How to rescue our record shops

Indie stores everywhere are closing – but we can still save them, says Elisa Bray

Tuesday 03 March 2009 01:00 GMT
(David Sandison)

Many of my teenage days were spent in Camden, at tiny, sweaty gigs or in independent record-shops. As a ritual, before gigs we would amble into the little shops along the high street, our mission being to rummage through the 50p bargain bins and the promo boxes. There was usually a competition to see who could find the best musical bargain for £3; we would later return eagerly home to test out the new music.

Most of the time, we didn't know much about the small bands whose songs we had picked at random. Once, in 1999, I struck gold – the very first UK release by Sigur Rós, their EP featuring "Svefn-g-englar". When we first listened to it, it sounded like nothing we'd ever heard before: beautifully fragile, with otherworldly vocals building to a towering, breathtaking climax. It's still my favourite of the Icelandic band's tracks to date. In those days before MySpace, shopping at independent stores was the best way to discover new music. There, thumbing my way through the always brimming indie-rock section or the left-field electronica offerings, I found all the minor artists who didn't get a look in at the big stores.

Sadly, out of those most-visited Camden shops of ours, only Music and Video Exchange remains. The sad fate of Rhythm Records, which opened in 1978, was sealed in 2000, but last year was by far the worst for independent shops. In 2008, more than one-quarter of these stores went out of business, as the industry journal Music Week has reported. Among them was Disque, in Islington, which specialised in dance music spanning hip-hop, techno, electro, soul and funk. Outside London, Derby's popular Reveal also shut up shop – today, a link on the website takes you to their "shop" on eBay. At the end of this month, Selectadisc in Nottingham will close its doors after 40 years in the business.

The demise of independent record shops has been pretty much inevitable since the digital revolution began, but now we're seeing a record number of independents closing. Only 300 remain in the UK today, a sad fact for the many music-fans for whom shopping in independent record-stores rather than in the clinical aisles of the high-street chain is a treat. Browsing through the dusty rows of CDs, you would often unearth a forgotten treasure and usually leave with something unexpected. There, within the murky warrens of CD racks, is a treasure trove where you could find deleted singles by The Smiths, Pink Floyd singles on 7in vinyl, and rare, one-off coloured vinyl discs.

Sister Ray, a Soho-based indie since 1987, narrowly avoided closure when its co-founder bought it out of administration last year. When I asked them which was their most valuable treasure, they said it was an original copy of the "Silent Sun" 7in by Genesis, priced at £300 (not a demo version). With collectors' items such as these selling for that kind of sum, the staff not only have to know their own stock and the market, and be keen to help in recommending music, but they will also phone their customers to let them know if such items have come in.

The rarity of such a release makes its purchase that much more satisfying. As an arthouse cinema is to dedicated film-fans, the independent record shop is a haven to like-minded music fans – visited by those who really love music. Trawling eBay (a practice partly to blame for the shops' demise) for a long-deleted vinyl single by The Smiths just does not have the same romantic appeal.

But, as these stores rely so much on their customers, I urge you to seek out the remaining independent record shops in your locality and see what you can discover: surprise and pleasure are in store.

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