Vinyl’s resurrection: Why record shops are returning to East Anglia
- Credit: Archant
A decade ago record shops were on their last legs but now they're reappearing on the high street. Nick Richards spoke to author Graham Jones about how we fell in love with vinyl again.
On the first Saturday of the school summer holidays in July 1983 I purchased my first record, paying £1.10 for a copy of The Police's Wrapped Around Your Finger.
As I sat in a café afterwards eating a flapjack and drinking a glass milk mulling over the fact I'd chosen it instead of Depeche Mode's Everything Counts, I had unwittingly made my first purchase from an independent record shop. I was off and running at the age of eight.
It came from Andy's Records in Norwich and at the start of this month I bought my latest record - by current indie darlings Idles on pink vinyl - from independent record shop Soundclash in Norwich, about 500 metres from where Andy's used to be.
Andy's Records, like many other independent record stores in East Anglia, is no more. It's now a health food store where I'd have more chance of getting wrapped around some quinoa than buying a record.
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Next door a clothes shop occupies the spot where my favourite record store from my teens, Lizard Records, used to stand. They're both gone now, victims of the time at the start of this century when we ditched music shops in favour of downloading tracks and picking up cheap CDs in supermarkets.
But things are changing once again. The fact I was still able to buy a record from an independent record shop in 2018 was actually pretty remarkable given the seismic change in our relationship with buying music and in particular vinyl records this century.
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As a nation, we are starting to accept record shops back into our lives again.
This revival of UK shops is the subject of book published this week by Graham Jones called The Vinyl Revival and the Shops That Made It Happen.
Much has been written in recent years about how we've come to love vinyl again, rejecting the idea of downloading songs and wanting to physically own music, especially records again. As well as celebrating the fact records are nice to have, this book deals with the business side of how the record industry and record shops returned.
A couple of years after I'd picked up that single by Sting and co, Graham started working in the music industry, supplying records, tapes and CDs to shops across the UK.
Now 58, Scouser Graham said: 'This is my 32nd year of doing this and I think I've probably visited more record shops in the UK than anyone else.'
Graham got into the industry after working for a crisp company and losing his job. He threw himself into the Liverpool music scene managing a couple of bands and running record stalls on a market before becoming a music rep in the mid-1980s.
'When I started there were more than 2,000 record shops in the whole of the UK and I visited most of those as I was the only rep for my company whereas some of the larger companies probably employed seven or eight people to cover the same number of stores. By 2008 we were down to just 269 independent record stores in the UK.'
Thinking about my own record-buying history I was trying to pinpoint the year when the industry felt like it was on its knees. I guessed 2010 but Graham says it was actually a couple of years earlier.
'It was 10 years ago. 2008. That was the absolute bottom of the record store industry. Shops had been steadily closing and interest in record shops and vinyl had been dwindling. Then Record Store Day came along and pretty much saved everything.'
Record Store Day started in the US in 2008 and was conceived as a single day where limited edition records from a vast array of bands would be released in independent stores across the nation. It came to the UK the same year and gave a much-needed shot in the arm to record shops and the record industry.
'It really did get the industry going again. Not only in terms of record sales but as a catalyst for driving things forward. Until then the only time record shops were in the media was when they were closing down but suddenly there were pictures of them with queues of 400-500 people outside and of course the media soon picked up on this.'
While East Anglia has some excellent second hand shops, particularly in The Lanes area of Norwich and my own favourite, Beatniks in Magdalen Street, Graham has plotted the resurgence of independent record shops, those that sell new releases on vinyl. These are the stores eligible to take part in Record Store Day every April and the sort of stores that are returning to our high streets.
'I've visited 41 new record stores in the last year and I am thrilled to say they are all still going,' Graham said. 'Compared to the restaurant industry where around 25% of restaurants close in the first year of business it's certainly a really healthy industry to be in.'
It was all a far cry from the first years of the 21st century when you'd struggle to find an independent store in East Anglia. Lizard followed Backs in disappearing from Norwich a decade earlier, Ipswich lost Rex Records in 2005, two years after Andy's Records, which had branches in Ipswich, Colchester, Bury and Norwich among others entered administration. Bury lost Fopp in 2007, although the more successful Cambridge branch (owned by HMV) remains open. Norwich also lost classical specialist Prelude Records early last year after more than 30 years in the city.
As Our Price and Virgin also disappeared from the High Street we were left with lumbering industry giant HMV which was seriously treading water for vinyl buyers only a handful of years ago.
I remember walking though HMV in Norwich five years ago and being horrified at the shop contents – sweets, iPod docks, Bluetooth speakers, posters, magnets, mugs, toys and just three small boxes containing records stashed under a table.
Graham laughs. 'That would have been just before they were sold and purchased by Hilco (it was 2013 when their 141 stores were saved in a £50m deal). 'They were in a bad way with no direction but to be fair to the new owners they tidied up the shop pretty quickly and got rid of all that stuff and put loads more vinyl records back in. HMV had said it didn't want to sell records because of the space they take up compared to CDs, but they're back on the right track now.'
HMV does now have a large stock of vinyl once again and I could have purchased that Idles record in there for exactly the same price, but independent record stores offer far greater customer engagement. For my £18 I got involved in a chat with the store owner and another customer about the band. We talked about gigs, they recommended another record and I proudly emerged from the shop with my purchase. It felt good to continue to support the industry which Graham has done so much to document.
'I'd written a book called Last Shop Standing in 2009 (which was later made into a film) more as a document of a dying industry,' Graham said.
'When I was a child there were stamp shops and coin shops, they've mostly disappeared and I could see record shops doing the same. Ten years ago I thought that they'd all be gone in 30 years but now it looks a bit healthier.
'Still, I wanted to document the decline and celebrate them for what they were. I wrote in that book towards the end a chapter called 'Hope' and I said that if the music industry could embrace record shops again, there was a chance they could stay, but I never imagined it would have turned out how it has.' With renewed confidence, Graham has issued a clarion call for potential entrepreneurs to add further stores to East Anglia's record shop map.
'There are some great record shops in East Anglia – Soundclash is excellent, Holt Vinyl Vault too and Vinyl Hunter in Bury St Edmunds as well as Compact Music in Sudbury and Wells in Southwold, but I'd say the area is generally patchy and in need of more. I'm surprised more in the area haven't opened up.
'Great Yarmouth, Diss, Thetford, King's Lynn and Lowestoft have all had record shops in the past and with the vinyl revival in full swing, they have the potential to sustain a new record shop.
'I was convinced that the sort of people that went into record shops were revivalists who had records, sold them to buy CDs and now wanted to go back and buy them again, but although there are people like that, it really is far more widespread. The current boom has been helped by indie bands bringing out limited edition vinyl releases and that has caught the interest of younger buyers.
'I'd say 40-60 year-olds are the driving force behind the vinyl revival but take a look at the queue outside a record store on Record Store Day and you'll see all ages, it's across the board. Now every release comes out on vinyl again so it really has gone full circle.'
The Vinyl Revival and the Shops That Made It Happen by Graham Jones is out now on Proper Music Publishing
COULD YOU OPEN A RECORD SHOP?
Imagine a world where you spend all day playing records, cleaning records, filing records, talking records and selling records. Sounds like a dream for many people – but is running a record shop a really a viable career choice in 2018?
Graham said: 'I've had many conversations with people who want to open record shops and my main words of wisdom would be not just to rely on record sales.
'I mean, do something else with the shop, such as create a vinyl café, where sales of coffee will probably be more than records, turn your store into a musical meeting place, hold events, host bands. Don't just say 'I'm going to sell records and that's it'.'
This is how Will Hunter opened Bury's Vinyl Hunter in 2014 as part record shop/part café while Holt Vinyl Vault, opened by Andrew Worsdale, was originally a Post Office that started selling records four years ago. Now it just deals in music.
'Vinyl cafes have become very popular and record shops can hold their own – like I said, 41 new ones in 18 months and all still trading tells its own story.
'I like to try and visit them before they open to give them what advice I can and point them in the right direction. I do feel a huge responsibility, especially when people say they've read Last Shop Standing or seen the film and I've inspired them to run their own shop.
'I'd hate for people to sink their life savings into a shop and it not to work so there is a huge guilt factor on my part, I want to be there to help them make it work.'
Five years ago I remember spotting a small selection of records in John Lewis. Since then they've popped up in everywhere from Morrisons to Tesco Express. Even Aldi have sold records with Sainsbury's currently the biggest purveyor of supermarket vinyl.
Only this week it was announced that Kylie Minogue's latest album is already in the top 30 based solely on sales of it on white vinyl exclusively to Sainsbury's.
So, is it OK that supermarkets are selling vinyl records again?
'The problem with purchasing your vinyl in a supermarket is that it's a bland shopping experience,' Graham said. 'Supermarkets worry me. Three years ago half the vinyl sales in the UK were made in independent record shops. Now that number is down to 25%. Supermarkets have seen the popularity of vinyl and are stocking and selling it again.
'Of last year's Top 20 selling LPs, 16 were 'heritage acts' – the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and The Beatles being sold by supermarkets. The biggest selling album of the year was by Ed Sheeran – but only 4% of copies were sold in an independent record shop – 96% were sold by supermarkets.
'Supermarkets have embraced vinyl and given record companies more confidence in the viability of selling the product but I don't think they're in it for the long term.
'They've greatly reduced the number of CDs they're selling now and while vinyl is popular they'll sell it – after all they are kings of stocking what they know will sell, but I wouldn't be surprised to see them stop selling it again soon, they'll abandon it once again.
'I did hear some funny stories when they started selling records, people stacking the shelves were referring to them as 'black whirly things' or 'giant CDs'. One store even punched security tags through the record sleeves, instantly devaluing them.'