The other weekend I came across a second-hand record shop in East Finchley, called Alan’s Records. I popped in to browse their old vinyl and it made me wonder, when was the last time I actually went into a shop to browse new releases? I can’t even remember the last I bought a CD and, looking through my now redundant discs, it’s virtually impossible to find anything released after 2006. While I would rather listen to vinyl over any other format, its role in a modern lifestyle is limited and I wouldn’t buy a vinyl copy of an album alone. I have an iPod for listening to music on the go, and the content of my iTunes library is essentially my entire music collection. So, what function do record shops play in an increasingly download-driven market? It now seems timely to question whether we actually need record shops or, if we are in fact just clinging on to a romanticised notion of their worth, for nostalgia’s sake.
In recent years the news has been awash with stories reporting the dominance of online shopping and digital downloads and, as a consequence, the demise of record shops. I, like many others, absorbed the facts and figures, shook my head in dismay, and then proceeded to download the latest album that I wanted. MP3s and other digital formats are now my staple diet of music, and even if I was to buy a physical copy of an album, it would only serve as an alternative to the version on my computer.
Disregarding illegal file sharing, the downloading of music online accounts for an ever increasing proportion of total music purchases. The latest figures from the Official Charts Company show that 99% of all singles bought are downloaded. The last major high-street record shops are floundering or have already fallen. Zavvi ceased trading in 2009, and HMV is set to close 60 stores by the end of the year. But should we lament the loss of any record store, high-street chain or independent, when the fact that they are closing surely indicates that they weren’t popular enough to survive?
The problem seems to arise from the fact that high-street chains grew too big and are, by their very nature, impersonal. As a result the distinction between shopping in-store and buying the products online narrowed, leading the customer away from the shops. There is something unique about going to an independent record shop which will never be experienced by the majority of shoppers buying their music online. Customers in independent record shops aren’t always there to just buy the latest chart album and immediately leave, they enjoy the browsing experience. Similarly, the staff aren’t just shop assistants, they’re music lovers too, people you can have a conversation with. Their recommendations aren’t computer generated either, they come from a lifetime’s back catalogue of musical knowledge. This immediately creates a different atmosphere and sense of social interaction compared to that of a high-street chain, or online shopping.
For those, like me, who do love record shops, there is still hope. Some independent shops have not only weathered the storm, but actually flourished in the aftermath of the download revolution. Stores such as Banquet Records in Kingston and Rough Trade in Brick Lane/Notting Hill have proven to be successful models of a 21st century record shop. While embracing the internet’s potential to sell stock online, they have also changed the experience of shopping, holding intimate gigs in-store and, in the case of Rough Trade East, offering a café and a ‘snug’ area with wi-fi for customers. Banquet records also hold club nights at local venues, branching out from the traditional, one-purpose framework of ‘the shop’. While these are two examples of successful independent shops, there are still many, lacking such an innovative approach, that nostalgia alone isn’t saving from closure.
Stephen Godfroy, Director of Rough Trade shops, spoke to us about record stores maintaining relevance in the current climate and their future survival. He remains realistic when it comes to the sentimental arguments for saving record shops.
“Any shop will close if it’s not responding to a demand, record shops should close if they’re not in tune with their community, however wide or narrow that catchment may be. They have no right to trade by default”, he says.
This belief has no doubt played a significant role in driving Rough Trade forward, to remain ahead in an ever-changing industry. The perception that record shops just deserve to exist, irrespective of their popularity, is the greatest example that our desire to keep them open is driven by emotional attachment, rather than requirement. It is perhaps a lack of any emotional connection that has seen the big high-street shops fare so badly, but Godfroy also identifies that the high-street shops are equally to blame for their downfall.
“Chain stores offer a ‘one size fits all’ experience which by its very nature standardises and homogenises the experience provided… In the case of music, the high-street gave up on music with the arrival of pure-play internet retailers such as Amazon, who with their lower cost base (no high street rents) could sell items for a lower than high-street price. The high-street reacted by competing on the issue of price instead of adding value elsewhere (like in the store experience), a battle they’d never win. The net result is the high-street is neither the cheapest retailer (if you know what you like you buy online), nor is it the most rewarding (independent stores offer staff knowledge/recommendation and comfortable environments).”
Godfroy’s aspirations for Rough Trade and willingness to deviate from standard record shop practices suggest that to survive the current climate, and emulate Rough Trade’s success, record shops will need to change. It may be the case that ‘the record shop’ in its current form will become redundant in the not too distant future. Though, Godfroy is positive in his outlook for the future of Rough Trade and other forward-thinking record shops.
“Rough Trade will continue to evolve public and trade perception of a ‘record store’ into something relevant and rewarding for any community, breaking rules and expectation along the way. To that end, the future for independent record stores is very bright”, he says.
While independent record shops will hopefully continue to prosper in the wake of the of the high-street chains’ diminishing presence, it seems that merely selling music may not be enough to be successful. There isn’t a particular need for record shops that just sell CDs, when websites such as Play and Amazon offer physical copies alongside digital downloads for lower prices. Offering the ‘experience’ of going to a record shop seems to be the only way forward, whether the attraction be in the new services they offer, or just for that good old sense of nostalgia.
Special thanks to Stephen Godfroy from Rough Trade. Visit Rough Trade online at http://www.roughtrade.com/