A Tale of Two Storesby Stanley Zive / Illustration by Alastair Laird / 31.07.2012
It was the best of tunes; it was the worst of tunes… okay that’s enough cheapening of Dickens for now. Let’s leave literature alone and focus on music; specifically shopping for CDs. It strikes a primordial chord in me as it should in all of us. We’ve been beating sticks and skins since the days of fire. Music is in our DNA. As for shopping, well that speaks to our hunter/gatherer sensibilities. Take a look at post-Renaissance enlightenment turn to Neanderthal savagery the next time Exclusive Books has a sale on. Sifting through rack upon rack of discs fills me with a great sense of being. A ritual seemingly under threat with the rise of online stores and digital downloads. I had feared they’d paved paradise and put up an iStore. I thought my favourite way to spend an afternoon would soon be as anachronistic to this day and age as typewriter repair. However, something happened to me the recently that gave me hope.
There is a music store near where I live called Upbeat. It’s a small, boutique store in
Sea Point that specializes mostly in classical and jazz but they also have a fair selection from the rock and pop genres. I must’ve passed it easily a hundred times since it opened in 2005. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d gone in for a browse. Every time I’d considered making a purchase there I was frightened off by the prices. The average price of a disc these days is around R150 whereas in Upbeat it’s R200. Why buy it there when I can go to Musica and find the same disc for less? This was my reasoning until two weeks ago when I bought my first CD from Upbeat. Why this sudden change in my philosophy? There are two reasons: one was immediacy (I can’t find half those discs in Musica) and the other reason we’ll come to in a minute.
Why is immediacy important to me as a consumer? This goes back to the aforementioned hunter aspect of our make-up. If a store doesn’t have an album that I want I could have them order it but that takes something away from the hunt. It’s even better when you come upon your prey by chance. There’s something thrilling when an album seems to find you and not the other way around. When the artwork is staring you in the face from behind a (Kate) bush, you strike and your family feeds off the tasty new riffs for days. One might argue that if you want immediacy then why not download. I have two issues with this approach. Firstly, an album is about more than just the sound. It’s the whole package. A thank you at the end of the sleeve notes can have as much impact as the opening four bars, if it’s done right.
My second counterargument to buying online is a philosophical one: are you the kind of man who would rather meet a girl in the flesh or order her over the internet?
Let’s get back to my second reason for buying that album at Upbeat. There was a premium I was willing to pay to get peace of mind as a socially-conscious consumer. It’s the same way people will pay more for free range eggs than battery ones. I’ll explain further. Bear with me a moment while I get anecdotal…
I remember the first time I travelled to London fifteen years ago. Some go in for the theatre on the West End, some the tennis at SW19 while others gravitate towards Camden Town market. For me, I found Xanadu in Piccadilly Circus. Entering the Virgin Megastore for the first time was how I imagine people felt upon seeing the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. If the store had accommodation I would’ve booked in for a fortnight. Sadly, the Virgin Megastore is no more. A clothing store now desecrates the site of my old temple. Many record chains, like Virgin, have downscaled or shut up shop completely the world over. The halcyon days of such scale and grandeur are gone. To bring the point closer to home the Musica Megastore in the Waterfront closed down a few months back. Their savvy buyers and knowledgeable staff have gone too. I went into the other Waterfront Musica after the Megastore died and found Nick Cave, The Clash and The Cure all sitting under “Metal”; clearly orphaned stock that’d been miscategorised in the move. It might seem like a trivial point but there was a time you could walk into such a store and ask advice. There was even a staff recommendation section. If someone can’t differentiate between Joe Strummer and James Hetfield why would I ask them for help. It’s a skill made even more pertinent by the glut of musical styles and bands we have nowadays.
So where does that leave us. And I say “us” because I know I’m not alone in this. You just have to look at all the freshly pressed vinyl out there whether it’s old Johnny Cash or the latest Okkervil River. People still love the irreplaceable totality of the packaged album. They want to smell the plastic when it’s new and breathe in the dust when it’s old. I’ll grant you we’re not the overwhelming majority of the market, but we are loyal. Stores with great service and deep catalogues are what we want. We’re tired of the faceless franchises filled with the latest releases, the ubiquitous greatest hits but no sign of Frank Zappa’s The Man from Utopia. A place where staff assistance only goes so far as “let me see if we have it at one of our other branches, sir.” That’s why I chose to buy Black Mountain’s Wilderness Heart at Upbeat the other day instead of ordering it at Musica. I had to keep the underdog in the race. In the last two weeks I’ve listened to it a dozen times, inspected the fold-out cardboard cover and I haven’t suffered a single moment of buyer’s remorse. Sure, I might’ve gotten it cheaper somewhere else but I’d probably still be waiting for it to come in on order. Stores like Upbeat are vital to our future. If we want the buying of music to remain an outing; a full and joyous experience then we’ll have to pay for it. Let’s rather sacrifice an extra fifty bucks than sacrifice a magical tradition of lost afternoons. Without proper record stores we might as well return to the primordial soup.
*Illustrations © Alastair Laird.