Archive for July, 2012
Here’s something everybody seems to think is a good idea but I simply don’t have the time to follow up. The Grassmarket is a natural arts hub but there is nobody to coordinate things unlike Leith where they have a whole range of organisations and people doing a great job promoting and invigorating the area.
I had somebody in from the Leith Theatre recently which only convinced me more the idea should be pursued and after our recent in-store there were lots of comments on how good The Leither Magazine was that we had to give away. There is the possibility for shared arts markets, music events, exhibitions etc and all those I’ve met who are already involved have been keen to help. I’m sure there are ways in which The Grassmarket can reciprocate it just needs some body to take the reins at The Grassmarket end !
Of course no shop just sells vinyl and CDs these days. Many sell tickets but that hasn’t saved some. Others sell second hand and even with the higher margins that offers and the opportunity to sell rarities online they either still close down or else move online completely. Few embrace the sale of posters and badges the way we have and I have to say it is the posters that not only sell well but add to the whole feel of the shop. With our new vinyl racks again I have to say I have never been happier with both the look of the shop and the stock we have.
However though hopefully we should have a decent 5 weeks for the Festival and just after even though the students will have returned I’m sure that business in the shop itself won’t be enough come mid September. I’m a great believer in letting ideas grow organically and since we moved to the Grassmarket ways forward have presented themselves to the point were many are now close to being brought to fruition if I can connect up with the right people. Some of the ideas are potentially great for Scottish music but hard to make money from. On the plus side they are perfect for sponsorship if again the right sponsors can be found.
All these ideas are well beyond the planning stage and could be executed quite quickly and effectively given the right circumstances. As soon as we moved I started looking at possibly celebrating our best selling artists in the last 25 years since we were one of only three shops to stock “Tigermilk”. Unsurprisingly Belle and Sebastian are our best selling artist of all time and between all the shops we have had and over all the albums and singles we have sold over 20,000 units. The top three is completed by Mogwai and Biffy Clyro. Anyway I now have tentative agreements to press up exclusive vinyl for at least half the bands in our top 10 and I have other ideas I hope will be successful for all the bands. I also have backers prepared to cover costs if there is any shortfall after the titles are presold.
Of course this would mean us working closely with the very labels that currently sometimes lose us customers. As I said I have no wish to fall out with labels and if something like this can redress the balance a little then we are all happy ! I can not stress how important it is we move quickly with these ideas as time is simply not on our side. I should have more concrete announcements shortly.
Thanks to everybody for what have been very positive comments about my last blog on the last 5 years for record shops. I retweeted those made on twitter but most came in the form of private emails or phone calls. I’ll probably summarise the points that have been made to me in a couple of days.
As individual shops it is no surprise we have different views on some things and that is exactly what would be expected but overall there was a consensus from those who got in touch that something had to be done and quickly. I think it would be fair to say that all thought that speaking out could only help and there were a lot of very kind comments that a lot of the points were “well made”. I’ve had plenty of practise !
It is absolutely essential that shops, labels and bands all work together but it is also very clear shops can definitely not survive on the scraps currently left to them. Not all comments were from shops of course and as I know there are a lot of very supportive customers out there. Thanks !
A customer who had read an interview with Phil Barton, the owner of Rounder, asked me the not unreasonable question as to why if he had been losing money for the last 4 or 5 years had he carried on so long. I don’t know Phil very well but we worked together on the Coalition (a collection of the bigger independent record shops) and he is clearly a smart businessman who loves music. He bought and did his best to save iconic shop Selectadisc in Nottingham finally giving in to the inevitable in 2009. After Sister Ray, his London shop, went into administration in 2008 he did the unheard of and instead of running away from his debts and reinventing himself as Sister Ray 2 he took it out of administration and thankfully is still trading there today. So when he says he’s kept Rounder going all these years he clearly had a plan.
Now Phil’s motives are his own but I do know the history of these last 5 years well as somebody who headed up the Coalition at the start. EMI paid all the independents to meet up once a year and at the meeting in November 2006 the idea that shops should work together in some way was first mooted. It took a while to take things any further but after a meeting in Leeds of many of the UK’s leading independent record shops an agreement was reached and the Coalition was announced to coincide with the very first Record Store Day in 2008. http://www.list.co.uk/article/7652-indie-record-stores-unite/
The immediate benefits became clear as with only a mater of weeks to organise things (it was actually Sandy in our old Glasgow shop who first spotted what was happening in the US) we were able to coordinate in-stores and some media attention. Amazingly in the first year there was no product at all ! As the first head of the Coalition I got to meet Kim Bayley who had the fancy title of Director General of ERA (Entertainment Retail Association) and Alison Wenham the CEO of AIM. ERA had been founded by record dealers as BARD but had since become an all encompassing organisation including supermarkets, computer game sellers, online sellers such as Amazon and download sites. Kim however undoubtedly wanted to do all she could to help. Alison in our first meeting looked at me clearly genuinely worried and asked “is it too late ?” I was invited down to speak to all the labels at a later date to explain the concerns shops now had. Unfortunately I failed to mention that not stealing our customers might be a great help indeed.
One thing everybody agreed on be they record companies, distributors or labels and that was that in the “new marketplace” in which offshore set ups were avoiding VAT and other online sellers were setting up with very low overheads compared to high street shops those shops had to be given better terms to acknowledge their unique position. Amazon and guys operating from living rooms and lock ups weren’t going to break The Fleet Foxes ! ERA’s position was always difficult as they represented both the shops and Amazon. Surely though we could rely on the labels. It was the shops that had built up the fan bases for many bands and the support for labels from 4AD to Domino. In the early days we even handed over email addresses of fans so labels and bands could let fans know when releases would be in the shops. Innocent days !
However as some labels started to struggle and others just got greedy they realised they could divert those very fans away from shops and onto their lovely new websites. It was a trickle at first when a customer would say they had bought directly from the label but soon it became a major problem for shops and I remember it well when in 2009 we had sold none of the Muse box set in the first 5 days only to be told that Friday afternoon by a customer he had bought it from the band to get the version with the 5.1 surround sound DVD.
Surely though shops would be getting far better prices to compensate them for the time they spent promoting bands and those high overheads. Well sometimes yes but mainly no. Amazon would be regularly two pounds cheaper just because of the VAT avoidance but other UK based online sellers seemed to be selling at prices that a shop would consider close to their cost. Some would admit that shops got maybe an extra couple of per cent which of course made little difference but others still maintained shops were getting far better prices. Occasionally however a list would accidentally be sent out with all the recipients listed and it was clear that was not the case. Of course now there is no such pretence and even an “indies only” exclusive includes those selling online and the labels themselves so it does nothing to get people into shops. As for Record Store Day ………… another time !
So with ERA slapping Amazon’s wrists “behind closed doors” but nothing actually being done, the labels deciding to direct their bands’ fans away from shops and towards their websites and with some honourable exceptions shops being charged the same as everybody else it looked like it couldn’t get any worse. It did.
There had always been launches for albums but they were normally in the week of release to maximise sales in the shops. Now launches or even tours started happening before the release date with the release being on sale. And it wasn’t just small bands on small labels. In 2010 we put the slow sales of The Fall’s Domino album down to the previous Friday’s gig when Mark E. Smith had walked off but no actually many of our customers had bought the album at the gig.
All the time shops would be told that we just needed to hang on in there. The latest reason was the imminent demise of HMV which would indeed have been a game changer and would have no doubt brought extra business to shops but at the expense of the whole infrastructure. As it happened the record companies lost their bottle and bailed HMV out giving them terms the independents could only dream of.
When The Coalition first started it was done so on the basis that in four or five years time it wouldn’t matter if some of us survived if there weren’t enough of us. We knew things would get harder though I don’t think any of us saw the way things would go with the labels and bands. Most of us were still doing alright and recognised that if we were to get out now was the time. Reveal Records of Derby had taken that very step in 2007 sensibly declaring it would only get worse from there on.
I still believe it doesn’t have to be this way. Give independents more time to sell both new releases and back catalogue. Genuinely encourage fans to go to record shops regularly not just on Record Store Day. Then you will start to see a difference. The VAT loophole has been closed but really that was way too late. Online shopping is not now just about price. Downloading is a choice and shops accept that. Physical product and for independents in particular vinyl still has a place for some time to come if promoted properly. Customers too need to be reminded that all that customer service and knowledge they glean from a shop has a value too. To take advantage of that but then buy online adds to a shop’s costs and at the same time reduces their income. Bands need to remember that support given to them at the start of their careers should not be rewarded by taking sales from shops as they become bigger.
It will be no consolation to Phil and the excellent staff of Rounder but if their closing is the final straw for record companies and labels and they realise that things can’t go on as they are then some good will have come from it. Avalanche’s position is in some ways worse than most facing competition from both HMV and FOPP while in another way the Avalanche brand as it seems to have become of late is closely identified with Scottish music and that opens other doors.
As I’ve said the meetings I had (some of which were with labels) were mostly positive. I certainly hope to work closely with labels in the future as we will announce soon. However realistically there is a window of opportunity I have to take advantage of over the next five to six weeks and in that very short time scale things will need to be considerably different by the end.
While The Coalition no longer exists as a functioning body the shops to this day still keep in touch in a way that was unheard of before so it did serve a purpose. In that way losing Rounder is losing one of our own.
You may remember there was an independent label fair last year but it clashed with our in-stores from Rachel Sermanni and Withered Hand so I didn’t have a decision to make about whether to attend. As with the fairs down south it has on the face of it to be a lose/lose situation for shops. Either the labels sell their normal stock already mostly available in Avalanche in which case they would just be competing with the shop on one of our busier Saturdays or they would sell things not available in shops in which case they would be fucking shops over.
The aim was to attract newcomers to the delights of the micro and not so micro Scottish labels which of course would be a good thing though all reports said it was mostly just the usual gathering of bands and labels that you might get at any well attended gig. The SMIA as part of their 5 year plan would have these fairs all over Scotland which again would definitely be a good thing but when I started to discuss this year’s event it transpired that not even the Glasgow Fair had gone ahead. For reasons I couldn’t get to the bottom of the people of Dundee and Inverness had been spared the delights of Song, by Toad et al.
However I do appreciate there are some good intentions behind this and I did initially offer the shop’s premises last year before Summerhall was chosen. I also felt it would be good to see as many bands and labels as possible represented and not just the better known labels though there was still the problem of me not being able to be in two places at once. However I was able to rope in Ed Jupp of 17 seconds and one or two other helpers so with the proviso that I would moan like fuck about why there hadn’t been any fairs elsewhere I agreed. As you can see earlier I fulfilled that proviso and now it is time to move on hopefully attracting crowds of new folk to sample the wonders Scottish labels can offer. I also very much look forward to all the labels turning up for the independent label fair in Thurso.
Of course if you are reading this then you are almost certainly not one of those “new folk” and I urge you to come to the shop and buy local releases. As well as Ed’s 17 seconds stuff we will have all the Chaffinch and Ballboy releases and basically any release a band or label would like us to have on the stall. So if you are indeed a band or label and would like your releases to go on sale at the label market just drop in a small number to the shop. I don’t want to start taking too much stock out of the shop so if you have your releases in the shop already it would be helpful if you could bring in more for the label market. I’m sure Ed will display any point of sale displays you can provide and within reason some merch. I assume we will be given as much space as we need.
If anybody else fancies helping out for an hour or two let me know and I’ll tell Ed. Let’s hope the publicity goes beyond us all tweeting about it to each other and then tweeting about how great it was afterwards interspersed with a few blurred photos tweeted during the day !
Of course later on I assume I will see many of you at The Queen’s Hall for Withered Hand, Ballboy, Josie long and Darren Hayman.
I’ve been told many times over the last couple of years that I should set up as a consultant and that would in some way go towards helping with the costs of the shop. I did look into it but my problem was always that I would not compromise what I do in the shop which is give everybody an equal chance. While I am happy to back bands I like I wouldn’t do it for money. While I’m happy to occasionally contact my friends with other shops again I would not do that for money but only to help bands and labels that had been supportive.
I’m amazed at how people now give themselves music industry titles and there are even courses on stuff that you should just get on with doing and not “study”. Most frustratingly when young kids come in talking complete shite with some confidence it is often not their fault but something they have heard from an “industry expert” who hasn’t actually been hands on for often decades. Also there is now a whole new generation of bands and even more amazingly “managers” who know absolutely nothing about how the “big world” works beyond a few local gigs, an album launch and a bandcamp page. Similarly “proper” PR companies of course have friends and contacts in the music industry but will cast their net far wider. However many I have been asked to check out seem to rely on a few friends and nothing else. A Scottish band will get reviews in The List and The Skinny that they would have got anyway and otherwise it is clear these people have a few friends with blogs who will review favourably anything they ask them to. Some even seem to have resorted to having their own blogs to review bands who are paying them for press.
Anyway what all this does mean is that I can advise bands on strategies and ways forward without compromising the ideals I mentioned earlier. In fact I would rather people were paying me a relatively small amount of money for sensible advise than forking out for the sort of dubious nonsense that I hear. I still have to formulate exactly how I will work it and to be honest I think it will vary from band to band. If a band is dreadful or probably more accurately “not ready” I will simply say so and take it no further. Most likely I won’t like the music but I will know how I can help the band progress. As I constantly explain to bands while I may not like a particular genre of music that doesn’t mean I can’t recognise those who do it well. More importantly when people come in the shop I sell them the music I think they will like not my own personal taste.
Of course it isn’t just bands I can help and I’m currently working with the promotion of the Polaris Music Prize. I am regularly asked for the Avalanche “brand” to support something but invariably it is something I wouldn’t support or will involve my time but be of no benefit. I could of course be of most use to bigger bands and labels but they normally have management who often don’t realise just how quickly things change in the music industry these days. So more later but to be honest I’m quite looking forward to sensibly helping bands progress. And of course if I come across a band I think my customers, twitter followers and readers of the Avalanche blog/website will like I will continue to promote them irrespective of whether I have any dealings with them.
And the headline ? Well I doubt if any industry has changed and is still changing as fast as the music industry and yet you never hear of change management. Band management that needs a course but coping with and more importantly acknowledging and dealing with the continuous changes in the music industry. No ! By definition all the course could do would be to teach the techniques of dealing with change when what there seems to be instead is people talking about how things have changed without realising that change is ongoing and often so rapid that unless you are “at the coalface” you have no chance of keeping up. So with so many others giving themselves fancy or undeserved titles I think I may go with Music Change Management Consultant !
Lots of good things came out of my meetings this week and there is a lot to consider but one thought has crystallised recently and that is in the absence of new releases the best thing to bring people into the shop is new collectables arriving and of course new releases by local bands. Obviously the latter is out of my control and can’t be relied on so I need to focus on a steady stream of interesting collections arriving.
Luckily I have a backer prepared to pay for any big collections that may be offered that at the moment I couldn’t afford so that really has to be my priority especially as the visitors now seem to be arriving in decent numbers and many are looking for vinyl. Of course next month we also have the Festival so now is the time and thankfully we have the space. I already intended to have more racking but my joiner has been laid up with a bad back but all being well we will have things in place by the end of the month.
So if you have been considering having a clear out or know somebody who is sitting on a lot of vinyl they no longer listen to please get in touch. We will of course buy CDs too but they have unfortunately plummeted in price. Even second hand stores are closing so this won’t be the only plan for the future but if you are thinking of making space or just want your vinyl to go to a good home I’m sure we can help.