Vinyl ramblings (Pt. I)

A quick glance around the record fair confirms it – mainly middle aged men, that is, men of my age, born in the mid-to-late sixties.  With that in mind, they’d have been teens throughout punk and new wave and been exposed to, arguably, the greatest period of vinyl record production in history.  And here they are, decades later, invariably balder and greyer, flicking through racks, buying the records of their youths once again or simply filling gaps, as was I. 

The boxes and tubs here, in a Finsbury Park pub, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, bulge with everything from tattered £3 “bargains” to ‘The Return Of The Durutti Column,’ resplendent in its original sandpaper sleeve (reputedly assembled by the hands of Joy Division, no less), for a startling five hundred quid. On the surface, there’s just too much stimuli and fresh through the door, my cash is burning a hole in my pocket.

But an hour later, I have retired to a sunless corner for a pint, somewhat deflated and with one single item before me – an original Factory Records cassette of New Order’s 1985 album, ‘Low-Life.’ For this, I had very little inner turmoil about parting with the requisite thirty quid as, incredibly, it was still in its original shrinkwrap and if I’m a sucker for anything, it’s these Peter Saville-designed Factory cassette boxes.

New Order, ‘Low-Life’ cassette interior, designed by Peter Saville Associates (Factory Records, 1985)

In the 80’s, when £30 would’ve gotten me around 6 albums, the music magazines plopped through our letterbox several times a week – NME, Melody Maker, Sounds, Record Mirror and the Gothier, Zigzag.  My older brother, in work and likewise keen on keeping up with trends, subscribed to them all but flicking through those NMEs now makes me wince; the writing, ostensibly nothing more than horrible, clever arse riddles that say far more about the scribe than the bands or their music.  Still, back then, somehow I managed to work out for myself where my meagre income should go that week and my hit rate was pretty good because, well, it had to be.  By the time I was sixteen, my £5 pocket money had been replaced by an £18 weekly dole cheque, half of which I handed over to my mother for my keep.  But then I had college bus fares to find, clothes to buy, gigs to go to, alcohol to drink, haircuts to have – how the hell did I afford all this stuff?  The fact is, there were many times when I could not and I’d spend many days dejectedly penned up in my bedroom, playing the few records I had, reading my brother’s magazines and plotting the next record shop trip. 

What’s changed?  Aside from the fact that I currently don’t have to worry about where my money’s coming from?  Well, having worked for an actual record label, I stopped trusting the music press a couple of decades ago and so I tend to buy on instinct these days.  Even so, as with books, I’m not much one for contemporary artists and still tend to err towards the, uh, “classics.”  Does any new record give me more joy than the aforementioned Durutti Column album? Very few, to be honest.

Records – vinyl records that is – were sacred to the teenage me.  Sure, I always wanted more but given that I could only afford one every now and then, I made them count.  I made lists.  I then shortened those lists, crossing out anything that might be considered a gamble.  Bringing a record back to my house for the first time was akin to a first date.  There was a true sense of anticipation as to whether this would be a big disappointment or a lifelong romance.  And in the same way that I’m still in touch with most of my lovers, I’m still in touch with the records that spun on my turntable whilst we fumbled beneath the covers, eighties, nineties and beyond.

Imprisoned in a small former mining village, a seven mile walk to the nearest record shop, on days when that 60p bus fare was not forthcoming, the teen me had plenty of time to pore over the intricate details in the sleeve notes of my meagre collection.  Do the streaming kids today know, or care about, who the sound engineer was on their favourite tracks?  Could they put a name to the drummer?  And would a catalogue number mean anything at all to them?  Does it really matter?  Well, back in the 80’s, it really did seem to.  At least, to me.  Those sleeve notes helped me join up the dots between artists and labels, helped me put a name to the faces I would see on Top Of The Pops that week.  It was oddly important to me – nay, crucial – to know the name of every member of The Specials or who engineered a particular Soft Cell b-side. As it transpired, those things were far more essential to me than passing any exams. I failed school completely but within 4 years, I was working in one of the country’s coolest record shops, Selectadisc.

Selectadisc record shop, Market St, Nottingham

The format, of course, was barely a choice.  You bought vinyl or you bought cassettes.  Cassettes may have been cheaper and more convenient to transport to friends’ houses but when it came to sleeve notes and artwork, they didn’t have the resonance of vinyl.  For me, a cassette was a model of the real thing. 

At another recent record fair, as with Record Store Day, there’s a sizeable queue well before the doors even open.  Comparative to the 80’s, there’s still that fear that, should you arrive a moment too late, the album with your name on it, will end up in someone else’s carrier bag.  I’m no longer so compulsive in my buying habits – if I miss that Felt 7”, it will come up again one day, at some other record fair, in some other second hand shop or on Discogs, so the urgency has somewhat diminished.  And yet, recently the joy of “wish-listing” on Discogs has, likewise, diminished. Not least because Brexit has resulted in the trans-Europe exchange becoming particularly expensive (Customs tax and handling charges) but everywhere, even the charity shops, are suddenly setting their prices at Discogs price. These shops and record fairs are full of customers hovering above the racks with their phones out, checking whether there’s a bargain to be had or more likely, a profit to be made. Amongst the music lovers, the entrepreneurs.

On a recent trip to Athens, my flatmate, sharing similar musical tastes to my own, texted me back from the various secondhand record stores there. “Felt 7″ singles for 60 euros! Go-Betweens singles for 15 euros!” She tells me the man behind the counter in one shop was proudly wearing a Discogs t-shirt. We are doomed.

And yet, at that price, those Felt 7’s are going to be sitting there this time next year surely? Only the most ardent fan with a particular Felt-shaped hole in their record collection is going to part with 60 euros for ‘Rain Of Crystal Spires.’ Even I, a completist, balk at that price sticker.

Atlantis Records, Hackney, London

As one of the major labels announces a tripling of its vinyl dealer prices at the end of this month (!), I can’t help but wonder what the future of vinyl records will be. Manufacture prices are up by at least a third. Shipping costs, likewise. Production times have at least doubled. How will record shops afford to buy new vinyl from distributors? How will distributors cope if those record shops stop ordering? And will smaller record labels just give up or stick to CDs, tapes and streaming? With all this in mind, it’s obvious why there’s a boom in secondhand vinyl. If you’re lucky, amongst the racks of my favourite record shops, like Atlantis, in Hackney, London, you can find a recent release, secondhand, for half the price of its original tag. This is the sweet spot, of course – those few months or even a year or two after release, when records can still be found in the racks and haven’t yet disappeared from the market.

As an artist, I take no joy in the Discogs tag for my work. In fact, whenever possible, I’ll do my best to re-issue something that’s going for silly money on Discogs. I’d hope that anyone can buy my music, not just those with a disposable few hundred quid.

Once, visiting a new friend’s house for the first time, I was initially amused that despite being considered one of the coolest kids in college, he owned a mere ten vinyl records.  It took me a couple of decades to realise that those 10 records were probably the only ten anyone ever needed.  

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