Wednesday, 23 January 2013

When I was seventeen, I spent a month in New York.
My father had a teaching post at NYU for a semester and flew the family over for an extended holiday.  It turned out to be a memorable break, not least because I witnessed the city erupt in an very scary racial cauldron following the assassination of Martin Luther King. That was the first time I saw guns waved at me in anger, not an experience I would recommend.
Equally memorable was a visit I made to a small record store in Greenwich Village.  A half-hidden staircase led to a magical emporium of albums, posters of local gigs (Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez, Spider John Koerner and dozens more) and mlling hippies – sandals, straggly hair and flowery shirts. For an hour or more I browsed, engrossed, a kiddy in the proverbial candy store, until, overwhelmed and bedazzled by choice, I asked the guy behind the counter to suggest four albums that he particularly recommended. On his advice I scored a collection of music that quite literally shaped my musical life for ever.
1.       Mothers Of Invention. Child Is Father To The Man
My least played choice. Although I was already a fan of the Avant Guard, my tastes were more for Coltrane and Archie Shepp in those days. However, Zappa opened my mind to later passions such as Soft Machine and Captain Beefheart by proving that rock music was as adept as jazz in breaking the mould and exploring new pastures.
2.       Buddy Guy. A Man and The Blues
‘If you want Chicago Blues, this is the guvnor,’ I was told, and it was no word of a lie. Without belittling BB or Albert or any of the other masters of the electric blues, Buddy Guy spoke directly to my guts in a way that none of the others ever have. Any maybe my love affair with Mr. Guy was the reason why I could never take the note-perfect vanilla of Clapton seriously – it’s not the lines you play…it’s what they say.
3.       Gary Burton. Duster.
This album totally blew me away. Beautifully recorded and presented, I had never heard playing like this in my life. To me, the vibes had always been a somewhat saccharine instrument, tinkled politely by Milt Jackson or Red Norvo, but always veering towards the cocktail lounge. But Gary Burton was a totally different animal, somehow squeezing emotion and beauty from his instrument. He was (and is) one of those rare, rare musicians for whom technique is a given and music becomes an extension of his emotional expression. And behind the maestro stood a group that were ground breakers in their own right, including the amazing Larry Coryell on guitar, Steve Swallow on bass and Roy Haines on drums. ‘Duster’ is an utterly extraordinary album that sent me in a musical direction, both as a listener and a player, that inspired me for decades.
4.       Hamza El Din. Al Oud.
What a weird recommendation to have made to a stranger, but what a revelation this turned out to be. Hamza El Din was a Nubian student who dedicated his life to preserving the culture of his ancient nation when it disappeared beneath the Aswam Dam in Egypt. And what a beautiful musical culture that country had. ‘Al Oud’ features Hamza El Din’s soft, throaty voice accompanied only by his Oud – a fretless Egyptian lute. The singer is a virtuoso of the instrument and although the lyrics are in Nubian, the emotions – love, pain, beauty, heartache – come through as clearly as ever they could. More than forty years later, I still listen to this album and find new nooks and crannies to lift the gloom of a stressful day.

One hour spent browsing the shelves of a basement record store in Greenwich Village led to years of pleasure and opened doors to a lifetime of musical discovery, all because the place was run by a human being, a music fanatic, who had the extraordinary ability to match a visitor to a bunch of perfect albums after sixty minutes of conversation, trial and error (there were other suggestions followed by listening that were discarded, I guess).
I’m not exaggerating to say this was a life changing experience.
Now, then, stuff that in your computer, Mister Amazon. I bought a couple of CDs from the tax-dodgers last year and paid the price of endless spam emails from an automated server assuming that those two purchases accurately define my taste. The fact that I bought an African album doesn’t mean I want press releases about every bloody CD emanating from that continent. In fact, if truth be told, I’d like Amazon to bugger off and leave me alone.
I recount this tale in the aftermath of the (hopefully temporary) demise of HMV, to prove a point. Downloads have not and never will provide a substitute for the best record stores and the personal service, advice and choice they offer. Sure, maybe HMV wasn’t a particularly good example, (but that’s a different issue). Such places are about people, after all, and I’ve never found a level of personal service in any corporate enterprise. But the best independent record stores can steer the browser into exciting unknown territory. Even today, I’m a sucker for shuftying through the racks of every record store I come across and I guarantee that the titles I come out with were nowhere in my thoughts when I went into the shop. I find things in the racks I’d forgotten or didn’t know about but fancy from the producer/musicians/songwriters on the credits. (Credits, for you download fanatics out there, are the words that tell you who did what in making the album. And an album without credits is a bit like a book without a story as far as I'm concerned...) 
For me, the excitement of shopping for music is precisely the joy of discovering something new and unexpected. Yes, if I know precisely what I want, Amazon (or HMV on the rare occasion they have it) are useful resources, particularly when I need a present for a friend or relative. But they’re on a totally different wavelength when it comes to my musical needs. Last weekend, for example, I picked up a Sheila Chandra CD on spec. I saw it and grabbed it and it’s hardly been out of my CD player since. But I bought it because it was there and a lightbulb lit in my head, recalling an extraordinary vocal percussion track I’d heard ten years ago. There is no possible way that I would ever have deliberately chosen and bought that album on-line, and I would have missed what has been a richly enjoyable week immersing myself in the intelligence and pleasure of Sheila Chandra’s beautiful music.
So please support your local record store. Don’t believe what the mainstream media scream at you. Neither the CD, the Album nor the record shop are dead yet. Far from it. Indeed, I’d stake a bundle upon some gradual revival over the coming decade, as off-centre record stores reopen and take the place of their dying high-street competition.

At least, I hope so.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Late last year, I made two predictions for 2013

Late last year, I made two predictions for 2013;

Night would continue to follow day
HMV would go bust.

Surprisingly, both have come true (but please don’t ask me for next week’s lottery numbers).
HMV have been appallingly managed for at least a decade. What sums this up as much as anything was that when grossly overpaid fat cat CEO Simon Fox waddled off to run Trinity Mirror, the national comic publishers, his successor was headhunted at great cost from that other titan of the High Street, Jessops Photographers. Trevor Moore, the new head honcho, introduced the same cutting-edge strategy that he implemented at the camera –shop chain with similar results…a collapse in sales followed by bankruptcy.

While the national press drone on sympathetically about HMV being a victim of technological change, unable to compete with digital downloads and on-line sales from Amazon, the truth is altogether more prosaic – those running HMV had not the first idea of the needs, mindset or culture of music lovers. As with so many (now defunct) major record labels, the money men believed that a pot of gold lay at the end of the musical rainbow, and this could be excavated by endless growth, acquisition and marketing strategies based upon monopolistic practices and the throttling of ‘competition’. In HMVs case, this meant buying up competing chains, such as FOPP, expanding into every vacant High Street slot that came available and using their increasingly dominant position in the market to demand ever better deals from their suppliers (record and film companies) as a means to bludgeon the independent sector to death. The strategy was successful. Small, local shops could not compete on price, particularly on new releases and best sellers – bread and butter sales which pay the rent and effectively subsidise the eclectic back catalogue that is the lifeblood of true music lovers everywhere.

The major labels and distributors colluded in this savage assault on independent record stores. Whereas it might be logical to assist the small shops by offering them lower prices and extended terms, the suppliers did the opposite by putting all their eggs in the supermarket and chain-store baskets. Sure, a few enlightened independent labels did their best to support small shops by offering exclusive, usually vinyl, releases but to nothing like the extent that they should. And the upshot?
HMV decimated their competition. And now that HMV have gone, we have…we have nothing left.

Of course, Simon Fox’s great salvation strategy for HMV was to rebuild the company fortunes by selling…what? Cut price CD’s? HMV branded downloads? Special edition DVDs and CDs? No. His lightbulb moment was the belief that his 239 High Street Mega Stores could be reborn on the back of Dr. Dre headphone sales, Chinese memory sticks and high-tech-tut. In other words, this grossly overpaid buffoon sought to reinvent HMV as a latterday Woolworths, and I guess he was successful in at least one respect – HMV have followed their illustrious forebears into Carey Street. Both are now history.

So much for the past. What of the future?
Well, here’s another prediction. Half of HMVs defunct stores will be purchased by a venture-capital group for peanuts, within the context of a deal with major suppliers offering reduced prices, extended credit terms and possibly even an equity interest. Because the major labels simply cannot afford to lose the monopoly sales opportunities that they themselves allowed HMV to create. But choice will become even more limited as the ‘new’ HMV abandons any stores that are even marginally loss making and increasingly becomes an outlet for major labels rather than offering any cross-section of choice for customers. So once again market forces will be distorted by the monopoly that HMV became. Like Clinton’s cards or Thornton’s chocolates, HMV will, to all intents and purposes, be ‘Universal/Sony/Warners Records’, promoting a narrow choice of ‘in house’ brands to the exclusion of consumer choice or demand. Because with birthday cards or chocolates, if you don’t like the Clinton or Thornton’s offerings, there is plenty of alternative choice down the road. But with records and CDs, if HMV don’t have what you want, it’s our tax-dodging chums at Amazon or nothing.

Gone will be the days of in-store promotion, knowledgeable staff, extensive back-catalogue, varied in-store and window displays or the opportunity to check out minority releases. HMV will cater for any colour or shade of taste you want, as long as it’s black, black, black.

In the short term, our industry will suffer. Most small labels will lose money from the store collapse and some may well go bust. The larger labels will lick their self-inflicted wounds and carry on, demanding a stake of future action along the lines suggested above. Yes, they’ll lose dosh from the liquidation and no doubt try to grab this back from unwitting artists who weren’t consulted and didn’t agree to the debt-for-equity swaps and extended credit the majors gave the retailer. Universal will take a long term hit, I gather, because EMI (now owned by Universal) hold forty of the most expensive high street leases on larger branches. Indeed, having grossly overpaid for EMI last year, I bet Universal are regretting ever having got involved with such a basket case – all the news is negative. But it was that old ‘bigger is better’, ‘economies of scale’ and ‘screw the competition and customers alike by becoming a monopoly’ school and vampire business philosophy at work again.
So, what can a small label do to combat the megaliths? How about this…?

High Streets up and down the country are overflowing with charity shops, something that will increase as more and more chain stores feel the pinch and fold (and of course, if an owner leaves a shop empty, he’s liable for rates and taxes, whereas of he allows a charity shop to take the space, he avoids these). Is it beyond reason for a union or cooperative of independent labels to join together to form a distribution network and offer to stock Oxfam, say, with racks of new releases and prime back catalogue at a reasonable selling price (£3.50 - £5.00) and a decent 25/30% margin? The distributor could supply CDs on sale or return (or consignment – paid as sold), management software and listening booths.

Overnight, hundreds of new outlets would offer music lovers around the country an alternative to the chain-gang…er chain stores and what’s more, instead of the retail margin fattening shareholders, venture capitalists of multinational tax avoiders, worthwhile causes would benefit. And it might just put the reason and soul back into modern music.

It’s a thought…