I very gladly took part in Record Store Day this year. Witney might not have much, but it does have one of the very few independent record shops in Oxfordshire, and a real gem at that: Rapture Entertainment. The previous time we lived out here I popped in almost every Saturday: it was a fantastic place to learn about new music, and there was a loose social scene centred on it that seems to have only grown in strength since then.
Since two years ago, though, I’ve been abstaining from CD purchases, largely for environmental reasons but also because they’re just so much darn clutter. Since then I’ve only really succumbed once, buying direct from members of Misty’s Big Adventure, and Record Store Day seemed an equally worthy cause. I left the town centre with my wallet considerably lighter than when I arrived. I even bought a CD from one of the artists that Rapture had got to play for them. All profit to their wallet, I thought.
I’ve now got some lovely music that I’ve been intending to buy for ages—stuff I’d listened to several times on Spotify and BBC 6 Music—and I’m playing it whenever there’s nothing worth listening to on the radio itself, but I feel uncomfortable about its physical manifestation. I now have several chunks of plastic and awkwardly-cut cardboard that I’m shuffling around on top of the record player; most of these, I could have easily bought the music online without having to have the physical release. In retrospect, and in darker moments, it feels like all I’ve done is indulge in excess packaging.
Brilliant, indulgent, wise local independents sell you mp3s in this fiddly “disc” format that you have to convert later; awful, exploitative, anti-consumer, massive multinational websites sell you mp3s you can download in five minutes for an album and listen to on any computer in the house straight away. Local independents fulfil a tremendously important social function—it’s only when you visit stores like Rapture and start chatting to the staff that you realise that what you thought was affected, local-store hyperbole is nothing of the sort—yet the compact disc still feels like an environmental mess.
What do I do? A friend of mine, now in a successful, touring band himself, said he occasionally walked into high-street record shops, looked round in a daze and said to himself: “just… exactly why does this place still exist?” He was talking about HMV, of course, but in the long run will having a soul really help the independent shops, when ultimately what they need is a sustainable business model that minimizes the use of crude oil in the form of plastic? And this same friend recently played at a farewell gig for a local independent video store! Where did his otherwise hardheaded judgments go when he thought of YouTube, or whatever its ultimate video-killing successor will one day be called?
Am I merely a victim of that same romantic disconnect, that loves the idea of the stores but ultimately can’t quite conscience their reliance on unnecessary plastic and their ultimately inevitable decline, and in such internal contradictions do I sow the seeds of my own sociocultural disaster? Or am I overstating the environmental impact of the CD, and are online music services and the computing power required to play sound files just as bad?
Even better, is there a third way? Could the circle of the CD be squared as the open window of a zipfile; could local stores actually wean themselves off CDs, and instead start re-selling mp3s from a computer in the corner, thus neatly capturing me and my music-loving heart for ever more? For this heart of mine is torn. I want to support my local record store, but somewhere along the line I’ve become incapable of working out why.