Thursday 17 January 2019

Record Store Day: Meet the Irish retailer tapping into renewed interest in vinyl

It's more than a decade since the death knell sounded for the high-street record shop, but as Record Store Day comes around again, John Meagher talks to the Irish music retailers who are tapping into a renewed interest in the vinyl album among music-lovers young and old

Not music to their ears: some retailers say they fear the resurgence in vinyl is too niche to sustain them. Photo: Damien Eagers
Not music to their ears: some retailers say they fear the resurgence in vinyl is too niche to sustain them. Photo: Damien Eagers

Dave Holland, the manager of Rollercoaster Records in Kilkenny city, has worked in the store for the past nine years - but it is in recent years that he has noticed a curious phenomenon.

Vinyl is a big part of the shop's offering and its typical customer falls into two distinct categories: one is that obvious demographic - people over 35, the older of whom will remember the days when vinyl was the only format in town; the other is a cohort of young people between the ages of 15 and 25.

"What's really noticeable," he says, "is the generation between 25 and 35 don't seem to buy physical music at all - or certainly not the way those older and younger are doing. They grew up with iTunes and streaming, and vinyl and CD seems to have passed them by."

Like anybody who works in a record store in 2018, Holland is happy to have loyal, returning customers but is especially pleased that even those who are digital natives - some young enough even to have been born after the iPod was introduced - are seeing the value in owning physical music, especially vinyl.

"Who would have predicted that 10 years ago?" he says. "And it's something that we're seeing right around the country, and it's very heartening."

If the death knell for the high street record store was sounded more than a decade ago, nobody seems to have told Holland or those other independent music-loving store owners who are successfully trading in 2018.

"The recession years were tough because people really were watching their spending," he says, "but they've been willing to treat themselves over the past few years."

The key for survival, he believes, is understanding that record shops are now catering for a niche audience and not the mass market of before. "Most people are streaming now," he says. "Spotify rules for them, but there's a minority of people who want to be able to hold an album in their hand and see the value of putting an album on the old-fashioned way and listening to it from start to finish."

But he says the pile-it-high model employed by there likes of HMV - who shut their Irish operation in 2016 - simply doesn't work. "There has to be an acceptance that for a lot of people, music is available to them on their smartphones whenever they want and they simply don't need to go to record shops. We have to face that fact, but also realise that there are people that still want to buy music and we need to work out the best way to cater for them."

Rollercoaster has devoted increasing space to vinyl over the past five years or so - "the market has definitely increased, year on year" - but two thirds of sales are CDs. "Nobody ever talks about CDs any more but they're still selling and new CDs are cheaper now than they ever have been.

"Vinyl is more expensive, but I think people who buy vinyl records feel that the price is justified."

Clive Branagan is the vinyl buyer at Tower Records in Dublin.

"Vinyl has come back in a big way," he says, "but that doesn't mean that if you buy vinyl, you've no interest in streaming. Far from it - many of our customers use Spotify to 'sample' a particular album and if they really like it, they'll buy it on vinyl. Vinyl is a format that I love, but I think streaming is great, too. The two can go hand-in-hand."

While the Tower name may be famous the world over, the two Dublin stores are independently owned. The shop on Dawson Street is the biggest record store in the country and Branagan says he and his colleagues work hard to try to make the store appeal to music obsessives and casual browsers alike.

"Record shops are very different to what they were in the past, but I think big stores like ours are needed - and we need to be able to deliver something for everyone."

Tower may be proud of the rare vinyl it sells but it is not above putting a huge poster for the decidedly mass-market Now That's What I Call Music 99 in its front window.

Like many of its smaller rivals, Tower will be embracing Record Store Day today. Several live performances have been pencilled in and there will be a large selection of stock on sale.

The first Record Store Day took place around the world in 2007 in order to "celebrate the culture of the independently owned record store" and it has grown to be an important day in the calendar for people like Branagan.

"It also makes people stop and think about what they want from their towns and cities - if they want a record shop on their doorstep, they have to support it."

Dave Holland says Record Store Day brings many benefits but believes some record companies have leapfrogged on to it in order to sell dubious 'product' to people already supporting record shops. "The Frank Zappa in the basement-type album that's being sold for maybe €10 more than it should be," he quips. "It doesn't seem to be rewarding people who are into record stores to begin with."

For many, including Holland, the days of bricks-and-mortar stores only selling physical music are over. Other initiatives have to be explored and, under the vision of the store's owner Willie Meighan - who died last November - Rollercoaster promotes shows in Kilkenny and operates a record label. It brought out the latest album from much-admired Belfast band Malojian last year and, in June, it will

In Dublin, one of the most progressive stores, All City Records in Temple Bar, isn't just renowned for its carefully chosen stock but also for the All City record label. It released the latest David Kitt album, Yous.

But while the picture may be rosy for some, others are fearful that they will struggle to stay afloat.

The owner of a small Dublin record shop, who asked not to be named, says his store's future is far from secure. "It's ticking over," he says, "but I'd be lying if I said I was optimistic about the future.

"There's all this talk about the resurgence of vinyl, but it's still extremely niche and 90pc of the customers for vinyl are exactly what you'd imagine - blokes over the age of 40. Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking them - and I'm very glad to have them - but there isn't a massive sign that lots of young people are spending money in record shops, certainly not mine." He believes the seismic changes to the way we consume music that have happened over the past 20 years have ensured that even devoted fans - people who would have spent a fair chunk of their disposable income on CDs in the past - have fully embraced the streaming age.

"One of the my best friends is about as serious about music as you can get, but he never buys physical product any more.

"He spends his money on hardware - high-end speakers, quality headphones, headphone amplifiers and listens to high-res audio streaming providers. He also can justify going to more shows because he's not buying albums any more.

"He got rid of his entire physical collection about two years ago - I bought a lot of it from him - and he says he hasn't missed it one bit. Maybe, I should get into the speakers business! But, in all seriousness, people like me would be in trouble if there weren't music fans out there who valued owning their music rather than renting it, which is the model that streaming is built on."

Holland is more optimistic. "I think the ren. There's a new Irish pressing plant [Dublin Vinyl] which is such a positive, especially for emerging Irish bands, and nobody would release an album anymore - irrespective of whether they're up-and-coming or long established - who wouldn't consider releasing on vinyl."

And the May Bank Holiday weekend will see the inaugural Vinyl festival - in honour of the much-loved format - take over Dublin's Royal Hospital Kilmainham. Speakers will include Bob Geldof, My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields and U2's sleeve designer Steve Averill.

"Vinyl isn't the be-all and end-all for record stores," Branagan adds, "but we're very glad that there's such renewed interest in it and anything that encourages people to go back into record shops again is a good thing."

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