“When our time comes, when our time comes
I will know, I will know” Whipping Boy
And so it is time. Last Friday I bumped into Martin from the Filthy Tongues and he handed me CDs of their new album. I was particularly interested to see the finished CD as I’d been responsible for Martin discovering the artist Gerrry Gapinski whose artwork had been used for the cover. Regular followers will be familiar with Gerry’s work from the Avalanche tweets and blog. I tweeted we had the album not realising its official release date was the following Friday and immediately gave it a listen to be more than pleasantly surprised at just how good it was. Two more plays later and I was sure this would be one of our albums of the year and with great artwork too !
I was aware that the album was on sale from the band with a variety of prints which given our involvement it would have been nice to have but I could live with that. However I was then sent a barrage of very polite and apologetic messages asking if I could hold off selling the album until their fan base had received it first and their HMV launch the following week. I completely understand why I was asked but the bottom line is even with an album with a cover courtesy of Avalanche we are way down the pecking order.
Now for most albums given we would only sell a handful after the band and HMV took their cut it would not be an issue at least for the band. However the problem with this is that it is a very good album indeed but once the fans have it and HMV have given it a couple of weeks it will be finished unless of course someone happens to stand there day in day out telling people asking for recommendations what a good album it is and playing it so people will ask what it is. People love it when there is a story behind an album so if they had any doubts Gerry’s artwork will seal it. Add in our social media and website and sales from our end of year chart and the numbers start to mount. We will never reach the 800+ sales we achieved for the first Withered Hand album again but even so.
Then there is another dilemma. We go on social media and say this will without doubt be one of our albums of the year and many of our followers will simply go to FOPP or HMV and buy it because they are nearer. But there is more.
When the Frightened Rabbit album was announced I immediately received enquiries as to whether there would be an Avalanche or indies special. We had sold 110 out of 500 of the last limited vinyl. At the time HMV/FOPP were in administration and only stocking important titles on CD. Vinyl was not considered an important enough format for any artist even when they were playing an in-store as Frightened Rabbit were. I was fairly sure but not certain that this time there was no special format something that was recently confirmed. Meanwhile fans were encouraged to buy from the band’s Warners website with the vinyl a bargain £12.99 for a signed copy. Again as I suspected this is actually less than the cost to a shop who would expect to sell it for £16.99. Want a signed CD ? That will be Amazon or the band website at a price this time just above cost.
Never mind the week before has some great releases. Explosions In The Sky with a limited vinyl except that their UK label put it on sale ages ago at again a price below cost. The Last Shadow Puppets also have a limited vinyl but you can be sure their label will email the entire LSP/Arctic Monkeys fan base to sell directly and if previous emails are anything to go by not even mention it will be available in shops. That leaves us with a limited indies only Mogwai vinyl which shops are at least given a fair chance to sell.
Depressing as all this might be for a shop like myself it is nothing compared to the Record Store Day list for this year. Given the fantastic rosters many record companies and labels have what shops have been offered is a huge disappointment but not a great surprise given vinyl reissues were once an unusual occurrence whereas they now appear every week. Collectors will still buy the artists they collect but it is no wonder so many shops are asking what people are looking for as it is impossible to guess what these once a year customers will buy.
It is no coincidence that just two weeks before Record Store Day there is an independent label fair in London with excatly the sort of interesting goodies that Record Store Day should be all about. As a consequence I’ve decided to wirhdraw from RSD. No doubt we would have sold a few Primal Scream, Malcolm Middleton and Associates singles but then on the other hand we will have lost far more sales to those artists who all currently have their new albums / reissues available on PledgeMusic.
My original intention had been to assess how we moved forward after RSD but with that decision made it seemed sensible to decide on the shop’s future now. Given all I’ve said it is clear that there is simply not enough business left after everybody else takes a cut for Avalanche to do what we have done for the last 30 years and consequently I will shut the doors by the end of the month. There has been a huge interest in the History of Scottish Music Centre idea and it will give me time to pursue that. It is a decision made even harder when only this week there have been customers in especially from the US, Australia and Europe just to buy vinyl, Scottish bands, posters and Avalanche t-shirts. The first email I opened yesterday was from an Italian customer returning to Edinburgh wondering if I had anything as good as the There Will Be Fireworks album I sold him on his last visit.
What will end is a dedicated shop where customers can buy the music they have often read about via our social media. What is possible or indeed likely is that there will still be a place customers can go to buy the music we are so well known for whether that is part of a Scottish Music Centre or elsewhere. Avalanche’s influence and worldwide reach has never been greater but now we are in competition with artists, labels and record companies there is not enough support to continue. You should buy the Filthy Tongues album it is a great album. Frightened Rabbit are it goes without saying a wonderful band and I heard from Scott only yesterday offering support. This is just how things are now. There will be a sale.
More in our next post http://www.avalancherecords.co.uk/2016/03/27/our-time-has-come/
I totally get artists concentrating on their superfans though it does sometimes feel like fans are being taken advantage of and potential new fans are being ignored but I think there is a far bigger issue than that. I’ve yet to see any convincing strategy for new artists to build up the kind of fan bases that the older established artists have garnered under of course the old regime of record companies, labels and record shops. Current experts talk a good game but the gathering of emails and other info can not replace the loyalty built up by more traditional methods as was done a decade or more ago. Even the Arctic Monkeys are now seasoned veterans of ten years or more.
There is a reason that the PledgeMusic model has moved towards established bands preselling their releases and that is that is what works best. For small bands trying to convince strangers to support them PledgeMusic will at best only have a marginal efect. It wouldn’t surprise me if a whole load of stats were produced to prove otherwise but then proof that these new models work rely very heavily on figures and very little on “real world” success.
In the real world small bands and labels regularly tell me that the vinyl revival has done them no favours and that building a sustainable fan base has never been harder. Even for bigger bands if sales are very fan based then their album is soon forgotten and only for a band like Primal scream does the model work well with hardcore fans catered for by PledgeMuisc and the larger casual fan base then served by HMV and Amazon. Despite his best intentions and efforts Benji Rogers’ PledgeMusic may very well have done more harm to new/small bands than the good that was intended.
There is a common misconception that vinyl just naturally gives a “warmer” sound. Of course in reality if you use a digital master it will sound no better than a CD. More importantly an awful song on vinyl will still be dreadful. A great song will be great on any format. A vinyl sleeve is the perfect “shop window” for a band and it should never be underestimated the importance of a band’s name or its album and song titles but vinyl itself is not cool. What matters is the music.
It was bad enough when the focus of Record Store Day went from supporting independent shops to buying vinyl but now the focus seems to have switched from the music itself to the format it is presented on. While I’m always happy to talk about music and especially new music at least 80% of customers’ conversations these days now seems to revolve around “I see vinyl is making a comeback”. It is clear that many have no problem with this trend and while I’m all for young people in particular discovering older music, in fact I would encourage it, however if that is all there is then along with other factors (of which more later) it will be impossible for a new generation of musicians to come through with anything but the most minimal success.
The Wedding Present are just the latest band to sell to their fans via PledgeMusic with an album “Going, Going …” not due out for another six months. Founder Benji Rogers’ original plan to help small bands raise funds is long gone and well established bands taking this route is now the norm as it is all about maximising revenue from the superfans.
They join Malcolm Middleton, Primal Scream and a host of others from The Blake Babies and UK Subs to Gary Numan who interestingly reveals the number of pledges curently at 4.639. More current artists with deals still tend to sell through their own website supported by their label. A wide array of bundles (t-shirts, prints etc) only avaialble from the artist or label are often available while some may simply offer a limited number of signed items or limited vinyl.
At very best this limited vinyl may be an “indie’s only” and also available to shops but even then as for instance happened with The Explosions in the Sky album it will be on sale from the label long before the shops have any details. Labels regularly send me personal emails telling me about these “exclusive” releases but somehow fail to mention they will also be in shops.
Avalanche’s policy has always been to offer the customer the best deal available and that is simply not possible with virtually all the important releases due in the next few months. I understand none of this is a problem for the casual fan who pops into HMV or FOPP to buy a new release CD for a tenner. Also if there is an endless stream of in-stores as happens with a very few select shops down south then these issues are at least mitigated.
Avalanche’s strength is its international reputation for selling Scottish music and that has not changed. What I do find is that customers are now often not aware of even the biggest bands so I will recommend Frightened Rabbit and Mogwai along with Laurie Cameron and Trapped Mice via Emma Pollock and Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat. As I’ve said many times before selling to fans is easy but creating new fans is the hard part and apart from the most loyal of customers that is what is left to us. Our stromg social media and online presence can certainly bring an artist to the atention of a worldide audience but sales is a different thing.
With HMV the home of the casual local fan and artists and labels selling to fans directly that just leaves us the rest of the world ! That Histoty of Scottish Music Centre would be the perfect platform.
After some soul searching I decided that I would register the shop for this year’s Record Store Day. It may now be nothing like the event we envisaged when we had that first Record Store Day in 2008 with no product at all, just in-stores and a few special offers, but that doesn’t mean Avalanche can’t celebrate the way it was intended.
Given that every day is Record Store Day these days with limited edition “vinyls” released every week it will be interesting to see what releases are planned.
Personally I’ll be disappointed if there isn’t an Adele sings the songs of David Bowie picture disc but hey let’s not be too cynical, at least not yet !
My favourite part of RSD these days outwith Avalanche is a week later on twitter as some shops and some pretend shops reassure customers that they have done all they can to not have their websites crash as “remaining RSD stock” goes live online at midnight. Many thousands of RSD items (much more than most shops sell on the day) are sold in a matter of hours at a time when any sensible record shop owner is asleep. I try never to go to bed until at least one site has crashed.
It has been said understandably we would never have anything more spectacular than 500 people for Frightened Rabbit in the shadow of the castle. It’s a tough ask but I’ll give it a go !
One thing that has changed is that when music is new to somebody they only buy the music they love. Whether new music or simply new to the customer it doesn’t matter so for instance if I recommend The Twilight Sad to somebody who has never heard of them out of 5 people one may not be keen, one may buy but the other three will say how good it is and how they will go away and listen to more. Especially with local bands there was a time when the only way to hear more was to buy but now of course there are several options.
Often people make lists on their phones of things we have recommended and these days may not even feel obliged to buy anything at all. Of course this is not always the case and only yesterday a customer from Greece, in especially for the second Broken Records album on vinyl, asked for a recommendation and after listening to the Oran Mor Session eventually plumped for the limited Twilight Sad RSD double LP.
This is a problem not just for shops but for small bands trying to build a fan base. The constant talk of making the most of superfans is all good if you are an established band but not so good for bands starting out. On the other hand there is no reason for people to spend their money on music they simply like. The one explanation that artists seem to understand is comparing someone who is a talented musician with somebody who is a talented footballer. Somebody may be a good footballer while not playng professionally but they would never expect their workmates to all come along to watch them. Similarly these days people simply have other things to do (even if that is watching 6 episodes of Breaking Bad !) than go along and watch a band be “quite good”. They might find time to give their music a listen but pay for it !
To be fair this is why I recommend only a limited amount of things each year and we can still have successes as Laurie Cameron proved. I find having an album of the week simply daft. Also if I’m honest while those whose job it is to constantly claim there is lots of great new music out there do so, the truth is that there isn’t. More importantly now the customer can listen to anything before buying they agree. Some things will appeal to a niche audience and that is fine but there aren’t many albums each year which we can play in the shop and guarantee to have people coming to the counter asking what we are playing. Clearly this is not a great business model for selling. However if we sold huge amounts of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin reissues or even god forbid Adele there would be a safety net there but of course we don’t. Much as I love Joy Division and The Smiths when kids do buy them a part of me wishes they were buying something at least a little more recent like The National.
Playing in a band is a great hobby to have as is playing football but online all bands are the same and people simply don’t have the time or inclination to wade through the average to find the few gems. Also there is if truth be told only a limited number of folk out there with any interest in new music. Take away all the Adele, Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith fans, add to them all those who go no further than the Arctic Monkeys and the Libertines and there aren’t a lot of people left. At the height of music sales the average person only bought six albums a year. Now it is down to one or two.
Of course bands who do reach a certain level then often clog up the small arena that is left with solo or side projects and of course if they split up several more bands can be spawned. That new artist trying to get their first break simply doesn’t have a chance. If you are as good as Withered Hand, There Will Be Fireworks, Star Wheel Press, Quickbeam and most recently Laurie Cameron we may indeed be able to sell your album along with a handful of other artists customers may not have heard of. Interestingly more and more we find that customers have not heard of the “big names” like Frightened Rabbit, The Twilight Sad or even Belle & Sebastian ! When a customer asks for Scottish post rock we would assume they had heard of Mogwai. Now we have to ask.
Incorporating all this into any sort of sensible business plan hasn’t been easy but hopefully there is now a way forward more of which at a later date.
For a variety of reasons I’ve had to look through old Avalanche blogs recently and was amazed to find my self reading over them not knowing what was coming next ! It often seems a long time ago now. People still refer to the blog a lot, even old posts and I can now sort of see why. There is quite a lot of “this isn’t good” or “if we don’t do something bad things will happen ” and to be fair to myself a fair amount of “this is what we should do to stop the bad things happening”.
I say that because simply moaning isn’t good enough if you don’t have positive ways of moving forward. Whether I was talking about the music industry and record shops in particular or the high street and the Grasmarket in particular I simply felt that wrong paths were being taken that would eventually prove disastrous not specifically for a record shop in the Grassmarket trying to support local music but disastrous in the far bigger picture.
What I didn’t predict was the “vinyl revival” which has very much muddied the waters and the level of support that would be given to HMV/FOPP by the music industry and landlords in order to make them a viable business.
More recently I felt that a blog that simply pointed out how I had been right about things or simply recorded how bad things had got served no positive purpose without some new way forward. Twitter is great for not letting the current situations be ignored but anything more lengthy seemed pointless. The old ideas still remained valid but had been universally ignored by those with the ability to instigate them so until I was able to bring about change myself or indeed things changed to make new ways forward possible there was nothing left but to look for those positive ways.
So after several false starts I’m fairly confident we have a plan in place that will make a difference. What will follow is a series of blogs on the current state of things clearly from a personal perspective but they will explain how ideas have been formed and plans put in place. Issues can be very different now in other parts of the UK while in some matters problems are indeed global. What will then follow will be a solution for what Avalanche faces both locally and globally. Others may have a model that works for them but so far I’ve seen nothing that would help Avalanche. I have no interest in purely concentrating on the past or indeed relocating to London !
A planning application for the King’s Stables Road site has now been lodged and it can be viewed here
Not too much more can be said that hasn’t been said already in previous blogs. Edinburgh Council clearly understood what was needed here both in supporting the arts and improving footfall in the area and instead took the money for a hotel and student flats being the main focus. The only surprise is that even now the developers are unable to name their hotel partner despite promising it would not be a budget hotel and would be declared in time for the planning application and that the much reduced arts facility still doesn’t have a taker when you would imagine there would be arts organisations out there prepared to sell their souls to developers in return for free space.
In terms of objecting to the planning application it is hard to see what can be said. Edinburgh Council have ignored their own brief for the site so they are not now going to refuse permission on that basis. The developers have certainly paid too much for the site so unless they try to drop their price at some point I can’t see how the council will suddenly have a change of heart and revert back to their original demands. It would appear that so far there have been no comments at all. It would certainly still do no harm to object on the basis it does not comply with the council’s original brief and that in particular the arts complex concept fails both in its diminished size and in being an attractuion.
As for the Grassmarket which would benefit hugely from footfall being dragged through from the Victoria Street/Cowgate end to the West Port and King’s Stables Road it seems to have been abandoned by the council completely now. Plans to finally have some attractions at Christmas were voted down even for a trial week never mind the month envisaged on the basis of complaints from a very small but vocal number of residents. While footfall in November was generally disappointing everywhere in the Grassmarket where figures were already at an all time low footfall was down 47.2% month on month and down 25.1% year on year.
These are huge drops and while it would be inconceivable that December’s figures would also drop is has to be remembered how low those December figures are with even Underbelly saying in 2014 “Footfall in the Grassmarket is less in December than in February. We need to bring some of those 2.6 million people who passed through our two sites at St Andrew Square and East Princes Street Gardens to the Old Town.” To put that in persective footfall in the Grassmarket this November was 111,319 and that figure is taken from the far busier end and includes all the night time traffic which of course is of no use to shops.
More and more Edinburgh Council is happy to have pop ups appear during all the best trading months but leave shops paying rent and rates all year round. At the same time the council works with Essential Edinburgh and Underbelly to do all it can to keep visitors and shoppers within a very small part of the wider city centre at Christmas and New Year. Without doubt the Grassmarket is not the only area to suffer and in what is already tough times on the high street to let some pick and choose when to trade while discriminating against shops trading all year can only have dire consequences in the future.
One of the unfortunate consequences of the ongoing saga of whether the Old Royal High School will be diminished by the hotel wings being added and if a music school would be a better choice is that an important part of the equation has been forgotten. Yes adding the hotel will take the school off the at risk register but little has been said by either side on the benefits of the well documented support Rosewood and the Urbanist Group give to the arts.
The benefits are indeed fourfold. First of all the school will be used to showcase the best that Edinburgh and Scotland has to offer covering all artistic mediums which of course includes music. I’m told there will be at least three venues on the site from a small intimate room with 60 seats to a much larger room catering for 300+. The school will be used for exhibitions and also for the sale of the best Scotland has to offer in the arts. The school will therefore not only be saved but providing a valuable home to the artistic community.
Secondly it will be putting all of this in front of some very rich, famous and indeed influential people. I can relate any number of stories of how well connected people who have come into Avalanche have helped bands I’ve recommended one of the best being the famous American actor who loved Withered Hand so much he not only came to see Dan when he played in LA but still takes Dan’s CD with him when in a movie to see whether he can get his music into the film ! Only last month I had a young girl in from Beijing obviously one of the new wealthy Chinese middle class who came in to buy a Scottish album on vinyl as a wedding present for her brother and ended up buying every album I recommended and was so pleased with the time I spent explaining the band’s music to her she had her photo taken in the shop and could not have been more pleased. Having such a clientele literally on the doorstep will be a fantastic boost for all the arts not just music.
Thirdly Rosewood have a worldwide reputation from their established hotels for supporting the arts and as we all know there is a worldwide interest in Scotland so there is a synergy there that can not be underestimated. Also in these days of endless cutbacks they have very deep pockets indeed and will not skimp on promoting and sponsoring the Scottish arts. The Urbanist Group themselves are no slouches when it come to sponsoring the arts either and I would defy even the most cynical arts journalist to meet with joint founder David Orr and not acknowledge his passion.
Fourthly the school will finally be open to the public, as will of course be the hotel’s bars and restaurants, but given the school has been a public building for so long it is a tragedy that the stunning panoramic view from the school’s portico has been unavailable, an added irony with so much importance placed on the view to the school.
There is of course much more from Rosewood’s policy of supporting local businesses to their Slow Food & Living Markets and as I’ve said a lot of this has been lost in this constant talk of the hotel wings. For those of us not so precious about the views and we are all entitled to an opinion the economic benefits alone make a good case for the hotel. There may be 2,000 people prepared to sign a petition but that is a very small percentage of Edinburgh’s population and the truth is a large part of the general public are in favour just by no means as vocally.
You may quite rightfully ask why more has not been made of all this. From what I can make out both sides have concentrated on the nitty gritty of the planning application given that that is where much of the detail lies. On the other hand I’m told planning submissions are normally very general with regard to the arts as anything in the submission developers can be held to. Most developers as I know from the King’s Stables Road site are indeed looking to do as little as posible to fulfill their arts obligation but in the case of the Old Royal High School hotel this is certainly not the case. What the music school intervention has done is make it very hard for the arts and culture sector to support the hotel without seeming to be taking sides. Should the hotel application be successful I think you would see a very different picture emerge very quickly.
Nobody is claiming the hotel is the perfect solution, but it is the best solution and will without a shadow of a doubt benefit the arts community far more than any other option.
Since being persuaded to help with the proposed arts complex for King’s Stables Road I’ve come to understand gradually the world of developers and Edinburgh Council together with the arts community and general public’s response to development with or without an arts leaning. It is something that to be honest had passed me by previously but in a way that helped as I had no previous baggage of causes lost or words spoken. Then when at the last minute the development I was involved with lost the King’s Stables Road site to a developer clearly only interested in a hotel and student flats after all that had been said to me by Edinburg Council there was immediately a sense of injustice that I have to say so far hasn’t abated with time.
I was drawn into a world of budget versus luxury or high-end quirky hotels. An arts community divided into many factions mostly, and many would say understandably, only interested in their own specific needs. Arts journalists rather than artists tend to look at “the big picture”. And Edinburgh Council were everything people complained about and more despite having an awful lot of good people working for them. I understood the retail problems but this was a whole new world.
Consequently I crossed paths with Bruce Hare and Duddingston House Properties firstly over King’s Stables Road and then briefly when asking about the Odeon. What I have to say was Bruce Hare was the only developer I spoke to who took the arts complex idea for King’s Stable’s Road seriously and showed genuine enthusiam for what could be achieved. When I plucked up courage to ask what was happening with the Odeon he seemed determined that he would find somebody who would keep it as an entetainment venue. That has now recemtly proved to be the case. So I was more than surprised when I saw how the succesful bid to turn the Royal High School site into a world class hotel while saving and restoring the school was being portrayed.
I was further confused when the Music School option appeared. I wasn’t an expert on these things but from what I had learned over King’s Stables Road the hotel bid had been successful against 50+ others so not only would the developers be given plenty of time to get planning but also should they eventually fail there would be other developers waiting in the wings with far more rights than the Music School. Those behind the Music School were clearly well versed in planning matters so I just assumed there was something I had missed. Then a couple of days ago there was a statement from the hotel developers confirming all I had thought.
Clearly the best thing to do now was accept there was going to be a hotel and come together to make the very best of the massive opportunity there was for the Royal High School itself to become a centre for the arts. Alas no. The response was to start a petition. You do start to get the feeling that there is a small group of well educated, arts and heritage orientated people who I suspect could afford to stay in the proposed six star hotel who think they know what is best for the rest of us. The building has been empty and allowed to get into disrepair for almost 50 years and what is needed as soon as possible is something to happen and not a campaign to stop things happening.
When Edinburgh Council asked me to get involved with the developers looking at King’s Stables Road they made it clear they were fed up with being promised arts facilities that once the proposed hotels and flats had been built never materialised. That obviously made it all the more galling when the preferred bid was one that clearly would follow that pattern. Even now they have no plan beyond dedicating two floors of a five storey building to “the arts” and their planning application is due this month.
On the other hand there is no doubt about Bruce Hare’s enthusiasm for the arts and Rosewood the hotel operator has a track record that speaks for itself. I don’t think anybody thinks the hotel wings are perfect but they are the best solution given all the constraints and opinions that had to be cosidered. In particular from what I have read the number of rooms and therefore the size of the wings was determined by the land owner and the look was determined by those wanting something that “blended in” more than more orthodox buildings.
So there is an opportunity to restore the iconic Royal High School to its former glory and make it a centre for the arts with a financial backing much needed in these days of so many cuts. I’ve been told (because I asked) there will be three venues catering for betwen 65 to 375 people always available to the public. The school itself will be a public facility but at no cost to the public and in fact the financial burden of trying to look after such an old building will be removed. Hundreds of jobs will be created and local businesses in particular will benefit from the custom of both the hotel and its patrons. On the downside if you find the right spot and look at the right angle it won’t look like it was meant to in the 19th century. Having recently visited Calton Hill and searched out the views to Calton Hill the reality is far removed from the idealistic picture so eloquently espoused by some.
Going by the surveys the hotel already has the support of the general public just not the heritage activists and the more vocal arts community. Taylor Swift might indeed choose to stay at Rosewood Edinburgh and in her immortal words the “haters gonna hate” but it is time for the rest of us to get behind an idea that is good for the arts, good for the tax payer and a real boost to both the Edinburgh and Scottish economies.
The hotel’s arts and culture strategy can be found here near the top of the list – well worth looking at