Record Store Day 19th April 2014
What are you doing on the third Saturday in April? It is Record Store Day when independent record stores across the globe celebrate their special place in their local community by curating live performances, running competitions, hosting quizzes as well as selling CDs and vinyl records, many of which will have been released exclusively to coincide with the day’s celebrations.
Since the launch of the first Record Store Day in 2007, the concept has grown exponentially with not only storeowners participating fully but also many musicians supporting these independent retailers through their active engagement. Artists from across the musical spectrum have lent their support and it has become a firm date in the calendar for many of them. Limited edition vinyl, promotional material and personal appearances are now an important aspect of the day. By bringing together musicians and fans, these independent retailers offer a wonderful opportunity to engage with a part of the music business in a way that could, if we are not careful, disappear entirely from our high streets.
Bricks and mortar record stores have closed in significant numbers during the past few years. In recent times, the backdrop of the decline of town centres, reduced physical album sales, stiff competition from online retailers and changes in the way people listen to (and by definition, acquire or purchase) music, has seen record stores close at an alarming rate. And it’s not just independents whose names have been consigned to the history books but also many major brands such as Tower Records, Virgin/Zavvi and Borders have long since closed their doors.
However, against this somewhat gloomy scenario there are signs that Britain’s remaining independent record stores, which number about 300, are bucking the trend and are actually seeing retail sales increase. This has to some extent been driven by the ‘vinyl revival’ – the renaissance of the gramophone record, as a preferred listening choice. 2013 saw sales of vinyl more than double year on year; sales were the highest levels seen for a decade and interest in ‘the wax format’ continues to grow. More and more musicians are using vinyl as a way of offering their fans a physical product and they often allow the download of a digital version of the same album for no additional cost. However, it would be downright dangerous for independent retailers to rely purely on this resurgence of interest in vinyl to sustain their business so what else can they do to ensure that they succeed in an increasingly difficult marketplace?
Well one independent record store that seems to have got the formula right is my local one, Union Music Store in Lewes, East Sussex. Known affectionately as ‘Union’ it opened for business in the midst of a recession in 2010 and more than three years later is still surviving and not just surviving but thriving.
Run by Stevie Freeman and her musician husband Jamie, it specialises in folk and country music and trades from a quirky little building that looks as if it might topple over at any moment but once inside you can tell that it has solid foundations. It’s warm and welcoming, the Freemans have strived very consciously to make it so and make it particularly attractive to a wider constituency than the stereotypical male music nerd. Alongside the handmade CD and vinyl racks stocking a range of material, there are guitars, banjos and ukuleles hanging from the ceiling; there is also a selection of small ticket items such as kazoos and harmonicas to ensure that there is something for everyone regardless of the size of their pocket. Posters and prints including much sought after ones from Hatch Show Prints in Nashville adorn the walls and there is a tiny stage where regular in-store performances are hosted. Yes, it might be the smallest folk and country stage ever but it comes alive on Saturday afternoons when touring artists as well as local bands put on a free thirty-minute acoustic show. A tip jar is passed around and all the donations go directly to the musicians. These in-stores bring people in from near and far and such is the reputation that Union has established as the place for a showcase, that Stevie has trouble keeping up with the sheer number of requests received to play the small and perfectly formed stage! When legendary producer Ethan Johns embarked upon a solo tour of record stores, Union was delighted to be chosen as one of his stopping off points. There were queues a long way down the street for his in-store performance! Others have featured Sam Baker, Carrie Elkin, Malcolm Holcombe, Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman – artists at the top of their game.
But there is more to Union than just retailing and presenting in-stores. It promotes (paid) gigs locally and has established a loyal following – prospective attendees are happy to rely on the Freemans’ judgement and will often turn out for an act they aren’t familiar with and subsequently become hardened fans. Over the years they have booked Po’Girl, The Good Lovelies, Chris Wood, Annabelle Chvostek and Larkin Poe, to name just a few.
There is also a Union Music record label – so far three bands are signed to it Hatful of Rain, The Self Help Group and The Jamie Freeman Agreement. Hatful of Rain’s new album is scheduled for release in May but if all goes to plan there will be an early vinyl version released to time with Record Store Day. An upcoming signing to the label is Police Dog Hogan who have specifically selected Union because of its repute in the Americana realm. I know that one of Stevie’s goals is to secure publishing deals for her stable of artists – her determination in setting up this little jewel of a business will, I am sure, see her achieve her ambitions!
Being a key part of the Lewes community is central to Union, it supports a local youth charity Starfish and hosts events, which raise money for young musicians. It is at the heart of special shopping events in the town; Jamie Freeman hosts a radio show during Lewes’ bonfire night events which draw thousands of celebrants to the town and Union uses social media very effectively to reach out to both its existing and potential customer base.
The Freemans work hard; nobody would suggest that running an independent record store is easy but with Stevie at the helm, ably supported by Jamie and a small team of staff, they appear to be doing things right. Their enthusiasm for folk and country music shines through and I for one know that they will continue to look at ways in which to grow the business even further and wish them continued success.
When I started to research this article and enquired as to why people might use independent records stores I was heartened by some of the responses received. Whilst they may not always be able to compete on price, independents are able to compete very effectively on knowledge and personal service and it is this that brings people back time and again. Others are determined to shop in their own neighbourhood to help stimulate the local economy, to keep the small retailer in business. One of my respondents also told me that when he is on holiday he makes a point of purchasing CDs from an independent music shop as a matter of saying ‘thanks for hanging in there’.
So get down to your local independent record store not just on Record Store Day but on a regular basis and together we can then make sure that we continue to celebrate their unique culture and vibrancy. Use it or lose it! Jela Webb
This article appears in the current (print) issue of ‘Maverick’ www.maverick-country.com