Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #5

Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #5

How record shops are adapting to lockdown...

It has only been a few short weeks since the nation’s beloved independent record shops closed their doors to the public and entered a period of uncertainty which currently has no end date.

In the days prior to that temporary pause, an understandably anxious public had increasingly stayed away in anticipation of more emphatic advice about everyday life. Many small businesses kept the doors open until the government pulled the plug, feeling torn about persisting whilst bracing for the financial impact ahead.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that a decent percentage of your recreational time involves flicking through new releases, browsing freshly racked second hand delights or – if time permits – exploring the full catalogue section of your nearest record shop. The almost meditative motion of working front to back, pulling out the odd title here and there to admire a sleeve, read a review sticker or just smile fondly at an old favourite in the wild, is something we have until now taken for granted.

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Some of us may not have gone as often as we would have liked and some may have seen other record shops on the side, even dabbled with the unspeakable next-day delivery brigade. But now, at a point where many have the time to take stock, comes a moment in our enjoyment of these wonderful shops when action is required to ensure those thrills remain whenever life returns to normal.

The eagle-eyed will likely already have witnessed and possibly participated in some hasty online sales for which some have opted to incentivise spending, while others have yet to feel the itch in their browsing digits but will do very soon. The recently launched #loverecordstores initiative on social media is designed to shine a much-needed spotlight on these musical totems when our physical presence simply isn’t possible.

As we adjust to this new normal, Clash is going to put the spotlight on a number of these wonderful institutions as well as hearing from some of their most enthusiastic customers. The folk of Frome in Somerset and Warminster in Wiltshire are both lucky enough to have the opportunity to purchase their records in Raves From The Grave. Reliant as they are upon regular footfall, Frome store manager Tom Coates reflects upon how the impact of the virus hit:

“The first couple of weeks of March had been fairly decent, good footfall, reasonable takings, people didn't seem to concerned about coronavirus at all - it was in China and a little in mainland Europe. As soon as the government advised that people didn't go to pubs, live music, clubs and restaurants it went downhill pretty quickly, although we did notice a number of people stocking up on extra music and films in case of a lockdown. We traded a further six days after the advisory closure of the pubs. Very unusual and challenging circumstances.”

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With the doors shut, these havens of musical discovery had some obvious concerns. At the top of a beautiful but now stilled Devon high street in Totnes, Drift’s Rupert Morrison is taking it all in:

“I think what surprised me most was the fragility of the network. I've always maintained that we're all (shops, labels, distributors, websites, press, venues, agents, radio, PR) very much cogs in a bigger machine, but the speed at which things have started grinding to a halt and the severity of the long term effects it could have are quite stunning. As indie shops, we are the most precarious, perhaps, as we are the end of the indie music food chain, in some regards.”

“I think wallowing too much is only going to send a person mad; it is also pure conjecture for the best part, so I'm not so interested in the hypothetical granular detail of which courier will not deliver record shop boxes from now on, or whether customs are going to block export mail, or whether this current lockdown will last until May or until September!? For now, the only thing that we - as Drift - are in control of, is doing the best possible job we can within the safe and broader parameters.”

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Adapting to these circumstances is going to be key for the survival of these businesses that are at the heart of most music lovers’ listening experiences. Those with bulging vinyl racks will likely have called in to one of Soho’s most energising shops, Sounds Of The Universe at some point. Life in England’s capital is very different now. “Being in central London, the flux of tourists and regulars has ceased since the measures to curb the spread of the virus have been put into place,” says Jon Burnip. “This, obviously, has had a huge effect on us, so we've really got to think about what and how we can sell now that we are (hopefully!) a temporarily online store. I'm sure this is exactly the same situation for the rest of the stores on Berwick Street and elsewhere in Soho.”

Drift and Sounds Of The Universe have long-established web presences which are now being foregrounded, but Raves From The Grave are adapting. “We are known for our massive range, tens of thousands of titles across CDs, new and used vinyl and DVDs, however we're somewhat old school and take 90%+ of our money over the counter - the old fashioned way!” says Coates. “About three weeks ago, with the realisation of the coronavirus potentially shutting our shop, we started loading content on to our website, in the hope that we might take a bit of money, to be able to pay staff and bills.”

“So far we're up to about 650 titles (and we're still adding) and we’ve had some success. We've also had a lot of regulars who usually come in the shop and buy over the counter order via phone and email; it's been encouraging, but in reality takings are well down.”

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Things are tough for many stores already. Steve Courtnell, owner of Southsea’s wonderfully attired Pie & Vinyl record shop and café, has used a discount code to drum up extra online business from subscribers to his mailing list and is having to fly solo in his attempts to keep serving up the tunes. “I have a responsibility to protect the staff wages, and I can’t guarantee them a full wage, so they are all furloughed apart from me. I’m trying my best, but feel like I can’t keep up with our usual high standards, and therefore will soon go furlough and hope for the best. I guess a lot of it is trusting that there will be help, but never taking anything for granted.”

Record collectors experienced plenty of closures over a decade ago when the market for physical media contracted and will be keen to avoid further empty buildings as a result of this situation. In part two of this feature, Clash will outline some ways to do this and offer up some choice recommendations from the shops themselves.

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Words: Gareth James

Photo via.

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