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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 December 2007, 11:11 GMT
The record shop's dead, long live the record shop

By Steve Tomkins

With eight classic Christmas songs back in the top 40, never has the influence of the download been so stark. But amid the high street gloom, there's some evidence that independent record shops are reviving.

Nick Todd, the owner of Spillers record shop in Cardiff, came in on Sunday to find the place flooded.

It was the third time this year, thanks to a large redevelopment nearby, which is also keeping customers away and threatening a large rent rise. He was just in time to save most of the weekend's new stock.

Flooding may not be the most common trial facing music shops, but there does seem to be something familiar in the image of the record seller fighting against rising waters.

In recent years the market has been deluged with digital downloads, online shopping, offshore sites and supermarket CDs.

Record shops
The tradition is disappearing
Ian De-Whytell
Crash Records
Many well-loved local shops have gone under. Between 2004 and 2006, a quarter of independent record shops in Britain shut, according to figures from the Entertainment Retailers Association.

The main chains other than HMV and Virgin have sunk, and those two have lost a third of their branches since 2000.

So are the last of the record shops fighting for their lives? Or have they found the secret of survival in a changed commercial climate?

In fact, Todd reckons that without the long delayed building work, Spillers would be bucking the downward trend. It claims to be the oldest record shop in the world and inspires tremendous loyalty.

Vinyl nostalgia

When its landlords proposed to put it out of business with rent increases, they ended up backing down, faced with a petition of 20,000 signatures - including Bob Dylan's and Bruce Springsteen's.

For him the competition from digital technology is just another challenge, like the coming of specialist dance music shops. "It's just the way it is," he says. "You monitor and adapt."

In Leeds, Ian De-Whytell of Crash Records is somewhat less sanguine.

"The tradition is disappearing," he says sadly. "The bottom fell out of the CD singles market and that stops the record-buying process before it's begun.

Record booth
Music buying has changed
"Instead of moving on to buying the album, people just pick and choose the tracks they want to download from it."

Crash's clientele tend to be over 30, says Ian De-Whytell, people who grew up with records shops and are attached to that way of buying music. But a healthy number of teenagers come in too, being too young for bank cards and online shopping.

Crash Records has adapted by selling more concert tickets and pop merchandise. But the real secret to their survival, De-Whytell reckons, is that they never stopped stocking vinyl, which is having something of a renaissance while CD sales drop.

Record shops are an anachronism, "something from the days of watching Top of the Pops on Thursday and going out and buying five singles on Friday". But they will survive, he says.


This optimism is echoed in the wider music industry.

"There will be still fewer record shops in the future," says Mark Ellen, the editor of The Word magazine, "but I think they will survive.

"Not the high street giants, maybe, but the independent specialists. They offer things you can't get online - guidance, a sense of occasion. That's what they'll have to focus on."

And perhaps Rough Trade, the London record shop exemplifies that. Its director Stephen Godfroy insists that independent music shops are not history, they are the future.

Our Price
High street names have come and gone
In the summer Rough Trade opened a new 5,000 sq ft shop off Brick Lane and Mr Godfrey speaks passionately about its success.

"High street music shops are horrible - homogenised and impersonal places. At Rough Trade you get personal retail, expert recommendations, an enjoyable experience.

"When you walk in you're not hit by the prices, but by music. You discover a new favourite every time.

"In the chains, price is be-all and end all, because they're trying to compete with the internet. But they don't have the convenience of the internet or the personality of independent shops."

Godfroy sees Rough Trade's success as part of a wider resurgence in independent retail, as seen in food shopping.

We have screen printing and podcast workshops. It's a wider celebration of music
Stephen Godfroy
Rough Trade

"There's a renaissance in music retail in side streets, while it's dying a death on the high street."

All the same, Rough Trade has had to adapt, and offer more than you would expect from a traditional record shop which sometimes appeared daunting. It has a café, a snug with iMacs and a permanent stage for free gigs.

"Every record has a write up, with factual information and recommendations. We have screen printing and podcast workshops. It's a wider celebration of music."

It seems that, while times may not have been great for record shops, it's not over. The beat goes on, and the fat lady will be singing for a while yet.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I love small independent and used record shops. It is a lot of fun to look through the recent arrivals to see what unusual things are there, listen to bands you've only ever heard of or that simply have interesting covers, and flip through the bargain LPs to pick up wierd and wonderful obscurities. The local record shop is the first thing I look for when I visit a new city. It's a shame that the one here has been forced to close due to lack of sales. It will be missed. High street chains are so dull and processed, and the internet just doesn't offer the same social and tactile experience.
Amanda, Durham

The demise of the independant record store is yet another example of the way in which society is trying to pasturise art. Mass retailers, be it online or supermarkets, limit artist exposure and herd music comsumers into specific types of music, which are largely disposable inorganic pop or a surprise release which has already gained momentum through word of mouth and the independants. The future of music does indeed seem rather dire.
David Sutherland, Odessa, Texas, USA

If the big retailers wish to survive they need knowledge. Obviously they need to compete on price with the internet and music is cheaper than it has ever been, thanks to competition, but they can add the personal touch. Staff who act as if music is like cans of beans are not much help. I have regularly intervened to assist a fellow buyer when a staff member got things wrong. An assistant in the classical section did not know where to find the ¿Sugar Plum Fairy¿ for example. Thirty years ago I failed the ¿entrance exam¿ for Listen records. What do new staff have to do now?
Hank, Glasgow, Scotland

The Rough Trade store sounds like all of the best record/music shops out there. They have always been more than just a shop, they have been places to soscialise and discuss music as well as picking up the latest singles. I've always preferred to go to those music shops where the assistants love the music and are willing to chat about purchases rather than hurry the customers out of the door.
Heather, Willenhall

There's really no incentive to use high street record retailers - they're expensive, staffed by children and they blare awful chart music at you at ear-bleeding volumes while you're trying (usually in vain) to find something a bit more niche.
Sue, London

Yay, the independent retailer! I'm sure these shops will make a resurgence over the next few years. I'm so tired of walking into (any) chain store only to be faced with clueless sales droids with no interest in, let alone knowledge of, the products they are selling. And then being charged a premium for the privilege is just rubbing salt in the wound. I don't mind paying a bit extra for a product if it comes from someone with genuine expertise in the product itself. Oh, and Spillers rocks.
Robert Phillips, Cardiff, UK

How times have changed! In the late 1970s, the local independent was a lot cheaper than the chains, as it stocked second-hand records! I think everyone in the class knew the way to the record shop. They didn't know the address ("It's along from..."), but we all knew how to get there.
Nigel Macarthur, London, England

I think it's very sad. I used to enjoy going to my local record shop and actually seeing what albums I wanted to buy. I don't have internet access at home, and wouldn't be permitted to download at work, so I don't buy
K Brown, Bristol, England

On behalf of music lovers I lament the pick'n'choose download idea. I've bought albums on the strength of a single or two and then discovered that other tracks on the album were better than the one(s) that encouraged me to buy it in the first place. And CD or digital is tinny and sterile compared to the richness of vinyl, even if the vinyl's scratched. Your brain can filter out the scratches, and you get the full sound as it was recorded or performed.
Stephen Brooks, York, England

I think this exemplifies the difference between the corporate world and independent businesses. Indies are probably used to having to adapt to a certain degree in order to survive, but more than that there is a belief in what they're doing that will spur them on to change with the times and offer the customer greater sevrice and a better experience. Corporate retailers on the other hand are too used to having everything their own way and assume that it is the consumer who is at fault for their decline rather than their own impersonal and over-priced businesses. Corporate music stores/labels stubborness will be their death and good riddance. I much prefer my nearest indie store to these giants and I am often willing to spend a little more for the experience. The corporate world is responsible for our free market economy and it's their fault if they fail to respond to dwindling consumer interest.
Tom, Brum


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