It’s Record Store Day today, and Craig Brown meets a part-time doctor and a former head teacher who run a small independent shop selling second-hand vinyl in Edinburgh to find out why this music format is making such a resurgence
For people who measure their record collection in terms of feet and inches rather than by individual titles, today is their birthday, Christmas and Easter rolled into one bonanza event: Record Store Day. Around the country, cramped shops hidden in the side streets of cities and towns will be packed to the gunwales with vinyl junkies and music fans celebrating the cultural institution that is the independent record store. Of course, it’s not just about pledging support to your local dealer, there is also the task of grabbing some of the coveted limited edition vinyl on offer to mark the big day, whether it’s the much-trailed David Bowie single, an Emeli Sandé 12-inch or Bat for Lashes 7-inch or one of the many other here-today-gone-tomorrow gems.
While it may have been reduced from its peak as the dominant format to a narrow rump, vinyl has recently enjoyed a resurgence. And for those who collect it, as either top-grade new pressings or mint second-hand, records still represent the very best expression of musical reproduction.
Darren Yeats and George Robertson are among those who will be playing host to members of this growing group of music fans today celebrating Record Store Day. Since 2011, they have run Voxbox, an Edinburgh independent record store in Stockbridge, specialising in second-hand vinyl.
The received wisdom about such shops is that they’re generally gloomy spaces filled with dust-caked racks of dog-eared albums, and watched over by a man with a very hard line on what constitutes “proper music”. In contrast, Voxbox is closer to boutique: light and airy and female friendly, with the front of shop kept for mint copies, the back room for bargains.
Sat in their shop on a wet Wednesday afternoon, and with four customers flicking through the racks, Yeats, 35, and Robertson, 59, look for all the world as if they’ve known no other career, but in reality it couldn’t be more different: Yeats is a part-time doctor at the nearby Astley Ainslie hospital while Robertson is a former deputy head teacher at Musselburgh Grammar School, having taken early retirement.
Like many of their customers, both are long-term collectors: Yeats owns about 5,000 LPs that have colonised the upstairs of his home, while he admits that his “listening pile” is “about four metres long” – roughly the equivalent of two basketball players. Similarly, Robertson says he owns 3,000 LPs, as well as having spent some 25 years as a trader on the record fair circuit in his spare time.
Working as a locum doctor has allowed Yeats to organise his shifts around the shop’s opening hours – Wednesday to Sunday, usually not before midday as, he says, “nobody gets up nine in the morning to buy a Black Sabbath record”.
The decision to take on the shop was a chance to take a step away from the gruelling routine of hospital life. “I’ve been qualified since 2000, so I’ve done many years of the hard graft jobs, the 84- hours weeks and I just decided that I didn’t want to do calls and weekends and unsocial hours again. So that’s why I’m working as a locum. The record shop came from just pursuing something I’ve got a passion about, music and record collecting. I just wanted to do something for myself.
“It can be tricky managing the two jobs – obviously one pays a lot more than the other. The record shop is a going business, I do spend a lot of time answering e-mails and doing the blog, though it’s a long way from being on call at a hospital.”
For Robertson, the shop was a chance to step off the carousel of record fairs but still indulge in his passion. “It sounds like a cliché, but the attraction of vinyl is in part very much the appearance and feel of them as objects,” he says. “But the other thing, which is incredibly important, is the sound. It’s so much different from CD or download. You get involved in it, it’s a much warmer sound. We’ve got a decent sound system in the shop and people will come and they’ll say, ‘What’s that playing?’ and we’ll say, ‘It’s X or Y,” and they’ll reply, ‘Wow, I know it, but it’s sounds completely different, it sounds great!’ We get people come in and that don’t even own players, the records become art in their living rooms.”
Escaping the school corridors didn’t mean it was the last time Robertson would see any of his former charges. “I get quite a lot of my old pupils, some are in their twenties, others now in their forties, coming in looking for vinyl, and I think it’s good for them to see that you’re not restricted to particular careers. I think they like that, many of them have children, and they bring their kids in too.”
The resurgence of vinyl, new and old, is distinctly at odds with the state of the record shop sector as a whole. With the big names apparently in terminal decline, their sales squeezed by the rise of downloads, online sales and the entry of supermarkets into the territory, the fate of the high-street shop seemed sealed late last year when HMV went into administration.
Saved at the last moment, but not before it was reduced to merchandising sweets by the tills in order to pull in some cash, had HMV disappeared altogether, it would have left a gap that the independents would have struggled to fill.
Alun Woodward, one of the founders of Scottish independent label Chemikal Underground, acknowledged this when he said: “On some of our titles HMV accounts for 50 per cent of our retail sales, so it is important. I think we all get into the habit of buying things from places we are familiar and comfortable with, I buy records from the same shops, both online and physical, shop at the same supermarket etc, so to take that off the high street would be problematic. I don’t know if more people would go in to smaller record shops. But I would like them to, because they are mostly great and run by good people who are really knowledgeable.”
For Yeats, HMV’s troubles are a distant worry, and for all its talk of refocusing the brand on music he doubts that it will start selling second-hand vinyl. Instead, Voxbox’s main concern is maintaining a supply of scratch-free classic titles.
“As a second-hand shop, it’s hard to get mint copies of the classic records by The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Kinks, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and those are the ones we try to get in,” Yeats says. “We don’t tend to sell them as a loss leader, but we don’t make too much money on selling these albums because we make every effort to have them on the shelf as they’re what people expect to find in a record shop, because a Beatles section should not consist of Paul McCartney albums from the 1980s.”
But reflecting on the state of the record industry, he notes with irony that the format that seems to be making a resurgence is the one it attempted to dump it into the dustbin of history: “The vinyl industry kind of goes up to 1990, with The Smiths albums and Primal Scream 12-inch records, then it just seemed to stop.
“The industry tried to kill off records itself by not pressing enough and not supplying demand, and hoping it would go away. There are even stories of companies pressing flaws into records to kill off the format quicker.”
But as today’s white-label specials and picture-disk limited runs fly out the shop door, and record shops build up enough love and warm feelings to carry them through to the next Record Store Day, Yeats says the event has more than just symbolic importance. “For us it’s not about the exclusive releases, though it does get the punters excited and the press excited. It’s a good excuse to have a party and we’ll have bands from three local labels, and Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band, who’s 70 now, a veteran of Woodstock and still gigging with Trembling Bells, a Glasgow-based band.
“So really, it’s a celebration of Edinburgh old and new. It supports the local bands For us the record industry would be worse off without the day. Records have become a cool item again.”
RECORD Store Day takes place against a backdrop of an industry rocked by news in January that HMV had gone into administration. What had seemed unthinkable previously, that the high street could be devoid of any record shops, seemed a real possibility.
From a peak of more than 400 outlets around the world, most of them in the UK, in recent years HMV has found itself struggling in a sector transformed by online traders such as Amazon and the big supermarkets.
Attempts to diversify into other areas, including live music venues, failed to turn HMV’s fortunes around.
In January, having outlasted its high-street rivals, Virgin, Zavvi and Tower Records, the administrators were called in and a buyer sought.
According Kevin Buckle, owner of Avalanche Records in Edinburgh, the prospect of HMV disappearing would not mean his shop would suddenly be inundated: “A lot of HMV customers are people who for whatever reason prefer to got to a record shop and buy it there. If HMV was to vanish completely, they would not immediately go and buy online because they don’t want to do that. Some of them would come to me, not all but enough to make my business a lot better. “
In the end, HMV was bought out by restructuring specialist Hilco, which acquired all 132 remaining shops and nine of the subsidiary Fopp chain, in a deal believed to be worth £50 million.
Though it’s not known what the future direction of the brand will be, there are indications that it will concentrate once again on music, something Buckle is sceptical of: “They’ve made this big thing about how they’re now going to do more music. I’m a big fan of the HMV brand, and it would great if they concentrated on doing music well.
“I think it’s important to have a brand like that on the high street, but of late they’ve made such a mess of it. I don’t have much confidence in them this time.”