Interview with Pip Piper

As part of Genjing Records’ engineering of China’s debut participation in Record Store Day, the annual event designed to celebrate independent music retailers, labels and supporters like you, we will screen the daylong festival’s official film, Last Shop Standing: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Independent Record Shop, at XP Beijing on Sat, Apr 20 with our film-loving pals Wooozy. Director Pip Piper chimes in after the jump.

Released this past September and based on the book of the same name by music biz insider Graham Jones, the acclaimed documentary lovingly traces the history of recording formats and the music retail industry in Great Britain from the emergence of rock and roll in the 1950s to the booming 1980s to the nadir of the brick-and-mortar shop in the mid-2000s.

In a film full of figures, the most salient is that Great Britain, a country of 60 million, went from having 2200 independent record shops in the 1980s to just 269 in 2009.

The country’s oldest, the 105-year-old Hudson’s Record and Tape Centre, was actually closed as the film went into post-production.

In the fast-moving flick, respected musicians like former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, singer/songwriter Richard Hawley and folk punk hero Billy Bragg form one strand of the narrative with starry-eyed remembrances of the endangered shops as both places to obtain new music and to mingle with fellow creatives.

The other, more bittersweet storyline gives the aging merchants, former sales executives and the rich supporting cast of colorful characters who participated in some of the more unsavory aspects of the industry—like tweaking sales numbers, overhyping releases and courting the sweet, sweet lucre of supermarket chains at the expense of Mom and Pop, for example—a platform to tell their stories from their sides of their sticker-festooned countertops.

Considering Genjing Records’ role as a vinyl-only record label, we can’t help but cheer on the resilient merchants who have withstood the storms—at peak slaughter, three shops per week were being shuttered—and are currently spearheading a vinyl and DIY renewal with their loving attention paid to detail, dedicated customer service and desire to serve as cultural community centers.

For aficionados who value tangible products over downloads, CDs and other digital formats, Last Shop Standing should be required viewing, a gem that will hopefully encourage the discovery of entirely new sonic experiences, that of the soothing crackle and pop of freshly-pressed vinyl and banter with your friendly neighborhood merchant.

We touched bases with director Pip Piper to learn more.

Genjing Records: What was the genesis of this project?

Pip Piper: My business partner at Blue Hippo Media, Rob Taylor, read Graham’s book and we talked about if there was a film there and I thought that there was.

Genjing: What’s your background? Were you into vinyl growing up or did you immediately develop a bond with the source material?

Pip: Well, I’ve been a mountain instructor, a landscape gardener and a youth worker before I was in the film world. While I’d always loved music, I’d become, like many, disconnected from record shops and vinyl… so the film totally reconnected me.

Genjing: Last Shop Standing talks a lot about the pleasures of record shops, like discovering new music and uncovering tastes that you never knew you had. Did you make any new discoveries while filming?

Pip: I discovered Half Man Half Biscuit, a cult UK indie band that was a fave of John Peel.

Genjing: Their music appears in much of the film. How did you select the musicians that appeared, folks like Johnny Marr, Richard Hawley and Billy Bragg?

Pip: All of the celebs came via the record shop owners: they were the ones with the relationship and helped get them involved.

Keith Hudson, proprietor of the now-defunct Hudson’s Record and Tape Centre in Chesterfield, England

Genjing: The film brings up a lot of interesting factoids, like anecdotes about the Beatles and Elvis in the early days of vinyl. What was the most interesting bit of trivia that you learned while making the film?

Pip: It was all the stuff about the chart-hyping! Of course, in a way, we all knew it probably went on, but to be told so starkly about it was fascinating. Other than that, interviewing people who were there when iconic music things were happening was great, too.

Genjing: How would you distill this chart manipulation and the overzealous sales guys to our readers who haven’t yet seen the film?

Pip: Well, I wouldn’t too much as you really need to see the film, but let’s say someone in the film said that for a certain few years, he didn’t sell any records to chart-based shops—he gave them all away because that’s what everyone was doing!

Black gold awaits collectors in this still image provided by the filmmakers

Genjing: The film traces the rise and fall of vinyl, from the golden days in the doo-wop 1950s when records were flying off the shelves to the chart manipulation of the 1980s to the advent of the CD, digital formats and subsequent decline (and gradual rebirth). Retailers are portrayed as being in between the labels and the industry heavyweights—whose actions led to the decline of the record in many ways—and the public, who also contributed to the decline of music purchasing via illegal downloading. Should retailers shoulder any blame?

Pip: I don’t think you can say they contributed to the downfall of vinyl and music purchasing because they were just reacting to market forces greater than themselves. However, I think that some shops, as with all things, were better than others at diversifying and being innovative in the face of desperate times once the cull began. Others didn’t consider their customers well enough.

Genjing: The film ends on an optimistic note, hinting that vinyl is making a comeback and record shops are wiser from the roller coaster experience. Do you think that it’s a passing trend or do you think that it’s permanent? How have the retailers with whom you’ve spoken feel?

Pip: I think that it’s a permanent trend. In many ways, shops are now their own micro-culture dictating their own future via all sorts of cool and interesting ways to connect and grow their customers. One thing that would help is an even bigger commitment from record labels and companies to putting out vinyl in bigger numbers and also bringing down the price, which I think is artificially too high, and ensuring there is always a download code inside. Happy days if all that happens, eh!

Rough Trade’s Spencer Hickman

Genjing: Agreed! Have you given any thought to making a sequel, say, detailing vinyl culture in Japan or the burgeoning vinyl and DIY scene in China? We will be screening this film as part of China’s first foray into Record Store Day (RSD).

Pip: In truth, I haven’t, but I’m open to ideas! It’s great the film has gone so far and wide internationally and awesome that it’s being screened in China!

Genjing: How has the reaction been thus far? And did anything super-interesting get left on the cutting room floor?

Pip: The reaction has been amazing. To be the official film of RSD is really great. We now have American distribution and lots of other distribution happening throughout the world. Lots ended up on the cutting room floor; the new DVD for RSD has 74 minutes of extras—including 25 minutes with Johnny Marr. It will be available at independent retailers on Sat, Apr 20.

Genjing: Great! Anything else you’d like to say to folks in China?

Pip: Thanks for the interest! I hope you enjoy the film and all that it has to say and reflect. If China really got into vinyl, it might just change the world!

Genjing Records and Wooozy Community Films will screen Last Shop Standing on Sat, Apr 20 at XP Beijing. For more cool stuff, from contests to trivia, keep your eyes on our social media accounts.

For more on Pip Piper and Last Shop Standing, visit the official website or the flick’s Facebook page.