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Miscellaneous - October 2006

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 30 / 9 / 2006

Miscellaneous - October 2006


In the latest in his 'Condemned By Rock 'n' Roll' column, Ben Howarth looks at the competition between independent, major and internet music retailers

The Guardian has recently marked the 30th anniversary of the Rough Trade record shop, and it has done so by looking at lots of independent record stores, and thus advertising 19 of Rough Trade’s competitors, somewhat bizarrely. This is the free market at its most open, and Sir Keith Joseph would surely have approved! The themes of their article have been dwelled on many times before. Independent stores are superior, they say, for they have more choice, have more knowledgeable staff and sell items that might just have personal value with the personal touch. But their competition - be it illegal sites offering music for free, or legal sites like Amazon - can sell music cheaper. Sir Keith Joseph would also surely be in little doubt as to who is going to win this little battle. I presume the readership (and indeed, the writing staff) of this website are fairly split on the issue. The long-term music obsessive can never have too much music, and the chance to download it for nothing is hard to pass up. Furthermore, waiting for that familiar corrugated cardboard packaging to land on your doormat frees up plenty of time to arrange your records properly into alphabetical order. But, on the other hand, people like going shopping. They like to size up their purchases, they like wandering round stores, chancing upon something they didn’t know about, and they like to have coffee afterwards. I have to admit, I’m torn. On one side, there are the independent record store owners, with their ever so slightly disturbing notion that, by having one of the easiest and most fun occupations known to man, they are providing a valuable public service. On another, there are the grasping swindlers who own online megastores, sunning themselves on a beach very far away. Finally, there are the internet nerds, dreaming of the day when they never have to do anything but stare at a computer screen and who are convinced the future is theirs and theirs alone. But, one thing I am certain about is that this isn’t a question of good versus evil, as so many like to make out. One store mentioned in the Guardian feature is Sister Ray’s, which can be found on Berwick Street on the edge of Soho. It’s a good shop - particularly if you want to buy vinyl - and is often very cheap (though I wouldn‘t go there to buy a Christmas present for a relative. “Maria Who?”, the man behind the counter replies blankly). But a mere five minutes walk away is HMV Oxford Street, which stocks almost everything, and has loads of vinyl. If you can’t find what you want, they’d gladly order it for you. If any record shop provides a valuable public service, it is this one, albeit whilst making quite a profit. After all, HMV is at threat from Amazon too (it knows it, too, and has lowered its prices accordingly this year.) And before anyone calls me an uncaring capitalist, I ask this: If independent record stores are so democratic, then why are nearly all the good ones in London, the wealthiest and most expensive part of the UK? Ultimately, we choose where we shop, and the integrity of the store holds little value compared to choice and price, naturally. Of course, when this debate is settled, nothing will really have changed. The famous bands and their record companies will be rich, whilst the not famous bands and their record companies will remain poor. Even Sir Keith Joseph would probably have wished there was more attention given to the music he liked. And, however, we go about it, we’ll all keep buying lots and lots of music, as we always have. Heard the Roddy Woomble album yet ?

Also In Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll

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