It’s A Dog’s Life – In The Balance

Over Christmas, HMV had bought a television advert to announce their sale. Curiously, it didn’t mention any actual items that were reduced. Didn’t even show you some sleeves or cases. Nothing. It simply pointed out that HMV have an ‘up to half price sale’ on at the moment. Considering their rather precarious position on the high street, this seemed like yet another sign of how they’re getting it so badly wrong. Apparently, some HMVs, along with branches of their faux-indie bastard offspring Fopp, have been bashing out enormous DVD boxsets for £5 this week. Surely something to shout about, even if it is just a way of clearing slightly dented stock in an attempt to at least get something for it before the increasingly graffitied surfaces morph into a gargantuan female vocalist?


Their website seems to have switched a lot of ‘dispatches in 5-8 days’ items to ‘Out of Stock’ suggesting that things might be a little more short term right now and the annual crush in the post-Christmas sale was absent when I visited. Indeed, the former preserve of middle-aged men with an unfeasible amount of noxious flatulence seemed largely untroubled. With their technology stands and stock piled everywhere, the shop seemed to be attracting the younger generation. They just weren’t buying anything. They pointed at stuff and mentioned who in their family had had it for Christmas, they flicked casually through racks and seemed to purchase little. The previous CD hounds of a certain age have moved on. They know that this isn’t a place for music lovers anymore. Instead, they frequent independent and second hand record shops. I know, because I smell them there. I am being disingenuous based on the fact that each year I seemed to encounter somebody at the HMV sales with very loose bowels. However, as only small numbers of young people pledge allegiance to their local independent music emporia, the older generations who might otherwise have ambled round HMV and Virgin in the past are now returning to their spiritual homes, leaving Nipper and his unfortunate employees with a customer base who don’t really want to spend much.

Several years ago, I noticed how blatantly the charts CDs suddenly went up in HMV come December: your Bubles and boy bands given prominent displays at two or three pounds more than they were the week before. Why? Because that’s the other HMV customer, ‘family member with a list’ who visits once a year to pick up the presents. It was announced recently that the week before Christmas accounts for almost 10% of the shop’s annual sales, hence the ruthless price hike. How can you know it was previously cheaper if you haven’t been in since last December? After announcing that his strategy for this year’s festive run-up was “fingers crossed” it now remains to be seen if those last minute sales have actually done enough to postpone the inevitable for Chief Executive Simon Fox. It’s hard to believe the end isn’t nigh and it would be terribly sad to see the brand go and for all of those, largely committed, enthusiastic and knowledgable, people to lose their jobs. However, I can’t truly believe that that many music lovers will actually miss the 21st century HMV experience. The Oxford Street store is still a treasure trove, but vinyl prices are regularly £5 higher than in their competitors’ stores at a time when it’s gathering an increasing following. Fopp has stayed fairly close to the original incarnation, even if it is essentially an HMV clearing house. And the vinyl’s really expensive there too.

As the independent stores quietly rub their hands at the thought of more trade and possibly even some cautious expansion, the British high street can prepare for a very curious situation ahead. Do indies move for some of the old HMV stores safe in the knowledge that people expect to be able to buy entertainment there? Could town centre music retail return? The downfall of HMV is not a source of glee, more the depressingly predictable end to a downward spiral started years back when their core product was marginalised. There are still record shops thriving and even some new ones entering the fray. If a shop – and the last of its kind – with such a nationwide presence does go under, it’s hard to believe there won’t be a few more on the way.

Macca 2

Having been reading Robert Levine‘s excellent ‘Free Ride – How the Internet Is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back’ over the last few days, how music is sold and the value attached to it in an internet age has been on my mind. I received the uber-deluxe book edition of Paul McCartney‘s debut solo album for Christmas. It’s over-priced for what it is, but it is utterly gorgeous. A combination of fascinating written content and beautiful photographs from the time of the album’s creation make for a very satisfying and special item. Inevitably, it made me want the equivalent version for ‘McCartney II‘ and I gave in to festive consumerism. The uber-deluxe edition certainly seems to be the current way to get people of a certain age to spend big on music and, while it’s being described by some as the final acts of physical media, there’s a lesson in there for the future. People like beautiful items. I’ve read of teenagers buying LPs with mp3 download codes so that they can listen to the digital copy and pore over the sleeve, despite having no means of playing the disc inside. The wonderful Star Wheel Press album can be bought direct from the band or selected independent retailers of renown in a stunning hand-printed package for only a few pounds more than the download. The Low Anthem posted photos of themselves on Twitter last winter as they took all of the many, many pre-orders for their screen-printed editions of ‘Smart Flesh‘ to the post office. People will still pay for music but they like it to mean something. Independent record shops still understand this and for as long as they do it’s hard to imagine music retail disappearing from the high street entirely. As we enter 2012, I will confidently predict that this time next year there’ll have been a few surprises in the sale of music for us all to reflect on.

Buy Star Wheel Press from the indie which first proclaimed its greatness: Avalanche in Edinburgh

Record Store Day – Tales From The Shop Floor

Record Store Day is a fundamentally good thing. It gets people talking about shops which had otherwise only been mentioned as part of features on the death of music retail and, in light of the number of independent stores closing finally reaching a plateau, demonstrates that many of these emporia still have plenty of life in them. Back in February, I raised a few concerns about how the stock was distributed and exactly how keen the labels are to actually help out the nation’s indies. Since then, I’ve been in touch with record shops across Britain to seek some clarification and there’s plenty to tell. The NME having hosted an intellectually flatulent piece about record shops in recent days, I’m keen to stress that any moans in this article are not directed at the record shops themselves and I urge you to get yourself down to your local palace of glittering delights this weekend and spend as much as your food budget will allow. In return for their honesty, I intend to keep all contributors to this article entirely anonymous.

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With the list of exclusives for this year’s event now at over 200 items, it gives the impression that the big labels are falling over themselves to help out the indie stores of the UK. However, prices seem to be rocketing and several retailers suggested that labels were “pushing their luck” with one observing that these labels “spend 364 days a year trying to take business away from shops.” The massive reduction in the amount of sale or return stock, meaning that shops either pay for things upfront or don’t get any copies, increases the risk factor in buying big or even buying at all in the case of some of the deluxe items. For Record Store Day, nothing is sale or return. With a Saint Etienne box set containing only six 7” singles clocking it at almost £50, it’s a costly gamble to take in a time when the economy is supposed to be on its knees. Some shops have reduced their dealings with the big labels, with one owner telling me, “when shops can consistently order from Amazon cheaper, and receive the stock quicker, it makes ordering from the majors a luxury they can’t afford.” Another store took up the story: ”The majors look like they’re helping, by whacking out these releases, but come the Monday we’re still meant to try and sell the latest Universal releases for £13.90 (standard mark up) when you know Tesco will have it for a tenner or less.  The EMI, Sony and Universal sections in my shop are now tiny, I don’t order CDs from them unless I have to.” While I continue to believe that it is crucially important for music fans to support their local record shops on April 16th, it seems pretty clear that the big labels are only bothered when they have high-priced, attention-grabbing stock to shift.

Continue reading “Record Store Day – Tales From The Shop Floor”

Record Store Day: If you’re gonna do it, do it right

A number of independent record shop owners have told me of late that by surviving the really dark days when music retailers were closing left, right and centre, they’ve found circumstances have improved a little. For a start, once we’re down to the bare minimum, we need every record shop we can get and, secondly, with HMV seemingly now of the opinion that music is toxic, they’re the only places to get hold of anything even slightly obscure. I’m thrilled when I hear of shops extending their leases or expanding their business as it gives music fans the length and breadth of the country hope. As these centres of cultural relevance increasingly become museum exhibits for the media to visit once or twice a year for “is music retail dying?” style stories, the push continues to engage local communities. At the forefront of this is Record Store Day, an annual celebration of the humble indie store, peppered with exclusive releases and live performances. It is, fundamentally, a marvellous idea and last year was the point where it really took off here in the UK.

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The 2010 event was catapulted into the spotlight with the news of a number of very limited 7” vinyl releases by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pet Shop Boys and Blur. Much was made of the fact that there were only 1000 copies to be distributed across the UK’s independent record shops and how rare they would instantly be. Sure enough, people who never really bothered to visit their local record shop were now interested in popping in. A good thing, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. Those who ambled in at 11am, having seen some news coverage and wanting to pick up a few interesting bits and bobs will have been left a little deflated. For all but the biggest shops, the really limited stock was gone within minutes, at most an hour. Plenty of other people who never visit the shop were out in force a little earlier too, queuing up to grab their copies of the truly limited titles before the frantic dash home to get them straight up on eBay. I wonder how many of these people have popped back in over the last ten months to purchase a few new releases or to dig through the vinyl racks. In the whole of the East Midlands, I’m fairly certain there were no more than 10-15 copies of Blur’s ‘Fool’s Day’. Partly this is down to there being less record shops than there used to be, but also due to relatively sizeable stores having one or two copies only. Continue reading “Record Store Day: If you’re gonna do it, do it right”

Uplifting News

As the HMV culling begins, with eleven branches and a Fopp having shut their doors this weekend, it’s a pleasure to be able to inform you of some rather more positive news in the world of music retail. Rise, 2010’s winner of the UK Independent Retailer of the Year award, has finally unveiled its online store and it’s none too shabby. Competitively priced, beautifully designed and with a comprehensive search option, navigating your way around it is actually a pleasant experience.

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You’ll find some startlingly good vinyl prices at the moment on numerous indie label releases from the last couple of years, along with some genuinely rare stuff at silly prices. Even more vinyl goodness is going to be listed on the site by the end of this week, so I’d keep your eyes peeled for what are some undeniably ridiculous bargains. Now, drenching Rise in hyperbole as I am, I should declare again my minor involvement in this music retailing behemoth. I’m doing some of the reviews for the site and you can already find my wordsmithery on the pages for the newies by Iron & Wine, The Decemberists and Jonny. In addition to this, you can find my sizeable review of the new album by The Low Anthem, ‘Smart Flesh’, here. The album’s great and I’m rather pleased with the review too. It’ll appear here in due course, but why not pop over and have a read. Then buy some stuff. I’m deadly serious about that. As we continue to see shops struggling to stay afloat, the old adage of ‘use it or lose it’ has never been more apt. If you want Rise to open a store near you then you’ll need it to be operating as a viable and successful business, which means supporting it however you can. Don’t read into that, by the way. I have no insider knowledge, but as their Warwick Arts Centre branch will close in the coming months due to lack of custom, it’s worth remembering that these places are few and far between. Continue reading “Uplifting News”

Lists and High Street Losses

I love a good list, me. The end of year issues of all of the music magazines are an absolute delight, allowing me to peruse vast swathes of numerically arranged albums deemed to be the finest from the last twelve months. Invariably, one or two records pop up so often that I realise I must have genuinely passed on something suitably splendid and onto the ‘to buy’ list they go. However, there is a distant cousin of these lists, one who only visits occasionally but always kicks up a fuss when he does. This particular breed looks to provide a guide to the best albums not just of one year but of many, such as “The 250 greatest albums of Q’s lifetime” in this month’s issue. This gave voters twenty five years’ worth of releases to select from and, of course, they chose magnificently. I mean, it’s not like Q readers would have Mumford & Sons in their top 100 or ‘No Line On The Horizon’ anywhere near even the lower echelons of such a list, right? Right? Stop backing away from me.

q 250

Such inclusions are so utterly breathtakingly bizarre that the presence of ‘K’ by Kula Shaker at 211 is something I’m finding considerably less offensive than I thought I might. Internet campaign, anybody? The incessant jizzing over all things Bono leaves a sickly taste in the mouth but things get truly hilarious when you move further up the list. Apparently, ‘Under The Iron Sea’, the second album by Keane is at 51. If you’re anything like me, this prompted an even more horrifying thought than the simple recognition of this particular placing. Yep, if this is as high as 51, where the fuck has their debut managed to get to? 34 is the quite staggering answer. As if in some kind of cunning PR move to avoid people totally incontinent with rage at such idiocy, the Q readership ensured that everybody was distracted by the record reaching number 32. ‘Sam’s Town’ by The Killers.

These lists are always worth a browse, reminding you of records you used to love, if nothing else. They’re always topped by ‘OK Computer’ and Oasis’ first two albums and there’s always a sizeable spattering of albums released close to the point of compilation. But this one does seem worse than most. It’s probably worth the £3.99 for the laugh it’ll give you.

Perhaps buy it from HMV, they could do with the extra pennies at the moment. Music writers seem to be split between dancing on its sorry music hating grating and agonising about the possible impact upon labels and artists. It’s odd, I can’t really imagine high streets without HMV but at the same time I’ve pretty much adjusted to that state of affairs already. I only really go in now to sort of my monthly quota of ‘facial displays of scorn’, actively looking to be annoyed in much the same way as people actually buy the Daily Mail each morning. It’s been an abysmal place to try and buy music for several years now and it’s fairly clear that when it comes to what used to be its core business, management don’t really give a shit anymore. It’s quite understandable that music is no longer the priority in this climate, but that doesn’t automatically necessitate it being sidelined to the point of decay. By also continuing to shoot themselves in the foot by running their own VAT-avoiding Guernsey based website in direct competition with itself – serving to highlight just how expensive their high street shops are – they display the same lack of self-awareness that keeps Nipper, the gramophone loving dog, as their logo. I can’t say I’d be especially sad to see HMV go, not that I think it’s likely to happen any time too soon, but I understand what its symbolic value is. One has to wonder, however, were the entertainment monopoly suddenly removed, could independent retails begin to crawl back out of the woodwork on the outskirts of towns once more? As Oxford prepares to welcome a new indie store and Derby delights in the return of BPM, we can, perhaps, begin to hope.

Rough Trading Leads To Lack Of Choice

Bella Union boss Simon Raymonde tweeted the following comment yesterday:

Simon RT tweet

If only it were that simple. But surely, surely the country is crying out for a few more decent record shops that operate in the spirit of Rough Trade? Today, as regular readers will have been expecting, I undertook my traditional Bank Holiday record shopping trip, this time attempting to seek aural pleasure in the music emporia of Nottingham. Now, I admit that this does rule out some of the more specialist options – Rob’s Records, The Music Exchange etc – but in terms of conventional music shops, offering a wide range of new releases, what is there available? Three branches of HMV and a Fopp, also owned by HMV. Since Selectadisc’s demise last year, the East Midlands has become a desolate wasteland for the music fan. The excellent Rockaboom in Leicester and the none too shabby Music Mania in Stoke aside, there’s little to get excited about. How can this be?

Even more dispiriting is what HMV have done to the old Virgin/Zavvi store on Wheeler Gate, where it has taken a ten year lease. Previously the big high street music presence in the city, as a Virgin Megastore and then a branch of Zavvi, HMV have ripped out the soul of the store along with most of the stock. It has vast swathes of open space, a few aisles for music and a complete lack of focus. Compared to the footfall on previous bank holidays when it was Zavvi, it was doing a fairly passable impression of the Mary Celeste today. There’s no vinyl for sale, the back catalogue is hideously basic and pointing out the fact that HMV were ever a music retailer seems like the ravings of a madman.

I know that music is a tricky thing to sell these days. I know that plenty of businesses have gone to the wall in the last decade, but where’s the ambition? Where’s the desire to even try and cater for all of the city’s music fans left with little option after the closure of the final sizeable independent store? Zavvi had racks of vinyl at competitive prices that saw a regular turnover; why no interest in these customers? Let’s not forget that their demise was brought about by the failure of Woolworths rather than a particularly wayward approach to business. I presume they’re not stocking it on the premise that people don’t buy it, but I’m keen to know how exactly they’ve tested that theory. It’s a self-perpetuating shitty state of affairs whereby HMV have fallen so far down the list of places music fans actually go to when they want to buy new releases that they aren’t likely to actually receive visits from people who could actually be spending loads during this difficult financial period. Once you feel disenfranchised, why bother going back? This is my first visit in the best part of a year and I’ll be in no hurry to go back.


HMV have conspicuously marginalised music over recent years, but the Wheeler Gate store in Nottingham is a fine example of a retailer not having the first clue about what it is doing. Lacking in customers, stock and direction, it’s hard to know exactly what it’s there for. How does it anyway offer anything different to the other two branches of the same store elsewhere in the city, let alone its ‘major in skinny-jeans and a band t-shirt’ offshoot, Fopp?

I am in no doubt that a decent, well-stocked, well-promoted independent store in Nottingham – provided the location wasn’t too costly – would prosper. As one of the many people who started to travel further afield when shops like Reveal in Derby closed down so as to seek our new music thrills at Selectadisc, I would suggest that it wouldn’t just serve the people of Nottingham but also many throughout the East Midlands. Whether or not that could be fulfilled by the Rough Trade model, who knows? But the approach of the current Rough Trade West store installed in the old Selectadisc shop would likely bring many music lovers out of the woodwork at some speed. Far be it from me to suggest some kind of lovely internet campaign to beg for more independent music stores in the UK -  I noticed Simon’s tweet was only retweeted five times, hardly a resounding response – but I don’t see any harm in having a good moan.

The Kids Aren’t Alright…apparently

I’ve just returned from a week in Northumberland. Very nice, thanks for asking. While in the area, I took the opportunity to drop in on the independent record shops of Newcastle. Before I go into any kind of detail, I should point out that I tried to go to Steel Wheels, but I’m fucked if I know where it is. Apparently it’s now called Beatdown Records and I found their old store and…  oh, forget it. I’m still bitter, ok?

Anyway, I very much enjoyed my time in both RPM and Reflex. RPM smells like a proper record shop. I’d feel obliged to explain that statement were it not for the fact that I’m making it on this blog. And if you’re reading this blog then I’m fairly certain that you know what I’m on about. In addition to this, they were playing ‘The Good, The Bad & The Queen’, which I’m not sure I’ve ever heard being played in record shop previously. It was a promising start. As it happens, I didn’t actually spend any money in there. Not that their stock isn’t splendid. There’s racks of vinyl at reasonable prices, a reasonably clear filing system for the CDs and a few sale racks. I have nothing but praise for RPM, it’s exactly how I would describe the model independent record shop. Ticks every box.

I also visited Reflex, where I confess a number of my quids were liberated by the fine tune-age of Terry Callier and Micah P Hinson. It’s a bit more sanitised than RPM – which is to say everything is very neatly arranged and not an inch of display space is wasted. It’s clearly a very efficiently run business and you have to applaud any shop that employs a Lurch looky-likey to stand at the end of the road with a large sign directing custom shopwards. I was served by a slightly hyperactive woman who offered up the kind of banter you just don’t get in your enormo-stores. Just as I was about to pay, I noticed ‘Old Rare New’, a delightful tome about independent record stores, up on a shelf and thus double the cost of my shop. Still, another great indie store. The people of Newcastle are spoilt.

In amongst the many tales told in ‘Old Rare New’ is a page by Sister Ray owner, Phil Barton. I enjoyed his words and offered a token world-weary sigh as I read his comment that,  “kids don’t collect records anymore, they steal tunes instead.” He may well have a point, I thought. Then, I got back yesterday and found my weekly email update from Sister Ray, in which the news was imparted that the shop is in administration while a new buyer is sought. I’ll be honest, my first thought was, “Shit! Don’t they own Selectadisc in Nottingham too?” I’ve since had most of my fears about a knock-on effect allayed, but I’m still rather dismayed by the news about this Berwick Street great. It’s a cracking shop, full of the sort of records any self-respecting collection requires and not unreasonable prices. A few years back it moved across the road into the old Selectadisc store when that particular business opted to concentrate on one city only. I’ve not been since the move, but I remember, in its slightly pokier previous location, being thoroughly chuffed with its stock. It was in Sister Ray that I finally managed to buy a – not 100% official – copy of ‘Fanfare For The Comic Muse‘ by The Divine Comedy, back in 2001. I’d spent years looking for it and was happily dispatched with a copy, some sixteen pounds lighter. I’m sure I’ve moaned about the state of Berwick Street in the past, but only a few years ago it was the ideal day out. A street full of record shops, each offering different things for the rabid collector, but it’s now flagging seriously. I hope that Sister Ray finds someone willing to stump up the cash, but its potential demise is yet another sign that the physical product isn’t winning over the latest generation of music fans.

I’m still a little concerned about Selectadisc. I wrote about the reduction in floor space a few months back, and while the shop isn’t part of the same company as Sister Ray, I know there are some financial links. I can only hope that its legacy and seemingly continued popularity with the good folk of the East Midlands will ensure its survival for some time to come. If that fails, does anyone know what house prices are like in Newcastle?