Sunday, February 10, 2013

In A Spin

Tonight, this afternoon, or tomorrow morning, depending on where you sit in the world, the music industry will amass at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles to celebrate what is boldly tagged "Music's Biggest Night" - the Grammy Awards

Like all televised American awards shows, it will be a glittering, glamourous affair. A red carpet roll-up for the photographers. Artists - those appearing, performing, presenting or simply sitting in the front row - have been issued with explicit instructions on how they should dress. In an attempt to prevent anything too rock'n'roll at the music industry's equivalent of the Oscars, an e-mail is alleged to have been sent out warning:

"Please be sure that buttocks and female breasts are adequately covered. Thong type costumes are problematic. Please avoid exposing bare fleshy under curves of the buttocks and buttock crack. Bare sides or under curvature of the breasts is also problematic. Please avoid sheer see-through clothing that could possibly expose female breast nipples. Please be sure the genital region is adequately covered so that there is no visible 'puffy' bare skin exposure."

It's possible that 'puffy' might refer to the dress Jennifer Lopez wore to accompany P Diddy to the 2000 Grammys. Anyway, I digress. At the end of the day, the Grammys represent the suited, still-or-sparkling-sir? business end of the music business, as far removed from guitars turned up to 11 in suburban garages as it's possible to be.

British interests this year are solidly represented by the usual suspects: Adele, Adele and Adele, as well as newcomers like Ed Sheeran, plus Muse, Mumford & Sons and the venerable McCartney.

Even my friend Steven Wilson - criminally overlooked elsewhere by the British music press despite being one of the industry's most industrious artists - is in with a shout for his Surround Sound production work on his own musical collaboration, Storm Corrosion, with Mikael Åkerfeldt of Swedish prog-metalists Opeth. It's his third Grammy nomination, the previous both for his production work on his band, Porcupine Tree's Fear Of A Blank Planet and his debut solo album, The Incident.

Eight miles and a fifteen-minute burst up the Hollywood Freeway from the Nokia Theater is one of the last vestiges of what probably got a good two-thirds of the audience at the Grammys into music in the first place: LA's last big record store: Amoeba Records.

With the demise of Tower Records and the Virgin chain, both of which had prominent outlets not far away on Sunset Boulevard, Amoeba is something of an anomaly. A vast but funky record and video retailer, with its own underground car park and spillover parking lot around the back, it is clearly the place where Hollywood - the geographic neighbourhood, rather than the showbusiness idiom - comes for its Saturday afternoon fix of physical media.

And long may it stay that way. Browsing around Amoeba's new and second-hand racks one Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago felt like a copious, beer-fuelled, riotous reunion with an old friend. One of those record stores with endless potential for serious credit card damage: out-of-stock CD specialities, budget-priced vinyl rarities, DVDs and even VHS tapes. And given its location, you never know quite who you might run into. Certainly no shortage of 'in the business types', if anecdotal testimony from both LA-resident and visiting musicians is anything to go by.

You could, though, hardly say that Amoeba, and it's Californian sister branches in San Francisco and Berkeley, are thriving. Busy, yes, successfully surviving, even, but the world beyond their front doors is cruel and getting worse.

In recent weeks we've the brand-franchised Virgin Megastore chain has announced its closure in France, including their delightfully massive branch on the Champs-Élysées; and, of course, there is the ongoing disassembly of HMV in Britain. All are the latest victims of the same epidemic: people are falling out of love with physical media, and if they do, they're buying from Amazon or at the supermarket. Or simply avoiding physical formats altogether.

Which means we, IKEA 'Billy' bookcase-attached, CD and, perversely, retro-vinyl collection-building media junkies are becoming a shrinking minority. As much as we pretend to ignore the obvious, our supply line is drying up.

This afternoon, Virgin in Paris was thriving, likewise its near-neighbour FNAC. But if you looked closely at what the locals and tourists were buying, it was heavily discounted sale items - DVDs for a handful of Euros, '4 for €20' CD deals, Blu-ray releases for €15 and half-price box sets.

Amoeba, back in December, was just as busy, but it was hard to separate those shopping in the nearly-new budget aisles and those browsing the brand new. Still, if this was an expiring patient, the 20 checkouts in constant use were vital signs of a pulse.

Sadly, the prognosis is not good: new figures from the BPI, the British music industry body, say that now almost one-in-five consumers (19.6%) prefers downloads to physical media formats. In 2012 well over a quarter of all music was bought either as a dowload from an online store like iTunes, or streamed via Spotify or YouTube.

It would, though, be wrong to assume that the record shop is in terminal decline, however. Yes, digital will continue to grow and, yes, sadly more record chains will close. But the idea that they will disappear altogether is ill-founded.

"We must do all we can to serve music fans who love CDs and vinyl," promises Geoff Taylor, CEO of the BPI. That remains to be seen: a third of HMV's 239 UK's outlets are to close in the next two months, which, while no fatal blow, will still deprive cities like Blackburn, Durham, Luton, Watford, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Wrexham of a mainstream music and video retailer.

HMV's decline will no doubt push more people onto services like Spotify and iTunes. And Amazon will continue to benefit as well as, depressingly, the supermarkets. But anyone who thinks that clicking on a website and then waiting for a package to drop onto the doormat, or picking up a CD from a tiny selection of Top 10 offal, while doing the weekly shop, is not music buying - even if both the mail order giant and the supermarkets can offer whopping discounts.

Graham Jones, author of Last Shop Standing: Whatever Happened to Record Shops? - ironically, for sale at for a discounted £11.66 - claims the independent record stores are even getting better terms from record shops, especially as the fading chains, download sites and mail order companies fail to serve smaller record labels.

Independents like Kingston's Banquet Records (in my teenage years, Beggars Banquet) remain the last haunt of the vinyl junkie, or the CD junkie, for that matter. People still want to touch, inspect, examine and appreciate their records, even those now old enough to need reading glasses to study the sleeve notes on a CD. And for those who really care, there is the return of vinyl - even if you now pay double for a 12-inch piece of crackly plastic.

Rather than decline like the big chains, the independent are finding their own place in the market. Spencer Hickman, co-organiser of the annual Record Store Day initiative says that there are even new independent shops opening up: "It shows that there are still music lovers who want to buy physical music from people who are just as enthusiastic as they are. There are lots of people who still want music as an art form not just a download."

"When I wrote Last Shop Standing," adds Graham Jones, "I thought I was writing the obituary for the independent record store. It turns out that may have been premature."

The Grammys may be a world away from stores like Banquet in Kingston: but while the music industry comes together tonight to gorge itself on the meagre pickings it claims it is raking in from selling its whares, I hope the assembled suits raise a glass of San Pellegrino to the retailers still doing their bit to make buying music as enjoyable as taking home your purchase and actually listening to it.

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