Shoreditch, East London: the home of vintage clothing shops, handlebar moustaches and irony; the home of Damien Hirst, who once paid £6,000 for a dead shark, Noel Fielding, who covered his face in shaving foam and called himself the moon, and William James Blacklock, the nineteenth century landscape painter. And whilst I like all of those things (though my handlebar moustache-growing game is poor at best), none of them were the reason I visited.
No. The reason I travelled to London was to talk to local record shop owners and workers about the decade-long boom in the record industry, and hopefully get some tips on how you, lucky readers, can start your very own edgy-yet-unnecessary-in-the-digital-age record collection so you can show off to your friends/listen to extinct records for a pound/develop a hoarding habit.
At first, it seemed that no one really knew why the sale of records had boomed and judging by their reluctance to speak, they didn’t have any useful advice for budding record collectors. In Rough Trade, arguably the most famous store in London, the gentleman behind the desk declined to comment and lumbered me with the email address of Someone at Rough Trade dot com, who still hasn’t responded to my email. It was the same story in Flashback Records as, past the multitudinous yoga pants and glassless glasses, the two young guys stayed unresponsive when I asked them about the age range of record-boomers and whether hip hop has enjoyed a record resurgence (with my fingers crossed behind my back). Why did no one have any answers?
We eventually struck gold at Sister Ray Ace, where the generous man behind the counter had an evident passion for physical recordings and was as clued up on music as one would expect from a record shop owner. Johnny told me that the surge in record sales goes beyond the music itself; you’re buying a piece of art. “It’s a tactile procedure“, he said, alluding to the idea that there is a certain amount of ‘object fetishism’ surrounding vinyl.
I asked him how a student (or a poor graduate like myself) could cop a few records on the cheap and he gave me some sound advice: buy yourself a decent system first. “Whatever the quality of your records”, he told me, “if your system’s shit, it’s going to sound shit”. Just before we headed off I asked him what he thought of charity shops, and he left us with the immortal words, “Well, there’s a load of tat in charity shops, y’know, like Frank Sinatra. Well, Frank Sinatra’s all right, but you know what I mean.” Poor old Blue Eyes.
The idea of a record being a tangible entity resurfaced when we entered Love Vinyl, one of East London’s newer stores. For many collectors there’s just something about records, that goes beyond being able to touch and hold them; it’s also the ‘community feel’ associated with them. This reminded me of my mother telling me that her and her mates used to swap their old Island Records’ albums when she lived in Twickenham in the midst of the growing ska and reggae movement – something you can’t do, at least not in the same way, with digital music. Love Vinyl’s Dave and Zaf gave me some simple advice when I asked about starting a collection: “Buy a deck.” Fortunately, they also offer a 10% discount for students, and tucked away in the basement they have a section in which every record is twenty pence.
We moved on to our final shop: Cosmos. Mafal told us that she’s best mates with Floating Points and I lost my shit. “Yeah”, she told us, “and I work with Melodies International, his reissue record label”. Again, she told us that a record is a ‘physical artefact’; the record itself, along with the sleeve, is a piece of art.
There is consensus, then, about what has constituted the recent boom: people have realised that music is about more than just what you can hear; it’s also about the ritual of possessing and utilising, with your own two hands, a tangible object. It’s not just about sounds, but about sight and touch, too. Our senses were never meant to work in isolation, and the act of flipping over a record and admiring a piece of artwork while you listen attests to this.
So, did Mafal have any final advice for someone in my position (45k uni debt lol) who has a desperate ambition to start a record collection?
“Be true to your own taste. Don’t buy a record just because it’s hot. What’s hot now won’t be cool or good in five years’ time. You can’t buy all the records. I can’t buy all the records I desire, so I just buy the ones I really need. You might as well just buy the ones you really need to fill your soul.”
As we left, I looked at the Joe Lutcher and Norman Granz jazz records I bought, and I wondered if I’d been true to my soul. It’s good advice: buy the ones you really love, need, even if they’re more expensive, and compromise on the ones you just want. But then again, I bought my Joe Lutcher album for twenty pence from Love Vinyl – so maybe sometimes, you don’t have to compromise.
Photo credits: Kieran Woodham/Instagram: @kieranwoodham