triple j mag story: ‘Will Your Indie Record Store Exist in Five Years’ Time?’, April 2012

My first extended feature for triple j mag: a 1,500 word story surveying eight independent record store operators from around the globe about the future of their businesses. It appeared in the April 2012 issue of the magazine.

Click the below image to read the story (link will open in a new window), or scroll down to read the article text underneath.


Will Your Indie Record Store Exist in Five Years Time?

It might only take a couple of mouse clicks to buy an album these days, but all around the world ye olde bricks-and-mortar purveyors are proving there’s nothing like a good rummage among the stacks

Words: Matt Shea

INDEPENDENT record stores should have disappeared by now. At least that was the word on the street half a decade ago. But while in recent times many indies have gone to the wall, others have survived, and some – judging by all that vinyl being flipped at your mate’s house party – might just be thriving.

In 2012, the worldwide options for getting music on the cheap – or for free – are almost endless. So with Record Store Day fast approaching, we set out on a virtual global tour and asked some top independent retailers to speak specifics on selling music in the digital age – in particular, we wanted to know if they thought their store will exist in five years’ time.

Red Eye Records, Sydney, Australia est. 1981 (Chris Pepperell, owner)

“We’ll definitely be here. Mid-2011 we moved to York St near Town Hall. We’ve got a slightly higher profile now and it seems to be working. Thefeedback’s great.

The growth in vinyl’s nice. I’d put it at 20 percent now, and it was maybe 15 percent only six months ago. I think it will be 50 percent of our sales in the forthcoming year or two.

The market for indie record stores has shrunk dramatically in the last 10 years, and if you weren’t right on the ball with everything you probably would be gone. But predictions there’d be no record stores haven’t come true; there’s a new wave of small to medium stores that are giving customers what they want.

And that’s the most important aspect about running an indie record store in 2012: listening to the customers and customer service. We can do that much more effectively than the monolithic-type operations. It’s pretty simple, really.”

Real Groovy Records, Auckland, New Zealand est. 1981 (Chris Hart, owner)

“The demise of many indie stores actually started before downloads, with major chain retailers doing loss leaders on that Top 40 market, which is the bread and butter of a regular record store, enabling it to carry a deep catalogue.

As an indie in 2012 you just have to have a different way of looking at things. If an accountant isn’t running your business I actually think you’ve got a better chance – you’ve just got to listen to your customers a bit more.

The demand for vinyl now is remarkable, particularly on new releases. What’s really interesting, though, is that our CD sales from the last six months are higher than for the same period last year; there’s just been a shaking out and how people consume music determines the format they use to receive it.

Real Groovy will exist in 2017, no two ways about it. We’ve come through a pretty torrid few years, but ended up with a much leaner machine that’s really responsive to change.”

Amoeba Music, Berkeley, San Francisco & Los Angeles CA, USA est. 1990 (Marc Weinstein, co-owner)

“Absolutely, Amoeba will be around then. The LA store is doing great; San Francisco is going well. I can’t speak with such certainty about our Berkeley store: it’s smaller and sits outside a university whose students no longer care about records.

But the industry turmoil seems to be levelling off. And you can’t make a generalisation about California for the last decade: some stores have gone, but then many have opened.

Opening in LA in 2001 was the best thing we could’ve done. It put us on a more prominent stage in a city filled with labels, industry people, music fanatics and a massive number of basements and garages crammed full of records and CDs – there’s a treasure-trove of material out there.

Vinyl sales have been increasing for 21 years, but these last two years have been tremendous. They’re up over 70 percent on the last year alone. And in November and December, we sold over 700 turntables: that’s a great market for us.

Indie stores in 2012 need to have a bit of everything and be open to anything anyone’s going to ask them. Customers find an artist they connect with, and that means so much to them. Respecting what that experience means is essential.”

Waterloo Records, Austin TX, USA est. 1982 (John Kunz, owner)

“Waterloo Records will exist in five years, for sure.

It’s been a challenging time in the US. We’re in a deep recession and since the millennium people have had a way to get their music for free. But sales have stabilised and vinyl’s surging – it’s about 20 percent now. Many labels have finally turned around to vinyl, as have the artists.

Of course, Austin’s got a strong creative and live music culture. And then there’s South by Southwest, which we’ve been involved with since year one: our in-stores were the genesis of the popular free day parties that SXSW runs all over town. This year there’ll be 28 bands performing for free in our parking lot.

Ultimately, indie record stores, as opposed to majors, are a place where you can celebrate your culture rather than your consumerism. Running something like Waterloo, you’ve just got to keep it simple: make it the kind of store where everyone who works there wants to shop.”

Cheap Thrills, Montreal QC, Canada est. 1971 (Guy Lavoie, manager)

“Rent’s the main concern, but we’ll probably be here. Cheap Thrills is in downtown Montreal and although we’re on a side street and in a second storey, it doesn’t stop rent from increasing.

As an indie store, you must be sure you can sell what you order or live with the mistake; indies are willing to carry more knowledgeable staff and then live on a lot less compared to the chain stores. But it’s time we ditched this vinyl delusion. Vinyl’s not the coming format, it’s the remaining format: when the forest disappears, you notice the undergrowth.

The dust hasn’t settled for indie stores. Anyone who thinks they’ve a handle on the situation is full of shit. The industry and music’s cultural place are changing unpredictably. As for Record Store Day: if you have to have a ‘day’ for something it’s usually because you feel it’s dead or near dead.”

Honest Jon’s Records, London, United Kingdom est. 1974 (Alan Scholefield, co-owner)

“Things are reasonably sound just now; I read somewhere that 2011 was the first time in 15 years that the UK had more record stores than the year before. Your question’s an interesting one, but yeah, I think Honest Jon’s will be around in half a decade.

For years things seemed in terminal decline, but we diversified from being just a shop to starting a label in 2002 [co-founded with Damon Albarn] and starting a boutique wholesale department in the basement. Suddenly we had a business again, and we’ve now got the balance about right.

Portobello Road, with the markets and so on, is a great place to be – we’re at the slightly less salubrious end, so we avoid higher rents. And we seem disconnected from the UK’s economic woes of recent times: strangely, it’s like we’re in our own little bubble.

The important thing when running an indie is getting good records from around the world that are often in short supply, and quickly. And what drives it all is the sense of intense following from a dedicated bunch of people, which is great. It’s heartening that there’s so much interest.”

Concerto, Amsterdam, Netherlands est. 1955 (Dick van Dijk, owner)

“Concerto has existed in the same inner city Amsterdam store for 57 years. There’s no doubt that will continue to be the case.

It’s the biggest music store in Holland, but we’ve actually diversified the products we sell. There’s a heap of vinyl – double this year and the year before also – and it’s becoming easier to source, but we also sell a lot of second hand product.

Yeah, the euro zone crisis has had an effect, but the digital challenge of the last 10 years was harder: 60 to 70 percent of the Netherlands’ serious record stores have disappeared.

It’s really important now to have good staff who know the right stuff to buy and sell. The other thing is how you get out to customers. Facebook, concerts, festivals, music papers: your name must be everywhere.

Music will always be the most important thing, but it’s good to have a cross-section of products: turntables, books, instruments. We’re going in a good direction, but we have to go further. In 2012, you have to constantly be hungry for your store.”

Mr Dead & Mrs Free, Berlin, Germany est. 1983 (Volker Quante, co-owner)

“We don’t know if the store will be around in five years, but after three decades of doing this it’s not always just a matter of business. We’re in Schöneberg – central, but on a side street. The landlord couldn’t get a trendy café in here and is very happy to have us. He’s actually lowered the rent on occasion.

Yeah, the city’s gentrifying, but it’s nowhere near as expensive as the rest of Europe. Of course, there are chain stores and downloading, but Berlin is very ‘rock’n’roll’, and has a lot of people buying vinyl. It’s 80 percent of our sales and rising; we wouldn’t survive without it. The European debt crisis has bitten, but then we’ve more tourists coming into the store now.

As an indie, you must embrace change. Rock music’s always been about walking the edge and we try to keep with that spirit. A lot of stores tell you what to buy, not what you don’t need. We’ve built a business on doing that, and that’s why people trust us.”


For more on the state of independent music retail in Australia, check out my Mess+Noise interview with Rocking Horse owner Warwick Vere here.


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