It certainly has been a turbulent few years for the UK’s, in fact the world’s, independent record shops. Once an institution amongst teenagers and music lovers of all generations; the place to be seen sifting through releases old and new on a Saturday afternoon, they now struggle against the tide of download, file-sharing and streaming sites to maintain their rightful position in the musical food chain.
It hasn’t only been the independent stores that have faced a downturn in trade. Massive high street chains have also taken the hit; Music Zone, Fopp, Zavvi and Woolworths have all gone into administration in the past few years. If the big boys can’t even survive, then what chance do the smaller shops have?
With the approach of Record Store Day on April 18th, masterminded in the US and originally created as a day to celebrate music around the world, the participating stores will now be hoping this day will also act as a reminder of the importance of independent record outlets, and encourage the digital generation to discover what record shops have to offer…before it is too late.
As reported by Music Week in February this year, more than a quarter of UK indie stores went out of business in 2008. A recent article in the Independent disclosed that 540 record shops in Britain have shut down in the past 5 years. Stats reveal that this leaves us with 300 remaining independent record outlets in the UK. Sobering figures indeed. Amongst those which closed were Selectadisc in Nottingham, Rhythm Records and Disque in London, and Reveal in Derby, all of which had been in business for decades.
Another harsh blow to the record retailers was the collapse of several distributors during 2008; New Note, EUK, and most notably Pinnacle. Your first instinct may be to wonder about the fate of the smaller labels dependent on these distributors who enabled their releases to be sold on a national scale, and rightly so. As always in the musical food chain, the domino effect reaches even further and indie shops found themselves without vital new releases on their shelves and struggling to replenish their stock.
The timing of Pinnacle’s demise, right before Christmas, was also a hugely significant factor which created problems for shops and labels unable to trade properly at what would traditionally be their busiest time of year. Although a difficult time for all, the long-standing music retailers who had an accumulation of contacts could attempt to make alternative arrangements as swiftly as possible to bring new stock onto the shelves. There is no doubt that newer stores without these resources will have struggled, and possibly have been forced to close under the circumstances.
Spillers Records based in Cardiff was established in 1894, making it the oldest record shop in the UK. Ashli, Sales Director and member of the sales team for 10 years now, explains how they worked around the problem:
“Pinnacle was one of our largest suppliers; the kind of music they supplied was the kind of music we sold! The timing was bad…we were able to get some stock from labels directly, and a few got re-distribution sorted quickly. Pinnacle’s own labels put out a great back catalogue at really reasonable prices – some really great artists that will probably disappear and not get picked up elsewhere. Only time will tell regarding the specialist stuff.”
The future is bright…
With all this doom and gloom surrounding our beloved record shops, what is the future for them? Surely they are worried about their place in today’s consumer market and whether they still fit in with the demands of the digital generation. Thankfully, the record shops themselves are still hopeful. Jon Tolley, Managing Director of Banquet Records is optimistic about the future:
“It would be offensively arrogant to say we’re not concerned. We live and breathe this company. We’ve been concerned since Day One. We’re now on Day 1463. However, with the state of banking, the car industry and so on, I’m just glad that we’re in a position where what we do makes a difference to our jobs. We can’t wake up in the morning and read on the news that our store has gone bust, and right now things are better than they’ve ever been.”
Ashi at Spillers agrees:
“I don’t think the record shop as an entity is dead. I’m not saying physical format is for everyone but there are a lot of people still sticking to it. I think ‘real’ record shops and physical formats will remain but there will be, of course, less of them.”
The Association of Independent Music (AIM) represent hundreds of record companies and distributors in the UK. In a recent interview with Encore, AIM’s Chief Executive Officer, Alison Wenham, put forward her views on how record shops will fare given the current state of the industry:
“There is life in retailing if you are retailing with the right composition including having a knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff as well as having lots of in-store events. This brings back the fun, the excitement and visceral touchy-feely side (associated with) being a fan.”
So, it would seem that the die-hard music lovers, the collectors and avid fans is where the solution lies. There are many enthusiasts already out there, still regularly visiting their favourite record haunts searching for treasures on vinyl or CD. It is now the combined task of the artists, the labels and, of course, the record shops to encourage the new age of music consumers to venture into their local stores and come into contact with the unique experience that only a record shop can offer you.
Many outlets have adapted their store format to move with the times; encouraging in-store events and gigs, involving themselves in local promotions, and so on. The Rough Trade East store in Brick Lane has played host to a series of high profile in-store performances with the likes of Radiohead, Vampire Weekend, Sebastien Tellier gracing the stage. And this is inevitably happening all around the country as record shops endeavour to open their doors to potential new customers:
“Of course we’ve had to reflect the times. But what business doesn’t? We’ve always been changing to meet customers’ needs and wants, and are more active in our local music community than any other record store in the country.” Jon, Banquet Records
Spillers Records also try to organise in-store performances whenever possible:
“In-stores are something we’ve done for a very long time now. Most of the time we see our regulars turn up, but when we have really busy ones you do see a lot of new faces, and you do feel you are reminding someone what the ‘real record buying experience’ is all about and that’s got to be good.”
A reported upsurge in vinyl sales has also got to be good news. The Telegraph recently published figures that sales in the UK of 7” singles had grown from 180,000 in 2001 to over a million in 2007. With the 7” recently celebrating its 60th anniversary, some of today’s bands have also been instrumental in turning their fans onto vinyl. The Wombats, Arctic Monkeys, and Oasis have all released 7” formats of late, whilst the White Stripes collaborated with NME to giveaway a red vinyl cover-mount to coincide with the release of Icky Thump in 2007. As Jon at Banquet concludes:
“Kids are always going to want to have something physical to hold, something tangible, something collectable.”
With Record Store Day growing ever closer, does this provide independent stores with an opportunity to come together in tough times, or are they all effectively fighting their own corners? Ashli at Spillers Records shares her thoughts:
“The intention is very positive and we’ve had a few success stories as a result, but the fact remains that as independents we all have our own niches and need to play to those strengths.”
And her message is clear when it comes to record buyers supporting their local shops on Record Store Day:
“Like Valentine’s Day, you should your love to us independent record shops all year round!”