24 Jan 2013

Not all that glitters…

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Over a morning brew on Wednesday morning, I came across the following story about Rough Trade opening stores outside of London on ‘The Line Of Best Fit’.

At first, I was delighted by the news that Rough Trade are considering spreading their wings and setting up branches outside of London. As one of the best-known and loved independents out there, this could only be a good thing, right? Founder Geoff Travis said in the wake of HMV’s well-publicised troubles, “We need record stores in the world. We don’t want to live our lives online and be in our bedrooms 24 hours a day.” I couldn’t agree more.

Anyone who knows me will know that I’m a vinyl stalwart. I’ve never made the switch to digital because I love records. I can’t think of a better way to spend my time than to go and lose myself in a record shop for a few hours. And as convenient as shopping online can be, it lacks the intimacy of a burgeoning relationship between buyer and staff that can eventually bear fruit in the way no search engine can. Don’t worry, this isn’t about to turn into some analogue versus digital debate; I’m as bored of that one as you. I just want to establish my addiction to the black crack; I will gladly give up food for funk.

However, Travis’ next statement made my heart sink slightly. Instead of offering fresh hope, it cruelly snatched it away:

“There is a need for something, we feel. It would be great to do that in some other UK towns. It would be fantastic to have a store in Manchester and more around the UK.”

In this statement, for me, he displays an arrogance and ignorance that I find slightly startling. Record Shops across the country are struggling. They are being forced to either close, or scale down their operations just to remain financially viable. In an age when you can have someone’s entire back catalogue, including supposed rarities and lost classics, at the click of a button this becomes ever more difficult.

My own personal favourite, Probe in Liverpool, has suffered this fate. There were days gone by when my monthly wage may as well have been paid directly into their bank account, such was the weekly bill I would run up in their glorious emporium. Probe was always stocked with both fresh and classic releases, across all genres. I HAD to go back each week for fear of missing something. Now, well, they’ve had to move premises and focus on an indie-centric buying policy just to stay afloat. I continued going, out of loyalty, but found myself buying things just to contribute. Now I don’t go at all. I can’t afford to spend my money on vinyl I don’t love and, sadly, Probe just doesn’t scratch that itch any more.

This isn’t an isolated incident either. It is a scenario that has been played out around the country. But not in Manchester. OK, Fat City has moved out of the city and Eastern Bloc has been dramatically reduced from when it was in its pomp. However, Manchester is one of the few places left that can relieve me of the contents of my wallet before the sun has set.

Piccadilly Records on Oldham Street is outstanding. It stocks everything. You want the latest favela funk out of Rio? It’s in there. Is obscure disco more your thing? Sound; it’s in there. Not interested in anything unless it came out of Berlin in the past 2 minutes? No worries; it’s in there. Just across the road you will find Vinyl Exchange, a veritable mine of second-hand gems for those who are still prepared to do some digging (an increasingly antiquated art, but that discussion isn’t for here). Funk, reggae, acid house, hip-hop, electro, indie, blues and on and on and on… There isn’t a genre they don’t stock. There have been occasions when, between them, these two stores have forced me to go the pub, because it was cheaper to sink a few ales than try and use my unborn children as credit for just one more 12”!

So, with all that said, what “need” is there of another record shop in Manchester? I’m sure Piccadilly and Vinyl Exchange’s accounts would have their own tales of woe to tell should you open their books. Competition, in this case, is not healthy. Indeed, for most it is the death knell. I fail to see what good can come of a Rough Trade opening in Manchester. I’m sure it would be “fantastic” for them, as their tills ring with the money of those who have deserted the established stores, just so they can be seen wandering around with their branded carry bag. But, apart from their name, they can bring nothing that isn’t already there. Surely there is another city crying out for what Rough Trade would have to offer?

Yet Travis dismisses such a notion, “It’s possible we could open more, if people want that. But it’s better if people who have local knowledge in their own community do that.” Well, they have. And most have died a slow and painful death. Those that still exist often do so by the skin of their teeth. The idea of setting up a brand new independent, leasing premises and making a success of it is fanciful at best. I would do it in a heartbeat if I thought for one second I wouldn’t just be constantly staring down an abyss of final demands and foreclosures.

Rough Trade could do it though. That must be the case, otherwise the idea wouldn’t have been floated so publicly, unless it was a cynical ploy to garner some free publicity on the back of HMV’s rumoured demise. They have an established brand that is instantly recognised amongst the target community. They have a reputation that would guarantee sales to start with. This alone would not ensure success. But it would put them on a far surer footing than anybody else could lay claim to.

There are plenty of cities that would provide fertile land for Rough Trade’s growth. Places where they wouldn’t need to stand on the toes of others. Sheffield has some wonderful second-hand stores sprinkled across the city. Yet you’d be as hard pressed to find the latest Hessle Audio release as you would someone who preferred Worcester Sauce over Henderson’s Relish. From my limited knowledge there is a thirst great enough to sustain someone prepared to quench it. But in this day and age, it’s not enough to offer a service that people want; you have to entice them as well. In this example, you would need to convince them it was better to spend their money in your shop, rather than from the comfort of their sofa. You don’t need to have an degree in economics to understand that the name of Rough Trade has a better chance of doing this from the start than Benny’s Bebop Boutique, for example.

The way we consume music has changed forever. It will no doubt change again. The mind boggles when thinking about how we will be listening to tunes in 10 years time. That it won’t be the same as it is now is the only thing we can be sure of. But I’d also wager that vinyl will still be around and people will still buy it. We have a skeleton staff of record shops as it is. I’d love to see more of them, it goes without saying. But not at the expense of those who still valiantly ply their wares. The path Rough Trade’s Travis proposes to tread is nothing new; he is just heeding the call of his mater’s voice. But we already know what happens next.

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