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

Neither quality nor quantity

Rather a lot to do, so it’s only a short post this time. However, three things of note. Admittedly, only one is musical.

1. Wales gave a much better account of themselves yesterday against South Africa and we should be on for some wins in the Autumn Internationals. That Shane try was pure genius.

2. What the cock is Gordon Brown doing commenting on The Apprentice?

3. Joan As Police Woman‘s new album is already a contender for ‘Album Of The Year’. It is a stunning collection of songs, not least the recent single, ‘To Be Loved’.

If that doesn’t result in a purchase, then I’m not sure we can ever be friends.

Did you find e̶v̶e̶r̶y ANYthing you were after?

I’ve ranted about this before, so stick with me on this, but the lack of decent music shops is alarming. Obviously it’s not alarming to many people otherwise we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place, but for those of us who enjoy picking through obscure new releases and well-chosen back catalogue stock, the end is increasingly nigh. Last summer I found out about the demise of Derby’s last remaining indie store, Reveal Records, which closed its doors for a final time at the end of last year. The reports of record shops in London closing keep coming thick and fast and Left Legged Pineapple has shut up shop in Loughborough, Track has departed from York and Selectadisc has downsized its operation in Nottingham.

I had the misfortune to be in Northampton yesterday and I haven’t had such a poor record buying experience in a long time. I couldn’t find a traditional indie store to speak of, and judging by a search of the net that is indeed the case, and the one second hand store, Pied Piper, that has something of a reputation is some way into a depressing ‘closing down’ sale that consists of utter toss that you couldn’t pay me to take away. They will continue trading in a different manner, so I can only hope they’ve kept the decent stuff back for that venture. There’s Sidewinder, a very specialist dance shop but beyond that I could find nothing. What’s even worse is that HMV and Zavvi haven’t opted to capitalise on this. HMV appeared to have no vinyl whatsoever, while Zavvi – currently doing a wonderful job of filling their stores with vinyl nationwide – had a limited stock that appeared not to have been updated in months. The Last Shadow Puppets single, ‘The Age Of The Understatement’ was released yesterday on CD and 2×7″. I could not find either 7″ anywhere, which is a major surprise. Why, when they happily pile it up in other stores, aren’t Zavvi and HMV catering for music fans? Saying, “did you find everything you were after?” at the till counts for fuck all if it’s a token gesture and the answer is of no consequence. I was amazed that people living somewhere as big as Northampton have so little access to music. Now that HMV find music a dirty word, favouring DVDs, the stock is growing ever more conservative and the range is diminishing rapidly.

Now, there’s no point me issuing a rallying cry for people to go dashing off to their local indie store and purchase a record or three, as I suspect the game is already over and we’ve lost. In addition, if you’re reading this, the chances are you already frequent indie stores wherever possible. The thought that in the not too distant future I won’t be able to have a proper browse in an independent record store upsets me more than it probably should, but I won’t pretend otherwise.

Thankfully, a stop off at Leicester to visit Rockaboom restored my confidence in the indie store. Well-run, competitively-priced and sensibly-stocked, this small indie store is a flashback to the glory days. There’s a second-hand rack, a great back-catalogue with most essentials in stock at less than a fiver and new releases are shoved wherever possible, ensuring you get exposure to as much great music as possible. There’s a good selection of vinyl, local bands are covered and the traditional rail of metal T-shirts is there by the till. Both Last Shadow Puppets 7″s were duly purchased, along with the Jim Noir album which, to dispel one of the rumours about independent stores, was actually a quid cheaper than HMV or Zavvi. I don’t imagine you’ll go out of your way to visit, and they don’t have an online presence, but if you happen to be in the area, treat yourself.

All of this neatly links in with this weekend’s ‘big’ event, Record Store Day. We’ll just have to allow the Americans the word ‘store’ on this occasion, as it’s for a good cause. You’ll have noticed the logo for this in the top right of the blog for the last few days and by clicking on it you can read the philosophy behind the event. Worthy of your support, I would argue. Rough Trade East is having a whole day orgy of live music including the sublime Jason Molina (Magnolia Electric Co / Songs:Ohia), up and coming Glasgow band of note, Make Model and Billy Bragg. Full info here. Action Records in Preston will have live performances from 4pm – info here. Spillers in Cardiff are in the middle of organising something. Avalanche, in Glasgow and Edinburgh, are listed on the Record Store Day site, although I can’t find out what they’re doing. By visiting the RSD site you can access a list of all stores participating. It’s mainly US, but worth a look. If your local indie store’s not on there, ask them why not.

If you’ve got info on particularly lovely indie stores you know of, please let me know and I’ll bung it up on the site – the more promotion the better. If you have any Record Store Day news, then likewise, bung it in the comments.

Like the independent record shop guide in this month’s Mojo, only for the UK, rather than America

Following on from a comment from the enigmatically named, ‘Anonymous’, I’m going to embark upon a massive great list project of the UK’s greatest indie stores. At this stage, mind you, they’ve got to be pretty bloody good to still be alive. I’d like to offer info about the stores, possible web links and any thoughts from actual, real-life people who’ve been there.
This will grow into something splendid, hopefully, but it will require input from the delightful army of lovelies who visit this site from time to time.
I’ll spread out my contributions over a few posts, and as the series grows I’ll put a collection of links in a menu on the right-hand side of the blog, so that you can find them all easily. Ain’t that neat?

First up, the soon-to-be-no-more Reveal Records of Derby. Quite possibly my favourite record shop of all time, but their time is up, and the shop has only months to live. As stock levels dwindle and prices slowly descend it’ll no doubt slip in the rankings as it becomes transparently obvious that the game is up, but for the time being I’m almost telling myself that “it’ll all be ok.”
A wide variety of genres are covered, along with bargain prices through 2 for £10 offers and the like, and with the current desire to shift stock prior to closure, the bargains will increase. It feels a little like ambulance chasing, but it’s gonna happen whether I get a few cheap records or not.
Reveal also has its own record label, featuring Joan As Police Woman and Lau. All good stuff.
Links:
REVEAL RECORDS ONLINE SHOP
REVEAL RECORDS eBAY SHOP
REVEAL RECORDS LABEL

Over the weekend, whenever I can be arsed, I’ll add Selectadisc of Nottingham, Spillers Records of Cardiff, Norman Records in Leeds and Action Records of Preston.
Throw your delightful ideas in my web-based direction should you so desire.

Gutted.

Including the brief collection of posts from previous years, this is this blog’s 100th post. However, after the news I got today, I’m in no mood for a celebration.
I figured it would be more economically sound to purchase the new album by The Coral via my local indie store, Reveal Records, rather than from the online indie I use for bits and bobs, as I wanted the double vinyl edition, which can nuke your postage. A couple of weeks back, my local indie appeared to be a little thin on new releases and my suspicions were aroused. I was reassured that the titles I was after were just out of stock, although it was suggested that it was unlikely they’d be getting any more in. As I wandered off, I assumed that these records were simply more limited than I’d thought. However, today’s discovery puts that in a very different context.
Anyhoo, in I wander, looking at the new release racks just inside the door to see what was available. My heart sank. Nothing had changed in the two weeks since I’d last been in. To confirm my worst fears, any number of items had been reduced or rolled into an offer of one kind or another. It’s not significant cheapness, I hasten to add, but the first signs that things aren’t what they used to be. As it was, I left with four albums I had no intention of purchasing when I went in, but no sign of The Coral. After a lengthy chat with ‘nice man behind the counter’, I found out that my favourite record shop – and by this I mean in the whole of the UK – has about six months left on this planet of ours. The usual suspects were blamed – Amazon, downloads, supermarkets – and it was clear that the climate has changed. Where a few years back a major indie release like The Killers or Kaiser Chiefs would shift 100 copies in a couple of days, now it’s more like 25. No great surprise with supermarkets like Morrisons knocking out said Kaiser Chiefs album at £6.99 in its first week of release. It reminded me of a recent news story about independent bookshops sending their staff round to Asda on the day the Harry Potter book came out to buy it for a fiver, for them to sell it on at twice the price in order to even compete.
I’ve been frequenting this store for three years now, and have been anything other than wholly satisfied with each visit, often spending considerably more than I’d intended to do, as a result of their ‘now playing’ ledge or their competitive deals. Where the fuck will I get mint condition, decent priced Tom Waits limited editions from on rainy Thursday evenings in November now? They’re not intending to get new stock in from here until doomsday and so the shop will gradually reduce its stock over the coming months, presumably via discounting and deals.
Is it wrong to feel so down about this? Probably, I’m sure, but it isn’t going to stop me. Four years ago, the record shop that took up much of my teenage years, and money, shut up shop for good, and now the adult equivalent is on its way too. I love to flick through the racks, taking a punt on a staff recommendation, or being drawn in by a unique album cover. As expensive as it has often been, I like being drawn into buying a second album because the one I want is in a 2 for £18 promotion. On top of all of this, Reveal Records have the best staff of any record shop I’ve ever been in, but still they’ve closing down. They’re music-lovers, first and foremost. There’s none of the ‘High Fidelity‘ style snobbery, and they’ll give you honest opinions about the music you’re considering shelling out your hard earned cash on. I’ve lost count of the great records I’ve picked up in that shop, although one that springs to mind is Dan Arborise‘s ‘Around In Circles‘, which was my album of the year back over on the old VJ site. A euphoric yet understated acoustic masterpiece, I’d never have even known it was out there if it hadn’t happened to have been playing when I went in, almost a year ago to this day.
I’m sure this post is hugely self-indulgent and not especially coherent, but I’m fucked off because I’m going to lose a, perhaps embarrassingly, big part of my everyday life when this shop closes. Having seen this shop appear to buck the trend of failing indies in recent years, I now feel like I must simply accept what is there in front of me. We are seeing the end of record shops as we know them. The constant desertion of Berwick Street in London, once filled with quality record shops, the familiar sight of indie stores with the shutters down nationwide is now the norm. I get the feeling there aren’t many people who care about this, and that’s fair enough, but for me it’s a massive blow. I should probably finish with something sincere and concise, but I can’t think of anything right now, I’m too grumpy.