Chaos is My Friend
Store Manager Dave Farrell (left) and General Manager Joe Plunkett (right) outside the new Tower Records on Dawson Street, Dublin.

Chaos is My Friend

When life doesn’t follow the stats

In a perverse way, one of the most enjoyable parts of releasing a new record is the press and radio mailout: an afternoon spent putting scores of CDs and press releases into Jiffy bags, applying the address labels, stamps and airmail stickers, followed by the rushed trip to the post office just before they close. Shovelling the little orange packets into the post box, it is as if I am sending the record off on her maiden voyage.

Then there are the hand-written notes, squeezed onto the margin of the press release: though we may never have met, and though these names may be pulled from a dispassionate Excel sheet, the people who will open these packages are very real to me. After years of sending off these packages, the people at the other end have developed faces, personalities.

I imagine the magazine editor, her desk littered with coffee-cups, Post-its and towers of CDs waiting to be sorted through; then there is the radio producer, whom I always imagine opening the envelope in the dead of night, somewhere deep in the labyrinth of a broadcaster’s studios; there are some that will respond immediately to find out more about the artist, and then there are others who choose to communicate only through the airwaves, like a midnight smoke signal from a thousands miles away.

Just as I was pressing closed the last envelope on one such afternoon this week, a request came into The Journal of Music to outline in which format we would prefer to receive new releases. By way of a paradox, I have always tried to steer people toward sending downloads or even just a Soundcloud link: with our offices split between two locations, this has always seemed the most practicable solution, not to mention the fact that I almost never play music from CDs myself anymore.

As if to heighten the sense of paradox, the next day the postman called with a large square envelope containing the copy I’d ordered of Dylan Tighe’s excellent Record — an album I already had spinning away in iTunes, but which I somehow felt the need to own in a physical form. I still haven’t taken it it out of its sleeve.

A new home for Tower

I stumbled across the new Tower Records shop this week — on my way back from the post office, as it happens. Having spent twenty-one years around the corner on Wicklow Street, the shop is now based in the rambling building on Dawson Street that once housed Waterstones, but which has sat empty since the bookshop’s closure in 2011.

The smell of wet paint still hovered. The lights in the new shop are dim and the walls are painted black; the feeling is not unlike that of entering a cave. The first thing you notice is that accessories — headphones, hi-fi equipment, gadgets — are at the forefront. 

But the new shop doesn’t appear to want to totally revolutionise the record store model. Look a little deeper and you’ll still find the racks upon racks of CDs and DVDs, and even an entire floor dedicated to vinyl. (Thankfully the café — the one in the last premises was a real hidden treasure — looks as if it will open soon.)

We are overrun with statistics that physical format music sales are on a downward hurtle. CD sales fall 80% since 2007 reads one; only 4.25 million physical units sold in the United States during one week in January — the lowest ever — says another.

With these kinds of headlines coming in, you must be either brave, blind or independently minted to be running a record shop, never mind opening a new one — so Tower Records’s relocation to a prominent city-centre premises this week should surely be read as a statement of intent.

What the headlines miss

Cultural change might appear to follow linear trends on one level, but is it possible that our behaviour as producers and listeners of music is still essentially chaotic?

What the headlines miss is the statistic that says that vinyl sales in the US actually increased last year by 32%; according to Forbes that’s ‘still insignificant to the industry at large’ because this totals only a fiftieth of album sales, but look at it another way and that’s 4.55 million sales of a format that is supposed to be obsolete.

A couple of days ago, I was talking with an artist on our label about a future release. The conversation turned, as it often does, to the question of format: CD? Vinyl? Download-only? This conversation always seems to migrate from a discussion of dreamy aesthetic ideals to the acceptance of a hard, commercial reality.

The old-school values win us over every time: despite our own tastes and listening habits, there is still a remarkably healthy body of people out there who want to receive their music on little discs of plastic. At the level of an independent label, at least, listeners’ behaviour does not always obey the laws of the trend.

Published on 21 February 2014

Benedict Schlepper-Connolly is a composer and a director of Ergodos, a production company and record label.

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