Kicking Against The Pricks while waiting for the Eschaton

The new Withered Hand t-shirts were a concern

While Ian Rankin was in buying his Blur box set and James Yorkston new album on vinyl we were chatting about everything from the record stalls pitched up outside the shop to the relentless march by labels and bands to DC (direct to customer). “You’re certainly kicking against the pricks” Ian said.

This biblical reference reminded me of a previous comment Ian had made on twitter about my spat with Los Campesinos after I commented on their drive to sell directly to their fans. “Bands should beware immanentizing the eschaton…”. 

My position on this is very clear and funnily enough most people including many bands think it to be perfectly fair. Whether artists should sell directly to fans at the expense of shops really depends on whether an artist feels shops have been instrumental in building up that fan base in the first place. My point is that if an artist chooses to go down that route then don’t hide it from the shops as happens now. Nowhere in the email shops receive asking (sometimes begging them to stock a release) does it ever say that the artist will be selling it directly, often early and with “extras”.  It certainly never says that they will be in town selling the album at their gig the week before it is in the shops. If given such information shops would then either not take a release or massively scale back their order.

This of course applies to those bands who have distribution. Most of course now don’t. What has become more annoying over the last year or so is bands and labels complaining that shops aren’t interested in stocking their releases while just glossing over the reasons why. Of course all of this is not what is causing record shops to close with such regularity but it doesn’t help and certainly in many cases helps bring that day forward. Some might see that as a mercy putting them out of their misery but these are strange times. After what was mainly a lot of hype people are now genuinely back to buying vinyl wondering what they ever saw in CDs and downloads. Similarly there are many that think that one day in the not too distant future when HMV has closed that people will wonder why they hadn’t supported their local independent all along. Record Store Day has lost its original aim and is now associated with limited editions or buying vinyl. The latter has to be honest done us no harm this year but the message would not be so favourably looked upon by the majority of shops that still mainly sell CDs.

Don’t get me wrong shops will still need to move on to be something more than “just a record shop” but that will take time and already squeezed between HMV (and FOPP for a few) and online sellers the last thing they need is a third prong in the attack. Also that world in the future without HMV may not be what some independents might hope for. Downloads and selling direct to the customer are so attractive to record companies, labels and bands that HMV may very well be an unlikely ally of indie shops in maintaining physical product’s availability on the high street. Rough Trade have also recently argued for maintaining physical product but their particular model is very specific to themselves and not much use to the rest of us unless they aim to start giving their relentless “exclusives” to the other shops they extol the virtues of like Jumbo, Piccadilly and Resident.

Two things are for sure. Shops can not afford to support an artist knowing that at any moment they may decide they have reached that critical mass of fans they consider they need and just go it alone very possibly if they have done well with the help of a record company. Secondly without a doubt most music fans want physical product but while RT consider physical retail to be all about vinyl and CDs what the customer actually considers physical retail to be includes posters, badges, t-shirts etc. This is still not great news for shops as these too can be sold directly to fans and are already being used as “bundles” but at least they can’t be downloaded for free so we can argue amongst ourselves as to who should be selling these things.

I sincerely believe that given the chance high street retail will still make the best job of breaking and promoting bands in conjunction with their own social media. Start chipping away at that and it quickly undermines their ability to do so. For record companies, bands and labels to think they have the skills necessary to best promote and sell their releases is simply delusional. Most are as horrifically off the mark as those who keep embarrasing themselves with new ideas at HMV something that I admit would clearly need to be addressed for things to work. Let’s all do the old things well. It’s what the customer wants !

“And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”

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