Wednesday, September 5

The Decline and Fall of the Indie Record Shop

Since its heyday in the 1980s with the Smiths and shoegaze, and its Britpop-fueled resurgence in the mid-1990s, the indie record shop as an entity has undergone a huge cataclysm. The closure of Fopp, the indie chain which went bankrupt in June, was tragic but not unexpected: due to one thing and another, running an indie record shop, particularly in London, has been made nigh-impossible in recent years, and dozens have closed down.

The first reason for this is that the 'digital revolution' and download culture, where buyers pick and choose the tracks they want, have made the album obsolete in mainstream music culture. This, along with the fact that you can now buy the latest Snow Patrol album from Tesco for about 26p, has forced down the price of the average album. Combine the reduction in profits with huge rent increases throughout the country and many indie record shops are being forced out simply because they can't pay to stay.

What's replacing them are the big chains: Virgin Megastore and HMV. The reason that the big chains are succeeding where the indie shops is failing is partly because they have the financial muscle of a large corporation, partly because they can fool the masses into buying albums for £16, and partly because they can organise tax-dodges by bulk-buying from the Channel Islands. This, and their online presence, make them much more successful than the indie shops. But, the problem is that not only do these shops have little or no interest in stocking anything outside the charts, they're also run by people who don't care about music.

That's very different to the average indie shop, where the staff are not only very helpful but also generally knowledgeable and genuinely interested in the music they're selling - Rounder Records in Brighton demands 18/20 from all its staff in a test matching band names to album titles. Fopp was taken over by HMV after it went into administration; they've only managed to reopen six branches, saving about one in ten of the former Fopp workers from unemployment. I haven't visited a Fopp since the reopening (none of the six are in London), so I'm not sure how much has changed. But if they reopen any more former branches of Fopp in future, I'm willing to bet that they won't count the ability to recommend the best album by The Cure as a valuable skill for their staff.

Another reason that indie record shops are valuable to the discerning customer is that they tend to stock a lot more vinyl than the average branch of Virgin Megastore. This gives them an edge, partly because fanatical fans want vinyl-only B-sides, and partly because vinyl is just cooler than CDs. In fact, the vinyl revival (which is still growing) looks likely to be one of the lights at the end of the tunnel for the indie shop.

Despite this, the big question is still what we, as supporters of indie record shops (if you aren't one, why are you reading this?) can do to fight back against this wave of commercial chains. Well, the obvious thing to do is boycott them. We at The New Thing refuse to buy anything from HMV or Virgin - you can buy pretty much all new releases at your local indie (if they don't stock them, ask them to order them in), and old stuff will be available either there or at another local shop. If that fails, lots of indie shops have online sites where you can order their entire catalogue.

If you have to shop at HMV (if some ignorant friend buys you a voucher or something like that), make a point of asking a member of staff whether to get the 'Nuggets' box set or the original compilation, or anything else to confuse them. Otherwise, join the boycott and save the indies!

Some really good indie shops in London include Rough Trade and Banquet Records. Leave us a comment below, telling us about your local, and we'll (probably) link to it on the main site. Thanks for your contribution!

1 comment:

Alyssa Thralls said...

I have this (stupidly optimistic) theory that ultimately MP3s will cause the entire demise of mainstream record shops and soon all we will be left with is indie shops.
My theory being that with the invention of the vinyl to MP3 converter (I've asked for one for my birthday, *fingers crossed*) this will mean that wether you buy a CD or a vinyl you are going to convert it to an MP3 no matter what and therefore you are buying it for the artwork so might as well buy vinyl cause that's so much better anyways. Thusly, the only people buying anything other than MP3s will be the sort of people who care about such things, ie nerdy record collector types who won't want what they have in HMV anyhow.
The only problem being there aren't enough dusty record collector types to keep very many of the small shops in business.
So, what we really need is blogs like this to encourage more avid little dusty record shop purchasing!
Plus, those are best kind anyway aren't they? I love having a chat with the aging record guys, they always have genius stories about post punk bands and they tell you about all the obscure shit so you can impress all your friends.