Is the record store making a comeback?

Is there a new beginning for record stores after vinyl sales surge?

The UK, as everyone knows, is in the grip of a digital music revolution. Physical media appears to be in its death throes, being rapidly replaced by digital downloads. Indeed, digital files accounted for 99% of the UK singles market in 2010, and it seems that albums are heading the same way. Meanwhile CD sales are plummeting, having fallen by 12.5% in 2009 alone. To many, this spells the inevitable demise of the record store, once the mainstay of the teenager’s Saturday trip into town – and one of Britain’s best-loved small businesses. This would appear to be illustrated in the struggles of high street giant HMV, which announced the closure of a further 60 stores in January. HMV is increasingly turning to DVD and game sales to try and rescue the brand, with CDs taking up a dwindling amount of real estate on the shelves. But against this bleak backdrop is the glimmer of a resurgence in the record shop industry, driven by the unlikeliest of formats – the vinyl LP. In 2010 234,471 LPs were sold, the highest since 2005, continuing an upward swing seen since 2007. Bands like the XX, Artic Monkeys and Arcade Fire are embracing the medium, releasing pressings of their albums on vinyl, and of the top 10 LPs sold in 2010, seven of them were new releases. Many publications have heralded the comeback of the old-fashioned record shop – a popular rebellion against the dominance of the throwaway JLSs of this world, and a defiant expression of individuality against an ocean of processed digital conformity. It’s a great narrative – a modern David and Goliath story. But how much of the record shop renaissance is hype, and how much genuine fact? And, just as importantly, does this glimmer of hope represent a window of opportunity for those wanting to open a record store? Mark Burgess, manager of the independent Islington record store Flashback, says that sales are “relatively strong” at the moment, and he believes it is the newer artists that are driving this resurgence. “We’ve just started selling new vinyls recently, and immediately seen a huge demand for them,” he says. “There’s an element of rarity and exclusivity about it, and bands like the Arctic Monkeys make a big deal out of selling their stuff on vinyl.” Coupled with this, Mark has also seen an increase in younger customers: “We’ve definitely noticed a new group of 21-22 year olds coming in and buying records, as well as older guys rediscovering their collections. They’ve been telling me they enjoy the ownership side of it – the tangible feeling of owning a great album, and the experience that comes with it. You can’t get that by downloading an album over the internet”. Laurence Prangell, who owns Soul Brother Records, an independent South London store specialising in soul, jazz and funk, attributes his currently healthy sales to a backlash against the poor sound quality of digital music. “You just don’t get the warmth and the complete sound that you do with a good quality vinyl – it’s an imitation,” he argues. “When someone who’s been raised on compressed, tinny music files hears a good record, they’re an instant convert – and we’ve definitely noticed more teenagers coming in, in addition to our core market of serious global collectors.” But any music lovers out there should be wary of rushing out to open their own record shop. Conditions are still very tough across the industry, and you have to be resourceful and inventive to survive. Ian McCann, editor of Record Collector magazine, says that “the record stores that are left are ones that provide an experience for the customers. They have things like listening stations and in-house cafés, as well as the obvious expertise that comes with the territory.” He cites Rough Trade Records as an example. “It’s very specialist, you can have a cup of coffee there and get a recommendation for exactly the kind of genre that you’re looking for. They take pains to foster good relationships with their customers and go above and beyond just selling records off a shelf.” Mark Burgess is more direct. “People come to us because we’re the only store in the whole of North London that sells new records. In that sense we’ve got a captive market and people are just relieved that they don’t have to travel miles to buy the record they want.” He was also quick to stress that his opening of Flashback was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. “I had 15 years in the music industry before I opened Flashback in 1997, and I got started by bringing a network of customers with me.” Furthermore, a brand-new record shop may struggle to match the identity, and market share, of an older rival. Indeed, while there has been a modest spike in sales, the resurgence seems to be concentrated in the established record stores, which have a loyal customer base and a strong word-of-mouth reputation. Although stores with, in Laurence’s words, “a sense of novelty” are drawing on their heritage to weather the digital storm, it’s no land of opportunity – as shown by the closure in 2010 of Vinyl Junkies, one of the once-legendary Berwick Street’s best-loved record stores. In addition, despite the upswing, vinyl sales still occupy a paltry 0.2% of total album sales – hardly taking the world by storm, and certainly not a viable long-term cornerstone for a small business. There also remains the fact that any potential ‘vinyl revolution’ is still in its infancy, and may be nothing more than a transient fad among youngsters; an anomalous spike in a steep downward curve. So if you live in an area with no record stores, live and breathe music and are willing to provide a truly unique experience to customers, then by all means go ahead – but you’ll joining an increasingly lonely club, and you could soon find yourself struggling not to sink beneath the digital tide.

 

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