This article was first published on Louder Than War on 5 September 2012.
Last Shop Standing: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Independent Record Shop
Directed by Pip Piper
DVD / limited cinema release
10 September 2012
Having its worldwide premier tonight, Last Shop Standing tells the story of the independent record trade. The film goes on general release next week.
Renowned musicians, industry experts and record shop owners tell the riches-to-rags tale from the boom of rock n roll to the steady struggle to stay open as downloading increases. Not only about a business but about the knowledge traded along with the vinyl this is a touching documentary about another high street staple in decline.
I have been in love with records since I was aged three. A 7″ story record of Disney’s take on Cinderella, side A ending with Bibbity Bobbity Boo and a gentle encouragement to ‘turn the record over to hear the rest of the story’. Yes, I fell in love. I loved watching the little black vinyl turn, turn, turn and go from being just a really rubbish frisbee to being the bearer of magical sounds.
Ok, so Bibbity Bobbity Boo might not have been cutting edge musically but it got my attention, and captured my heart. It made my fingers itch to flip the catch on the bigger box of records and explore my parents’ collection.
Of these, I managed to secure just one LP. The Beatles Help. It’s battered around the edges and it’s still got half a price sticker from Woolies in the corner. But I love it. I love it because my mum loved it and I can imagine her with a beehive, big flicks of eye-liner and a mini dress clutching it to her chest as she used her wages to buy it in 1965. I love it because the dust, the crackles and hiss, the slight warping which make something so familiar sounding a little more exotic. It is, in so many ways, the very purest of magic.
So Cinderella and the Beatles can be held to account for my ongoing addiction to records, my compulsion for coloured vinyl. But this habit has become harder to feed over time. Once it seemed that every town, even the really tiny crappy town that I lived nearest to as a teenager, had a record store. Now, my grab-and-go raids have to be planned to coincide with trips to big cities & are supplemented by desperate mail-order when the record store reccys are too far apart.
Last Shop Standing (yes, finally I will get onto the film and stop talking about me) is about all of that, without the personal detail of course.
It’s about the rise of the record story as rock n roll took hold in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. It’s about not only the supply and demand but the trade in knowledge across the counter, the feeling of entering an Aladdin’s cave, the simultaneous soothing and electrifying excitment of your fingers flik-flakking through the racks as some tempting beat is piped around you.
It’s also about how some of today’s most influential musician’s getting misty-eyed and impassioned about why independent record stores, and being able to get records themselves, was so instrumental (if you’ll pardon the pun) in their musical education, in feeding their creativity and shaping their career.
Paul Weller, Johnny Marr, Billy Bragg, Richard Hawley and Norman Cook (gosh, what a lot of blokes) all get in amongst the stacks in their favourite (or probably now just their nearest) record store to tell their own tale and chin-wag with the owner.
Aside from the musician’s view it is most interesting to hear from the shopkeepers themselves, many of them who have been in the business since the boom of rock n roll and display a gallows humour about their current situation. Graham Jones, author of the book of the same name on which the documentary is based, makes a genial, gentle interviewer with many of his own observations over his years in the music business to move the tale along.
There is, of course, plenty of discussion around where it all started to go wrong, when did the shops first notice their trade dropping off, what part did the internet play? The debate around downloading and the music industries knee-jerk and mostly ineffectual reaction to the rise of the machine is resigned and sad for the most part.
Yes, of course it had a big impact on business but that was a business that was already in decline thanks to being undercut by supermarkets and the ubiquity of cds. It was damaging not only in the tangible loss of sales and diminishing livelihood but the intangible distance it created between shop-keeper and customer. The feeling comes across from many interviewees that it was the hit their relationship with customers took that left them reeling more than the hit to their takings.
But, just when you want to turn off the film and play every single one of your records in turn as a requiem for the magical palace from which they came, the story takes a brighter turn. All is not lost for the in-distress shops across the land, for hear comes a valiant, if slightly fey, knight in shining armour in the form of the indie band. Finally the indie bands obsession with all things retro can be seen to be doing something good as more of them put out their music on vinyl or cassette and cling, determinedly, to the legend of the record store.
The independent record industry may not be heading for boom-times again but they are seeing things pick up as the records hit their kitsch-cool stride with a download thrown in as convenience rather than the main means of consumption.
It says something about record shops – about how they were as much a part of our culture as our High Street – that I can’t see documentaries of the same ilk being made about book stores, travel agents or greengrocers, despite them succumbing to similar fates.
Yes, we have Mary Portas, patron saint of struggling shops striding through dismal town centres, a choir of ringing tills in her wake but there is very little that could hold the attention on just one trade. So it is that this documentary is in fact a little love letter to the intimate nature of music, a final cry to appreciate that a record shop is not just consumerism but also about knowledge and a sharing of passion. It’s about them being the helping hand that has led so many to discover the treasures hidden in dusty grooves.
If there is a downside to the film it is that it’s probably preaching to the converted – those who love record shops will always love them and will stand by them to the bitter end. And it suffers from gender bias, but that in itself is a reflection of the music industry.
Still, this is a good piece, which adds to the debate around the future of the wider industry – not the corporate money-grabbers but the family-run businesses, full of love and knowledge for what they sell and who they serve.
As Johnny Marr puts it: “The independent record shops are true gems of our culture. Who would want them thrown away?”
All words by Sarah Lay.