The music industry – customers not fans (part two)

Knowing how many fans a band had among your customers was key to success in the eighties and nineties when coming up with a base figure to order for smaller indie bands. However for most releases you then added a figure on top which was often far greater than the fan base figure allowing for what you thought other customers would buy. 

Another factor would be how good the album was which may seem a daft thing to say but playing a good album at lunchtime or after 4pm when workers and students were finishing for the day could lead to many sales as we proved all those years ago with the Whipping Boy “Heartworm” album.

It is still considered a classic today but didn’t sell as well as expected. Sony asked me to meet the band and their rep to explain why we had sold hundreds when elsewhere sales were slow. The answer was quite simply that we knew it would appeal to our customers and we could sell four or five a day just by playing it at the right time to people who had never heard of the band.

Shops have different types of customers and fans were just one type but as more people shopped online they became a bigger part of the equation and at that very time labels and artists themselves decided to target those fans directly. The online shoppers who knew they wanted, the new Bjork album for instance, would if they had gone to  a shop often have seen other things they wanted or may well have asked what else was new. Buying online, normally from Amazon, meant the album arrived through their letterbox on the Monday but all those potential other album sales were lost. You also have to remember this was at the height of Amazon not paying VAT sold a £10 Bjork CD was £8 from Amazon. 

Buying online is fine for buying what you know you want but what became clear was that it was costing lesser known band sales. When bigger local bands started selling directly, often to fans who had first discovered their music in a shop, then the writing really was on the wall for newer, smaller artists. 

There were many people we just saw a few times a year buying the big local releases they couldn’t get in HMV or FOPP but they very rarely just bought just one album and often bought many other local releases asking for recommendations since they were last in. Once we started to lose those customers to direct sales the other bands lost out too.

Eventually I insisted that to stock a release I needed to have it on sale at the same time as the band for the same price and have the same thing. Quite a few took exception to this claiming it was their album to do with as they wished. This of course is true but it was my job to give customers best value and making them wait a week or so to buy an album with no extras for a higher price was clearly daft.

Given a chance we could still do a great job as we showed with the Withered Hand album “New Gods”. We sold 120 of the gold vinyl which was limited to 500 and 150 CDs. Most of those customers, even the online ones, also bought something else. If you look at our online shop you will see a section with “customers also bought” and it will have lots of other similar releases when often those online shops that do use this feature have very little. 

What this has brought us back to again is the customer. My policy on stocking was completely based around the customer, not making demands from the bands or worrying about lost sales. Don’t get me wrong it was clear that if shops lost too many sales then the feasibilty of supporting local bands became questionable but the key thing was happy customers and I simply could not match what they could get directly.

Of course when I was selling an album to a visitor asking for recommendations none of the above mattered but that is far more time consuming. We went from selling to fans and then maybe half again on recommendation to selling most on recommendation. At the same time a small local album that we might have sold an extra ten or twenty of on the back of bigger artists started to suffer badly too.

As I say online shop customers would make up for this a little as our reputation for recommending good albums moved to social media. Probably the last album to benefit that way was Laurie Cameron’s album “The Girl Who Cried For The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. Great title, great artwork and a great album ! Now Avalanche’s influence has never been greater but folk will simply go and stream any album we support. 

Which brings us up to where we are today. I had a large number of lovely messages from people when they bought things online this Christmas. Mostly they were people who had been in Edinburgh as students and very much enjoyed shopping at Avalanche and discovering bands they still loved but had since moved away. Many clearly now kept informed on social media and wished me luck with the new plans.

They may be big now but many people discovered bands like Belle and Sebastian and Mogwai through Avalanche and still remember first hearing them in the shop. Others recollected long chats sometimes just as visitors and having come away with a bag full of albums they still played today. To be honest as a shop I just don’t think that sort of thing is possible any more. 

I remember well somebody buying the There Will Be Fireworks albums online when they came back in stock. With his order was a note saying I probably wouldn’t remember but I had been playing the EP that was in stock in St Mary’s Street and he had asked what it was and bought it. He had waited ever since to see the albums on sale and thanked me for introducing him to the band. He was based in Germany and I did remember. 

If I still had the shop I don’t believe any of this would still be possible except on rare occasions. Students would hang around Avalanche in West Nicolson Street when we opened at 9.30am waiting for a 10am lecture whereas now they would sit drinking coffee and looking at their phone. Many customers became friends and I still see a few people from those days in the eighties and early nineties today. I even went to the Potterrow reunion !

On the other hand while there are a few people in bands I hope I can call friends my interest is simply in promoting good music. Meanwhile to a large extent now the Scottish music industry is just friends helping each other out. While this is not always a bad thing when it becomes the norm and at the expense of other bands progressing it is not a healthy situation. That this is actually encouraged officially under the title of “networking” says a lot about the state things are in.

I am hoping that if I can get the new exhibition centre off the ground then the shop element of it can bring back some of that experience that people had discovering new Scottish bands. There was a really nice vibe at the Fruitmarket exhibition with lots of old faces popping in to say hello and even more people I’d never met particularly wanting to chat about the sixties which have largely been forgotten but were a great time for Scottish bands. I learnt a lot !

Most people only buy two or three albums a year believe it or not and those albums are normally by Ed Sheeran, Adele and a handful of others. Keen fans buy directly and casual fans mainly buy from HMV and Amazon and now quite scarily supermarkets. Direct to fan sales are just that and can not replicate larger more varied customer sales in a shop.

Not even labels and record companies with new artists to promote look at the bigger picture and consider that their strategy with their established bands is holding back newer bands. So this blog isn’t a futile attempt to change anything, it is just to explain what I hope will be the new centre’s philosophy of looking beyond fans and taking new and older Scottish music to new people and giving all musicians a chance.      

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