Sunday, 7 December 2014

How I Learned To Hate Record Collecting: Part 12 - Where Are We Now?

When I started this website back in 2010, the record industry was in a state of flux. On the one hand, the album had been resurrected by the invention of the deluxe edition reissue, and although there was a continual threat that the CD was on it’s last legs, the end never came. As for the single, well, sales had reached pitiful levels, but some bands seemed to be unaware that this was the case.

The cost of vinyl singles had risen - mainly because their popularity was so niche, that very few were actually selling, and so labels had to raise the price to cover any losses they might have otherwise incurred had they still been knocking out 7 inches at 99p a pop. The CD single was still hanging on, the latest wave of pop princesses like The Saturdays still opting to issue physical releases on the format. That photo above, of Frankie, is just a blatant picture to allow you to join me in worshipping at her altar.

Anyway, I digress. The original inspiration for the site was drawn from this situation - I remember buying a Stephen Malkmus 7” for £4.99 and thinking that the price tag must have been some sort of admin error. The cost of singles was rising so much overall. I had, in my collection, numerous CD singles boxsets, where old 45’s were repressed on CD, housed in a reprint of their original sleeve, and then all shoved into one big box. For anybody just discovering a band, or simply wanting to play catch up, these boxsets were glorious things to own. Coldplay, The Stranglers, The Smiths, large swathes of bands and singers were issuing them at one point, and in some respects, made the concept of trying to hunt down the original pressings slightly pointless. In the Coldplay box, they included a reissue of their “Blue Room” EP, the original of which was valued at MORE than the boxset! So, as a sort of half hearted two fingered salute to the record industry, this website was set up to - at times - showcase these “shortcuts”, to highlight some of these boxsets and how you could kill two, three, or maybe four birds with one stone in buying them - as well as saving a bit of money at the same time.

OK, so not every article has explicitly gone down this route, but my articles on Deep Purple, Buzzcocks and Depeche Mode all showed how, with a well timed hunt on eBay or Amazon, you could grab yourself a big chunk of the band’s history at a cut down price. There are still some articles in the planning stage as I write this that will follow a similar path. My love of these boxsets was two fold - I loved music, and I loved owning music in a physical form, and whilst I am anti streaming, and anti downloading, this still didn’t mean I was prepared to give my blessing to the likes of EMI to charge any old amount for any old tat. The idea was to show, where possible, how you could avoid throwing money away to the eBay scalpers, or buying records still being sold as “new” on Amazon, albeit with the price tag hiked up since it’s original release date. Just look at the OTT prices being attached to former Record Store Day releases that you can still find online - in many instances, these are nothing more than reissues of something that probably cost LESS when it first came out!

I developed something of a love/hate relationship with record collecting soon after I started the blog. By the summer of 2010, the three HMV’s that were located in Birmingham were acknowledging the death of the 45 by becoming rather selective about what they would or would not stock. One of them just stocked the CD singles of acts it thought would have a decent chance of cracking the charts, the biggest one stocked nothing. The other stocked most of what was being released, when it could be bothered, but decided to hide them behind the headphones section. It once took me two weeks to find them. There was a curious situation going on - the price of the average vinyl single was obviously far too high, but such was their relative rarity status, that I couldn’t resist buying the ones I wanted when I found one. I hated the labels for hitching the prices up, but the collector in me couldn’t stop from going back for more. I was like Keith Richards circa 1977, but substituting Heroin for Vinyl.

One day, I found myself in HMV’s flagship London store on Oxford Street. I couldn’t believe what I saw. There was a huge singles section, row after row of vinyl - it was obvious that the ones in Birmingham had been VERY selective about what they had been stocking. I needed to buy something, but the choice was so huge...I ended up picking up slightly randomly some numbered Yeah Yeah Yeahs 45, on the basis it was likely to become quite rare if I didn’t. And then, when I was back in Birmingham the next week, it was back down to earth with a bump. A miniscule selection of 45’s and CD singles. It was almost as if there was a provincial divide between what the shops in the capital would stock, and what everyone else would.

When I did my Pixie Lott article in early 2011, it was inspired by the fact that Lott had filmed, by that point, about five or six music videos, but had only “released” about two physical singles. It was becoming increasingly obvious that the single was being phased out, or at least, run down - and this meant that my local HMV’s were in danger of possibly even stocking LESS than what they already were. I made another trip to the Oxford Street store - but something had changed. The singles section had been heavily depleted - it was hidden near the back of the store, with a reasonable chunk of imported/deleted CD singles on one side, but the new releases were limited to being displayed around a pillar in the middle of the floor. The 7” single section was heartbreaking - a random, non alphabetical, mini selection, unceremoniously dumped at the end of the vinyl LP section. There were about 40 or 50 singles, but not 40 or 50 individual titles - 40 or 50 in total! About 10 Imelda May ones for her latest release, some others I didn’t want, it was all a bit of a comedown to what I had seen about 6 months previous. It wasn’t a north south divide after all - the 45 really was now a “specialist” format.

Whilst I was on the one hand bemoaning the murdering of the single, it was also becoming increasingly hard to “love” record collecting at the same time. It became more of a job - and one that I wasn’t very good at either. I still remember my jaw dropping when one of the Birmingham HMV’s decided to stock Moz’s “Glamorous Glue” 45 in the spring of 2011 - of which there were two vinyl editions, both at £6.99 each. An extortionate amount of money to pay for an album track backed with a half hearted demo recording, but I was still a music fan, and still a (often lapsed) record collector, so I had to still buy at least one of the formats. Because I knew that this was the future. Vinyl had quite quickly become even more niche than it already was, and the labels had to hitch up the prices even more to cover the fact that so few copies were required to be pressed to meet the “demand”.

It’s been more or less like this ever since. The invention of the Super Deluxe boxset finally finished me off, in terms of being a “completist”. Being asked to rebuy, at inflated prices, records I already owned usually incurred the wrath of god within me. This, coupled with most new albums appearing as “limited edition, buy now or else!” releases with price tags more than the “not as limited” edition, made it doubly hard to keep up. And then, as the CD Single quietly slipped away, to the point where the one HMV left in Birmingham saw no need to even have a CD Singles section left in the shop, vinyl curiously took over as THE format of choice as regards the old 45. We had, in the space of 40 odd years, simply gone back to where we had started. Except the 7” single now cost the same as an old back catalogue album you could find elsewhere in the same store. The value for money aspect of the single was completely gone. Things of beauty yes, but without doubt, completely overpriced for what you actually got in terms of MUSIC. Even Frankie and her friends sort of semi-ditched the format, moving instead to releasing mail order only autographed CD singles that, once sold out, surfaced second hand on the likes of Amazon where they retailed for more than the cost of their latest LP. Go on, try and find a copy of "Disco Love" for less than a tenner now.

My approach to record collecting now is, at times, a bit random. There is still the desire to own every album, and every single, but the cost implications of getting absolutely EVERYTHING, such as all the mail order live albums and compilations, or getting the biggies on the “most special” format, can at times can be frightening. I have decided that the new Dylan release will be purchased on the cheap 2-CD edition rather than that overpriced boxset - it comes with a slightly different title, so at least I feel like I am getting something special for my money. Occasionally, I will stumble across things seemingly only available online, and so will decide not to buy them because they are “not proper releases”. Cheating, I know, but my house, my rules. Freebie 7” singles with new albums? At £20 a throw? Sorry, once you have one (such as, say, “Walk On By” by The Stranglers), you don’t really need anymore. Not at that price.

It’s still in the blood though, and it always will be. I have just gone through something of a Beatles phase again, which saw me buy “Revolver” in Mono on LP for £25, because five of the songs are different to their stereo brothers. Yes, I know, a lot of money to pay for something I TECHNICALLY ALREADY OWN, but these things happen. I still love music, and I am still fascinated by alternate mixes, foreign releases, and different sleeves - I just have to be a bit more “selective” about what I buy. I quite like the idea of picking “favourites”, rather than trying to have it all. I have just read an interview with Sophie Ellis Bextor, who collects dolls, but only those she “likes the look of”. So why not try it with music? In an attempt to live within my means, I feel I have no choice.

As I have mentioned before, I guess those with bigger disposable incomes and/or more narrow minded musical tastes have it easier. People often come round our house and say, “you have a lot of CD’s”, only for us to say “in your opinion, maybe - the trouble is, the collection is actually only half complete”. The industry has simply made it harder. In 1992, all you had to do a lot of the time was buy somebody’s latest album on CD, each of the accompanying singles on CD, and nine times out of ten, that often did the job. But now? There is a dividing line between the rich and poor - if you want to get each album with all it’s bells and whistles, it’s going to be £30 for a deluxe boxset, or £80 for a super deluxe. For the latest physical single release - well, apart from those CD singles you see on Amazon at a fiver a go, that may or may not actually just be Polish imports and not proper UK singles - you are looking at a release on vinyl only, which because of it’s “niche” situation, is nowadays likely to set you back a tenner. Ouch. For people who don’t really like music, the people who download left right and centre, and even then only selected tracks, “the hits”, well, they have it easy. Because everything is cheaper on iTunes, especially if you are not even downloading full albums. But for those of us who have kept the faith, our reward is to be asked to pay over the odds for basically the same material. This seems a bit unfair. It’s like asking a football season ticket holder to pay for entry again every time they go to a match. But if it is in the blood...well, sometimes, it’s difficult to resist. Or to at least go for the cheaper option, as long as it is still in physical form.

This may explain why some of the articles on here can be a bit ramshackle - why my U2 blogs list the original album releases as opposed to the expanded CD reissues that came later. I’d already bought the bloody things on vinyl fifteen years before, I couldn’t afford to go and get them all again! (Except “War”, because I couldn’t resist it. As I say, it's in the blood.)

And so that really is how I learned to hate record collecting. The constant stream of new product, old product, new “old” product - I only earn so much money, and I can’t give it all to Bono. The concept of record collecting, which was born out of a record industry that did things that caused certain things to become collectable, had the tables turned on it - labels began making records designed to BE collectable from day one, and it eventually got out of hand. I still collect records - always have done, and always will. If I hear somebody talking about “streaming from the internet”, I may give them a slap. But it’s not always a very enjoyable hobby, more of a chore at times. Yet I can’t really give it up. I’ve started, so I will attempt to finish. Yes, the ludicrousness of the Super Deluxe Edition has turned record collecting into, at times, a hobby for the rich boys, but somewhere, the music still remains. Unblemished by the industry’s disdain for the fanbases, and still as good as it ever was. You just need to find a way to enjoy hunting it down. Remember, downloading doesn’t count. And streaming certainly doesn’t. Keep it real. And even though it is hard, keep the faith.

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