Independent retailers have opened up about their experiences and challenges of running UK record shops in 2023.
The latest issue of Music Week features an in-depth report on the sector, featuring contributions from key players from Banquet, Crash, Drift and Rough Trade, as well as Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA) CEO Kim Bayley.
"The resilience of indie record shops in the face of all that has been thrown at them has been remarkable," said Bayley. "Indie store owners operate with pretty much no safety net. It’s about their knowledge, their skills and the sheer energy to keep on keeping on.
"I feel tremendously proud to represent an incredible group of women and men who really do operate at the coalface of the music industry."
Bayley said indie record shops have much in common with many other physical retailers in terms of the day-to-day issues they are facing, listing inflation, pressures on disposable income and business rates.
The danger is that once a fan is lost they are lost forever
"We need to ensure that record shops do not become collateral damage in these battles," she added. "We understand that other parts of the supply chain are also facing inflationary pressures but we would ask that labels remember that persuading fans to part with cash in the current climate is difficult. The danger is that once a fan is lost they are lost forever."
On a more positive note, Rough Trade Retail UK reported record revenue in its most recent financial results. The company posted sales revenue of £14,348,884 for 2022, an increase of 35.8% on its previous highest turnover result in 2021. It also noted that it had increased UK market share for vinyl to 8.4% (up from 7%).
Speaking to Music Week, Emily Waller, Rough Trade's UK head of brand and content, described business as "buoyant", with the only caveat being the well-documented vinyl pressing delays seen in the industry.
“The biggest challenge has been supply for that huge demand with the pressing plants delays,” she said. “But for the most part we’ve kept that business healthy and we’re just looking to expand it even more.
"I think the role of indie retailers is hugely important. As an access point, it is genuine and community-driven. There are real people behind these stores, and they’re all music fans."
Everything’s a challenge because of the cost of living crisis
Jon Tolley, owner of Kingston independent record shop Banquet Records, said the market had displayed its adeptness at coping with adversity.
“Everything’s a challenge because of the cost of living crisis,” he noted. “That said, we’re busy. We were up on last year at a time when we should be down, if you look at the headlines, so things are okay as it stands.”
Scott Gamble of Leeds' Crash Records said that although business has remained "pretty busy", the pandemic has had a lasting effect on shopping habits, with over-the-counter sales failing to return to pre-2020 levels.
“We are in a very busy city centre and a lot of people just didn’t come back,” he said. “A lot of offices didn’t open so that’s a lot of our midweek trade gone. And it’s not necessarily turned into the old days of everyone coming in at the weekend. The little shops have just got to go where the money is and work as hard as they can to grab it, so pre-orders and online."
Gamble called on the authorities to do their bit to help the High Street return to its former glories.
"We wander around and see lots of big empty units," he said. "I think the government and local councils need to be doing what they can to encourage people back into these centres.”
People are poor and records are getting more and more expensive. I would be very cautious to be definitive or too gloomy, but it’s a bad mix
Elsewhere, Rupert Morrison of Totnes' Drift Records did not share the optimism of many of his contemporaries, suggesting a sense of denial had set in about the realities of the situation in certain quarters.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a lot of bullshitting about where we’re at,” he offered. “I just try to be honest: people are poor and records are getting more and more expensive. I would be very cautious to be definitive or too gloomy, but it’s a bad mix."
Morrison, who runs independent record shop coalition Dinked with Natasha Youngs of Resident in Brighton, first observed people spending less in spring last year.
“The old adage of your £50 man has become a £10 man," he added. "It’s heartbreaking when you have regulars being almost apologetic about not spending money, when it’s clear their mortgage has doubled, or they’re in a flat with no gas so they’re suddenly spending £500 a month on electricity.”
However, ERA's Bayley added: "You could argue there’s a lot to be worried about. But at the same time you have to trust your instincts and my instinct is that the resourcefulness of indies is hard to beat. Naturally at ERA we will do whatever we can to support our members, because the fact is, music needs indie record stores.”
The full discussion - covering emerging talent, in-store gigs, Record Store Day and the realities of running a shop in 2023 - appears in the current issue of Music Week. Subscribers can read it here.