‘Record shop owners are a bit like BBC Radio 6 Music DJs’ – Chris Heard owner of Carnival Records Malvern. (pictured with store manager, Russ Brown)
The ‘ageing record shop owner starter pack’ takedown is withering of its target – and savage in its accuracy.
An office overrun with piles of dirty old records – check.
A large cardboard box stuffed with random bits of cable – check.
‘Cash only’ sign – Yep.
‘Divorced’ box ticked – Afraid so…
And there’s more mockery where that came from on this meme without mercy:
A greasy takeaway bag; a stained polystyrene coffee cup…
Converse trainers – a questionable footwear choice for any middle-aged dad, let’s face it, but a curiously commonplace staple of the more mature vinyl vendor’s wardrobe (guilty m’lud).
“Sticky Fingers WITH ZIPPER!” (a reference to the Andy Warhol-designed crotch shot-adorned 1971 Rolling Stones rock opus)… we’ve got at least three in stock.
And finally – alongside a prehistoric-looking non-smart mobile phone – a sign denoting the obligatory ‘playing [of] blues CDs’ by the old bloke behind the counter – for blues, read punk in this bucolic corner of the West Midlands…
I’m 56 and I own an independent record shop.
It’s lovingly curated; unfussily run day-to-day by my good friend Russell (strong suits: Kraftwerk/hip hop/the life and works of Serge Gainsbourg); and moderately successful in the scheme of these things.
Post-lockdown, business is brisk and the so-called vinyl revival is going full throttle. A few years ago Guardian readers even listed our humble emporium as being among the top 10 outlets of its kind in the world. (I know! We couldn’t believe it either…)
Among the great and good to have graced our shop are Broadcast, The Cinematic Orchestra, The Nightingales and Stewart Lee (albeit on separate occasions), as well as Ade Edmonson (he bought a well-played copy of See Emily Play on 45) and Spinal Tap’s Derek ‘lukewarm water’ Smalls, aka Harry Shearer.
Over the years we’ve served musicians across the spectrum, from legendary folkies such as Martin Carthy and the late Dave Swarbrick, to breaks-digging electronic pioneers: Grooverider, Mr Scruff and Squarepusher among them. Leicester indie-rock royalty Kasabian and Gateshead’s Unthank sisters have popped in for a browse or a quick cuppa, while UK reggae elder statesman Don Letts had a brief and cursory flick through our racks (we’re forever being told we don’t stock enough Jamaican stuff). Dion Dublin’s soul-loving brother, Eddie, was an early customer.
Actor Caroline Catz, star of the prize-winning Delia Derbyshire experimental documentary and former singer with the indie dreampop band Monoland, proved to be a shrewd and knowledgeable collector, as did the urbane James Lance (the young bloke on reception at Alan Partridge’s Linton Travel Tavern who fancies Sally Phillips). Julian Lloyd Webber once got as far as our front door, appeared to roll and light a cigarette, then turned around and walked away.
As a record lover I’ve hawked my vinyl at music festivals, record fairs, car boot sales, hi-fi demonstration shows and across damp-countered market stalls from Leicester, Stoke and Kettering to Camden and the Portobello Road. I’ve been warmly greeted at luvvie-saturated media junkets, promoting my own Abbey Road-remastered, Stuart Maconie-endorsed high-end pressings of Brit-folk classics by Nic Jones, Dick Gaughan and others. (Chris Evans was gracious, while Andy Kershaw preferred to munch on his canape).
But to pose the question first put by the messianic preacher from Talking Heads’ post-punk Afrobeat dancefloor stomper Once In A Lifetime (Byrne/Eno/Frantz/Harrison/Weymouth, 1980) – ‘Well, how did I get here?’
The short answer is that record shop owners are a bit like BBC Radio 6 Music DJs – they tend to be male, white, getting on a bit and often in thrall to a form of guitar-based rock that, even 40 years ago, felt a bit on the creaky side. OK, it’s a generalisation – the slicker joints will have their own Gemma Cairney or Jamz Supernova among the ranks – but by and large your provincial neighbourhood record dealer is more likely to resemble Ronnie Wood than Roni Size; more Arlo Guthrie than Arlo Parks.
The classic rock epoch may have come and gone but, as it is with antiquity, the shiny artefacts it has left behind continue to dazzle and delight new generations.
Ziggy Stardust. London Calling. Abbey Road.
Screamadelica. Marquee Moon. What’s Going On.
Trout Mask Replica. Pet Sounds. The Velvet Underground & Nico.
These tangible confections – touchstones of a culture that has long since passed – are among the titles being newly discovered on vinyl by 15 to 25-year-olds, for whom the notion of decades of separate genres, specific musical styles and warring tribal followers holds little meaning or relevance.
In the post-Spotify landscape, artists and records from the early 1960s to the late 1990s have effectively become alchemised into a whole in the common imagination to create a single comprehensive, boundaryless playlist. So it is that ELO, The Fall and Nina Simone are consumed as part of a broad continuum in which Revolver, OK Computer and Dusty In Memphis are vying for the same context-free space as Forever Changes, Kind Of Blue and the first Stone Roses album.
In this way, hundreds of years later, rock has mirrored the era of classical music: aside of the more studious academics, most casual listeners make little distinction between baroque 18th Century Mozart and the modern works of, say, Elgar 150 years later.
They just like how the records sound.
This isn’t to say that the more adventurous music lover hasn’t always dug deep, seeking out a variety of material which allows them to experience the incomparable human sensation of having their emotions reflected back at them in song. The timeline may be vague, but these historical rock ubermensch walk tall, retaining a magnetic hold on the teenage/20-something consumers who are fuelling the renewed demand for physical long-playing records.
So who’s still selling?
Well, to some extent it’s the T.shirt icons, the Boomer sex symbols: Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Jim Morrison, Debbie Harry… pop Che Guevaras and counter-cultural revolutionaries whose frozen portraits of eternal cool have in some cases outlasted elements of their recorded catalogue. Their timeless look bears up well on the 12” printed gatefold cover – which in itself can be an unexpected tactile, sensory pleasure for a generation unaccustomed to physical media of such relative scale and beauty.
Elsewhere, in a perhaps less shallow light, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin are holding their own among those plumbing deep into rock’s rich late ‘60s/early ‘70s heritage.
Bowie is strong. (Bolan not so much). Queen.
Dylan and Lennon have fared less well among Generation Z. Perhaps their earnestness and idealism doesn’t play too well among the Instagram-obsessed, although you feel Greta Thunberg might be on board with Imagine or Blowin’ In The Wind.
Albums-wise, you can pretty much forget about the Beatles pre-Rubber Soul – even though their dizzying output during the second half of the 60s is as strongly coveted as ever. By contrast the Fabs’ second LP With The Beatles, from 1963, turns up more often than our postman. The same can be said for much of the Stones’ output pre-Beggars Banquet (1968) and post-Some Girls (1978).
Elvis Presley has become a bit like Lech Walesa – you sometimes find yourself explaining to anyone under 30 who he was and why he was so damn famous. As for Cliff Richard – don’t even ask.
Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd are cast-iron bankers – “bluechip” acts normally regarded as a slam-dunker for anyone like me risking shelling out a few quid on a tatty-looking ‘70s album or a pristine reissue. Over 30 years we’ve bought and sold enough copies of The Dark Side Of The Moon to plaster Earls Court with.
Of all these precious stones, the shiniest of them is surely Rumours, by Fleetwood Mac, released in February 1977 during a rare moment in which Labour found themselves plumping up the cushions at 10 Downing Street, while an early 50-something Margaret Thatcher was merely leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition. In nearly 45 years, Rumours has sold more than 40 million copies and is certified 20 x platinum in the US. It is in the Grammy Hall of Fame and is considered ‘culturally, historically or artistically significant’ by the Library Of Congress. In 2020 it was the biggest-selling reissue vinyl record, shifting 32,500 units according to the Official Charts Company. While admittedly very small beer indeed compared with the billions of daily online streams, the figure is significant in the indie record shop ecosystem. And it seems unlikely to dip this year.
Rumours has achieved something close to near-mythic status in my circles, partly because of its longevity, but mainly because of its continued ability to completely sell out all the time, every day, day in day out, until more come into stock, ready to sell out again at once. A dealer we know in the South West displays in his window a Rumours ‘in/out’ board, complete with sliding wooden panel, offering approaching customers a heads-up as to whether it is on sale on any given day.
Until about five years ago the record used to routinely go into our pound bins, but now an original UK copy in fine condition complete with its associated ephemera fetches at least £15 to £20.
The rock kids also love their Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC and Iron Maiden. (Maiden are huge in India, while bizarrely the Welsh power-rock trio Budgie have reportedly developed a devoted following in Poland). After more than 40 years, the stark metallic shrill of Joy Division is still the go-to soundtrack for pale-looking 14-year-olds on the brink of discovering there is a more complex and fragile side to life than TikTok might have you believe. Likewise, The Cure, The Smiths and Nirvana have been taken to heart by the Stranger Things demographic. My daughter, who will be 16 in December, carries a school bag bearing images of Joan Jett and The Cramps next to her heartfelt climate-change/anti-patriachy slogans.
Even the 1990s is now officially a long time ago, and has duly had ‘heritage’ status bestowed on it by record companies (Can you believe, for instance, that Portishead’s Dummy, the go-to dinner party CD during the Blairite Britannia years, is 27 – nine years older than Emma Raducanu!). It means that the 40-something ex-ravers settling down in the suburbs with their kids can begin to enjoy that nostalgic glow as they are served up a 25th anniversary edition of Goldie’s Timeless (RRP £36.99), or a plethora of deluxe repackaged Britpop and grunge. (Ask yourself, do you really need that limited signed 7” coloured vinyl Menswear boxset?)
Record companies, not least the big three – Universal, Warners and Sony -are as always making the most of the moment as if it were their last, with 30th and 25th– hell, even tenth – anniversary issues competing for space on shelves already groaning with (sometimes overwrought) tributes: Fifty years of The White Album/After the Gold Rush/Paranoid; Forty years of The Ace Of Spades/Unknown Pleasures; (now thirty of Lou Reed’s New York, twenty of the Super Furries’ Rings Around The World,and so on). If you’re no longer content with your first pressing of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, swap it for an expanded ‘Super Deluxe’ eight-LP box, containing more versions of Wah-Wah and the Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp than you might realistically need to own. Better still, go for the ‘artisan-designed’ wooden crate that constitutes the ‘Uber Deluxe Box Set’, complete with miniature figurines of George and the cover’s famous four gnomes – and a bookmark carved from an oak felled at his Henley-on-Thames estate. Go on, it’s only £1,440 plus £300 US postage on eBay!
Without wishing to Beatle-bash, some new releases like Paul McCartney’s McCartney III, issued in December 2020, are subject to such elaborate marketing that they are bound very quickly to sell out and soon become overpriced items online. McCartney III was issued on at least 11 different coloured vinyl pressings, including a yellow-with-black-dots beauty on Jack White’s Third Man Records limited to 333 copies; A Coke bottle clear vinyl for #SpotifyFansFirst (3,000 pressed); and 1,500 pink-coloured LPs exclusive to Newbury Comics. For our part, we found ourselves pretty much bottom of the food chain (not for the first time, it must be said!), obtaining only a couple of copies of the less-rare white vinyl afforded to some indie shops (nonetheless, it’s still relatively scarce and sought-after!).
As with all areas of life and commerce, within the independent record shop sector an unofficial hierarchy exists, even among the 230-odd stores that make up the Entertainment Retailers Association’s (ERA) Record Store Day portfolio. Some established outlets are part of closed shop ‘collectives’, giving them access to exclusive product and merchandise; while the likes of Rough Trade and some of the bigger regional players (Drift in Totnes, Piccadilly in Manchester, Brighton’s Resident) have effectively become mini-corporate entities, a level above the rest.
Not that I’m complaining. It’s never been a level playing-field, whether it be HMV’s huge buying power and ready ability to obtain consignment stock at whim; or the undefeatable might of Amazon and the supremacy of its low-margin/loss-leading model.
No, we do what we do knowing the odds are in so many ways stacked against us, and because we love it. It’s vocational, a lifestyle business. We’re living the dream (as much as you can on the Worcestershire-Herefordshire border in 2021). We’re very lucky.
We have to be realistic, though. At our level we are rarely able to negotiate the most competitive terms, so the success of the business day-to-day can be largely determined by the taking of calculated risks. Like a cautious low-level gambler, you can fret for days on end deciding on the number of units to buy, weighing up the pros and cons and knowing that anything too hastily ordered might be left on the shelf to discolour and fade, with little hope of a reasonable return. Take the lavish 2020 reworking of Prince’s signature work Sign o’ The Times (1987). You would have bet your raspberry beret on it doing a quick turnaround, but it unexpectedly underperformed, leading to market saturation and cheap wholesale availability. You just can’t call it sometimes. The surprise hit of Record Store Day in July was a disco album of ‘70s Bee Gees covers fondly sent up by hairy rock saviours Foo Fighters; while at the same time a rare Clash interview promo LP sank as if Malvern were drowning and we lived by the river (that’s the Severn, by the way).
With the all-important ‘Q4’ coming to an end, hopes are high for a stronger finish to what has been an unsettled indie retail year, given an Ikea-sized boost by the prospect of Abba’s first new music in 40 years and the long-awaited Peter Jackson film of the Beatles’ Let It Be sessions. For better or worse over recent months we have been subjected to a sustained period of lockdown albums, with everyone from Nick Cave, Sleaford Mods and Mogwai to Taylor Swift, Charlie XCX and Elton John seeking to share their indoors insights with us. Expect this flow of pent-up angst to continue into 2022.
For people trading records the world over, the dominance of the online record database Discogs has been a game-changer, much like the emergence of e-Bay 20 years before it. They are by far the biggest marketplaces, but issues such as increased EU postage costs following Brexit have swung the VU meter back in our favour to some extent. Some price-sensitive customers are returning to physical retail in order to pick up their items free of delivery charges. At the same time, because of the stress that can arise from disputes over the condition of records being sold online, we have morphed into a kind of webuyanyrecord.com, factoring in the time and effort involved in grading/cleaning on behalf of the seller in return for a fair market price. It’s win-win.
Record collecting as a serious pursuit began properly in the early 1970s, with the buying of early US rock ‘n’ roll sides (notably Sun Records); rare US soul/R‘n’B (anticipating the Northern Soul explosion); and 1950s/’60s demo recordings by the Beatles and others. It helps to explain why our beloved if somewhat fossilised record fairs and indie shops are still bestrode by legions of grey-haired dinosaurs. I speak as a slowly fading bald-headed man who finds himself disquietingly closer to his 70th birthday than his 40th (gulp).
It’s a regrettable fact that at least 90 per cent of record shop punters are male (many in their 40s to 60s). That’s not something we relish, and we are thrilled to see a younger, more diverse crowd coming through the door. Gratifyingly, about 70 per cent of our younger customers tend to be girls, often coming in with their mums, and student-age women, possibly because as a leisure activity their male counterparts are more likely to be engaged in online gaming. Alongside their revelatory discoveries of acts such as The Police, Kate Bush, The Carpenters, even Bread – “it was your mum’s but you can keep it” – they are also, naturally, digging the new breed: The 1975, Mac DeMarco, Gorillaz, Billie Eilish, Lana Del Rey and Halsey.
Running a record shop can be a notoriously tricky pursuit, in part because of the vagaries of new releases, margins, the fickleness of audiences and the volatile unpredictability of the physical market (anyone remember CDs?). Apart from books, there isn’t much to compare it to. You don’t do it in the first instance for the money. Otherwise you would sell something more reliable and profitable, like property or baked morning goods.
The ability to thrive in this delicate environment requires a lengthy schooling built on many years of gaining knowledge and experience, and enduring frustration, late nights and early mornings, mistake-making and – on occasion – bitter failure.
It is, frankly, all-consuming.
In my case, I’ve led a covert double life for many years. I started in print journalism at 16 and have had a news career stretching nearly 40 years – half of it spent among the best of the best working on the BBC News website. As a 14-year-old John Peel bedroom devotee in love with The Undertones and Buzzcocks, my mentor was a man called Gordon Hayes, who ran a shop embracing this thrilling new wave from the compact and bijou front room of his Victorian house in Hinckley, Leicestershire. A former hippy, Gordon seemed so cool and alternative, offering the younger smalltown, working class, NME-educated me a role model, and the inspiration for a potential route out of what I perceived to be the dull conformity of Thatcher’s Britain. God, he seemed so old. He must have been at least 30!
I’ve now become that eccentric old man myself. I’m thrilled to report that Gordon and his shop, the mighty Nervous Records, are still going strong. But in an age in which, like the NHS, music is free at the point of delivery, what exactly is the purpose of shops like ours? We have no God-given right to exist, and we do so only by dint of the bond we share with our customers for a medium, a culture and a community in which like-minded souls might find a moment or two of temporary peace and shelter from the storm.
If that all sounds a bit The Waltons, please remember that a record shop provides a number of vital societal functions. It is the soothing refuge of the sensitive introvert; the reluctant loner; the marginalised, the disenfranchised and the dispossessed (what Jarvis Cocker called ‘The Misshapes’). It is the literary salon of the insecure braggart; a sort of pre-care home atrium for the hallucinogen-acquainted veteran of the Isle Of Wight ‘70 festival; a drop-in centre for folk who just want to talk at you about stuff. It is a non-judgemental safe house for the dazed and bruised-in-love. And it is a hookah lounge and Bedouin tearoom for some of the kindest, most giving and thinking beings you will ever encounter.
Oh. And hopefully somewhere you can find some decent vinyl, too.
Here’s what the folks from Carnival Records have been enjoying from Proper:
Arthur Verocai – Arthur Verocai (Mr Bongo reissue)
This hasn’t been off our turntable in months. Rio-born Verocai, who had arranged for Brazilian bossa legends such as Jorge Ben, was in his later 20s when he composed his extraordinary accomplished debut in 1972, blending gentle washes of samba and Tropicalia-era psych with the strident jazz of Miles Davis and Bill Evans and the pomp-rock sound of early Chicago. Equal parts obscure, cult and classic, it has the free-spirit chutzpah of a young Shuggie Otis and has become revered by the latter-day leading lights of hip-hop production (think David Axelrod sipping long Caipirinhas in the Copacabana).
Tel: 01684 438120
Vinyl, Vintage hi-fi
Tuesday – Friday: 10am – 4:30pm
Saturday: 10am – 5pm
83 Church Street