The Age of the Import

Today’s announcement of the closure of the HMV store at Robson and Burrard in Vancouver sparked a bunch of Twitter commentary, including me giving a short version of this soapbox rant. Basically, it comes down to the chains ceased to be relevant years ago when instead of maintaining a broad stock they became more and more specialized to Top 40 when the reality is music fans who actually buy CDs have always tended to be into more niche stuff while Top 40 is disposible and a vicious cycle emerged as soon as Amazon allowed people to do their own special orders for far cheaper. Why pay $30 for an import at HMV when you can get it from Amazon for $13? Etc.

Anyway, figured I’d repost this from my old blog from April 2009. I did correct a couple things, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same as originally posted on my old site.

The city described here is of course long since dead. There are stains of it in places like Zulu, but I do wonder where it is the current crop of 14 year olds goes to hang out and discover new music. I guess a friend’s house with a computer, there’s not really anything else for them.


I wrote a piece for Discorder on the Luv-a-fair Presents Skinny Puppy’s CEvin KEy& Steven R. Gilmore event (May 28 2009, Celebrities).

Both CEvin and Steven talk in their interviews in a recent issue of ALT: Rock Culture and Lifestyle Magazine about the importance in the pre-internet age of getting those exclusive import discs.

I might have missed the heyday of the import shops on Seymour, but I am fortunate enough to have caught the tail-end of them. I went to Odyssey Imports all the time in the last couple of years they were there, and of course the venerable Track Records (somewhere I think I still have one of the iconic paw-print plastic bags from there).

I remember going occasionally into the place that was on the northeast corner of Seymour and Pender, called Collector’s RPM. Too many cool things I wanted, too little allowance (I was maybe 14 at the time.)

The shops were a big part of my growing freedom when I was first able to go downtown alone without being hassled by my parents (though I probably claimed to be going with friends more often than not). Ditto the Underground – in its original location in the basement on Robson between Granville and Howe. And of course I could write a whole other ode to Granville Book Company and the old Duthie Books at Hornby and Robson where I bought so many books on punk rock and industrial (and witchcraft and comic anthologies and…)

I still have all the stuff I bought in those shops. Public Image Limited’s Live in Tokyo on vinyl. Other PiL stuff, rare import Sex Pistols. And a couple of years later, some of my first Nine Inch Nails. Actually, I think my copies of Sin and the other early CD singles all came from Track.

I bet you somewhere I still have business cards for Odyssey, maybe even Collector’s RPM. Probably right next to the Track Records bag.

I also absolutely loved Sam the Record Man. Imports could be gotten here too, and of course Sam’s lasted years longer than the other three. When it went under, there was plenty of advance notice and deep sales and I mined their industrial section (yes, they had one! On the mezzanine floor, you turned right and there it was) for KMFDM, Electric Hellfire Club, a couple of anthologies like Industrial Revolution 3 on Cleopatra Records, and anything else that looked cool.

After that, it was A&B Sound. Which was OK, but really, “import” here just meant they were going to charge you another ten bucks (ie, in 2003 I found a copy of HIM’s Razorblade Romance before its North American release and it set me back $30, but I was just glad to find a wad of Finnrock CDs without having to wait for them if I ordered online). You could (and I did) order all manner of stuff if it wasn’t in stock, and I did love this place too, but it wasn’t the same as the old import shops or even Sam’s. When A&B ceased to be in 2008, I really only noticed because one day I drove by and there was no sign of life during what should have been business hours. It didn’t matter, I’d already moved on.

Back to the old import shops. There were many, of course, but really only three that mattered to me, all within a block of each other on Seymour Street between Dunsmuir and Pender.

Collector’s RPM was to first to close its doors. I didn’t know in advance, I just showed up one Saturday morning to find it locked up and apparently abandoned. I didn’t know then just how much my city was going to change, vanish, and turn into an endless parade of faceless and soulless coffee shops and mass-market mainstream clothing shops, but I must have sensed something wrong. The first whiffs of a bad wind blowing and a turning tide.

But I was young and didn’t think the others would disappear. Up the block to Odyssey I went. I’ve actually dreamt of Odyssey Imports many times since it closed. I remember vividly the double-height space, the slate blue walls, the white melamine racks for the vinyl, the rack of t-shirts in the back where I grabbed my first Marilyn Manson t-shirt. And the blue walls were covered in posters. I got Cure posters there, of course the obligatory 1990s Nine Inch Nails poster of Trent Reznor with the black PVC gauntlets (I would later see the same poster as part of the set of the eldest kid’s bedroom on that stupid “Home Improvement” show and laugh my ass off at the improbability of such a character actually listening to any NIN). I think I got my first couple of Nine Inch Nails poster calendars there too, though later on I ordered them straight from England.

And there’s the Depeche Mode poster I have rolled up somewhere. Far too big for any available wallspace in my current home, I still keep it with the intent of displaying it again once I have the wallspace.

It seems I mostly remember buying posters and t-shirts at Odyssey, but I know I bought some music there too. The usual punk suspects from my mid-teens when I was first discovering punk and Goth, but before I really got too into industrial. And something calmer from a band called Slipstream. I was in there and captivated by what they were playing, and so I bought it.

Then one day Odyssey was closed too. Maybe I had a sense and hit the close-out sales, but I don’t remember too much other than it not being open anymore.

Track lasted a little longer still. It had been THE place for my brother and his band of metalheads and hardcore fans, though of course its stock ran the gamut of the hard-to-find. I spent lots of time and money in Track, including managing to order a copy of David Sylvian’s Weatherbox set. The owner put the order through his connections and it took about a year, but eventually, Weatherbox came in, having passed through who knows how many hands through the network of import shops around the world and back to Track, and I got a phone call to come and get it. I still treasure that box set to this day.

Does anyone have the patience to wait a year for something to come in these days?

I mentioned my Nine Inch Nails discs and Track. That included assorted Trent Reznor interview discs, including a picture disc of Trent’s muddy head shot at Woodstock 94 which still bears its fluorescent yellow Track Records price tags: $15.49. And I have another Trent interview disc which has a little clock mechanism on it. I took the battery out last fall once I was starting to record in here, because all the tracks had Trent’s tick-tock coming through loud and clear. I believe I got that from Track as well, but maybe it was one of those things I ordered from memorabilia companies in the USA or the UK.

Eventually Track went under too. I think Noize Records was the same owners, opening a little hole in the wall just down the block. That’s where I got my vinyl copy of Pretty Hate Machine, which was more just something to have since I mostly used CD and had a copy on CD that was already well used by that point.

I think Noize held on for a long time after but just barely, but this brings us to my own current hypocrisy: Like so many others, I mourn the loss of the import shops, but no one is faster to go to iTunes than me.

Now [2011] I do make the rounds of Beatstreet and Zulu every so often, snapping up old industrial and new wave and alternative vinyl, but mostly I either buy CDs at shows, buy MP3s online, or stalk EBay listings with the latter being the best way to find things like, oh, I dunno, Smersh 7-inches or old Skinny Puppy singles.

I should go to Zulu more, but I don’t do that very often. (I mostly go to Zulu for concert tickets.) I also buy a big portion of CDs now directly from the artists at shows, so I can pat myself on the back for that one, and of course I still occasionally review CDs for Discorder and as a DJ at CiTR I sometimes get CDs left in my mailslot. And of course, I have access to all the stuff in CiTR’s library, and to leftover promo CDs (which is how I’ve found many great bands as well as some shitty ones).

And several bands I like are friends of mine who just have never bothered to make a CD – they post new music straight to their blogs or MySpace or ReverbNation.

The upside is that it’s now cheap to get the music on iTunes, and it’s instant. This is how I have all but two of my beloved Boyd Rice albums, not to mention numerous others. Of course, Boyd fans like myself would notice that you can’t get his whole catalogue on iTunes yet and you can imagine the issues with searching for his project NON – not the most Google-friendly name. Now, this isn’t such a horrible thing for me, as CiTR has a bunch of other Non work, so I can go and listen there and still play it on my show. That’s just me and other CiTR DJs, though.

There are other issues: DRM and limited transfers, which may not be so bad for people like me who don’t upgrade hardware very often. You get only a teeny reproduction of the album artwork if anything, and for engineers like me, where’s the production information? If a song is great, I want to know who mixed it. Where did they record it? What other information is missing from a download? You can look it up on but that doesn’t mean the info is there. And there is nothing like having the physical artifact in hand. I bond with CDs more than MP3s, and with vinyl most of all.

Which brings us to Amazon. I’ve bought tons of music through Amazon as well (for some reason, much of my Amazon music purchases tend to be more along the lines of belly dance music, maybe because it’s so hard to find anywhere else now that A&B is gone.) And it’s cheap too, though I have to wait a couple weeks for its arrival. But yeah, I love Amazon too, though not as much as EBay. This is where I can get obscure stuff that may not be on iTunes and which is definitely not in stores.

But there is something missing from online. It’s the stumbled-upon finds or recommendations from a knowledgeable staff or what happens to be being played in the store. Really, it’s the death of browsing. Recommendation robots aren’t the same thing.

Like most people, when I go to Amazon or EBay or iTunes, I go because I already know what I want. I go, I find that thing and order it and that’s it. Maybe if I see something in the “others who bought this also bought” that looks interesting, I might add it to the checklist for later investigation. There’s no music discovery happening.

But that’s not the same as browsing in an actual store. Two of my all-time favorite bands were found this way. I walked into the HMV in Richmond Centre one day in high school with $25 to blow on music and no clear idea of what to buy or if I did, they didn’t have it. I wandered the Rock/Pop section until I felt a pull to a given area. I flipped through for something with an interesting cover.

I found Gentlemen Take Polaroids by Japan. And thus began a love affair with David Sylvian’s work that is now going on 15 years long. Of course, I quickly found out how Japan fit in with the New Wave stuff I already liked, but the actual discovery was totally random. (And I bought much of the rest of my Japan and David Sylvian stuff from Sam’s or Track.)

A similar thing lead to my discovery of Marilyn Manson’s debut Portrait of an American Family around the same time (summer of 95, I think). Only that was at Music World in the Lansdowne Shopping Centre in Richmond.

Music World eventually went super-mainstream and closed down in 2007 or 2008. And HMV was never really on par with the import shops, though they were pretty good for a suburban mall store at one point. I can’t be bothered to go to HMV anymore though – it’s all shitty hip hop/top 40 crap and 50 copies of the same shitty CD, maybe one shelf of metal and no industrial section but at this point if you think I’m paying $30 for a CD I get at a show for $20 or on Amazon for $15, you’re nuts. They’re not what they used to be.

Hell, Future Shop often trumps HMV in my books. Which isn’t to say they don’t have the same strategy of many copies of the same old shit, but I’ve often been surprised by what I’ve found there. I’ve never seen Skinny Puppy discs, but I found Jakalope’s Born4 in the Lansdowne Future Shop in December 2008. I got Crystal Pistol’s debut there a while back. They often have a bunch of Steve Vai’s stuff for some inexplicable reason, and then there’s the miracle DVD: shopping for my brother last Christmas I stumbled upon a Cannibal Corpse DVD set. How the Hell that found its way to Future Shop, I’ll never know, but Joe absolutely LOVES Cannibal Corpse, and that finished off my shopping list. [2011 update: Future Shop ain’t like this anymore…]

Those are freak situations, though. Mostly I venture to Future Shop for computer shit or to buy new Nickelback CDs. (Yeah, yeah, yeah… everyone has a guilty pleasure, and mine is stuff like “Something in Your Mouth”…)

Anyway, to wrap this up: I dearly miss the import shops, even if my own habits have turned to digital delivery more and more. But at least I was lucky enough to catch a little bit of the glory days, and I’ll always appreciate that.