The Music Store is close to extinct. I still like to call them ‘Record Shops’ even though many of them haven’t sold a vinyl disc in a long time. HMV in the UK have called in the Administrators and only a few weeks ago there was wailing and gnashing of teeth in Paris when Virgin Megastores filed for bankruptcy.

Music is now available at the press of a button from the comfort of your computer, phone or tablet – so why the outpouring of emotion and media attention as one by one these institutions bite the dust. Is it just about recognising the state of the economy or the plight of unfortunate high street retailers? No, there is more to it than just that. As one of the major news sites reported, the failure of HMV was not just about high street economics, but about its relevance and ability to compete in the sector where it was once a leader.

This presents an odd conflict. On one hand we mourn the loss, but on the other hand we no longer make sufficient purchases from such outlets to support their ongoing business. The digital world of downloads and streaming audio/video have tempted us away from our previous habits. For those under a certain age, there has probably been no other dominant means of obtaining music other than online. However, for those who were in their teen years during the record or CD eras, the record shop probably holds a place in our hearts and a nostalgia that we can’t shake. As another retail chain goes under, a further chunk of ice detaches itself from the iceberg of our musical heritage and flows away into the distance, only to melt in the vast, tepid pool of the internet.

I remember seeing black and white footage of record shops in the 1960s bustling with teenagers who bought mostly ‘singles’ or ‘45’s’. Way before being able to click on a screen for an audio streamed ‘snippet’ of the song, they had to instead, cram themselves into little booths like rabbit hutches to listen to records before they bought them. Knowing teenagers, I suspect there was much more ‘trying’ than ‘buying’ much to the annoyance of shopkeepers. However, these were more relaxed and less competitive times in the world of audio retail.

Those scenes looked alien to me in my teens when record stores still sold records but were divided into light, bright, colourful chain stores (some huge!) and small specialist stores where you could buy those old albums and imports that the mainstream shops wouldn’t stock. If I consider my own experience, it helps explain why we are so disappointed to see these places erased from our towns and cities.

I have long held the belief that the music you listen to in your early to mid teens is some of the most influential on you, whether or not you are ‘into music’. It forms a soundtrack to your life at that time of change and raging hormones. Listening to music, checking out the charts and talking about bands and singers seemed to occupy an inordinate amount of my day. Additionally, when you are 14 to 16 years old, you are in no-mans land. Too old for childish activities and toys, but not grown-up enough to spend weekends in pubs or clubs with your mates! Music (and I suppose, sport, for the more physically motivated) helps anchor you through those turbulent times and fills the void.

In my home town there must have been at least 5 dedicated record shops in the centre, not to mention the record sections within larger department stores. The weekly expedition to the shops with your friends on a Saturday afternoon was as regular as clockwork. I suppose that girls would split their time with clothes shops, but the boys would sometimes just roam from record shop to record shop, browsing sleeves and checking out what was new. The reality is that nothing much was new, given we were in these places all the time! However, we still managed to spend hours in these stores. The record sleeve – large, square and colourful, held much more allure than the awkward CD case which was to follow!

Whether you bought anything or not, an afternoon spent in these haunts followed by a can of Pepsi and a portion of chips, was a perfectly satisfying and constructive (so we thought) way to pass an afternoon. That is why their demise pulls at the heart strings. It’s not about recession, inconvenience or even the unemployment of the shop staff – it is about that loss of a ‘building block’ that formed part of your life and fed you the desired teenage nourishment of pop culture at the time when you needed it most. We mourn days past that will never return and what we believe will be the experiences missed by the next teenage generation.

That is where many of us miss the point. This generation of adolescents might buy all their music on line, but they have their own habits and their own meeting places. They won’t miss ours! In years to come they will reminisce about a different world, berate the changes and mourn different losses, just as we do. Worse still, how many of us will actually miss these ‘record stores’ for what they are today. My teens are a distant memory, but I am no dinosaur and I can barely remember the last time I bought a physical CD. Even when I did, its single purpose was to be ripped to my iTunes library so that I could listen to it through an iPod. Once that function was completed, the disc itself was consigned to a stack never to be touched again. The reality is that the music shop’s time and relevance is over.

Some reports have indicated that there may be hope for stores like HMV in a much reduced role. The larger music labels will not want to be solely reliant on iTunes and Amazon for their sales and may be supportive to a new owner. I hope to some extent that this is true and some vestige of high street music shops remain as memento of times past. However, the shape and services of these shops will likely not replicate the days of tangibly flicking through 12 inch glossy cardboard sleeves and striding purposely to the counter with a big fat grin on your face to make your purchase of the day!

Were the major music stores napping when the iPod crept up on them or did they see it charging towards them and just know they didn’t have anything left in their legs to give it a good race? Either way, the bookstores might want to put on their training shoes, the Kindle is bearing down on you on the inside lane!

TP

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