Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Personal Essay: Record Store Day 2014

My daughter Gillian outside Records on Wheels

In the 1970s I spent a large amount of time and money in record stores. I suppose I averaged at least one visit a week - not always buying, but always exploring carefully the bins in my favourite sections of the store. 

There were three or four places in Burlington that I visited regularly. And about once a month, I'd take the Grey Coach into Toronto along the Lakeshore (the milk run) to check out a few stores there - primarily the flagship stores of Sam the Record Man and A&A, next door to each other on Yonge Street. I favoured Sam's for rock 'n' roll and folk; but popped next door to the second floor of A&A for classical discs. The selection in those stores were vast; and the prices were much cheaper than in the small suburban enterprises I was stuck with in Burlington. And there were always special deals featured at the front of the stores. Albums were about $4 back then. I'd return home with 5 or 6 precious discs, poring over the liner notes on the long bus-ride back to the suburbs.

In England, back in the 60s, my focus with records had been on singles. I kept an eye on the charts. In that two-channel era of television viewing, there wasn't a lot of pop music on TV - so I always liked to check out the familiar and the new on Top of the Pops and Ready Steady Go. In the early-to-mid 60s, the single was the important thing. It wasn't until the late sixties that record albums (LPs) became the dominant musical artifact in the music business. 

New vinyl sets of Nick Drake LPs (which I already have in 3 different incarnations!)

My move from England to Canada coincided with this change in my record-buying behaviour: I was no longer buying singles; my attention was fixed on albums. This switch in recording format also paralleled a switch from low-fidelity AM stations to high-fidelity FM stations. Young people in droves began buying their own stereo systems - not the radiogram pieces of furniture that their parents bought for the living room, but stereo "sets" that consisted of individual components: amplifier (usually combined with a radio, in what was dubbed a "receiver"), turntable, and two speakers. I had a dinky little set at first, but in 1973 I went to Ring Audio in Toronto and paid about $500 for a Dual turntable, a Harman-Kardon receiver, and a set of B&W speakers (DM4) from England. [The other parts of that system are long gone, but I still use the B&W speakers.]

As with most of my friends in the early 70s, when I was listening to my kind of music on the radio, I was usually listening to CHUM-FM. Instead of the frenetic, one -or-two song sets on the AM dial - surrounded by inane chatter and seemingly endless noisy commercials - the FM fare favoured longer four-or-five song sets, with laid-back, hip DJs and much fewer commercial interruptions. But even so, I began to listen less and less to radio, and to focus more on playing the albums in my record collection. And that collection became more and more important to me. I was buying discs by artists "new" to me - things recently discovered - but also tending to collect everything by the figures who were most important to me: everything by Dylan and Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen, for example. It was partly a love for particular musicians, but also a "completist" attitude. I was my own librarian, building my own personal music archive.
It's amazing how much "disposable cash" I disposed of in record stores back then. I spent money on albums and books - constantly collecting vinyl and paperbacks. As the collections grew, I arranged them alphabetically. But sometimes I sub-divided them: the music into rock, folk, classical and blues, say; and the books into English, north American and European. Every now and again a different notion would seize me and the categorization would change.

Gillian checks out the bins!

When I visited a new place, I always tried to check out the best record stores and second-hand bookshops. And once every few years, I'd be back in England and checking out - in ecstasy - the stuff that was available there, things that you would never see on this side of the Pond. When I visited places like London, Paris, Frankfurt, Strasbourg, New York, it was just as important to find the exemplary record stores, as it was to visit the requisite tourist locales. But much better, to me, to bring back a copy of Davey Graham's Folk, Blues & Beyond, than a tacky souvenir T-shirt or mug. That European vinyl (UK, French, German) sounded so much better than its North American versions.
With the switch of format from vinyl to CD, I still continued to buy - I still made regular visits to record stores. But now I tended to look for career-spanning collections: "greatest hits" or "best-ofs". Remastering and repackaging was also an excuse for reinvesting in the same albums. The audio fidelity wasn't better; but the clarity sometimes could be revelatory, and the lack of pops, crackles and skips was a significant advance. Not to mention the satisfaction of getting almost 80 minutes per disc. And the ability to jump forwards and backwards through the disc with the press of a switch was wonderful.

But something else was happening. A slow shift was taken place in music-listening away from the album (with its integral notion of artistic unity) back to the single track. It was the reverse trend of the 60s-to-70s change in format and attitude. It was probably the music video that took the lead here. More people were consuming their pop music from TV than from record albums. Fashion and looks and notoriety began to matter more than the sound and quality of the music. The image on display mattered as much, or more, than the sounds emerging from the plastic. 
And then a further upheaval arrived as the digitization of music began to make popular music available on the internet. Teenagers - a key demographic for the music business - began to get all their music via internet downloading. They very rarely bought albums. Why, when you could get the music for free? And who cares any more about high-fidelity sound? MP3s? Wave files? Does anyone really care about the difference? Apparently not. Cost and ease of transfer trumps sound quality and traditional packaging. Illegal violation of copyright laws? Try policing that.

New vinyl, CDs, T-shirts, etc. at Records on Wheels in Dundas

And then the Amazon phenomenon arrived. You can now order albums legally for a price that will always undercut substantially the amount charged by a record store. Or you can download individual tracks from sites like iTunes for a buck. I have to admit that even though I am still enthralled by the atmosphere of a really good record store, I do buy more of my music from Amazon. On the purchase of two or three albums, I might save $15 from the price in a store.

No wonder that record stores are fast disappearing. You can't find music sections in most department stores any more. The big chains are fading dinosaurs. Shopping malls no longer have two or three record stores. The one large music outlet in the mall is forced to diversify its produce: selling DVDs, books, posters, electronic gear, etc. How long can they last?

This past April 19th. was international Record Store Day. This event was founded in 2007 and happens every third Saturday in April. This year's Record Store Day is the seventh since its inauguration in 2008. The concept for this special day is "to celebrate the culture of the independently owned record store" (Wikipedia). An eminently worthy enterprise; so with that in mind I paid a visit to one of the last remaining enterprises of that kind in my area - Records on Wheels in Dundas. I've been a rather irregular customer there for the last decade or so, but I am much impressed by the quality of the product available - and the care that the owner puts into his business. It shows that he knows his music, and that he wants to offer something of quality and value.

Mike Clasen - the owner and manager of Records on Wheels in Dundas

Records on Wheels is on King St. E. in Dundas, the main drag through town. It is owned and managed by Mike Clasen. He is the third owner of the store, which has been in that location since 1979 -  about 35 years. Mike has been running the show since 1985 almost 30 years. 

A quick perusal of the premises reveals a very diverse selection of music on offer. There is the obvious core collection of rock and popular music. But there is also a substantial section devoted to progressive rock - you can tell Mike loves the music of the 70s! There are also good, representative sections given over to blues, jazz, and classical music. 

On my first visit to the store, I looked to see if there was any decent English folk stuff - one of my particular interests. Well ... I was surprised. Lots of good albums, and he is always bringing in new releases and recent compilations. I knew immediately that this store was run by someone with a vast knowledge of most musical genres. If he doesn't  have what you want, he will order it, and it only takes about 7-10 days. And Mike takes the time to annotate many, many individual CDs - providing brief notes about the significance of that album. A real labour of love.

Another satisfied customer

Surviving financially in this sort of business is difficult - and it is getting harder for Mike. He has diversified into vinyl LPs, T-shirts, DVDs, used CDs, rock 'n' roll paraphernalia - anything that will entice more people into the store, and that will develop a more-varied clientele. The resurgence of interest in vinyl recordings has been touted as something of a "saviour" of the independent record store. Not really. The LPs are expensive; and the number of sales doesn't reflect the effort expended in bringing in new and old stock. Not to mention that there is a lot of on-line competition in the sales of high-quality vinyl LPs. It does attract business, but is it enough?

Mike estimates that his business gets about 50% sales from CDs, about 30% sales from vinyl, and the rest from T-shirts, DVDs, etc. The profit margin is tight. And the numbers of customers is dwindling. Mike doesn't seem too optimistic about the future for his record store. He has the concept, the quality, the dedicated knowledge and service to offer music lovers. But the market has changed dramatically over the years. And the method of music distribution that is developing does not favour the model he champions. Perhaps Mike will move his business over to the internet? If you can't beat them ... . The business may morph for him into an acceptable alternative.

Go ahead - buy something!

It's sad that Mike's future, in an enterprise he obviously loves, is so touch-and-go. Will he survive for many more Independent Record Store Days? I hope so. I left his store on Saturday with the promise to drop in more often. If you live in the Hamilton area, you might consider dropping by at Records on Wheels in Dundas - just to see what an old-school record store really looks like. This link shows how to get there.

Oh, my purchases on international Record Store Day? I got the blu-ray version of the Yellow Submarine film for Gillian, a two-CD set of Steeleye Span (a compilation of their first three LPs), the final disc in Ian Tamblyn's four-CD set devoted to a coast-to-coast consideration of place in Canada, and an Archiv re-release of Handel's Israel in Egypt, conducted by Charles Mackerras. There you have it - a bit of this and a bit of that. A typical record-store visit.


  1. Great article Clive and your experiences through the music of your life run a similar path to my own and likely to most music lovers everywhere. I can't thank you enough for the great words, pictures and wishes for my store. No matter what the future holds, I will be glad
    in the knowledge that for me, it was always about carrying great music at a reasonable price. It's been very rewarding throughout all of the challenges we've faced and I hope to carry on for quite a few more years if possible. Thanks again, I really appreciate the support!

    Mike Clasen
    Records On Wheels

  2. Coingratulations Michael.
    I am proud of you.