A version of this review originally ran as part of our coverage of South by Southwest 2011.
There’s going to come a time — and it’s not that far away — when record stores won’t exist. That’s why the documentary “Sound It Out” isn’t just good, it’s important, as a chronicle of everything we lose when the music industry decamps to the Internet. The digital world can still deliver the songs but it can never replace what record stores mean to their loyal customers: a sanctuary from a harsh world, a museum of and monument to our pop culture past, and, above all, a community.
The film is named after Sound It Out Records, the last record store in Teeside, North East England and 50 kilometers in any direction. It’s run by Tom, a music nerd with an encyclopedic memory not just for records but for where those records are in his tiny, cramped 115 square foot store (director Jeannie Finlay gives him an on-camera test to see if he can find things on command; he passes). Sound It Out attracts a similarly obsessive clientele and Finlay follows them to their homes to interview them about their collections. The customers are equally eccentric and eclectic: one hoards memorabilia for the English boggle rock band Status Quo; another comes in fresh from the pub asking for whatever he’s just heard on the jukebox.
“Sound It Out”‘s official synopsis calls it “‘High Fidelity’ with a Northern accent,” but that’s not quite right. Championship Vinyl was home to elitist clerks who looked down on their customers and their shitty taste, but everyone is welcome at Sound It Out. The tastes at the shop run the gamut from metal to indie rock to makina, a local kind of dance music, and everyone seems to get along regardless of their listening preferences, maybe because they realize Sound It Out is the one place in Teeside where outsiders feel like part of the in crowd.
It’s that sense of brotherhood — and it is a brotherhood, moldy record stores that cater to obsessive collectors don’t draw a lot of female shoppers — along with Tom’s super-low rent, that explains the shop’s longevity. Championship Vinyl would be long gone in today’s brutal economic climate for the same reason Sound It Out endures. Finlay captures that brotherhood warmly and without a hint of condescension.
In a funny way, vinyl has become a perfect metaphor for itself, these archaic relics that in some way reflect their own obsolescence. Records age and decay the same way people do, and when you listen to vinyl, you hear that age: every pop and hiss is a living history of a journey between the past and the present. As records and record stores disappear, so does that history. When all the record stores are gone, when we’ve become our grandparents and we’re complaining about teenagers and their newfangled iPiddles and their albums loaded into aurally resonant saline drops, we’ll have “Sound It Out” to help explain why we’re so nostalgic for these places they’ve never heard of.