Happy Record Store Day! Perhaps there should be a question mark after that. Real Groovy Wellington has recently announced that it will be closing – despite trying really hard to keep going.
In Wellington central, this leaves Slow Boat Records, a Marbecks and Parsons for the oldies, along with JB Hifi and The Warehouse (if you’re the sort of person who’d seriously buy music from The Warehouse, other than rooting around in the bargain bins for hidden gems).
It’s strange how record shops have suddenly dried up and gone away, because for years and years they were such a big part of my life.
Electric City Music – Hamilton
Electric City Music was a generic record store in Hamilton’s Centreplace mall and I have a very specific memory of it.
It was 1987 and I was 12, looking through the new releases bin. I came across the Beastie Boys’ debut LP “Licensed To Ill” and I got really excited. I think my appreciation for the Beastie Boys was based around 1) “Fight For Your Right” being quite a fun song with a cool video and 2) Ad-Rock being quite cute. I opened the gatefold sleeve and payed close attention to the smashed-up jet. What did it mean?
I didn’t buy “Licensed To Ill”. It probably cost about $11 and I just didn’t have that sort of money in those days.
Tracs – Hamilton
Tracs ate so much of my money. It was in a basement building on the corner of Ward St and Victoria St in Hamilton. I’d descend the wide stairs and be in musical joyland.
My default bit of wall was the “Alternative” cassette section. I’d usually come there with specific titles in mind, but sometimes I’d pick something on a whim (and usually regret it). And no matter when I went there, there always seemed to be Mercury Rev’s tape “Boces” and the Barenaked Ladies “Gordon” sitting on the shelves, unsold.
Cassettes were my format of choice because they were – for no good reason – about $10 cheaper than CDs. I even had a Tracs card, giving me 15% of all purchases. In fact, I went there so often the guy behind the counter gave me the discount without even checking my card.
But the best thing about tapes – as soon as I left the store, I could put my new purchase in my Walkman and instantly listen to it. Some things can’t wait.
Tower Records – Sunset Strip
Los Angeles 1993. It was, as I described to my friends on returning to New Zealand, like if Real Groovy Records in Auckland was totally filled with new music and not all the other stuff they stocked.
Not only did it have huge quantities of music, but it stocked stuff that I’d only read about in New Zealand, that would have only been available on order. I gathered up a stash of CDs – The Breeders’ “Last Splash“, Luscious Jackson’s “In Search of Manny“, and a bunch of Henry Rollins spoken word CDs.
This was the moment when I switched to CDs. Tower stocked tapes, but unlike in New Zealand, it definitely felt like the CD was the dominant format and tapes were on the way out.
That Weird Little Second-Hand Record Shop on Alexander St in Hamilton
In the mid-’90s I went through a vinyl phase. I bought Camper Van Beethoven’s album “Key Lime Pie“, possibly because I was into David Lowery’s new band, Cracker. The guy at the counter picked up the record and slowly turned it over a few times. “Camper Van Beethoven, eh,” he slowly said. “Key Lime Pie”. He looked at me as if he was waiting for some sort of explanation. I had none to offer. I paid for it, took the record home and never played it.
Sounds – Hamilton
Sounds was my auxiliary record shop when I was bored with Tracs. It had pretty decent bargain bins, and one fruitful haul produced David Hasselhoff’s “Close To Heaven” CD; “102% Sex”, a remarkably unsexy soundalike compilation of dance music themed around safe sex; and a $1 MC Hammer baseball cap from the time he called himself Hammer.
Buying cheap hilarious records doesn’t work digitally. There’s no unsold stock to discount, and no reason to buy crazy cheap stuff, other than out of curiosity.
Record shops used to give away free stuff to entice people to buy popular albums from their shop.
In 1991 I bought the tape of MC Hammer’s “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em“, which came with a free six-pack of Pepsi cos Hammer was doing Pepsi ads. Somehow I was really embarrassed when the store guy handed me the six-pack, and was annoyed to have to schlep it around for the rest of the day.
Sounds stores around New Zealand gave away a free t-shirt with Soundgarden’s “Superunknown“. I gave my t-shirt to a friend, and for years after I’d see bogans around New Zealand wearing their “Superunknown” t-shirt. I didn’t even like the album.
When The Prodigy’s “Fat of the Land” album was about to be released, it seemed that every record shop had a different freebie or discount to entice shoppers. I checked out the offering of the Newmarket record shops and settled on one that offered a free poster and a free Prodigy lighter. Both eventually ended up in the bin.
Best freebie ever – a poster of the album art of The 3Ds’ album “The Venus Trail“. Drawn by David Mitchell (with his left hand, because drawing with his right was too easy), it portrayed a chaotic Dunedin, perfectly fitting with the wiry rock of the album.
Virgin Megastore – Paris
I visited the Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysees in 2003. It was a proper megastore with many floors of music. Nothing in New Zealand ever came close to Virgin Megastores, in fact most large record shops of major chains were still pretty modest in size.
I wanted to buy something French as a souvenir. It was rock ‘n’ roll legend Johnny Hallyday’s 60th birthday, so there was a huge display of his entire back catalogue. But that wasn’t quite what I wanted.
I picked holiday pop over Hallyday, and settled on two CD singles – DJ Bobo’s club novelty hit “Chihuahua” – one of those infectious songs that was being played all over Paris; and “Laissons Entrer Le Soleil” (a French version of “Flesh Failures/Let the Sunshine In”) by the final 10 contestants of A La Recherche De La Nouvelle Star (the French version of Pop Idol).
Real Groovy – Auckland
I’d go through periods of liking and disliking Real Groovy. All it would take is a bit of surliness from one of the counter staff and I’d avoid Real Groovy for a year.
It was a good shop for its massive selection of second-hand music. It was easy to get acquainted with the back catalogue of a previously overlooked artist via someone else’s unloved CDs. Oh, you don’t want those Smiths CDs? Here, I’ll have them.
And Real Groovy would pay cash (or store credit) for my unloved CDs, which was a bit of a lifesaver at times. Best payout – I got $8 for Ganksta N-I-P’s “Psychotic Genius” CD that I’d only paid $3 for in a bargain bin at The Warehouse (which I’d bought because the album cover was hilariously awful).
It’s strange to think that until recently CDs were once so valuable that people would break into cars and steal CDs to sell for cash.
I’m not exactly sure when I stopped buying CDs. I guess it started when the iTunes store opened in New Zealand. But I do know that I’d still find myself wandering through record shops, looking for stuff, but noticing that something didn’t quite feel right any more.
Even if I buy a CD, I won’t play it on a CD player. The first step is ripping it into iTunes so I can listen to it on my iPod. I think the last time I played a CD was in the ’00s.
A few years ago, I transfered all my CDs into disc storage folders. It freed up a lot of space, but it’s occurred to me that as I haven’t played any of the discs since then, is it even worth keeping the CDs?
I feel a little conflicted about the fate of record shops. I want them to survive purely because record shops used to be fun places to go, and they probably still are for some people. But for me, they’re not much fun any more – like browsing in a fishing supplies store.
I wander around thinking, “Oh, I could get that cheaper online.” And every physical recording – no matter the format – is a physical object that has to go somewhere. Online is cheaper and takes up no physical space.
One argument for patronising record stores is that the staff can guide you. But when I was younger, I was generally too scared to talk to record store staff to get recommendations. I’d figure out stuff for myself, and online that’s even easier to do. Online, the recommendations are usually separate from the retailers, but those music websites are run by the same sort of nerdy music lovers that worked in record shops.
I bought a couple of CDs from Real Groovy Wellington’s closing down sale. Despite being tempted by a 50c copy of The Go-Go’s’ “Talk Show” on tape, I picked “Straight Answer Machine” by Samuel F Scott and the BOP, and “Crude Futures” by So So Modern. “Straight Answer Machine” was $20, discounted from $29.95, but I could have bought it on iTunes for $18.99. While “Crude Futures” was an undiscounted $21.95 that I could have bought on Bandcamp for only $12. But on the other hand, both of those albums have really good artwork and it’s nice to be able to get a good look at that.
It seems that record shops have split into either “High Fidelity”-style shops for serious lovers of physical music format; or popular shops for people wanting the Susan Boyle CD, who haven’t figured out MP3s yet.
Meanwhile, I’m in this other place – buying music on iTunes or Bandcamp. I’ll miss the fun of the old record shop experience, but I’ve still got what it was always all about – the music.
After I wrote this I went along to both Slow Boat and Real Groovy. They were both full of people enjoying themselves, though still plenty of lone male types.
I ended up buying the Beastie Boys’ “Licensed to Ill”. It was $12.95 – almost $2 more than the iTunes price. It’s crazy to consider that it’s almost what the LP would have cost 25 years ago.
I think I’ll miss that home-away-from-home feeling that good record stores had.