Featured Posts, Music

Stumbling giants and a vinyl renaissance

HMV’s collapse came as a shock to few. With digital downloads squeezing upon its margins this cumbersome retail giant was always likely to struggle. However, it cannot be overstated that its problems were far greater than that of changing market forces.

Rough Trade

When asked by Venue about her experience of HMV, Rosie Yates, an English and History undergraduate, likened it to “entering an electronics shop rather than somewhere to buy music”, a sentiment that is shared by many. Sterile lighting, poor service, staff lacking expertise, a restrictive range; it is no wonder music fans flocked elsewhere.

That is all in stark contrast to the experience offered by a group of independent record shops, who are bucking the trend of recent decline, showing there is still a place for physical record stores in 2013.

Rough Trade is the prime example of one of these increasingly confident independents. Last financial quarter their two London shops enjoyed an 8% rise in sales, a figure HMV could have only dreamt of. The company is also contemplating expansion on top of the opening of their new shop in New York later this year.

The more personal customer experience offered by Rough Trade is clearly a key reason behind its growth in such a retracting market. From its friendly environment to staff that know and love the music they sell, the store is an immersive place to listen to new music you will have never heard before. It seems that independents are still able to survive and (in the case of Rough Trade) thrive because they can attract a loyal returning customer base that HMV lost over the years. Indeed, with these basic principles they have far more efficiently cornered part of the physical market.

Moreover, across all providers there was a shift of 113.2 million physical albums last year, compared to the 26.5 million albums that were downloaded. This shows there is still an appetite for physical music, including one format that actually saw a significant increase in sales: vinyl.

New vinyl sales were up for the fifth year running in 2012, generating a 44% increase in sales. Spencer Hickman, who runs Rough Trades acclaimed East London store, noted in an interview with the NME that there is “definitely a move to vinyl”. He continued: “Normal people and passionate fans are going back to it… there’s a hunger for vinyl that isn’t going anywhere.”

Research has also suggested that this surge isn’t simply attributed to a load of geriatrics partaking in an orgy of nostalgia, as a new generation has been seeking out vinyl. The fact that The XX’s recent album Coexist was the most purchased release last year would suggest that this is a truly contemporary phenomenon.

The xx

Why vinyl though? What is it about it that maintains its enduring appeal to music fans? Physiology undergraduate Peter Kirk told Venue that he prefers listening to vinyl due to the “superior sound quality” and likes “the feeling of physically owning a record rather than having it stored on a hard drive”. These are common (and justified) reasons, though more resentful commentators attribute the resurgence of vinyl to an odious exercise of contemporary hipsterdom. However, most are more positive.

Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis (who under the record label arm of the Rough Trade has signed bands such as The Smiths and The Libertines) sees the increased vinyl sales and the resilience of a number of independents speaking of a fundamental wanting for “a tactile relationship with a musical product”, adding: “We don’t want to live our lives online and be in our bedrooms 24 hours a day”.

In a recent Guardian article, John Harris even goes as far to say that the return to vinyl is a “quiet rebellion”, musing whether it could be an “antidote to rampant capitalism.” He is far from the last person to make such claims, especially considering online retailers’ roles in HMV’s collapse.

How much momentum the vinyl renaissance has in the long term is yet to be seen. One must bear in mind that vinyl sales still only make up a tiny part of the market, but the increased interest does give hope for those invested in physical music formats.

Many in the know still see a place for the record shop in contemporary society: they just have to be smart and tailored to the customers’ needs. Perhaps if HMV (if there is anything left by the time the administrators have finished) could gain some of the personality provided by the independents which keeps them relevant, then maybe there is still a slim hope for this high street giant yet.

05/02/2013

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Harry Edwards


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