Back in the groove: Record shops taking on the digital age

HMV, Britain's last big music chain, is closing 60 branches. Yet a new wave of CD stores is thriving. Jonathan Brown finds out why

Saturday 08 January 2011 01:00

It has been a difficult week for the record shop.

HMV's decision to close 60 stores as it fights a seemingly losing battle with its internet and supermarket competition sent a shiver of fear through Britain's high streets. The long- term slide in album sales – both physical and digital – also continued with a further seven per cent fall. But in the gloom there was hope. After a decade of brutal decline, which has seen their numbers ravaged from 1,064 in 1998 to just 269 in 2009, the number of independent record retailers grew modestly for the first time since the advent of the digital download. According to the Entertainment Retailers Association, 15 new indie shops opened for business in 2010 – a figure offset only by the disappearance of a further four, leaving a net gain of 11.

Seismic Records

Location: (Above "Kong") Bedford Street, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

Established: 2004

Owner: Stuart Smith

Speciality: Drum & bass, but all music lovers welcome

"I never wanted to be that guy from High Fidelity. I always said if I turned into that, please shoot me," admits Seismic owner Stuart Smith.

"But having a record collection is like a window on your soul. I try not to count my records, but it has certainly reached an embarrassing number – maybe 16,000," he added. There are thousands more still for sale in his shop in the gentile surroundings of the Georgian spa town. Having learned his trade working for five years in another shop, Mr Smith set out on his own and considers Seismic to be still very much in its "infancy" with customers travelling from all over the Midlands to check out the latest dubstep and breakbeat releases. "It's the sort of place where, if someone hears a tune on the radio, they can come and find out what it is and I will try and get hold of it for them," he said. "I try to keep the stock as minimal as possible but it's a crate-digger's delight. We are getting young people in now who are turning their back on MP3. There is nothing like getting a bit of vinyl in your hand," he added.

Bestseller: Netsky

Notes, Music and Coffee

Location: St Martin's Lane, London, below

Established: 2010

Owner: Alan Goulden (music) and Robert Robinson (coffee)

Speciality: Classical, opera, jazz, world

Opened for business just two months ago in a listed building next door to the Coliseum by the owners of classical music store MDC and two coffee baristas, the owners believe they have hit on a unique formula which can survive the digital onslaught. "We aim to offer an experience that cannot be replicated on the internet," explains Robert Robinson. For the customers sipping a cup of scientifically prepared filter Suke Quto from the Ethiopian Highlands, listening to Ella Fitzgerald and taking in the view yesterday it seemed a welcome vision of the record-buying future. "In the six weeks we have been opened we have been very encouraged by the response we are getting from our customers," said Mr Robinson. His co-founder, Alan Goulden, believes the unique position of the shop, next to the English National Opera, helps: "What we are trying to say is that good music is classic whether it's Brahms or Ella Fitzgerald."

Bestseller: Whatever is playing at the Coliseum

Truck Store

Location: Cowley Rd, Oxford

Established: February 2011

Owner: Gary Smith

Speciality: Indie; expertise in all areas

Gary Smith was warned he was taking a risk when he opened his first record store, Rapture, in Witney six years ago. Since then he has added one in Evesham and next month will launch a third in Cowley Road, Oxford, marking a welcome return for independent music retail to the city three years after the last one closed down. He hopes the new store will act as a hub for local bands looking to emulate Oxford's last act to achieve greatness – Radiohead. "We will cater for everyone as we always do.

"We are dedicated to customer service so no one should feel intimidated asking for anything, whether it is Susan Boyle or whatever." Having worked as a buyer for a national chain he is sympathetic to the plight of HMV. "It doesn't do anyone any good when HMV struggle but they have broken the golden rule of retail – listening to your customers."

Bestseller: The National, High Violet


Location: Sadler Gate, Derby

Established: 2010

Owner: Dave Hill

Speciality: Drum & Bass and classic rock

Having closed the original BPM store in 2007 after a 20-year presence in the city to concentrate his record selling activities online, Dave Hill decided to reopen last year after witnessing the resurgence in popularity of vinyl. Mr Hill has worked in record shops since he was 17 and now specialises in mint-condition second-hand albums and seven-inch singles. He said: "I feel very sorry for the staff at HMV. Our overheads are quite low while they have very big stores. For us it is one price fits all – so unless it is very rare an album costs £7.50. The quality of vinyl is better than CD and we are very fussy about what we buy. It has to be mint condition and we turn more away than we buy in. It has been fantastic to be back but it is not like it used to be when we were really, really thriving. There used to be eight or nine independent record shops in Derby but free downloads and supermarkets killed them."

Bestseller: Beatles, Joy Division, Smiths

The Heavy Sounds

Location: West End Arcade, Nottingham

Established: 2007

Owner: Clint Harris

Speciality: Heavy rock

When metal head Clint Harris moved to Britain from his home in New Zealand he knew he had to place himself in the recognised global capital of heavy rock.

With a career in information technology behind him, he decided that he had spent enough time and money in record stores down the years to set up his own.

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"It was something I wanted to do for a long time," he explained. "The shop is very small and I suppose it's a bit of a ramshackle operation.

"There is only one area that I have stock because that is all I know. I have a steady stream of regulars, they are very passionate about the music and they like to come in for a bit of a browse and a chat.

"It's somewhere to go and a place where you can meet people."

With a whopping 50 new heavy rock titles being released in the United Kingdom each and every month it is obviously vitally important for a shop like this to keep abreast of new releases.

"When you go into a record store, you have a look around and occasionally you come across something you might well have forgotten about or something which you never even thought of.

"If you are shopping on the internet you have to know what you are looking for. I suppose most of my customers grew up in the physical age. Most are in their late 20s and 30s but some are in their 70s," he said.

Bestseller: Electric Wizard

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