I was looking at an issue of Uncut the other day, and when I got to the back cover, there was a full page ad for FOPP, the UK chain of record shops. There was a time when this wouldn't have attracted my attention in any particular way, but this time it did. It was a bit like seeing a ghost of a loved one. You see, I thought FOPP was still dead.
FOPP, a record store chain that had evolved from a Glaswegian one-man stall, shut down all of its 100+ stores last summer - I was, in fact, there when the stores mysteriously closed for "inventory" right before they closed for good. I had been purchasing CDs from their Cardiff, Bristol, and London locations right up until they shut down, completely unaware that as I left for home at the end of June, they were slated for execution. Apparently, FOPP's takeover of rival chain Music Zone put them into cashflow problems, forcing them to close. I was rather crushed at the time because despite the fact it was a chain store, FOPP came to mean a lot to me. FOPP allowed me to buy tons of albums from British artists for as low as $10 each, which is pretty magnificent when all of these albums would cost much more back in Canada. It was the type of store I could browse in for hours, and even when I had gone through all the music, I could then turn to the books and DVDs. It had a more independent vibe than shops like HMV and Virgin, and would often showcase in-store artist performances. Apparently, when FOPP shut down, the slimy white knight that came to the rescue was HMV. Now there are only eight FOPP stores throughout the UK and they're owned by one of the biggest music retailers. And so the story of music stores continues with the larger ones eating up smaller ones while still fighting for their lives in the age of digital music.
I will admit that I do like browsing in the British HMVs because they're often multi-level edifices with more of the music I like than any store in my hometown. I once said I could sniff out an HMV from miles away, and I don't even want to try to count how many I've visited up and down the UK. At the same time, they don't have the soul a real record shop should have - they feel like corporate shrines to music, bright, shiny, superficial, and more often than not, very overpriced. The HMVs in Canada, barring big city ones like the ones in Toronto, are like the shrivelled corpse versions of the British ones - they're usually one floor with one album per artist available in their racks. They make me hugely depressed. I prefer to spend my money in record shops that feel like proper record shops, including Selectadisc, independent music shops in Camden Town, and the beloved Spillers.
Established in 1894 and located on The Hays in Cardiff, Spillers is the oldest record shop in the world and feels like a true record shop, the kind every real music fan feels nostalgia for. The people who work there are obviously there because they're passionate about all sorts of music and want to tell people about it, and despite the tiny size of the place, it holds more quality music than an entire Virgin Megastore. The walls ooze authenticity with the numerous music/concert posters and jam-packed racks, which include the best selection of Welsh music you'll ever find. The people who shop there are the type who could spend half a day within this small darkened space, hunting for an obscure find that will potentially change their lives, and these people are the type whose lives will be changed by records over and over again. Of course like all fantastic record shops, Spillers was seriously threatened with closure a couple of years ago (of course because of further commercial development of the city centre, including a second phase of St. David's Mall), and for all I know, it may very well still be in danger. I signed a petition a couple years back (I think I also signed one to save The Electric Ballroom in Camden a long way back and more recently I signed one to rescue The Point, a Cardiff music venue, which just shows you how many decent places connected to music are consistently in need of saving), and I know there were several others pushing to save Spillers, including the Manic Street Preachers who used to shop there all the time in their youth.
Because the choices for music shops in my hometown have shrunk considerably, I've turned to online sources, especially for all the imports I inevitably buy. I realize that this kind of shopping is no replacement for a real record shopping experience, but I've been forced into it by the meagre selection in Winnipeg. Aside from Into the Music, which sells a lot of used music in both CD and vinyl, I don't have anywhere else I can go to really feel like I'm in some blissful music haven. Music shopping should be a dialogue - there should be passionate people present to engage you in music discussions and introduce you to new stuff you would never have heard of otherwise. Music shopping should be visceral - you should be able to try out new music in headphones before you buy it and you should be regularly surprised and impressed by the music playing in the store itself, prompting you to find out what it is. Music shopping should be tangible - I love the click-clack of flipping through racks of CDs and the excitement of lifting a vinyl LP out of the rack to survey its sleeve. Online shopping can never replace any of this.
In my opinion, when the music industry has been turned upside down and their pockets have been turned inside out, there will still be a place for independent record shops that exist purely because of the music. All the Tower Records and Sam the Record Mans can shut, along with HMVs and Virgin Megastores, as long as the real ones stay open and offer more than just a commodity, including a proper experience that befits the affective relationship people are meant to have with music.
While the old Web site URL http://www.fopp.co.uk/ still reads RIP FOPP, the relaunched FOPP resides at http://www.fopp.com/, promising a resurrection for loyal customers. Time will tell whether I'll ever be able to ignore the ghostly epitaph forever lurking in cyberspace like the whispers of black box messages in the Bermuda Triangle and accept the re-animated over the venerable corpse.
I Buy American Records - Saint Etienne
This is Capitalism - Snog