Our generation is supposedly meant to oversee the downfall of music as a physical medium. According to this narrative, our favourite albums will come to exist only in the form of MP3s and our favourite record stores will come to exist only on the Internet. In the eyes of Francis Gosselin, however, physical iterations of both music and record shops might not be going anywhere any time soon.
To be fair, Gosselin is the co-owner of Atom Heart—a nifty little record shop on the corner of Berri and Sherbrooke—so he’s predictably biased when it comes to the debate over the role of physical music in the digital age. The more you listen to Gosselin’s arguments and philosophy, however, the more you realize he just may be on to something. Music in its physical form will never fully die because it appeals to the foundational elements of our human nature. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, great record shops like Atom Heart will always be around because they play a crucial role in sustaining and perpetuating local music scenes such as the particularly awesome one we have here in Montreal.
When asked about what role he thinks physical music will play in the digital age, Gosselin doesn’t pull any punches: “People refuse to pay for thin air”. The argument is curt and concise, but it also appeals to broad underlying notions of how humans behave in capitalist society. When we buy things, we want to be able to touch, feel and see the things we buy. Perhaps more crucially, we want to be able to show the things we buy to the people around us. “An MP3 file doesn’t exist until you press play,” says Gosselin. “You can have millions of songs on your computer but they’re nothing until you play them.”
This is all well and good but we all know that there are plenty of people out there who are perfectly satisfied enjoying their intangible, digital tunes. What truly grounds Gosselin’s argument is the fact that digital music inherently inhibits the interpersonal elements that come with having a record collection: “When you have a CD or vinyl collection, you keep it with you. You keep it in your apartment. People can look at your stuff and it says something about you. You keep it on display. The only way to glean that kind of information now is to ask people to go through their computer or ask them what they kind of music they like and it’s just not the same. It doesn’t tell as full of a story as flipping through somebody’s record collection.”
The preservation of the interpersonal power of music is also a big reason why Gosselin and co-owner Raymond Trudel opened Atom Heart in the first place. Gosselin and Trudel originally opened the shop with the goal of exposing Montreal to genres of music and record labels that weren’t well represented in other record stores across town. While part of this mission includes selling albums by foreign artists and labels, the crux of what Atom Heart does, and the reason record stores like Atom Heart remain vital, has to do with how the shop contributes to the life cycle of Montreal’s local music scene.
When Atom Heart first came into existence, Montreal’s music scene was emerging on two major fronts. On the electronic side, the minimal scene was just beginning to blossom and MUTEK was slowly becoming the mainstay it is today. On the rock side, Montreal-born Godspeed You! Black Emperor had just emerged and our city was becoming an international haven for post-rock enthusiasts. Building on the popularity of these two scenes, Gosselin and Trudel began to focus largely on pushing locally-produced music at Atom Heart.
The premise is simple: local acts would often come into Atom Heart and ask if they could leave a few records on the shelves. “We’ll usually take of those five records and try and sell them,” says Gosselin. “If it works out, we’ll call the artists back and ask for more albums. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll still keep those five records on the shelves.” This promotion of local acts helps both domestic artists and Atom Heart thrive as the artists get more promotion and Atom Heart becomes known as a shop that supports local music.
Gosselin and Trudel increased their contribution to this cycle a few years into Atom Heart’s existence when they started selling tickets to local shows with substantially lower fees than ticket Ticketmaster. “We’re trying to keep the local scene healthy,” Gosselin says. “When you buy local music [or concert tickets], you know your money is going somewhere. When you buy an album from Virgin records, for all you know they could be funneling the money to their airplane division”. In listening to Gosselin expound on the symbiotic relationship between Atom Heart and the local music scene, it suddenly becomes clear that record stores don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re a key cog in the multifaceted promotional machine that keeps local music scenes alive.
It looks like the future of physical music in the digital era may not be as bleak as we once thought. To hear Gosselin tell it, there’s something in our very nature that just may keep us from totally giving up on music in the form of a fresh vinyl or cd. If you don’t buy that argument, think about the importance of the shop that houses those vinyls and CDs. In closing our interview, Gosselin offered a very interesting hypothetical: “Put yourself in the shoes of somebody looking to discover an entirely new genre of music. If you go to ITunes, all of your search results will be configured so that the major label records will come up first. You can dig deeper and go to some blogs but it might not always work out because there’s no interaction. When you come to a place like Atom Heart, you can tell us what you like and we can help you. If you don’t know what you like, we can ask you what the last five albums you bought were or we can play you a few things we like and judge by your facial expression whether or not they’re for you. The more you come back, the more we get to know you and the more we can help you find the musical jewels that you will cherish for your entire life. This is the human element of buying physical music”.
There’s no way to see this as anything other than a win-win proposition. Record stores like Atom Heart help us find the music we love and, along the way, they keep the local music scene healthy. It’s hard to see the digital music industry finding a way to replicate either of these two fundamentally human elements of purchasing and enjoying music. Maybe that’s the key to this entire situation. Music can be reduced to nothing but an MP3 file, but the enjoyment, sharing, promotion and performance of music will always be an inherently physical and inherently human phenomenon. One thing’s for sure: as long as shops like Atom Heart exist, the digital demise of physical music will likely have to wait another few centuries.