Sister Ray's Hall Of Fame Spotify Playlist
, April 15th, 2011 10:51
Tom Knock talks to Phil Barton of Sister Ray, while Gaz Robertson picks out the 100 albums he thinks you should own. Listen to no less than 93 tracks in our RSD Spotify list!
Our final feature in anticipation of RSD11 is brought to you by another favourite record shop of ours, Sister Ray, down Berwick Street, Soho. Gaz Robertson and other members of staff have drunk the bar of The Blue Posts dry several times over trying to create their own canon of classic albums, or The Sister Ray Hall Of Fame. We've constructed a spotify playlist out of the 93 albums available.
And while you're listening to their fine selections you can read what shop manager Phil Barton has to say about RSD and the future of the physical format.
First of all, could you Tell us about the record shop.
Phil Barton: We've been trading on Berwick Street for about 35 years. Started off at 94 Berwick Street, now at 34 Berwick. We've gone up or down in the world, depending on what way you look at it. To be honest with you I think Sister Ray was one of the first movers in mail order. We used to have adverts in NME and Q when we first started out. A weekly NME advert was just a bible for people buying indie records and the first wave of techno records at the time so, that was all Sister Ray led. The fact that it’s still here is remarkable in itself, especially in the West End with the rent and the rates and all the difficult things there are now.
Why is record store day important?
PB: Well apart from selling an awful lot of records on just one day, [laughter] it brings people back in to the record stores and they actually reconnect with something that they probably had given up on and realized that, “actually, that’s quite a good experience! I enjoyed that and not only did I pick that up but I picked something else up I wouldn’t have found had I not gone to a record, or seen that review in that record shop or heard that playing in that record shop.” So, it’s a great way of reconnecting people with what it’s like to actually shop in a record store rather than click on a mouse.
Why did you start the hall of fame? Is it a list of suggestions for the customers?
PB: Oh the hall of fame? No it’s not a list of suggestions, there’s about 4 or 5 of us who do most of the buying and we spend hours arguing about it to be honest. We kind of decided that making London Calling the hall of fame album for the Clash because everyone knows London Calling. But if you go to a Clash fan “what’s your favourite Clash record and why?”and they say “well actually it’s Sandinista! and here’s the reasons why” and off they trot and write a review for it. And it makes it interesting for the customers, because somebody can walk in to any shop and find London Calling, but they’re not gonna find a passionate review about Sandinista! and why it’s their favourite record over and above all the others. And some of the albums that have been most lauded, to be honest with you, when you go back and listen to an artists catalogue there are better albums in their canon. Everyone will pick certain albums by certain artists that if you really go through their stuff, it’s not always the obvious ones. So that’s what we like to do.
Why should people buy physical copies of music?
Because the quality of MP3s is crap. If people are buying MP3s I cannot understand why they do not go out and buy the CD which is a perfect, quality copy and then burn it as many different times as they like on to as many different computers in to as many different formats and then stick it in their car and it will cost them a fiver for a classic album. They can go out and buy it from any of the download sites at 79p a track and it will cost them more. From a purely sound-listening level I don’t understand it. But of course, many people don’t buy downloads, most people rip them and at that level I can’t compete at all. If you want to get as much music on to your iPod as cheaply as possible then fine off you go. But if you’re buying music then for god sake buy the CD, it’s cheaper and so much more versatile than downloading something off iTunes. I just do not understand the mentality except for, 'Oh it’s easy, just the click of a button' but that’s just laziness quite frankly.
What purpose does vinyl in particular serve to the modern music lover?
PB: Vinyls don’t serve any purpose at all other than it’s a fantastic sound medium and people like buying it. What purpose do Ford cars serve other than getting people from A to B? Of all the things that have come and gone in the last 50 years, vinyl is still being made and still being produced. But in perspective, it is an infinitesimal amount of the market. It ain’t gonna make anyone a vast fortune but it does help independent record stores stay in business. You look at the percentage of vinyl sales in the market it is tiny and we have to thank record companies for actually wanting to press the stuff, they don’t have to and it’s not actually commercially worth their while. But as a marketing concern or as a marketing tool or whatever else you want to call it, and for audiophiles then yeah it’s great. But it’s not gonna save the record business.
There’s a broad selection of genres in music. Is anything too weird for Sister Ray?
PB: Blimey. If we can sell Karen Finley records we can sell anything.
On the flipside, is there any style of music you don’t bother to consider? What’s too boring to make the list?
PB: There is actually. We don’t sell classical records because we don’t know anything about it. You only play to your strengths. We don’t sell pop. I went through the top 75 album chart and there were 45 albums in there that we do not stock. People aren’t going to walk in to Sister Ray and find a Glee album. They’re not gonna find anything that Simon Cowell is involved in. They’re not gonna find anything Il Divo-ish and they’re not gonna find the World's Greatest Mum record. We’re not set up to cater for that sort of thing and I would be upset if people came in and asked for it. And I’d be astonished if the customers we do get considered it worth stocking. So yeah, we don’t do out and out pop and we don’t do classical. And increasingly we’re moving out of what I call “the dance market” or what was the dance market because there is no market so there’s no point in stocking house records anymoe because nobody buys them.
You’ve not always chosen an artist’s most obvious album for The Hall Of Fame. Do your selections cause a lot of outrage?
PB: No not really. To be honest with you the customers like reading the reviews. We very rarely get people come up to us and say “well hang on a minute, you’ve picked that album by Prince but I like that one!” Well fine mate, that’s just an opinion. We’re just pointing the way and we do try and change them a lot. We do have a lot in there that gets switched around. Ones that you haven’t seen yet that will be going out are Nick Cave - From Her to Eternity why? I mean, as far as I’m concerned it is his second best album but somebody has picked it and wants it to go out so fine. Let it go out. T-Rex The Slider I think that’s pretty unequivocal, that is a fantastic record. Secret Wish by Propaganda. Well they only really made one record, all the others don’t stack up against that. Iggy Pop The Idiot, it’s got ‘Nightclubbing’ on it it’s got ‘China Girl’ on it. It’s a Bowie produced classic.
What makes a great album?
PB: It’s an al-bum. That’s the point about it. It has to be a work, not just a collection of singles stuck together with a few fillers on it. There’s a whole point to it. There’s a Bowie album we’re putting out, Low. That is an album from a period from a point of time in Bowie’s career when, you know, it just seems to fit. The whole thing is a piece of work. Broken English by Marianne Faithful, well that was a pretty easy choice because she was at an unbelievably low point in her life and made this record and it kind of turned things around for her so that is an actual snapshot in time for her and her career. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska. I mean, it’s just a fantastic record made at a point when h was having real trouble. He goes off and sticks himself practically in a bedroom with a 4 track and makes an album that could only exist in that point in time in that particular place. And if you play it it’s dark and it’s beautiful. It’s an absolutely amazing record. So yeah, I think the ones with a good back story and the ones where you realize they were made at a certain point of time for a certain purpose. They’re the ones that make great hall of fame records.
What’s the future for independent shops like yours?
PB: [long pause] I don’t know. I’m very worried. Half of me worries about HMV going down. If HMV goes down it will be good news for six months and bad news for the rest of time because record companies will be increasingly loathed to put certain records out on the market because they’ve lost HMV and that is the high street and they’re the only people on it. So the death of HMV for independence is probably great, the big bad wolf is gone. But no, not really. We need a mass market entertainment retailer on the high street. The problem with HMV is that it’s buried itself. It tried to broaden it’s horizons too quickly too far in to things it doesn’t understand and it’s screwed it up royally.
With the demise of HMV, do you think thay things are going to go entirely digital soon? Or will there always be a market for vinyl?
PB: No, no. There will always be a market. There will always be someone, somewhere who wants to press something and put it out. And there will always be a need for niche stores doing niche things for niche people. But the mass market, I fear for where the mass market goes because if you don’t have a mass market you don’t have an industry, where does all this stuff go?
Do you have any theories about why the mainstream of music is so polarised from what you do?
PB: Mainstream music has always been different from what the niche stores do. You can’t walk in to Rough Trade and find something that Simon Cowell has produced I would hope. You can’t walk in here, you can’t walk in to Rounder Records in Brighton, you can’t walk in to Picadilly in Manchester and find this stuff. What we do is cater for a completely different type of audience. HMV needs to cater for that audience. And that’s where HMV needs to be. Sorry, I keep going on about HMV but it’s so obvious what their problems are. They might make a profit of 30 million but they’ve got debts of 130 million and it costs that much to service their debts so they don’t make any money. They’ve screwed themselves over. How they got in to so much debt, I don’t know. They had a perfectly free run at being Britain’s best entertainment provider with the death of Woolworths and the death of Zavvi. The road was open for them, they had everything. But what did they do? They stoked up on games and hardware, both things other people do better. 20% of their floor space is music. HMV used to be a music retailer and now 20% of their floor space is music. They should get back to it being 40%. Stock more depth catalogue because that’s what people want to buy. Stock DVDs because they’re good at that, but they’re shit at games because there’s better people out there. There’s much better people at hardware, you don’t walk in to HMV and buy an ipod.
And books as well, they’ve gone really big on their books.
PB: Well that’s good, because there’s no VAT on books and they’re easy to sell but it’s not what people go in to HMV for. HMV own Waterstones for god sake, why don’t they sell books out of Waterstones? They should be expanding the brand to sell music and DVDs. But they can’t, because they haven’t got any money.
Is there anything you want to add?
PB: Have faith in what we do. We might seem like a faceless entity at times, but there’s a lot of people paddling really hard to keep Sister Ray afloat and it aint easy. We have to make some very difficult decisions about what we are and what we aren’t gonna stock all the time because we can’t afford to keep everything we want to keep in stock all the time. So we have to do this mad juggling act where we have to try and keep as much in stock as we can.