Culture  The relevance of records

Kamran Aryah investigates whether wax will wane.

T he current generation of music listeners has grown up in a digital era, where songs are immediately accessible for download, either as online purchases or free streams on various web sites. But as the transition from analog to digital progresses, one might wonder what will happen to the neighbourhood record store. Once an essential part of the process of finding new music, the independent record store has been turned into an obsolete relic by the Internet’s elimination of the middlemen between the listener and the artist – the label, the distributor, and, most tragically, the record clerk. So, in order to get an idea of where the record store fits into the Montreal music scene in the digital age, I visited independent record stores throughout Montreal, in the hopes of understanding what keeps their owners going. Eduardo Cabaral, the owner of Primitive on Saint Denis, in part credited his business’s survival to a vinyl revival he has noticed in the past five years. Manifesting itself in the number of clients who get excited over LPs and EPs – routinely curious of where they can find a turntable – listeners seem to be captivated by the thought of hearing music in the format it was originally recorded. Though the commodity has become the relic, there is still plenty of room for the record store to thrive. By catering to collectors and tourists, and those who value the tangible, physical aspect of the music purchasing process, record stores stand a chance of surviving well into the digital age. And by acting as a physical “record” of the music that unites us, it seems that vinyl is here to stay. I sat down with Christian Pronovost – owner of inBeat Records, at 3814 Saint Laurent since 1987. In Beat specializes mostly in electronic dance music. Pronovost has seen the progression from vinyl to the digital, and claims that he has managed to maintain his store through his careful selection of music and trust in his own taste. Hoping to get to the heart of the matter, we talked about the changes he’d noticed in the way people approach music since the creation of the MP3.

The McGill Daily: How has your customer base changed over the past 10 years?
Christian Provonost: Initially all my customers were DJs, buying 200 to 300 dollars of music a week. Ten years ago, I was going through $800,000-worth of records a year. Today, that’s down to less than $200,000. Most of my customers [today] are tourists.

MD: Do you see a future for yourself as a record store owner?
CP: The game is pretty much done – record stores are totally obsolete. The only reason why I can still justify running the record store is that I’ve been carefully buying back a lot of records and selling a lot of music that is only available on vinyl, being very careful in my choices of music.

MD: Why has vinyl been able to persevere through the digital transformation?
CP: I’m always impressed when I put vinyl on the turntable and start mixing records…the way it makes me feel, the sonics of it. It sounds different; it feels different – there’s a real emotion to it, which I don’t think exists if you play the same music on a CD. I’ve tested it a thousand times. My own physical reaction is different when sound is conveyed through the physical connection of needle to vinyl.

MD: Do you think it is relevant for artists today to release their records on vinyl?
CP: There are people out there who want to put out records on vinyl, and that’s okay. They might be limiting themselves, but that’s fine. I don’t know how relevant it is in terms of business. It’s becoming less and less relevant putting out stuff on vinyl – there are fewer opportunities to play it. It is impossible to be a DJ in this city playing vinyl anymore.

MD: Do you resent technology for harming your business?
CP: I love technology and embrace it. There has been a natural progression from vinyl to 8-track to cassette to MP3. All those formats are obsolete. I don’t think MP3 is a “real” format – it’s a [transitional] format.… I record most of my vinyl digitally, so that it’s in a format where I can play it [in clubs]. And that’s great because – as a DJ – having access to music is the [priority]; the format is unimportant.

Records, though, are physical testimonials of my travels, of places I have been, and what I have bought, or where I was in my life. I have over 30,000 records, and technology can never replace the pleasure of taking an album out and remembering where I was when I bought it. So no, technology is great, but for me I have to have both.

MD: Would you ever convert your store to a digital format, where people could come in with their iPods and pay to rip an album to it?
CP: Never. There is no commitment in a digital store – you just receive a cut of what you sell. As a record store owner, if I buy something, it’s paid for out of my own pocket, and I take the liability of trusting my own taste. This way I maintain my role as a filter. In a digital store, that filter is gone.

Honestly…people are pretty music illiterate in North America, when it comes down to it. There are very few music publications – as opposed to Europe where people read music journals [to get informed]. People need an educated filter to decide what is good and bad. [The absence of such a filter explains] why we see people today buying music that – two or three years from now – will be irrelevant. They don’t know how to choose for themselves. As long as I buy music that is relevant – that isn’t disposable – I will have a future in this business.