If April 16 were National Refrigerator Store Day or National Radiator Store, this piece would take a radical turn toward the esoteric, but because it’s National Record Store Day, we shall stick to the mundanely arcane.
Record Store Day is a refreshingly straightforward commercial observance, celebrated in honor of those independently owned shops still hawking pre-recorded music and in hopes that you will patronize same. The international festival has roots in Birmingham, in that our own Don Van Cleave, once of Magic Platter, was one of its founders, and it has sturdy branches here, in that Birmingham, unlike many larger metropoli, has two first-rate record stores still extant.
Charlemagne Record Exchange and Renaissance Records are within a hurled Carpenters Greatest Hits disk of one another in Five Points. Nominally competitors, Renaissance was started up by one of the original entrepreneurs of Charlemagne who missed the biz after he’d been out of it awhile, so the stores share their cultural space comfortably, within a Stan Kenton 45’s throw of the original hip record store in Five Points, the Fifties-era Lawrence Hi-Fi (which was, if memory serves, about where the Pancake House is now).
Though compact discs and other formats can be found at the two stores, each proudly displays and repurposes vinyl records, a medium still winning converts even as the CD makes ready to join the eight-track cassette on the ash heap of history. The Associated Press recently told us of 16 year-old Sarah McCarthy, who discovered first a box of records in her grandfather’s basement and then the delights of hearing music as it was meant to be heard in the first place.
“Listening to old music remastered to a newer format is almost comical,” McCarthy told the lady of the press. “They weren’t meant to be digitized.” In both camps myself, as a longtime record acquirer and also a full-up iPod toter, I appreciate their respective attributes. Without digitization, for example, I might never have appreciated the massive contribution of pianist Johnnie Johnson to Chuck Berry’s classic sides, pressed by Chess so indifferently that about all one could ever hear was the guitar. Too, it’s reassuring to know that if I get trapped on a desert island in the middle of Lake Martin, I’ll have 15,000 songs in my pocket to amuse myself until rescue arrives.
However, as Neil Young is my witness, there is indeed a special quality to the music scratched out of a groove by a stylus. In the world of graphic art, restorers are sometimes loathe to clean up antique paintings and frescoes because the patina visited upon them by time’s passage is part of the way we moderns relate to the works. Digitally remastering the music of, say, the Doors does not reveal previously hidden instrumentation but changes the balance of the instrumentation one has always perceived on the original analog mixes. That’s not necessarily a good thing.
What’s left of the record industry isn’t exactly agog over vinyl’s tenacious hold on popular culture. Though 2.6 million LPs were sold in 2009 (a 33 percent jump over 2008), Mercury Records only last month announced it will no longer manufacture physical versions of singles, despite having singles artists such as Elton John and Paul McCartney on the roster. A spokesman for the label said, “With physical formats now accounting for just over 1 percent of the overall singles market, we are being more cautious.” If you want an individual track, you’ll just have to download it.
Meanwhile, it’s interesting to note that of the 25 recordings the Library of Congress selected this year to add to the elite archive known as the National Recording Registry, only two were created in the era of the compact disc. The rest, originally found on phonautograms, wax cylinders and disks of shellac or vinyl, will be preserved for all time…as digitized sound files.
Since Record Store Day, like Earth Day, falls amid National Poetry Month, permit me to combine several concepts by recycling this brief doggerel composed on the occasion of Charlemagne’s 33 1/3rd anniversary last October, amended slightly to include Renaissance and, indeed, all the great emporia of stacks of wax and dusty disks hither and yon:
We don’t write nothing down no more because of that’s how smart we is. You can scan our daily entries at dot-com, dot-org, dot-biz…
Information? We got plenty. Understanding? Not so much. We don’t need to stay in context just as long as we’re in touch.
The problem for the future is that there could be no trace of us if all that we communicate is as ethereal as dust.
If the bits and bytes should vanish, we in turn will disappear; without some tangible detritus ‘twill be as though we were not here.
Thus, we celebrate the great anachronistic dream of yore. We have need of relics, totems: we all need a record store.
Don’t misunderstand. It’s not a trove of data I commend. These records are true records of what we are and where we’ve been.
The music that’s been made and stored in disks throughout a century contains the scale of these our times, what we have felt, what we still see.
The artists we commissioned to record our tales in endless song shape the future’s recollection, showing them where we belong
And, as we must, eventually, depart this experiential plane, all we knew and loved we’re taking. All this music will remain.
So raise a glass to record stores and celebrate their noble cause. The past is gone, the present’s dim, but the future’s now and always was.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.