independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Kim Bielenberg: Record shops could soon be as rare as blacksmiths and makers of wooden barrels

FOR music fans of a certain age, browsing around the record shops was at one time the sole reason for going into town.

On one of these trips, you might go into half a dozen shops, pick up a 45rpm vinyl single in a picture sleeve by a band that you had seen on Top of the Pops on the previous evening. Then you could hang around listening to music, with strange men with Mohawk-hairstyles.



The news that the once mighty HMV chain is going into administration shows that we are reaching the final track on a long-playing record.



Only the most foolish optimist believes that there will not be further closures among the small smattering of surviving shops. They could soon be as rare in our towns and cities as blacksmiths, or makers of wooden barrels.



Some of the smaller record shops were spawning grounds for Dublin’s emerging pop culture in 70s and 80s. Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats formed their band in 1975 after hanging about in Murrays Record Centre in Dun Laoghaire.



In our favourite record shops in town, places like Freebird on Grafton Street, we knew the staff, and occasionally plucked up the courage to ask them to play a record. Depending on the choice, the responses could be gruff.



One of the most embarrassing moments of my teenage years was being spotted in Freebird buying a copy of Breakfast in America by the terminally unhip band Supertramp, as a present.



In those days of “new wave”, the crop-haired cool kids were into the Buzzcocks and the Undertones. The long-haired uncool bands like Yes and Pink Floyd, with their interminable songs and elephant flares, were filed in the record racks under “Progressive”.



While the smaller shops had a quirky charm and their staff were peerless in their knowledge of music, the arrival of the mammoth supermarket-like British chains like HMV and the Virgin Megastore in the mid-80s brought a new excitement.



When Richard Branson opened his Virgin Megastore on Aston Quay in Dublin, the then popular Cork band Microdisney played from a raft in the middle of the Liffey.



In the listening booths at Virgin you could spend an entire afternoon listening to records on bulky headphones, and the store had its own deejay.



With an eye for controversy that has served him well, Branson allowed the Irish Family Planning Association to sell condoms from a stand in the shop. How daring it all was. The IFPA was convicted and fined for selling contraceptives without a licence, and Virgin attracted oodles of free publicity.



Record shops no longer enjoy the see the same buzz as the scenes at HMV on Grafton Street in November 1991 when thousands of U2 fans gathered at the shop for the release of the band’s album, Achtung Baby. Some fans came from as far away as Australia to buy the first copies of the album.



When I visited HMV on Grafton Street before Christmas, most of the excitement seemed to be generated by DVD boxsets of series like Homeland and Love/Hate. The choice of music was meagre.



Now, even the boxset binges that have kept shops like HMV open are under threat, as viewers use internet services such Netflix to download series TV programmes.



It was perhaps a sign of the times that rumours have spread on Twitter in recent hours that the HMV shop on Grafton Street will be replaced by an Apple shop. Perhaps it is wishful thinking.



Will boxed sets of Breaking Bad and discounted Coldplay CDs be replaced by rows of gleaming iPads, and the very devices that have helped to kill the record shop?



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