In a world that is currently besieged by mirthless comments about the death of the record store, and constant reports of plummeting physical-format sales, the opening of the new Rough Trade record store in East London this week comprises a beacon of hope.
Initially, it was designed solely and simply as an additional record store; an extension of the Rough Trade brand and a replacement for the Neal’s Yard store in central London which recently closed.
Now, however, it has risen to challenging the perceived truth that you can run a proper record store without either heavy losses or the need to slash prices to challenge the high street market. The widely reported closure of Fopp and the massive drop in sales for the HMV chain paints a gloomy picture for physical-format sales. These reports, however, are only the tip of the iceberg according to Rough Trade store director Stephen Godfroy.
DiS traversed the dangers of the Circle Line a couple of weeks back to get a sneak peak of the new store – then merely a white-painted blank canvas of a small warehouse – and to discuss the whys and wherefores of opening a new store in the current climate, and also how the current retail climate has failed the music industry.
Young-looking but very experienced – as comes with the territory when you’ve worked at a company such as Rough Trade for so long – Godfroy has been involved in the company for over a decade. He approaches the topic of music – how it’s sold and his new creation – with a quiet but utterly impassioned zeal.
Obvious questions first: why here and why now?
“Because it’s the right time to do it in terms of opening a great big, large record store, when the majority of record stores are so shit.” Immediately, he turns his attack onto a favourite theme: “The average high street retailer has commoditised music and turned it into what may as well be a bar of soap as a new album.
“ We’re hoping to make a statement where people re-evaluate or reaffirm that music retailers have the same amount of passion for music. That it’s not all about price – you can add value in different ways than just discounting. You can add value by giving great edited stock selection, great personal service, by seeing a great artist live whilst shopping. “High street retail has largely failed,” he reiterates. “It’s been distracted by the supermarkets and the online retailers – i.e. the non-specialists - and they can only compete in price. They’ve forgotten what specialist music is all about which is customer service – it’s about counters being a point of social interaction, not just pay points.”
The implication, of course, is that the new Rough Trade store – or Rough Trade East to give it its full name – is the very opposite of these pitfalls, and the epitome of what Godfroy sees as the positives of a dedicated record store: “We wanted to create a destination where music lovers can congregate and ultimately proliferate. All walks of life and ages, all under one roof, rediscovering the joys of shopping for music and browsing. It’s not just about browsing through an A-Z section where you’ve got to know what you’re looking for; you can actually browse and discover things that you otherwise wouldn’t know about and you can walk out with five things that you’ve never heard of until you arrived that day. By the time you walk out you can have three new favourite artists in your bag, which is what music shopping should be about.”
Which is a fine and noble thing. However, the last decade or so has been dominated by the play.com, amazons and HMVs of this world. Record buying for the large majority has been firmly reshaped. Is Godfroy not worried that we’ve gone too far already in the terms of music being marketed purely by price and availability?
“I think if you speak to most music guys, they don’t talk about the price – that’s the important thing to remember,” bats back Stephen. “Retailers are the ones obsessed with price. It’s the same situation whereby the media point of the view, the whole debate, is about digital replacing physical, which is a load of bollocks, because 90 per cent of sales are still CDs and any demise in the sales of CDs is not down to people going off the love of the artefact, which is an integral part of the music. Certain consumers have stopped loving the way music is sold. Therefore, we’re not worried one bit in terms of looking at the other sectors. It gives us confidence in what we’re doing – we’re the antidote to it.”
It’s unclear whether Stuart is fighting the corner of the independent music store generally, or if he realises that the timing of opening the largest non-chain music store in the country is fortunate. Indeed, he seems to relish the notion of Rough Trade riding in on a white horse to save record shops.
“The timing is great,” he admits. “You can’t plan for Fopp closing, just as you can’t plan for HMV being a joke, but we planned to open this store irrespective of those peripheral events. It’s fortuitous in some ways, and that’s a good sign. It’s not that we’re tapping into an idea that’s new – it’s just something that’s been lost to music for decades. Londoners haven’t had a big record store to hang out in and meet friends and happily go in there and turn off their mobiles for a while.
“Tower opened in Piccadilly Circus in ‘86 – and this is arguably more important than that – but since then, there’s been nothing like that. Tower forgot the art of music retail.”
And Fopp? “When you look to standardise, with a retail chain with lots of outlets, you firstly do that in terms of price and that’s where Fopp started to slip off because it all became about price points and going in there and getting something for £8. When’s the last time you went in there and bought something after a recommendation from someone from the counter?
“So, therefore Fopp started to veer towards the non-specialist, and even though it sold non-chart products it saddled the fence and sadly fell off on the wrong side. We’re sad to see Fopp go, but music retail is not good. However, [their failure] gives us the opportunity to show the other side.”
So, where did it all start to go wrong? “The rise of the internet and internet retailers,” retorts Godfroy, without a hesitation. “They made price the headline issue. As soon as the internet retailers started to creep in, the high street thought it had to react to this by providing their own online mail order, but they were nowhere near as good as the online commerce specialists.
“They started to compete in price with music retail, and the fall began soon after with the commoditisation of music, loss-leaders at the front of stores and Lily Allen for less than a fiver in Tescos.”
The last sentence, you might not be surprised to hear, was practically spat out.
Retreating back to the problem of sales: how much of the problem lies with major record labels and their acceptance of commoditisation? DiS suggests they are far from blameless.
“That might be the case of the larger record companies where there business is such that it is a commodity business. Certainly with the indies I don’t think it’s true, nor is it true with at least one of the majors. But it is sad that they’ve fed that machine, and it is a very short-term strategy. They’re going to suffer as a result, because they do themselves no favours with the likes of us. There are different elements of music – the big labels who plough their money developing risk-free acts, that’s fine. But we distance ourselves from that.”
But, obviously, those specialist online companies still reside: can the two exist side by side? Can specialist online stores succeed alongside specialist retail outlets like Rough Trade?
“Definitely, and each have their own merits. If you want to buy something you have in mind, or have already decided on, then [buying online is] great. Buying a CD online is great if you know what you want. But they’re not exciting experiences, and people have forgotten the experience of buying music.”
The notion of record shop interaction – hanging over the counters, discussing the new 7”s – is a sweet but maybe nostalgic one; with so much information available on the internet, do we need that from a record store anymore?
“The celestial jukebox that exists online is a fantastic thing,” admits Godfroy, “but you need something to edit the mass of information – a level of synthesis, something to tell you what’s good and what’s not. That’s not a personal opinion, that’s something we’ve learnt from being at the heart of the industry and speaking to people face to face for the last 30 years. That ability to synthesize is pretty peerless in terms of our authority and recommendation, from Rough Trade’s point of view.”
So what of the stereotype of record store employees? Grumpy-faced people sneering at your purchase? There’s an audible sigh and a cross face from Stephen.
“Perception? The High Fidelity thing? That a record store is seen as a hobby shop and predominately male? That’s complete rubbish. The point of Rough Trade East is to break those perceptions and remove those barriers. You love music, I love music, let’s get it on. It’s a shame that the media characterises it that way. It’s a very insular way of looking at the place.”
Having discussed the benefits of returning to a more informed and interactive store, it’s noticeably – and perhaps a tad contradictory – that this store is making allowances for other ‘cultural elements’. It’s a very modern approach. A necessity?
“Saying that the world of a record shop is completely autonomous to the rest of the world is a naïve and suicidal approach. And that’s what the failure of high streets has been. Music is so entwined with the social fabric. We’re having a facility for hot drinks not because it sells music, but because we think it’s a great thing to have if you’re going to spend time in a record store. You can browse with your coffee – there are coffee cup holders in the racks – and it’s all inclusive. We’re not saying, ‘Have your coffee and buy your records here’. And that’s the same with our WiFi – we’re not saying our recommendation is the be all and end all. As a point of reference the internet is really handy – customers can bring their last.fm to the counter and people can suggest the kinds of new music they might be into, based on their own tastes.”
With that, Stuart rallies his cause one more time: “Opening a record store is a fight back against the state of the high street and physical record sales, but it just so happens that the situation is peaking at the minute. The timing is fortuitous in that it allows the argument to be more focused or lucid than simply: ‘Rough Trade opens large alternative record store’. This isn’t just a record store; it’s a record store that’s been missing from this country for decades, and something that people hopefully want but haven’t been getting.”
The new store has been garnering a huge amount of press interest – from industry publications like Music Week to the broadsheets and beyond. Certain people, though, seem to think it’s a brave or…
“Suicidal move?” cuts in Stephen, with a grin. “Anything that takes a few risks is always going to have those sort of people on the sidelines, which is to be expected. It’s more entertaining that worrying, I have to say. There’s a difference between the headlines and the reality of what’s happening… nothing we’re doing is unproven. There are people waiting here for something to fill their needs.”
With that, Stephen Godfroy ducks out into the sunshine of Brick Lane, ready to continue the fight for specialist music retail. Good luck to him, from all of us.
More information on Rough Trade East can be found HERE