Record store day

When I was a teenager I’d occasionally skip school, catching the train two hours into Sydney so that I could spend the day looking around the city’s record stores. This revelation will probably alarm my mother. My personal map of the city was record store-centric: Half A Cow on sunny Glebe Point Road; Phantom Records at the shadowy, Central Station end of Pitt Street; Waterfront Records on York Street, not far from the Queen Victoria Building; and Red Eye Records, tucked below street level inside the now-demolished Tank Stream Arcade. I lent my high-school crush $5 (that was probably a whole week’s pocket money, if not more) so that he could buy a battered vinyl copy of The Cure’s 1984 LP The Top from Red Eye’s secondhand racks, and he never paid me back.

I’d like to say that I’m nostalgic for the sense of community that an independent store could foster in a pre-internet age, but the fact is that my teenage visits to record stores — above-board or otherwise — were exercises in social anxiety. Did I look cool enough? No. Did my purchases reflect a well-developed and precocious musical taste that would earn me plaudits from the intimidatingly grown-up staff members? It’s doubtful. In a scarcity economy (little to no income, and only a shop’s worth of records to choose from), one purchase could represent a life-changing revelation, or a sad disappointment. If someone had told me that by the time I was 30 it would be possible to digitally archive the entire stock of a typical Sydney record store on a hard drive not much bigger than a cassette tape, I think my brain would have melted.

My adolescence was organised around record shopping: how much money I had to spend; which records I wanted to find or order; the amount of time that would elapse before my next visit. Every day was record store day — but there was no Record Store Day. This annual celebration of independent record stores began in the United States in 2008, and has now become a global event. Independent and major labels press limited edition vinyl releases which are made available on the day itself, with many stores only receiving one copy of any given pressing. From a punter’s perspective it’s part competitive shopping, part treasure-hunt.

At close to 9am on Easter Saturday the Sydney CBD is almost deserted — apart, that is, from a queue that stretches half a block down a footpath opposite the Queen Victoria Building, snaking back from the basement entrance to Red Eye Records, which, since its days in the Tank Stream Arcade, has moved location several times. In 2008 there were only 10 limited edition releases to shop for on Record Store Day; this year there were more than 600. Some independent labels, annoyed at having their main release schedules interrupted by the race to press up vinyl for the sake of one event, wondered this year whether Record Store Day has become too big for its own good.

Amid the queue outside Red Eye Records minutes before the doors open, there’s no sign of disgruntlement. David is on the lookout for a live LP of the Allman Brothers, while Kate is after a 12” by London producer Throwing Snow. “It’s nice to see this day bringing people back to the record store,” Kate says. The two of them have been buying vinyl for about a year and a half. “It’s the tangible aspect of it,” says David, “and the difference in sound quality is significant.”

I’ve got a shopping list too, and I sense that the queue to get inside Red Eye will be a slow-moving one, so I strike out across Hyde Park to Darlinghurst, where The Record Store (motto: “Because you can’t hug an MP3”), a hole-in-the-wall hip-hop and dance music specialist, is tucked down a laneway off Crown Street. My map of Sydney, I realise, is still organised around music.

The Record Store has a shop floor the size of a modest living room, and it’s packed when I arrive. Inside the store’s small but neatly organised stock room I grab ten minutes with owner Stephan Győry. He’s adamant that the ever-growing popularity of Record Store Day is not driven by nostalgia. “All of these kids are too young to have nostalgia,” he says, as enthusiastic 20-somethings throng the room next to us.

“Humans are made of material, we interact with material objects, and a record is a material object that also happens to be a beautiful object,” says Győry. “It’s human-sized, and then it’s got publishing, it’s got design, it’s got photography, it’s got copy-writing. There are a lot of creative processes that go into making it up, and I think people are attracted by that.”

From a wall rack I pluck down a copy of Any Other City, by Glasgow band Life Without Buildings, issued on vinyl for the first time this Record Store Day. Loved by many including myself upon its original release in 2001, it was the band’s only album — a brief and brilliant flash. Returning home, I put the record onto the turntable. From the window of my flat I can see that the street below, on this long weekend, is deserted; without anyone to see me I dance across the living room as the record plays. Ellen Willis once said that she reviewed albums by dancing to them, and I don’t think her method can be bettered.

The fourth song on Any Other City is called ‘The Leanover’ — I am watching the needle as it slides into the groove and within seconds of the song beginning, I have dissolved into tears. I don’t know why, exactly, except that the song — characterised by the exuberant, sprechstimme vocals of Sue Tompkins — sounds like the headlong optimism, but also the tender melancholy, of youth, and I no longer feel young. “In the time it changes,” Tompkins sings at one point, or at least I imagine that’s what she sings — it’s hard to tell. When this album was first released I only possessed it on a utilitarian CD-R, but it’s not the vinyl that’s making me cry now, because this song has brought me to tears before. It’s not nostalgia, either — I wouldn’t wish youth upon anyone, and I don’t want mine back again. It’s just that in time, inevitably, so many things have changed.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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