Holding on to the Past. The Challenge of Preserving and Accessing Soul Music History in the Written Word

E. Mark Windle 10 November 2023

It’s been a good while since the rare soul scene was an insular subculture confined to the wilds of northern England. The word spread decades ago, with self-sufficient parallel or related scenes now well established throughout Europe, Japan, the USA and elsewhere.

Other than the pull of the music itself, individuals are attracted to our community for a variety of reasons. Beyond the social aspect or record collecting, for some the thirst is for deeper knowledge. Perhaps there’s a desire to explore historical aspects of soul music and its development within the industry, the backstories of recording artists and other industry players (and how they fit into the bigger picture) or social and political context.

Historical preservation is not only about affirming and formally documenting what we already know though. Commitment, an inquiring mind and practical research skills are required to gain new insights into past music industry events, debunk myths and put the story straight. All labour intensive stuff. The work is also time-critical, given that opportunities for capturing oral histories are progressively disappearing as time moves on. Thankfully, there are some extremely devoted book writers within our community who are obsessed with discovery. From the outset, when I opened my online bookstore A Nickel And A Nail back in 2016, the emphasis was very much on collaborating with like-minded authors, readers, researchers and others who were interested in exploring previously undocumented soul music history. To this day, one function of the site is to serve as a platform for self-publishing authors of soul music history books and biographies to reach a targeted customer base.

However, very practical challenges exist in accessing these works. For one thing, our readers prefer physical books over digital formats. Perhaps that leaning reflects customer demographics such as age, or the record collector’s innate love for tactile products. Regardless, physical print book sales far outweigh that of e-books across a wide range of genres. But with that in mind, there is a financial implication to consider: paper and print prices have escalated over the last couple of years by up to 100 per cent. In itself that may be partly prohibitive, though sales trends don’t suggest cost is a complete barrier to purchase. Well-researched reference books are designed to be read and repeatedly revisited for the long term, and are no doubt perceived as sound investments, particularly by the loyal core of bibliophiles that inhabit the soul scene.

The globally dispersed nature of soul music enthusiasts and the frequent need to purchase books from another country (particularly the US and UK) does present a logistical challenge. It would be fair to say that most books of interest have been produced via the self-publishing or indie publishing company route. The reality is that traditional publishing houses, bar a few select ones, have no commercial interest in what can be a very niche market. The downside for the customer is that international despatch and distribution then also has to be managed independently, often meaning high postage costs for the customer, and more customs bureaucracy for both parties. There are a number of domestic independent retailers (either book sellers, or specialist record dealers who also carry book stock) who could potentially act as a distribution intermediary, yet are unable to work through financially viable wholesale arrangements. Without the benefit of marketing or comprehensive distribution channels afforded by the bigger publishing houses, reach is limited. The net result is that soul music history books and biographies, in print form at least, are in danger of being confined to the land of origin, with an eager audience unable to read them.

Perhaps there’s some kind of entrepreneurial opportunity here? If so, there are a lot of us – authors and book readers – who would be keen to support or tap into it, and work to find a solution. There are intrinsic and financial costs of preserving soul music history on both sides, but equally joy to had in new learning. We just need to access it.

(Copyright 2023) E. Mark Windle is a freelance writer and biographer, working independently, as a senior writer with Story Terrace (London, UK), and for Sheridan Hill / Real Life Stories LLC (North Carolina, USA). To discuss services for hire please contact Mark via https://windlefreelance.com/contact/

Published by E. Mark Windle

Biographer, ghostwriter and freelance writer.

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