A trip to the record shop may seem quaint to casual music consumers today, especially youngsters now weaned on downloads, but, as Music Ed. Mike McGrath-Bryan finds, a ramble to PLUGD reveals a revered journey of discovery that now, more than ever, is necessary to appreciate and understand music, regardless of taste…
A long-standing institution in Cork music, PLUGD Records takes its place today as Cork’s last independent record shop. Big whoop, I hear from one or two down the back. This is the age of digital, I hear you grunt from inside your Hollister hoodie, before proceeding to make another ratty YouTube-ripped MP3. There is no denying, in all seriousness, that record shops in 2012 are (thankfully) no longer the go-to destination for casual entertainment consumers. Anyone that gave a ha’penny for records and took music seriously has long been driven off from the chart-centric HMV and still-woefully redneck Golden Discs, while the spoonfed, square-eyed children of the X-Factor generation are off sending ones and zeros around on their phones, music’s artistic and actual value both unheard of… In any case, in 2012, the record shop fulfils a far more pastoral role. A haven for those appreciative of the labour of love that goes into crafting music, the last bastion of the old spirit for those who care to remember, a community hub that thrives on a regular audience batin’ into town for the latest local release, a place to meet like minds and hassle the lads at the desk for recommendations.
Lined with posters that greet the eyes with a barrage of colour, each beseeching you to enter an artist’s world for an evening, PLUGD, upstairs in the Triskel Arts Centre is an understated sight from its entrance, yet each component tells a story: black metal shelves, transplanted from its former location on Washington Street, via the ESB substation on Caroline St for a triumphant return after the shop’s shock closure in late 2009, pregnant with racks and racks of CDs and cassettes from across the genre and indie-label spectrum, from the aforementioned local lads, to luxuriant collections of Italian library music; recently-unearthed dancehall cuts to a gloriously eclectic jumble of pre-loved music in need of forever homes. These stories, each record, tell of the joy of creation, through filters and perceptions only limited to the number of different titles on the shelf, each perceptible differently by each person coming in. Each stare up, intriguing and seeking to engage on some level. Jewelcases sit snugly, their comfort occasionally rankled by oversized cardboard slips, sometimes handmade, sometimes just awkward. Flicking brusquely through stacks, organised by name, by label in notable cases, and by genre for the sub-genre hound, is an unending joy, and seldom fails to unveil some goodies. Word of mouth, the right artwork… it could be anything that draws the eye to a disc of interest, to be brought with anticipation to the counter, to be bagged up and swept away into a waiting headspace.
Staring forlornly across the room is the shop’s core stock and the source of most of its trade these days: vinyl. Glorious masses of 12″ albums, once more invested with the pioneer spirit, be they double-heavyweight reissue or an Irish indie’s newest limited release. And it is here that the ceremony of record collecting truly comes together. The corner window sill plays host to a Technics turntable, an amp and some headphones. Here in PLUGD, if not at home, is the opportunity, once you’ve worked up the nerve to ask Albert or Jimmy for a listen from one of the albums, to partake in a ritual that is the closest thing to purity music has known. Observing and appreciating the artwork. The tactile feel of a large cardboard slip as the paper inner slides awkwardly out, with a record sometimes held close back by the static of transit. Pulling the record out, hearing the static crackle slightly, before placing it on the table… silence, anticipation. The needle, lifted from station and guided onto groove. Crackle and pop as the initial notes cascade upon your ears with a warmth and definition missing from billions of digital files, all sizzle and artifacts. Taking it in, feeling its impact, with a clarity alien to the ears in these times of loudness wars and ubiquitous, arrogant white noise.
It’s hard not to be subtly enveloped in PLUGD’s atmosphere. Ambient music rings out from speakers behind the counter, and there’s always someone browsing shelves and making chat with whoever’s at the till, usually the aforementioned Al and Jim, gatekeepers of this realm of unending sonic delight, maintaining the physical experience after years of working hard and playing their part in their respective genres’ development in Ireland. The exact opposite of the condescending indie-shop clerk, either boisterous football banter/hassle or calm conversation reigns over the hubbub of the day. It’s an experience that gets better when the community gathers for an instore gig, a chance to sit on the counter and over the crowd’s shoulder at the band giving it loads in the corner, or for a screening, a makeshift cinema.
It’s easy to discount record shops today when you can ransack Mediafire, TPB and the like today, stream from YouTube, and so on. But those who choose to make music a product for consumption, rather than for appreciation, are the ones who are missing out. There’s never been so many ways to hear music, but in this place, how else can anyone want to experience it?