Twenty years ago, the UK boasted a thriving record-store culture, with over 2200 indie shops and as many as three on a single block in a single small village.
The sad but thoroughly enjoyable documentary Last Shop Standing, directed by Pip Piper and produced and narrated by indie exec/music maven Graham Jones -- based on his 2009 book of the same name -- surveys the rapid rise and dramatic decimation of this phenomenon. By 2009 only 269 shops remained. The film makes the case that there is now a "rebirth" of indie retail activity, but the fact that there are now some 300 stores says this is more about survival than revival.
The film captures with warmth the exuberance of proprietors who have devoted their adult lives to their shops, in some cases since 78s reined. We also hear from 20-somethings who now dispense their obsessive, encyclopedic pop smarts from behind the counter, High Fidelity-style.
There are tales, told with relish, of "chart fixing." In this British version of payola, label promo men got credit for extra sales -- the mere reporting of which secured more radio play and higher chart positions -- by giving away tons of records to shopowners, who would then sell them and pocket all the profits. (Some stores who had nothing at all to do with supplying information to the chart compilers went for years without having to buy any new records.") Quite an ironic twist, since the major complaint about online music -- the Napster ethos -- is that it gives away music for free with nobody making a profit.
It's been more than three decades since the release of Spinal Tap, the incomparable rock mockumentary that revealed so much truth about rock bands and the music biz that devours them. Since then, documentaries have become where it's at for many filmmakers and fans, and it seems like a new pop music-related doc is released every couple of days. Are they better than their fictional counterparts because documentarians have become better story tellers? Have we all become postmodernists for whom the distinctions between truth and fantasy are less and less clear? Is it part of punk's DIY ethos?
Even Tap director Rob Reiner didn't call a quirky character Quirk. But in the real world, Paul Quirk, who runs the Entertainment Retailers Association -- the self-proclaimed "Voice of Entertainment Retailing" -- argues that record companies missed the boat when they replaced vinyl with CDs.
When Jimmy Shannon, proprietor of The Diskery in Birmingham, announces that he is going to spin some "poultry music," his eyes light up. "Chicken Rhythm" by the late American jazzman/scat singer Slim Gaillard is unlikely to be found in a supermarket -- not even in the poultry aisle. Shannon, a devotee of music that, he says, "could make your ears bleed," remembers "A butcher named Dave who used to come in because he was into chickens." Jones has his own gustatory metaphor, telling Billboard's Phil Gallo, co-author with Gary Calamar of the terrific 2010 paean to record stores Record Store Days, "You're never going to see supermarkets rack vinyl next to the baked beans."
Other musicians reminisce about the wonders of youthful hours passed at the local record outlet. The great Billy Bragg recalls his early years plumbing the organized chaos of a shop that featured records in Sanskrit. Johnny Marr remembers that when he saw the ocean of discs in his first record store, he knew that was "Where I'm going to be every weekend for the rest of my life."
Jones researched his book four years ago by visiting some 50 record shops around the UK, where, he says, "The mood was doom and gloom." Going back to 20 locations three years later for the film, he said, "There was a sense of optimism among the shops, who look after their customers and serve as a meeting place for music fans." But even the optimistic Jones says, "I think over the next few years record stores will remain around this level." The challenge is whether the stores that remain can play a lively role and avoid be relegated to novelty or museum status.
Owners have had to become agile jacks of all trades to keep up with changes in the way music is delivered. Some play the role of concert promoter (lots of in-store appearance by bands), critic (putting brief reviews on album jackets), ticket agency (selling concert tix), social networking/Internet hub (selling music worldwide via email, Facebook, Twitter and other internet services) and general music shop (selling instruments and paraphernalia) .
Last Shop Standing was the official film of the sixth annual Record Day, April 20th -- a day of special events that draws together so many thousands of fans one retailer likens it to "Ten Christmases put together." On that day, the documentary was released on DVD and screened at scores of indie stores all over the world, from the UK to the U.S. to China.
Fittingly, Last Shop Standing closes with the James Clark Five's "Sexbombe Uber Alles" (James Clarke Five), which declares, "Oh Lordy, I guess I'll never get to heaven cos/Oh Lordy, I stay up way past eleven." The tune has just been released as a single and Jones says he's been inundated with requests.