Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Behind the Counter

There are multifarious venues in which men pursue their ostensibly macho yet embarrassingly geeky hobbies: paintball courses, model shops, video game arcades, automobile showrooms, firing ranges, sports stadiums, and record stores. Each arena has its own unspoken protocols & faux pas, and fraternal jocularity barely veils competitive contempt.

After many years of compressing my music collection to suit my itinerant lifestyle, I finally got back into the record-collecting game - coincidentally just as several friends were doing the same. Our rationales for doing so were myriad: the archival character of a good LP collection; the concerted listening the format forces; our disdain for the contentless stockpiling that digital culture encourages; the likelihood that analog media will be the only ones that survive the imminent collapse of civilization. (Okay, maybe that's just my concern.) But we all grudgingly confess that a chief motivation is that golden smugness of watching jaws drop in jealously at a particular gem in your collection.

The great lie of record collecting is that you can find anything if you just look hard enough. That's like saying you can be a rock star if you just try hard enough. It overlooks the primacy of location & luck in achieving success. I was reminded of this (not that I needed to be) while doing some crate-digging along Oldham Street in Manchester: some speedy-fingered bastard beat me to the last copy of The Fall's tenth single by a couple of hours. Right place, wrong time. But while my leisurely breakfast cost me "Kicker Conspiracy", I was able to score a couple of records well below what I'd have to pay either online or back home in Tokyo.

It only took me about two hours to scour every record store in Manchester's north quarter (at least the stores that weren't dedicated wholly to techno). Mancunian bin-divers obviously rely far more on luck than location to unearth microgroove jewels. It's quite a different story in Tokyo - but of course it is. The megalopolis has 28-times as many people as Manchester, packed into 19-times the space. There are more record stores within a 10-minute radius of my apartment than there are in all of City Centre. Why shouldn't it be easier to find damn near any LP in Tokyo than in Manchester?

The peculiar thing about record-hunting in Tokyo is the method of vinyl's valorization. As opposed to a straightforward expression of supply-V-demand, records are priced according to their cultural cachet - regardless of their physical scarcity. For example: between post-rock's place as a dominant idiom in Japanese rock, and their 2008 reunion tour, My Bloody Valentine are currently enjoying unprecedented popularity among the Japanese hipoisie. This means that it's almost impossible to find a copy of the Glider EP for under ¥3500, even though there are sometimes several copies in the same store. Conversely, Nick Cave doesn't carry much currency in Japan, which means I can scoop up a copy of From Her To Eternity for pocket change (as opposed to the extortive $45 for which it's currently listed on eBay).

In such instances, it's very tempting to feel superior to the shop stewards, as though I've robbed them while staring eye-to-eye. The truth, though, is that pricing records according to their social value is probably another expression of Japan's collectivist tendencies. The record market isn't built around speculation & scarcity; if I'm lucky enough to find an album I adore for a bargain-bin price, it actually impoverishes my social standing, marking me as an outsider instead of ahead of the curve. An unloved copy of an obscure album is the sound of Japanese society shooing me away: "No one cares about your weirdo musical proclivities, nerd!"

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