Saturday 18th April was Record Store Day, an annual celebration of vinyl and indie record shops, where participating artists and labels released exclusives in limited runs to feverish excitement. Record Store Day could feel like a nostalgic attempt to revive a moribund format and hold back the tide when sales of music are moving online. But vinyl is mounting a (small) comeback – more like Five than Kate Bush – and sales in 2013 more than doubled compared to the year before, with the increase driven in part by 18-24 year olds. Hipsters aren’t just interested in beards and battered Penguin Classics in their back pockets.
What’s also interesting is the halo effect that Record Store Day has online. There was a huge amount of chatter about it under the hashtag #RSD14 that helped drive not only localised, live gatherings in shops, but also sustained conversation elsewhere. What I see as being culturally important here is that artists took the time to delight and surprise their audience, and bring in new fans, with their choices of exclusives. They understood that the access Record Store Day offered to a limited catalogue was ripe for amplification online.
It was in the middle of the week following Record Store Day that I heard that one of my favourite British heavy rock bands, Gonga, had covered the title track from Black Sabbath’s debut album, with none other than Beth Gibbons from Portishead, with the sly re-titling ‘Black Sabbeth’. I wasn’t aware of this effort until they posted the track on YouTube and it was picked up by some of the music blogs I follow. The number of views Gonga had clocked up in less than a week (almost 90,000) far exceeded their usual reach. Yes, this can be explained by the pedigree and association of Portishead, but no doubt the pairing has introduced a whole new audience to Gonga. And here is where Record Store Day finds its true power: integrating physical and digital audiences to put rare and special one-offs in front of people who wouldn’t know they wanted them.
We are seeing the same trends and opportunities in the book industry in which I work: increasingly readers’ decisions as to what they read next are predetermined by their prior reading habits and the work of an algorithm. As sophisticated as they might be, algorithms are no substitute for your friends, family or people you trust. So it’s important efforts are made to facilitate that person-to-person, hand-to-hand recommendation that has long fuelled the circulation of books, as it has music, yet is perhaps more at risk of being lost than ever. An initiative like My Independent Bookshop (http://bit.ly/1sloMYC) – where users choose up to 12 books to display in their own virtual bookshop – seeks to provide an intimate, personality-driven environment for just that.
The key to the site’s vitality will be the extent to which users tinker with their shop and engage with the other virtual shop owners. Users can opt to receive book recommendation requests from others in the community, so if a curious browser sees American Psycho on my shelves and decides to get in touch, I’ll be able to tell them that Less Than Zero is Bret Easton Ellis’s next best book. Primarily it is a place for readers, but we know the choices of authors’ in the community will drive interest: from Lisa Jewell to Terry Pratchett, Irvine Welsh to Simon Mayo. And like Record Store Day, it unites the digital and physical by allowing users to connect to real, offline independent bookshops in a network of over three hundred shops, with a small commission being paid to those shops from purchases made online.
When it comes to the cultural choices we make: the films and plays we see, the gigs we attend, the exhibitions we visit, the books we read, no-one really knows what they want. That’s what can make cultural life rich and surprising. We must strive to make sure person-to-person recommendation endures – and at the same time ensure we don’t fall into the trap of seeing a straightforward choice being our physical and digital worlds. We live our lives simultaneously in both environments. It’s how we continue to delight and surprise ourselves through initiatives like Record Store Day and My Independent Bookshop; by discovering not what we know we want, but what we don’t know we want.
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