkeepers, convenience. We’ve redefined shopping as a leisure activity, one that we’re willing to pay premium rates to align to our own timetables and routines, turning a troll through the supermarket into a stroll through the farmer’s market, where we spend twice the online shopping weekly food bill in half the time on half the food. We ignore the flies crawling over the Parma ham and local ‘Cheddar’ and the pissing rain dripping down our necks from oily awnings and sit on plastic benches in car parks eating giant olives and soggy frittata off of paper plates with plastic cutlery while mourning the decline of the High Street Deli’s that were ‘forced out of business’ by the very supermarkets we now buy those products from on the other three weekends of the month.

Oh well… no use ranting… It’s progress, ennit – and let’s face it, I’m as guilty as the next man, woman or gentleman farmer. I see there’s a Music Fare on at the town hall on Saturday… wonder if I’ll be able to pick up any bargains?

——

NB: A quick update on this. Yesterday I was in London, and while travelling on the tube saw a teenager wearing a t-shirt espousing the virtues of cassette tape (is it real or is it Memorex?), which is the ‘new vinyl’ for young retro-heads who insist on looking the gift horse of digital reproduction in the mouth. Later I saw a child of about four wearing a t-shirt bearing the image of a turntable with a slogan advocating the superior sound quality of vinyl media…

Re-branding old formats to give them ‘luxury’ status is clearly big business these days, and if enough people buy into it maybe we will see a resurgence of shops catering for that new market. I suspect, however, that were more likely to witness the emergence of a luxury vinyl market offering re-mastered, limited edition special pressings that appeal for reasons having little to do with music or quality and more to do with one-upmanship. Precisely the kind of businesses that the internet lends itself to and which our high streets really can’t cater for. turntable

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