For the record, music shops are a hit again
As Tower Records and HMV open new stores, the cool kids are opting for vinyl. By John Meagher
Chris Keena has noticed a curious phenomenon in HMV since it reopened. The head of music at the chain sees young teens make a bee-line for the vinyl section as soon as they enter the store. And, if they make a purchase there at all, it is just as likely to be an LP as a computer game.
"Vinyl has been making a comeback for several years now, but what's surprising is how young many of the customers are," he says. "They seem to love the fact that vinyl is collectable. It's tangible too, not something you can say about MP3.
"And they're not necessarily discovering the appeal of vinyl thanks to their parents. If anything, these teens are learning to love vinyl from their peers and I'm often struck by how young some of those coming in to buy record players are."
It's an observation that is likely to surprise many, especially as download culture has had such a detrimental impact on the music industry and its traditional form of retail.
"It's not to say that they don't download – of course they do – but unlike the generation in their 20s, I find that they're more likely to want to buy physical music. Twentysomethings are like a lost generation when it comes to record shops," says Chris Keena.
The future for Irish record stores looked bleak in January 2013, when the venerable UK chain shut its Irish operation, but the brand has returned to the high street here after a takeover by Xtra-vision owner Hilco and is set to open a store on Grafton Street over the next few months, albeit in a smaller building to the one that housed the old HMV since 1986.
"We've listened to the customers, so that means far more stock for new releases, more Irish albums, more vinyl and in-store performances too," Keena says.
"You can't be complacent in this trade and I think the record industry as a whole has wised up to the fact that the game has changed. We can now offer new releases for very competitive prices and if there's close to parity between buying a CD or downloading from iTunes, I think people will want the CD."
Tower Records' relocation last month to the building vacated by Waterstone's bookshop on Dublin's Dawson Street has generated much excitement among music fans, especially as the carefully designed store is much more conducive to browsing than before.
Like HMV, it too has upped its capacity for vinyl, but there are other features to pull in a range of customers including a dedicated classical music room, a high-end audio showroom and a section devoted to tablet computers. There's also an extensive café and a workshop where customers can bring broken smartphones and tablets to be repaired.
As with HMV's original building on Grafton Street, the premises on the adjacent Wicklow Street that housed Tower for 21 years will be converted into a clothes store. Now, Tower is in a more attractive building and paying considerably less rent.
"Very high rents and overheads can put a huge strain on a business like this," says Tower's general manger Joe Plunkett, "and that's why so many shops of all descriptions have gone to the wall in the recession".
But he has a defiant message for those who sounded the death knell of the record shop: "There's still a huge appetite for physical music and for seeking out music in an environment like this. Of course, some people will shop online or be happy to listen to low-compression music, but there are people of all generations who see music as something which is a hugely important part of their lives and they see the value of buying a vinyl record or a CD."
While global sales of CDs have been falling for the best part of a decade, it is still the most popular format for consuming music – and that fact is mirrored in shops like Tower.
"The prices have really come down, which helps," Plunkett says. "And the packaging has become much more sophisticated and collectable – it's less about the plastic jewel case than before."
The advent of savvy record shops like Wingnut – which has five branches throughout the country – and Dublin's Elastic Witch shows that it's not just the well-known brands which are able to keep their heads above water. Yet the fact remains that record shops simply don't experience the sort of spend that made them veritable goldmines in the first 10 years or so after the compact disc was first was released.
The owner of a second-hand record shop in Dublin, who does not wish to be named, says it is still an uphill battle. "The internet knocked us for six, and we are still playing catch-up. There's definitely a new-found appreciation for vinyl, especially hard-to-get records but I'd be lying to you if I wasn't worried for the future. There are midweek mornings here where we might not make a single sale, or if we do it will be for a CD we're selling for €4 or €5.
"What you have to do is build relationships with customers, get to know what they're into and be able to point them in the direction of music they wouldn't have heard but would appreciate."
Chris Keena, meanwhile, is enthused about HMV's expansion throughout Ireland – including 'stores within stores' at Xtra-vision outlets – and insists that the record shop will be a feature of Irish life for many years to come.
"People are spending again and even if the recession hasn't gone away, €12 on a new release CD is an affordable treat and it can brighten up somebody's lunchtime."