Archive for August, 2012

The Figures Just Don’t Add Up – Can September change that ?

“The Figures Just Don’t Add Up”. So said Phil Barton on the closure of Rounder in Brighton as their lease came to an end. To be honest I’d be amazed if anybody’s figures added up these days but it is difficult to tell. The few who claim to do well talk of increased turnover or footfall but I’m yet to see any shop say they have made a healthy profit. Of the bigger indies I can only imagine most survive because of ticket sales, online sales or second hand. I used to see totals for the Coalition chart and they were worryingly low. Now I hear the figures for the expanded Record Store Day chart are even more worrying.

The causes can be addressed another time but if despite their best efforts shop sales figures for new releases regularly struggle to hit three figures between 100 shops then something has to be said and something has to be done. We can’t keep talking of a resurgence when the figures are showing a terminal decline just to suit the latest documentary or film. With “big” albums out soon by Animal Collective, Cat Power and The XX it will be interesting to see how they fair in the independents. When I say our orders were in double figures that might seem obvious but these days 3 vinyl and 3 CD is a regular order for us and they quite simply are not the sort of figures on which we can survive.

What is more startling than these sales is the decline in the number of what might generally be called “big” indie releases for a shop like Avalanche. After the disastrous winter that greeted us following our move I was very happy with the way things were going and we had a successful first 6 months in the year. There were 17 big releases from PJ Harvey in February to Bon Iver in June. the following 6 months yielded only 5 a figure repeated in the first 6 months of 2012.

Albums from The Fleet Foxes, Explosions In The Sky, Bright Eyes,  Radiohead etc as well as strong Scottish releases from Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat, King Creosote and Jon Hopkins, Mogwai and surprise hits Conquering Animal Sound and Star Wheel Press brought a continuous flow of people into the shop. Add in continued strong sales from our album of the year by Kid Canaveral and the Savings and Loan released very late the previous year and that now seems like a halcyon time ! Why releases had dried up is not clear.

With back catalogue sales except for Scottish bands pretty well at an end too and the sales of new vinyl grossly exaggerated (0.24% up to 0.39%) the figures for stocking new product simply don’t add up and yet a constant stream of new releases is what will bring folk in. Certainly there are releases every week in September that should get people into shops and the students return in Edinburgh mid September so we have to live in hope that a run of good releases kick starts some genuine revival. Of course one good month isn’t going to change anything but the hope has to be that it is just the start.

Record Store Day 2013 and that blog about Rounder closing

The blog about Rounder in Brighton closing and what that meant for the rest of the independent shops left was thankfully very well received both at home and abroad and within and outside the music industry. Many of the responses I received also touched on Record Store Day despite my own comment of “As for Record Store Day ………… another time !”

Record Store Day in the UK has come to a crossroads as Spencer Hickman one of those heavily involved moves to New York to help with the opening of the new Rough Trade. This does however give the opportunity for everybody to take stock and decide how best we move forward. As such Record Store Day belongs to nobody and of course all the shops that take part at the same time. Avalanche was a founder member but that gives us no more right to an opinion than all the other shops out there. What I can do is summarise the many comments already made by others to me. Much of this will have already been seen by those who follow on twitter.

Clearly shops do not have the time to organise RSD and the organisers so far have done an amazing job to cope at all. However without anybody to oversee what we did and didn’t accept for instance we ended up with too much and a drop in quality. Similarly whatever the reasoning behind the pricing for some items they should have been refused on grounds of being just too expensive.

What is needed is somebody to run RSD full time. How this would be paid for is a debate in itself. There has been talk of a sponsor which is the route the Americans are going down I believe but is not popular with everybody. The labels and record companies could contribute but again I believe they have not so far been too keen on that idea. There have been offers of fundraising that I must say look promising but are in the early stages. Certainly it does look possible to raise the money necessary to have somebody full time.

I do find is disconcerting to hear opinions from those who clearly have never worked behind the counter in a shop or maybe even worse did so some time ago. Anybody employed to do this job would need extensive experience both behind the counter and dealing with record companies and labels but in what is a contracting industry I think the right person could be found. What this would do is enable something many shops requested and that is for customers to regularly be given reason to go to shops with RSD being the focal point of a year long campaign. They would also have the time to organise more high profile in-stores for RSD.

Other points made that don’t seem too controversial are that the releases should very much rely on current artists rather than reissues if shops are to be seen as relevant to today, that shops should have some reasonable track record of stocking new product if they are to take part in RSD and that as shops have a code of conduct then so should the labels and record companies so that RSD exclusives are indeed that and not available the following week elsewhere.

Shops attitude to online sales is unsurprisingly based on self interest depending how well they do in that area though clearly as the stated aim is to get people into shops selling online should be more of a last resort than an integral part of ordering. It has been suggested that releases should not go online until the last week of May just before the stock is due for payment. That does still provide a safety net while optimising the time people are encouraged to visit their local record shop.

Other ideas have either been discussed less or are more controversial. One close to home for me is whether there could be Scottish/regional RSD releases. It has been pointed out that such a regional variation already exists in America and personally I don’t have a problem with this so long as support is shown for the local shops involved and it is not used as some once a year publicity by bands and labels who spend the rest of the year trying to keep shops out of the equation.

Most controversial is whether HMV should be included as they wish. I have to say I swither back and forwards on this while most shops see it as a fairly clear no. As someone faced with competition from HMV and FOPP I can’t deny it doesn’t on the surface look attractive to exclude them but in the bigger picture it is not really HMV who are the competition. I lose far more sales now to labels and bands than HMV/FOPP. At least I know where I am with HMV while some labels give with one hand and take away with another. Of course it is a mixed picture as some are still very supportive.

Generally though it has to be the “prime directive” to encourage people that there is a better experience to be had in a high street shop than online. Nobody is ever saying that people should never buy online just that they are missing out on something and should when possible visit high street shops. It is hard to argue that many of the indies included in RSD are more worthy than HMV even with all their perceived faults. A pragmatist might argue that if DC (Direct sales to the Customer) is the biggest threat then HMV makes a better ally than enemy.

Something very close to Avalanche’s heart is the selling of posters and badges along with t-shirts and I would be keen to see more merchandise included in RSD as that would bring in those who maybe will never buy music but could potentially still become customers.

In the end even if somebody was employed full time while they could of course request anything they could only work with what they were given. Labels seem unwilling to reveal their sales but without those figures it is genuinely hard to work out what the demand for physical product is. Some labels I know do very well while others admit shops would be surprised at how little they sell. Some say they need the money and others admit they are just “maximising revenue”. I suspect that there are still enough people out there who want to buy physical product and will be for some time but if spread too thinly then shops will not survive unless they make their money elsewhere.

RSD has of course been run in conjunction with ERA (Entertainment Retail Association) who will no doubt be looking to see what its members thoughts are. Shops should let them know what they think and I will certainly forward all the comments I receive. For all their flaws not communicating with ERA will only lead to a vocal minority getting their own way as so often happens in big organisations in which few vote or take part.  

For many of us just getting through to Christmas is the main thought but at least if funds can be found and I’m fairly confident they can be then somebody could be in place to start fighting the shops’ corner very quickly indeed. 

Kicking Against The Pricks while waiting for the Eschaton

The new Withered Hand t-shirts were a concern

While Ian Rankin was in buying his Blur box set and James Yorkston new album on vinyl we were chatting about everything from the record stalls pitched up outside the shop to the relentless march by labels and bands to DC (direct to customer). “You’re certainly kicking against the pricks” Ian said.

This biblical reference reminded me of a previous comment Ian had made on twitter about my spat with Los Campesinos after I commented on their drive to sell directly to their fans. “Bands should beware immanentizing the eschaton…”. 

My position on this is very clear and funnily enough most people including many bands think it to be perfectly fair. Whether artists should sell directly to fans at the expense of shops really depends on whether an artist feels shops have been instrumental in building up that fan base in the first place. My point is that if an artist chooses to go down that route then don’t hide it from the shops as happens now. Nowhere in the email shops receive asking (sometimes begging them to stock a release) does it ever say that the artist will be selling it directly, often early and with “extras”.  It certainly never says that they will be in town selling the album at their gig the week before it is in the shops. If given such information shops would then either not take a release or massively scale back their order.

This of course applies to those bands who have distribution. Most of course now don’t. What has become more annoying over the last year or so is bands and labels complaining that shops aren’t interested in stocking their releases while just glossing over the reasons why. Of course all of this is not what is causing record shops to close with such regularity but it doesn’t help and certainly in many cases helps bring that day forward. Some might see that as a mercy putting them out of their misery but these are strange times. After what was mainly a lot of hype people are now genuinely back to buying vinyl wondering what they ever saw in CDs and downloads. Similarly there are many that think that one day in the not too distant future when HMV has closed that people will wonder why they hadn’t supported their local independent all along. Record Store Day has lost its original aim and is now associated with limited editions or buying vinyl. The latter has to be honest done us no harm this year but the message would not be so favourably looked upon by the majority of shops that still mainly sell CDs.

Don’t get me wrong shops will still need to move on to be something more than “just a record shop” but that will take time and already squeezed between HMV (and FOPP for a few) and online sellers the last thing they need is a third prong in the attack. Also that world in the future without HMV may not be what some independents might hope for. Downloads and selling direct to the customer are so attractive to record companies, labels and bands that HMV may very well be an unlikely ally of indie shops in maintaining physical product’s availability on the high street. Rough Trade have also recently argued for maintaining physical product but their particular model is very specific to themselves and not much use to the rest of us unless they aim to start giving their relentless “exclusives” to the other shops they extol the virtues of like Jumbo, Piccadilly and Resident.

Two things are for sure. Shops can not afford to support an artist knowing that at any moment they may decide they have reached that critical mass of fans they consider they need and just go it alone very possibly if they have done well with the help of a record company. Secondly without a doubt most music fans want physical product but while RT consider physical retail to be all about vinyl and CDs what the customer actually considers physical retail to be includes posters, badges, t-shirts etc. This is still not great news for shops as these too can be sold directly to fans and are already being used as “bundles” but at least they can’t be downloaded for free so we can argue amongst ourselves as to who should be selling these things.

I sincerely believe that given the chance high street retail will still make the best job of breaking and promoting bands in conjunction with their own social media. Start chipping away at that and it quickly undermines their ability to do so. For record companies, bands and labels to think they have the skills necessary to best promote and sell their releases is simply delusional. Most are as horrifically off the mark as those who keep embarrasing themselves with new ideas at HMV something that I admit would clearly need to be addressed for things to work. Let’s all do the old things well. It’s what the customer wants !

“And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”

Are there enough people left wanting physical product ?

The answer is I think yes and definitely for a good while yet. However if those sales are too fragmented then the physical format becomes less viable. Shops of course have the highest overheads and therefore without a certain level of sales can not survive. While there may be enough physical sales in total if shops don’t get enough of those sales then they have to close. That in turn with have a detrimental affect on physical sales and I do of course include HMV in that equation.

Selling music and making music are two completely different skills and selling in a shop and selling online are two very different processes too. For a good album with the potential to reach a wider audience by far the best strategy is still to go though shops. As is happening this year with good comedy shows that are finding it hard to get that initial word of mouth if a band insists on an album launch and a bandcamp page they will kill their album in 3 months as all potential for word of mouth and a “buzz” for the release are lost.

Now if a band is just “alright” then a low key, low sales strategy makes perfect sense. For those with more ambition a band will roughly need to sell 100 CDs in a shop for every 60 they could sell themselves for the same financial return and that is before they factor in the benefit of 100 sales in then reaching even more people rather than 60 at a launch. A good band should fancy those odds.

We had 5 people come into the shop after a There Will Be Fireworks gig attended I was later told by 35 people and ask for the CD saying the band were amazing. By incompetence rather than design they had not had the album on sale. Because of that we got in touch and 300+ sales later the rest is history. When Dan’s peers were saying Withered Hand were very good indeed but would always be very niche I was saying from a shop persrective he could be as big as Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes. I may still be proved right. People now seem to forget what a shock it was when Kid Canaveral had our biggest selling album two years ago and that happened simply because I promised it was up there with the Wedding Present’s “George Best” and folk were not disappointed.

Edinburgh School for the Deaf are the Mary Chain meets Phil Spector. The Olympic Swimmers are the Cocteau Twins meet a Scottish Sigur Ros. Best of all The Savings and Loan are as good as Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave at their best. That is a double bluff as the customer will be sure that can’t be true and then be amazed by the quality of the album. Meursault have shades of Neutral Milk Hotel (there is no better recommendation in Avalanche than that) and the Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat album is simply one of the best albums you will hear this decade.    

Star Wheel Press left nothing to chance with an amazing sleeve and album leading to the very valid point that since Ryan was a relatively well known artist the sleeve was worth a tenner in its own right ! Dan is Neil young meets Daniel Johnston and a customer was never disappointed with Avalanche’s “house band”  Broken Records (Beirut meets Arcade Fire). This is how shops sell an artist’s music and some of us do it very well indeed. I get over in two sentences what many a blogger can’t say in several paragraphs. More importantly the customer is very, very pleased indeed to have discovered music to their liking. We sell customers the music they will like not our own personal favourites. It just so happens that often the two do coincide.    

As for buying online that will never replace the experience of going in a shop. Yes you will get what you know you want. Yes you will get it cheaply and yes you will get it at your convenience. Where is the fun in that ? If I can continue to keep Avalanche’s head above water and that is a big  ”if” I will as promised resurrect the Avalanche label and will put the money I don’t have where my mouth is.      

Have UK record companies given up on physical music too soon?

This is a “survey” by Music Week  but wearing my stats nerd hat it is a bit pointless in proving something I certainly think is true. 

POLL: The subject of the CD’s decline is rife amongst record labels after music retail has experienced it’s toughest year ever.

Yet independent store Rough Trade is on course to post another double-digit growth in revenues this year, whlst encouraging an injection of belief into the potential of physical media.

What do you think? Has the music industry given up on physical format in favour of a digital-only marketplace too soon?

You can then simply answer YES or NO.

The problem is of course that people are more likely to be bothered to register a vote of YES as they feel strongly about physical product. While an accurate figure for folk who feel this way might be useful this is not the way to find that figure. Secondly the statement that Rough Trade are on course to post a double-digit growth in revenue means very little indeed. Anybody can achieve that even on a like for like basis depending on stocking policy and pricing. What would be impressive would be any increase in profit. Of course that might very well be the case too though a quick google could find nothing but statements of increases in turnover etc but never any mention of profit since RTE opened. 

So while I would hope for a big YES vote and that RT are making more profit (let’s face it if they can’t make a profit with their reputation and financial backing we are all fucked) this is not the way to get the answer to the very serious question  ”Have UK record companies given up on physical music too soon?” 

Geeks, nerds, indie “kids” and the mainstream

I’ve had the same conversation several times recently in which labels/bloggers have talked about reaching the mainstream when what they mean is reaching the regular indie buyers who listen to indie/local bands but don’t normally read blogs, go to album launches or listen to Vic Galloway. Knowing your target market is obviously important and they fail on two counts. They don’t seem to think they are “indie geeks” so they assume there are far more people like them than there actually are and then as I’ve already said they don’t understand what it is the customer wants. Releasing things on cassette is just the tip of the iceberg in “not getting it”.  

I’ve a backlog of blogs “which some people might find offensive” so I’ll say no more except that I am one of those geeks and can be nerdy not just about music but also football, statistics and animals as those who saw my tweet about zebu being a better choice than zebra in the children’s animal game will testify.

And yes for all you twitter geeks out there this was what my tweet was about at the end of all those Shakespeare quotes. The National – “I’ll explain everything to the geeks”.

Markets in the Grassmarket

I didn’t get much chance to look at the market on Sunday but it had to be better than Saturday’s. The first problem with the Saturday markets held in August which I’m reliably informed are a “tradition” is that they are too big. We need people IN the Grassmarket and the stalls take up so much space there is very little space left for people so much so that it is a tight squeeze just to walk between the seating outside the cafes and restaurants and the first wave of junk stalls. The second problem is that most of the stalls are “a bit shit”. Now everybody seems to know this but nobody wants to offend the organisers. OK “a bit shit” isn’t tactful but others with more time to be tactful could explain it would need to get better just to come up to a car boot sale standard. Shops and cafes/restaurants in the Grassmarket pay a huge amount of rent and rates to be there and can not afford to have some of the best Saturdays of the year ruined in this way.

Which brings me to the next problem. Grassmarket traders pay to be there all year and then just when business is looking up competition sets up outside your door. Whether that be vintage clothing stalls outside Armstrongs, record stalls outside Avalanche, juice bars outside Hula or as Bill the owner of the joke shop was telling me even a board of jokes on a stall outside the joke shop. In better economic times it would be an annoyance but now it is taking away crucial business at a time when more and more it is the weekends when most of the takings are made.

None of these stalls bring people to the Grassmarket but instead rely on those who will already be there. Believe me I have looked extensively online and promotion of these markets and stalls is minimal. While the latest market was “last minute” in these days of instant social media even that isn’t too late to promote.

Fruit stall in Barcelona market

Of course something like a farmers market or arts market (not a craft fair) will if regular and well promoted bring people to the Grassmarket though even the latter might impinge on those already in the Grassmarket and I would understand if on balance others felt that affected their business. I did see on Sunday a big fruit (and veg ?) stall that looked great and I will certainly be supporting that this week. It is exactly the sort of stall that we need.

So if you see stalls in the Grassmarket remember that it is the shops that are there all year and support them wherever possible as a first choice. If you see that record you’ve been looking for or the perfect vintage dress on a stall then of course it is only sensible to buy it but if you need a glass of juice go to Hula and if you need  a piece of plastic that looks like a dog shit go to the joke shop. 

I am of course speaking for myself here and not directly on behalf of any other Grassmarket traders.

Schoolkids Records in Athens, Georgia – sadly no more

I had two ladies in today from Athens, Georgia who both bought CDs. They asked if I was still doing OK as I reminded them of their local shop Schoolkids that had closed last year and caused quite a shock in doing so. I googled the shop later and could see why they had said it.

This quirky shop in downtown Athens is one of a handful of stores deeply devoted to the legendary Athens scene. It carries CDs and vinyl from the the leading lights of the indie-rock and singer-songwriter genres, and also occasionally hosts in-store performances by local artists.

They recommended the other shop still left Wuxtry for my idea of sending out CDs saying that Athens folk were very loyal to their local scene and would appreciate the gesture. And what did they buy. One bought the new Shins album while the other loved the album I was playing and bought the first Meursault  album.   

Scottish music world domination plan !

Most people would be surprised I think at Scottish indeoendent music’s worldwide appeal and also the international reputation of Avalanche. People come from all over the world to visit the shop often but not always based on our reputation for recommending Scottish bands. We are also well known for selling bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, Bright Eyes and Beirut but especially since our move our reputation for not only having a wide selection of Scottish bands but also helping customers find music they like seems to have grown massively. Our support for local bands of course goes all the way back to the later Shop Assistants singles which we still sell regularly. Older customers also remember our work with many New Zealand bands.

Anyway the result of all this is that we regularly get in the shop other shop owners, workers or regular customers who recommend their shops as potentially partners with Avalanche in our support of Scottish music. There are bands I know would sell worldwide because I play them in the shop and people from all over the world come to the counter and ask to buy. Star Wheel Press are the latest example of course but there must be around a dozen, maybe 15 bands that either sell loads when played or when recommended after listening to a customer’s tastes.

My plan would be to send free of charge a couple of each album to the world’s best shops as have been recommended to me all housed in a nice display box. These would be shops I know would support the albums and of course the plan is that they will sell so well that they will want more. There would of course also be a worldwide press campaign to coincide. There is interest from LA, Chicago, Nashville, New York and many more in the US. Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Lisbon, Barcelona, Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam, Oslo, Stockholm, Gothenberg, Zurich, Rome, Berlin, Athens, Melbourne and Sydney to name just some of those who have expressed an interest.

It would not cost a huge amount of money but it would take up a fair amount of my time as it would all be done by personal contact. What we need is a sponsor who would benefit from the world wide coverage it would receive. Shops and customers will listen to these albums because of Avalanche’s reputation but they will buy them because of the quality of the songs.

Only recently I mentioned the idea in passing to Grimey’s in Nashville after one of their customers had been in wearing their Record Store Day t-shirt. They immediately came back saying they would love to hear more of our Scottish bands and thought it was a great idea. Interestingly in the previous two weeks I had sold copies of Emily Scott’s albums to people from Nashville who had said she would do well there and should come over and play.  

Everything is ready to go and all that is needed is the money to cover the cost and my time.