From the author of Last Shop Standing, The Vinyl Revival is a jaunt through the world of the UK’s best record shops with often hilarious anecdotes from the owners. Louder Than War’s Nigel Carr shared a coffee with the writer to find out more about the book.
“One day a man entered with an unusual request. He enquired if the shop had any drugs. Neil (the shop owner of Astonishing Sounds in Burnley) explained that this was a not that sort of shop. The gentleman did not take kindly to this and repeated that he wanted drugs and all good record shops would keep drugs in stock. At this point Neil realised the heavily accented man was asking for the Troggs…along with Neil’s own thick Lancashire accent, the request had been lost in translation”
Please can you explain to me a little about the format of the book?
The book is in two parts, the first part which is quite important to me is the story of how the record shops saved vinyl and vinyl saved the record shops, but now everybody else is eating in to the market. Three years ago, 50% of vinyl sold in the UK was through an independent and now it’s down to under a quarter. A vinyl chart was introduced but it’s now absolutely useless.
Last year 16 out of the top 20 were from heritage acts. Your Pink Floyds, Led Zeppelins, Beatles. Your number one was Ed Sheerin, with 4% of vinyl sold in an independent record shop. So basically what started as a great thing is now a waste of time, because it’s dominated by the 50 albums that Sainsbury got in or whatever.
The other part of the book is that no one had ever done a guide to UK record shops. I thought ‘I can do that’ because I’ve visited these shops. What I was very conscious of was for Christmas every year people give me B&B guides and places to eat guides, and what I do with them if I’m in Newcastle (say) I’ll look in the guide and go ‘oh that’s a good place to eat’. What I wanted to try and produce was a book where somebody would actually go ‘it’s a guide, but actually, I can read it from start to finish’.
It’s packed full of detail and funny stories; how long did it take you to write?
My first book took a year to write, the second book took a year to write and this one has taken five years! The reason is you have to send stuff back to the shop to say ‘are you OK with this.? This is what I’m going to publish’. Record shops are responsible for half my sales (so it’s very important). What you’re trying to write about is 220 independent record shops and you’ve got to have something interesting about each one.
How did you start out Graham?
I worked in a cheese and onion factory which sold the powder that goes in crisps I (then) worked in a record shop for a couple of years. It was the time the charts were being hyped. I had no respect for these reps coming in as they weren’t music fans. There was a company who did import and overstocks and there was a job going with them, so I applied and became a sales rep.
I (later) co-founded a company called Proper Music and we distribute artists like Nick Cave, Courtney Barnet, they would be our biggest, we (also) do Joan Baez, we put out about 50 releases a month.
Can you explain how that works?
For Nick Cave we do all the physical distribution, they do their own digital through their own management company. 90% of the artists we work with we do both, but Cave is such a powerful artist we were quite happy to make an exception! Our job is to get Nick’s product in everywhere, so we have someone who looks after Amazon, someone who looks after HMV. My job is, I look after the Indies.
Where did the writing come from?
What happened was I stopped playing football every weekend, and when the season started I was really bored, you know? I went into a bookshop and there was a book ‘100 things to do before you die’ and I thought ‘I’ll have a look at this’ and there was a couple of things in there I’d done, like ‘swimming with dolphins’ and one of them was ‘write a book’.
The week earlier I’d been speaking with my auntie who was about 87 then and she said ‘oh how’s things in your record shop world’ and I said ‘it’s absolutely terrible, customers having mental breakdowns, losing their homes, losing their businesses’. At that point, she said ‘so record shops are going the way of the stamp shops, coin shops and the candlestick makers?’. I wasn’t sure what she meant at first but she went on to explain that when she was a little girl she’d go to the high street and there’d be these shops. I thought ‘whatever happened to the candlestick maker no one ever talks about them’. I just thought I was in the perfect position to try and highlight what had gone on in the music industry and why, all these shops were closing. The idea was to bring them some publicity and I thought if I wrote a book about it and there are say 50 shops, each shop would take 10, I know I’ve got 500 sales!
The book took off quite unexpectedly?
Just as a stroke of luck, Sid Griffin from the Long Riders who we distribute for was in our offices. When the books arrived he said ‘Oh can I take one’ and they said ‘yeh’. I was typing away one night listening to the Marconie and Ratcliffe show and Mark said ‘tonight our guest is Sid Griffin and he’s talking about this fantastic new book about record shops’. The next day it was number 6 on Amazon’s presale and number 7 was Piers Morgan who’d had a ¾ million advance!
I just struck lucky with a subject that appears to be close to people’s hearts. I found out there were thousands of people like me who wanted record shops to survive. Instead of becoming an obituary, the first book became a celebration. These were people (The shop owners) who I’d sold to for years. When you took them down the pub they’d tell you all these incredible stories. The book ended up being funny stories as well as explaining the predicament the record shops faced.
What do you think was the main reason for record shops declining in numbers?
The main cause was and no one every picks up is the ‘low value consignment relief’. This killed the record shop and is the reason why 2000 record shops closed in the UK between 2002 and 2014. This was a tax loophole that allowed the Channel Islands to help flower growers and dairy farmers, where they didn’t have to pay VAT on anything under £18. Play.com started it, other online retailers saw what they were doing and everyone relocated. That’s why if you bought 3 CDs they would all come in separate packages. Every day tens of thousands of CDs were leaving the UK to go to the Channel Islands only to be come back in jiffy bags the next day.
The great saviour of record shops was George Osborne, when he scrapped the relief in his budget. No one mentioned it as he put a tax on food, ‘pastygate’, so it was completely overshadowed. The next day the prices shot up on Amazon and within three months everyone but Play.com had left the Channel Islands as there was no tax advantage. As soon as the loophole closed it’s no coincidence that record shop numbers started rising.
I guess then Record Store Day Helped?
Record Store Day was the factor in getting the shops going again.
But RSD is abused as many items end up on Ebay?
It’s got better, it’s really 1% of the stuff ends up on Ebay but that’s all anyone wants to talk about especially people who don’t take part in it. 99% of people are delirious and happy, with their purchase.
You’ve visited a lot of record shops!
I had a list of 2000 shops and some I would call on only once ever! I would do the whole country apart from London, so I can be confident that no person has visited more record shops than me. In the last 18 months, I have been to 42 new record shops!
I only visit record shops who sell new product. What’s interesting is the number of shops which were second hand but are now doing new stuff. There are around 303 independent record stores now selling new vinyl (…and roughly the same selling just second hand) with around 2000 in total, but it changes every week. The lowest point we go to in 2009 was 269.
What’s’ interesting about the 42 I recently visited is that 20 of them sell coffee! The whole model has changed. A record shop I went to the other week in Manningtree called Winyl is half, wine half vinyl! They sell vegan quality wine on one side and on the other, quality vinyl and decks to play the second hand records.
A record shop I visited in Scotland called Coda (Edinburgh), he built a listening room and he put instructions on the wall, it’s got a deck in there, headphones, big selection of classics, help yourself. ‘We’ve got the new version of it out there if you want it’ He said’. I went in one day and there was a girl nodding her head and he said ‘good to see, wonder what she’s listening to?’ and he noticed something and tapped her on the shoulder, and he said ‘enjoying that?’ and she said ‘yeh it’s great’ he said ‘you’re listening to the rubber mat! ‘
How do you feel about direct to consumer companies like Flying Vinyl?
There’s a whole chapter in the book ‘A warning from history’. What’s happened is so many people now have invested money in opening record shops because of the vinyl revival, and there are two types of people opening them. The guy who is 50 or whatever and has made a bit of money and there’s the young entrepreneur who didn’t go through the bad time of the industry. They have seen vinyl everywhere and they open with a café or just a shop.
Half of these new shops are young people opening their own business. My fear in the music industry is shafting these people and that this will be the last year of growth. What is happening is that the record companies themselves are now targeting people. What’s happening is people go in to a record shop and say ‘have you got this?’. The record shop will say ‘sorry you can only get that direct from Universal’s own site’. They then leave the shop, probably disillusioned. They go online and get the collectable item they are after, then the record company bombards them with offers to keep them and the shops are losing customers, and they are haemorrhaging customers at the moment.
Bands are also selling direct special editions and signed copies direct to consumer:
Bands are also being slightly short sighted. it’s great for smaller bands to sell direct. Bands should sell 500 directly themselves and 500 for independent record shops. That keeps everyone happy. There is a good example in the book. I bumped in to Pete Wiley (The Mighty Wah!/Wah!) and he said to me ‘Graham, I’ve got this fantastic album, best thing I’ve ever done, I’d love your company to distribute it, would you be interested?’. I said ‘Pete, always been a fan we would love to’. Then when we looked in to it, he’d sold 1600 copies though Pledge and it was like ‘well it’s not worth us getting involved!’. It would have been much better if he had got a loan because we would have got that album to HMV for him, we would have got it on Amazon.
What are your favourite records?
I have always liked Liverpool bands going from The Beatles to The Coral. In the 80s it was The Teardrop Explodes and Big In Japan. For me these bands were accessible. In Liverpool, I could go down as a 21-year-old and see them whereas as previously they’d have been inaccessible.
Any final words?
The industry really needs to think about what it’s doing. They need to take stock. This is short term thinking by undercutting record shops. You go in to any record shop and ask ‘what’s your problem?’, they will say ‘it’s direct to consumer’. The record shop has a shop window and is going to the record companies ‘here’s my shop, fill it with your product, help yourself!’. I completely understand why bands do it, record clubs do it, but It’s like cannibalism when record companies themselves are actually shafting their own market that’s what’s wrong.
I’m not getting at pledge, or bands that do stuff themselves, they eat away at it but that’s their right. Record shops don’t have a right to have records just for themselves, it’s competition. What I object to is record companies selling products that you can’t get in the shops, through their own websites and then targeting those customers for repeat business, to keep that customer from going in to a record shop – there is something wrong about that.