RSD13: Life Behind The Counter – by Tom Rose of Reveal Records

To round off this week of RSD themed features, it’s time to focus on those hardy folk who keep us all in tunes. At the end of 2007, Derby’s Reveal Records closed its doors for the final time; Tom Rose, owner of the shop, wrote this wonderful piece to launch thelocalrecordshop.com back in August 2012. It’s a warm and engaging reflection on the route to running a record shop and what happens when it’s no longer possible. Tom has compiled a lengthy mixtape, ‘Behind The Counter’, via Spotify to accompany this piece so click here and pour a glass of something splendid as we continue to toast the nation’s indies. 

I spent much my early 80s childhood dreaming of working in the music industry and each month I’d catch the bus to spend hours in Selectadisc and the many other Nottingham record shops of the era. The magic for me started at the Selectadisc window which, rather than displaying glossy cut outs and posters of the new pop albums, simply housed one empty copy of each of their new or sale vinyl, cassette, cd or magazines with a hand written price and sometimes a short description. I’d stand outside staring at the incredible artist names (Butthole Surfers? Pussy Galore? Naked Raygun? Half Man Half Biscuit? 10,000 Maniacs?) and their artwork and imagine what on earth they might sound like. I knew almost nothing about anything I’d ever see in that window and it only made me want in on this mystery world.

Pre-internet, everyone I knew who loved music was older than me and they relied on late night radio, bought records and tickets by word of mouth, saw the odd good thing on the Channel 4 TV show The Tube and read the weekly music papers – NMESounds and Melody Maker – cover to cover. I copied this and was soon hooked in by the enthusiasm or passionate hatred toward the music from their writers. I’d always find loads of singles and albums I’d read about in the shop, plus lots of interesting looking fanzines and imported music publications. Often, when you bought something, the staff would give you piles of free stuff in your bag like local singles and badges, flyers etc, so I just started to listen to and read everything about all the music that I could, regardless of genres, in a bid to get more educated.

I’d hang around flicking through racks and just listening to what the staff were suggesting to customers and I’d read the short info stickers they would write by the price on the sleeves – things like “featuring the guitarist from ‘insert band you’ve not heard of’” or there would be messages on strips of paper stuck onto the sleeves in the window like YES! BACK IN STOCK AT LAST! or LAST FEW NOW DELETED! which just made me think: “Oh, I should get that” (Later, I would copy these strategies wholesale.)

I was equally consumed by the hits on Top of the Pops as I was the strange noises played by John Peel or the World music which followed on Andy Kershaw. I loved The Tube and most of my late 80’s favourties (Prefab Sprout, Aztec Camera, Smiths, The Cure, Lloyd Cole, Billy Bragg, R.E.M had all been on TV and were very successful artists) but I’d also buy things randomly that I saw in the shop window or older kids suggested and talked about like: early Fugazi, Wedding Present, Sonic Youth, Big Black, Descendents, Dag Nasty, The Replacements etc. Each one lead me to other indie record labels and projects by their members and many varied other sounds. Dinosaur Jr lead me back to Neil Young, Pixies to all the 4AD record label stuff like Cocteau Twins and early Throwing Muses, Fugazi to Pailhead and then to Skinny Puppy and Wax Trax and industrial music and I liked the ethos of Dischord Records from Washington who sold everything cheaply and made their gigs all ages so I followed U.S hardcore. I didn’t much like English Punk and I decided early on I preferred The Byrds to The Beatles. Indie record labels seemed very important in the shop and thus I followed these just like I would the bands: SSTShimmy DiscCreationRough Trade etc.

I left school at 15 and worked the summer folding shirts in a city clothes shop, where the staff would all go out clubbing and stay up all night. That was the summer of acid house and hiphop supplied the clothes shop’s soundtrack – for me, this was the start of DJ culture, and so my knowledge expanded further and my tastes grew wider. I was still out watching hardcore and indie gigs most nights and there was a burgeoning independent music scene; I’d travel to Nottingham, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield – loads of amazing gigs.

I never found any record shop to match Selectadisc in the other cities though and when I turned 16 and couldn’t get a job there I took a YTS (youth training scheme) placement at Way Ahead, a record shop that stocked mainly heavy metal.  I knew nothing about heavy metal other than that I didn’t like it at all! But I took this as an opportunity to learn more about that music and hoped my chance might come to introduce the shop and customers to other music I did like – plus you got to go to Rock City and Trent Poly on the guest list to watch gigs, as we sold tickets, and this alone made up for the fact I only got £30 a week wages.Strangely, my lack of any metal music knowledge didn’t seem to phase the owner too much; perhaps I was ok because I maintained a tidy shop and well organised filing system!

A few months after I joined, the manager of their under performing Derby shop left. I was 17, living 35 miles away and with only 6 months experience. I didn’t know about VAT or how to change a price gun or till roll but, other than that, I felt sure I must be a very strong contender to become store manager in Derby! To my amazement, after I suggested this, they gave me the Derby shop to manage and that was it: I moved to Derby determined to make Way Ahead Derby into a destination record store just like Selectadisc and my love for Selectadisc stopped there – from now on they were sworn enemies!

To some extent we achieved what I set out to, turning a small scruffy shop full of metal picture discs, arcade machines and T shirts into a thriving haven for heavy, alternative independent music – mostly American indie, as this was the during the start of the grunge years: Sub Pop, Nirvana, Mudhoney, plus UK bands like Teenage Fanclub. We also sold hardcore rap such as NWA, ICE-T and anything vaguely anti-establishment. By happy coincidence, hair metal was now deeply unfashionable so the new direction I wanted sat fine with the owner, if not the group of Derby rockers who regularly protested that the music had turned shit in the shop but couldn’t deny it seemed busier. As our reputation grew, we opened a second Derby store mainly for dance music, hip-hop and breakbeat, US house, techno and jazz etc, just as artists like Wu Tang, Portishead and Goldie broke out big and, again by coincidence, we were right on the front line of a new music movement. People started to travel to Derby from around the Midlands and we had some amazing staff at that time.

What came next was at first really exciting and then almost the death of everything I loved – Britpop saw indie going over-ground and I was now DJing at a local indie club night after work on Fridays. You could soon sense we were losing more than we were gaining, as major music stores opened and there was less and less underground guitar music and more of the artists were being signed to major labels. It changed the focus toward finance and away from music, and was the start of the end for indie stores.

During this time I was drawn more towards the new electronic music scene: WarpR&S, Logical ProgressionMo’Wax, trip hop and French house. Nu-soul, techno and drum ‘n’ bass all seemed to be making exciting new sounds, just as guitar music was turning me off. When I look back now I realise there were still many good rock records made but I was absorbed in discovering new music I’d not learnt about yet. Eventually, around 1998, Way Ahead (who also sold tickets as their main business) were bought out and became SEE Tickets. They didn’t need the record shops and things were moving online. I was 26, and out of a job for the first time since leaving school.

I was still quite confident there was a need for a good small independent shop in Derby so, after a few months of thinking and planning, I contacted the letting agents and, six months after it had closed, I opened up my own shop called Reveal Records in the same premises where Way Ahead had been. With no major label stock or major label distribution accounts, and no intention of selling anything other than harder to find independent music, whatever the genre (from punk to ambient electronica, industrial metal to deep jazzy house and Americana) my idea was Reveal would be just me, behind the counter alone, and my mate Dave (a local college student) helping me on a Saturday.

On the first day we opened we sold roughly a fifth of all of my stock. We’d taken over a week’s money in that first day and it was clear I’d massively underestimated both the demand for good music and the sort of titles people expected to find, not to mention the fact that I couldn’t run it alone. Within a few months I’d opened upstairs too, selling vinyl and second-hand, called in some of the old full time staff from Way Ahead and the shop was bulging at the seams. Each month, I’d re-invest any profits to buy more racks and extend our catalogue until we couldn’t get another album out. The place was buzzing and there were great new independent guitar and electronic records coming out by artists like Godspeed You! Black Emperor , Sigur Ros, Autechre, Super Furry Animals. I was feeling excited and using that energy to spur myself on towards creating a small version of that Nottingham shop that had inspired me 20 years before.  Over the period 1999-2003 things were just amazing, hard work but amazing; every week incredible music came out and we sold vast quantities of it, had some fun at work and then from nowhere, just as I was paying off the last bit of what I’d borrowed to start the business, I received a letter saying the shopping centre was being demolished and we would have to vacate. This was devastating news. It meant there was a rush to find a new site, just as all the other businesses in Derby were doing the same thing. Rents were twice, three times what I was paying and it wasn’t clear how or if we could survive or relocate.

I decided to risk a bigger shop, on the main street and, on the basis, that if it didn’t work I was still young and we could get out after five years, I went for it – two large floors of stock, a separate store online and someone doing eBay. At one point, we had ten staff and different specialist buyers for certain genres and we were also now open seven days a week. It was a huge undertaking, madly stressful and a challenge to maintain, both in terms of my original D.I.Y ethos and getting stock out in the racks. I’m not sure how people viewed this store. I never stopped to think and I know I never enjoyed working there, even though it just got busier and busier. We had some superb people working there and a great vibe at times, but I’d also just started a family and moved house and was spending no time at home. My partner had given up work to come and do the accounts at the shop and life was just too full on. With the upturn in business, we were now able to do a few more interesting things like a free magazine that we started and now we could employ designers to do the artwork and ads to promote the store, but it was all much less fun for me. In 2005, Reveal won Best Independent Shop in the UK at the Music Week awards, I got completely hammered at the ceremony (it was the first time I’d been out in ages!) but I do remember a guy from Domino Records collaring me and saying ‘now is the year – do the thing you always wanted to do, whilst you have the spotlight on your Reveal name’.

So I woke up and decided a record label was what I always wanted to do. At first, I thought I could do something by importing stock from America and find acts that way, licensing their albums for the UK. I thought that sounded pretty easy. Picking good music. I didn’t want to be the one to speak to the artists; I was too shy for that stuff but after trying to work with someone else running the label side for a few months, I realised it had to be me so I tried to balance running the shop and label. My first signing was Joan As Police Woman, who I saw opening solo for Rufus Wainwright in Birmingham. I emailed her after buying her EP, to see if she wanted to sell some to me for the shop. She did and we sold so many I asked her to be the first signing on the Reveal label; to my amazement she agreed and I was off to New York to sort it out. During this time, I saw Kris Drever sing a song (Farewell To Fiunary) as part of a Kate Rusby concert. I fell in love with his voice and guitar playing (and folk in general) that night and rang him to see if he’d like to make a solo album. Again, he was surprisingly up for it and invited me to Edinburgh to talk more about it. This label stuff seemed really interesting and I was getting more into that work than I was the new shop. In 2006, I toured around with JAPW and did some early management work for her: gigs and promo stuff. The album “Real Life” came out in June 2006 and got rave reviews. In October I released “Black Water” by Kris Drever and he won the best newcomer at BBC Folk Awards and this lead me to Lau, a trio Kris was part of, and I went to see them and got blown away. I was a folk convert and keen to learn more about it.

Back at the shop, we were noticing we had a new competitor: Amazon, someone we couldn’t beat on price or range. This didn’t look good for the future and, coupled with the dawning of broadband and free music downloading, I decided that when the five year break clause came up, I would either move to a smaller shop or close the shop completely. We made it to 2007 ok, but it was now harder and harder to make ends meet so we announced we’d close in spring. It was a huge relief to me when we finally closed; I hadn’t realised how much stress I was under nor how much being open 7 days meant I was thinking about the shop and work. I toyed with the idea of continuing online selling vinyl or in a smaller shop, but just as I was looking into this another opportunity arose to start a new folk label (Navigator Records) with Proper Distribution as partners, so I figured that had to be a good thing and we did that, signing Bellowhead, Chris Wood, Boo Hewerdine, Roddy Woomble, John McCusker, Heidi Talbot, Spiers & Boden, Jon Boden, Mary Hampton and Angel Brothers. I was now running two labels, a music publishers and managing artists.

Running a record shop helped me greatly with selling music, promotion and marketing. The final months (even year) had been a tough balancing act. I didn’t want to invest more in the shop as I knew I was leaving it. My father had just died, I’d a wife and two children I wasn’t seeing enough of and there seemed no positives from being there. I’m especially grateful to Dave who started on the first day with me in 1999 and closed the door for the last time in 2007. As we’d announced we were closing down early on, customers rallied in the final months trying to convince us to continue, but the reality was I had to pay much more for the next five years of the lease and it was becoming impossible to make a profit selling CDs, and vinyl just didn’t sell in large enough quantities to warrant the investment it required. Since we closed, lots more indie stores have gone, including Selectadisc, so I think the time was right to say goodbye. The music business misses good indie shops greatly, they were a filter for the good and great, and the people who visited left more often than not with more than they went in for, thanks to the enthusiasm of the staff.

***

I’ve continued to buy physical albums on vinyl and some CDs but I must admit I’m also happy enough with a digital version, unless it’s a special release. I look forward to Rough Trade’s Album Club mailer coming through my door and I would encourage anyone reading this to buy vinyl from Diverse Records, folk music from Coda in Edinburgh and even use Fopp and HMV or you’ll lose them. I tend to buy lots of music from gigs and direct from the artists now, as part of my job involves gig promotion now. Last week I went into Fopp and they were playing a new album out that week, I liked it and I bought it.

For those interested in the Reveal label click here www.revealrecords.co.uk for more info. Tom’s wesbite can be found here: www.tomrosemusic.co.uk

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One thought on “RSD13: Life Behind The Counter – by Tom Rose of Reveal Records

  1. Reveal was a great shop and Tom is a top bloke. I miss Reveal, Derby is mostly a cultural wasteland but its getting better. Maybe its time for a small cheap shop to do some vinyl and stuff again? Tom’s success with the label is deserved, his ear for spotting quality music an amazing skill.

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