Soulseeking
Clothes for Business



january and February are quiet times for me, generally, regarding music. There’s little in the way of new releases to get me excited, and this is compounded by the fact that I suffer from some kind of seasonal-affected writer’s block for the deepest part of the northern hemisphere’s winter months too, meaning that I write less and less anyway. This year is no exception; I’ve managed a handful of record reviews across the board over the last three months. It’s depressing, but it’s the way it is, and it happens every year, so I’m used to it.

Another side effect of this is that trips to record shops become less frequent for the early months of the year; I’ve bought barely anything so far in 2006—the Talking Heads remasters, a Scott Walker re-release (that I’ve not listened to yet, because you have to be in the right frame of mind for Mr. Engels) and the Delays album and pretty much nothing else that I can recall with any particular fondness.

So yesterday when I decided to head into town and browse around, hoping to pick up the new album by The Knife, the new Embrace single and maybe some Eels back-catalogue if it was cheap enough anywhere, it was pretty much the first time I’ve been in any of my local record shops for a few weeks. There are four main ones in the (small) city where I work—two large British chains that you’d expect to find anywhere, a decent-sized independent store, and a back-alley second-hand shop that does a decent trade in imported new CDs with slightly altered artwork because they’re releases designed for foreign territories. Of course there are other places where you can pick up a CD—a certain stationary shop with ideas of grandeur and a home goods store that has lots of toys and sweets, plus a tiny independent that ostensibly specialises in dance music and another which deals almost exclusively in second-hand vinyl. I seem to remember being informed that a charity shop in the town had specialised in selling unwanted CDs and records rather than unwanted greatcoats and bridesmaid dresses. I’ve yet to investigate.

Solo Music is the decent sized independent, and has been part of my musical world for as long as I’ve been buying CDs; not only is it Exeter’s biggest independent record shop—with extensive sections upstairs covering jazz, classical, folk, world, and country for when I went through my inevitable dilettante-ish forays into music beyond the ken of indie, rock, dance and pop (a whole other Soulseeking column in the future, I suspect)—but the assistant manageress was a close friend of my two older brothers and by extension me, so it’s a shop I’ve always felt comfortable browsing in, partly because of this, and partly because it was just a good shop. There were no genre distinctions in the downstairs stock, for instance, no segregation between dance and rock or pop, Oasis sitting next to Orbital just like they did on my shelves at home. They also had an excellent 3 for £20 section which I have often hived extensively for back catalogue stuff when first getting into an older artist—it has set me up with excellent trios by artists from Kate Bush to Tom Waits via Outkast over the years, and whenever I was in the mood to just buy some records but knew not what, there would always be three in that selection that I could happily choose—Penguin Café Orchestra, Mobb Deep and The Orb, perhaps…

Theresa, the assistant manageress who I knew, has recently left Solo, and when I headed there on Monday lunchtime it was the first time I’d been in since learning this. I fully intended to pick up at least the single I wanted there, even though I suspected they wouldn’t have The Knife’s album, as a kind of show of solidarity for a local independent shop—a heated discussion with an activist in Middle Eastern issues the previous Friday had left me more distasteful of big business than usual.

As it happens I was slightly confused as I entered the shop, took one brief look around, and then walked straight out again without buying anything, vaguely resolving to myself silently that I would never bother buying anything else there again and deciding that Theresa had jumped at precisely the right time.

Why?

In the window I noticed an orange body warmer and a pair of jeans where normally would be a display promoting a recent high-profile release—posters, POS merchandise, etcetera—or maybe a handwritten sign advertising an in-store or signing by an up-and-coming indie band or some local scene heroes (inasmuch as there is a “scene” at all in Exeter). Perhaps the body warmer was a visual plug for the impending summer festival season, with tickets for the likes of V2006 and the Leeds / Reading festivals. I didn’t think much of it—I go in Solo to buy records I’m looking for, not because of the window display.

But when I wandered around the interior of the actual shop I was pretty horrified—the large rack that housed the 3 for £20 section, and the singles stand which stood next to it, had gone. Instead in their place were a couple of racks of clothes—wtf?!—the same kind of jeans and body warmers as displayed in the window were for sale inside the shop itself. There’s the pun explained.

Now you can call me a puritan or a rockist or whatever, but I don’t think record shops should sell clothing beyond band t-shirts. I also don’t really think they should sell magazines or books beyond magazines and books directly about music (or film, at a push, if we accept that record shops are OK to sell DVDs). I am not happy that a certain very famous, innocently-named chain store in the UK that started as a music shop (and record label) is now considered a “lifestyle emporium” and sees fit to sell cult-interest stationary and Manga action figures.

There are a lot of things buzzing around my head right now regarding the consumption of music in small-to-medium sized provincial towns and cities in the UK. I am horrified that the management of Solo Music obviously feel that they need to branch out into clothing retailing in order to make ends meet. I am horrified that NME is now a part of IPC’s “Ignite” stable—meaning its owners consider it a “Men’s Lifestyle” magazine rather than a music paper. I am horrified that said magazine, for instance, now devotes more page space to adverts for its own online ringtone services etcetera than it does to reviewing records. I am horrified that supposedly more erudite and musically concerned publications such as Observer Music Monthly and Q have reduced word counts of standard capsule reviews to the point where 80 words is considered “enough” in which to get to grips with a record. I am horrified by kids with one earphone in while walking in groups with their friends. I am horrified by kids who spend more money on black hair-dye, black nail varnish, black eye-liner, and black clothes than they do on records despite the fact that they would self-identify as being “into music” if you asked them. I am horrified that I am now so old that this horrifies me. I am horrified that I see this whole host of horrors as being holistically linked.

Thinking back I could perhaps identify the beginning of the end for Solo as being a few years ago when they suddenly segregated an “alternative” section downstairs, and filled it with the likes of At The Drive-In, Fugazi, and Kids Near Water—presumably so the local hardcore kids didn’t have to sully their hands by touching rock or pop records while scrabbling like filthy hyenas for their oh-so-valuable idiosyncratic signposts of cultural divergence from the mainstream. Why separate “alternative” but not “dance,” unless by doing so you are sticking your flag firmly in the ground of the territory that says “alternative” is intrinsically more important? Small black stars tattooed on an atrophied bicep and a slight hint of dry skin around the eyes and in the joints of the elbows. I guess it’s a simple supply-and-demand equation, but to the idealist buried deep beneath the cynicism in me, it was a spiritual disappointment.

When I was at university I used to regularly shop in Spinadisc records; downstairs was an array of genre-specific areas full of goodies (a separate section for “postrock / drone” that was full of Kranky stuff and Spacemen 3, for instance [the latter being perhaps the most undeservingly-revered cult band ever—stay away from drugs, kids]) plus a small but well-selected choice of vinyl (various 7” or 12” limited releases by indie bands next to choice reprints of albums by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Sly & The Family Stone, and Miles Davis), plus your standard and extensive rock&pop and singles collections, while upstairs was given over to a huge amount of dance vinyl with numerous listening facilities. I used to spend a lot of time and not inconsiderable money in there. It’s kind of bizarre to think back now and realise that Dom was probably one of the annoying teenagers buzzing around the place who used to annoy me so.

Two years after leaving university three of us met up back there for the first time, and went drinking and visiting old haunts together. Our favourite pub had transmogrified into a trendier-than-thou place where the bar staff wore bow ties, and Spinadisc had dramatically reduced their stock and floorspace—upstairs was around 50% smaller than I remembered it being. Dom said in his article last week that it had now closed, and been replaced with some kind of counselling service for disaffected teens, which is possibly some kind of cosmic tautological joke.

The worst thing is that, while I did go and buy the single I was after from a major chain record shop (the black and purple as opposed to red and yellow one, simply because my brother used to work there), I ended up ordering The Knife, a couple of Eels albums, and the remastered My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts via a significant online retailer, in the same way as I’ve ordered most of the music I’ve bought over the last few years, no doubt further contributing to the need of shops like Solo to sell jeans and body warmers in the first place. Oh the horrible, horrible irony.


By: Nick Southall
Published on: 2006-03-27
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