It seems the 20 April has long-held various sorts of cultural significance: it was on this day that Rome’s first university was inaugurated some 700 years ago, a day that’s given birth to figures as diverse as Hitler and Napoleon III, and also on this day that many of the world’s cannabis smokers celebrate the supposed holiday of dope smoking. Coincidentally, this year it also happens to be the date of Record Store Day. Yes, the name sounds a bit cheesy, like something dreamt up on a US high-school television series. But six years on, this worldwide celebration of independent record shops has done its part to bring about a renewed interest in discovering new music the old-fashioned way.
For those who extol the virtues of their entirely digital lives or the universal values of life in the cloud, you need not read on. Launched in 2007, at a time when many were forecasting the imminent departure of the world’s music shops, Record Store Day exists with a simple purpose: reconnecting music fans to that dying breed of bricks-and-mortar music sellers.
In homage to this growing tradition, musicians from across the world release special albums, some so limited in production they’re snatched up and resold on Ebay for amounts that could be mistaken for mortgage payments. But beyond the commercial hullabaloo, the real value of Record Store Day is the fact that music listeners can commune with others who appreciate music. Best of all, actual humans are on hand who can advise on what’s worth buying.
These past few years, much of my discovery of new music has been largely thanks to odd algorithms on web-based platforms like Pandora, the California-based streaming service that suggests various musicians, albeit with surprising success. But services like these steal away the whole record-shop experience. I’ll never forget having my mother drive me down to the local record store where’d I thumb through a few hundred albums before putting down my allowance for a sky-high stack of CDs.
In small-town Alabama, a record shop was an open lens to the outside world, a sort of telescope for cultural discovery. That’s not to mention the characters who run these stores, particularly prominent in independent shops, who’ll gladly tell you how bad a certain album is, regardless of where it sits in the global charts. Then there’s the ritualistic act of inserting the album into a proper audio player, and hopefully listening to the record as it was meant to be heard: from start to finish.
Now, I’m not such a Luddite that I’ll ignore the brilliance of finding inspiring new musicians thanks to computer server halfway across the world but there’s a sense that it almost defeats the whole experience.
Here’s to the act of music shopping the old-fashioned way, to the optimists who’ve kept their doors open, and to the hope that businesses like Nashville’s United Record Pressing are here for another hundred years.
Barrett Austin is Southern US correspondent for Monocle.