I recently bought a Beach Boys CD in Barcelona. Nothing too outrageous about that, you might think, except the experience left me feeling like I’d been trying to buy some arcane anarcho-pornography or obscure adaptor plug rather than a common household item.
It was not, in short, a happy experience and led me to draw some fairly damning conclusions about the Catalan capital, which turned out – happily – to be wrong.
The CD in question was The Smile Sessions by the Beach Boys. Its release was the culmination of 50-odd years of work for the band and their record label and, for me, would put to bed 20 years of searching through bootlegs in record fairs in an attempt to put together the legendary lost album. I was genuinely excited.
The problem was, where to go? I wanted a physical CD and I wanted it yesterday so the obvious answer was a high-street store. I could buy the CD quickly and be back at home in California pop heaven before the hour was out.
But where? The logical idea would have been to look online but by that point I had already left the house in a whirl of excitement and I didn’t want to go back. Besides, I reasoned, I’d been in Barcelona a few months and had yet to get a whiff of a record store in all my roaming.
You may think this a particularly stubborn view - and you’d be right. But it was not entirely without foundation: I lived in Madrid for nine months at the start of the millennium and the record shopping there never threatened to rise above satisfactory. I figured that the on-going desolation of the music industry, which has led so many record shops in England and the US to close their doors, would have had a similar effect in Spain.
So I went to FNAC. Now, I’ve always quite liked FNAC – there’s something about its chirpy orange colouring that appeals and it is normally a reasonable place to shop for electronic knick knacks.
I was all the more surprised, then, to find its music section cowering at the top of the store like something out of Dawn Of the Dead.
No one was there. Well, not quite no one - one or two customers were huddled from the cold in the international section - but the contrast with the rest of the busy store was marked.
There was more to it than that, though: the racks of CDs seemed apologetic and dull, as if they couldn’t understand why you weren’t at home on Pirate Bay. There was no pizazz, no touch of excitement, nothing to suggest that the next record you bought could just change your life. Just stacks of CDs and the odd record looking bored and out of place. No wonder no one buys CDs any more, I thought: even the shops can’t be bothered.
Nevertheless, I had a mission. If the Beach Boys had taken 50 years to finally release the record, the least I could do was look for it. So I tried: I searched new releases, catalogue, international, box sets, even jazz but was out of luck. I wanted to ask an assistant but I have a fundamental fear of mixing English words with Spanish – do you add an accent or not? – so didn’t want to try.
Yet just as I was about to pluck up the courage, there it was: Smile.
I’d like to say the album I’d taken 20 years to find was waiting for me bathed in a heavenly light. But it wouldn’t be true. Instead, there was one copy dumped unceremoniously on the counter. I took it and ran, tucking it into my bag as I left the shop as if I had bought something shameful.
Two weeks later I wrote my first blog for this site. The subject was downloading and the Spanish live music industry and it generated some debate.
Particularly interesting was one commentator who claimed that the cost of CDs was known to be very high in Spain. A thought went off in my brain: maybe this was it – maybe this was the vicious circle that was killing off music sales in Spain: high prices led to people buying fewer CDs, which led to fewer record stores, which led to higher prices.
It was a eureka moment. Except it turned out to be wrong.
I was weighing all this in my mind when, a few days later, I decided to have another look at the record shops of Barcelona. There was nothing particular I wanted to buy this time but I had a free morning on my hands and fancied a wander. I had heard rumours, too, of the odd record shop survivor, hidden away in Raval, but I didn’t expect much.
A quick Google search revealed Calle Tallers to be my best bet, so I set off in lukewarm pursuit.
The first shop I encountered confirmed all my worst fears: hidden away at the start of the street, the shop housed a reasonable stock of T shirts, flags and badges but the only CDs I could find were hidden away in a box some way above head level at the back of the store. There seemed no way to buy them, let alone browse, so I skulked outside unhappily.
And turned, almost immediately, into Discos Castello, a proper record shop: the kind you’d recognise from your misspent youth; the kind where exciting music is playing, where stacks of exotic CDs promise a world of titillation and where you can find albums from bands you never even knew existed. It was like returning to my youth.
Here were new albums! Here were old albums! Here were the Beach Boys! Here was a lovely stack of dusty vinyl to have a rummage through! Here were reasonable prices and a friendly-looking owner! It was heaven indeed on a Monday morning.
Even better, Castello turned out to be no fluke: the same street revealed two more excellent record stores, including Revolver, which sprawled over two locations, and each with a reasonable amount of people nosing around, despite the early hour.
I was delighted. To put this into perspective, central London, arguably the European capital of music, has just five record stores and two of them dedicate increasingly large amounts of space computer games as time passes.
I left the last store in Raval chastened and wondered what I’ve learned.
Firstly, I concluded, I don’t have to go to FNAC any more to buy my CDs. I’m sorry FNAC but I may pop in for some headphones at some point nonetheless.
Secondly, it’s all too easy to misjudge a city on some imagined fault, when you haven’t investigated properly and to draw the wrong conclusions.
Thirdly, and most importantly, whatever may happen to the music industry, somewhere in a dodgy side street in Barcelona there will always be a few record stores run for the love of music, where you can wander in, have a leisurely browse of the CDs and maybe even discover something new.
It’s part of a curiously international language of music buying, with stores the same from Budapest to Barcelona, and I can only salute them.
Beach Boys picture 2011 GuyWebster.com/Courtesy of Brian Wilson Archive