Graham Jones has probably visited more record shops than anyone else on planet earth. He started working as a distributor for Proper, the largest independent music distribution company in the UK, over two decades ago. Since then he has watched his customers struggle to survive in a market of online downloads and corporate dominance. And written a book about it…
What made you write Last Shop Standing?
When I started with Proper 23 years ago we had over 2,000 independent record shops. Now there are just 269. I set off thinking I was writing the obituary of the record store, but instead it became a celebration of the great characters that run them. They all had fantastic funny anecdotes to tell me.
How long did it take to visit all of the shops and write the book?
My tour of the UK was spread over a three-month period with me travelling to a different part of the country each week. The book itself took a year to write.
Had any of the shops in the book shut down before it was published?
No, but since the book was published we have lost the excellent Selectadisc and Pendulum Records in the East Midlands.
Do you have any early memories of record stores?
Every Saturday I would tour the record shops of Liverpool and Birkenhead spending my pocket money. I would always buy records after they had gone out of the chart because if I still liked them after they had been out a while then it was a great record. Often you can like songs at first, but tire of them when they’ve been out a while.
What makes independent record shops special?
You always leave with something you didn’t go in to buy in the first place. I always find something that looks interesting or I hear something being played. Record shops evoke memories as I look through my collection and can remember where I bought each record and why. Downloads also evoke memories. I can remember where I was every time I have downloaded something; sitting in front of my computer screen.
What role should record shops play in the local community?
They should promote local and new music and offer a choice of music for people whose taste stretches beyond The X-Factor. They need to make the shop a part of the community, so that people meet at the local record shop.
Selectadisc was an iconic shop in Nottingham: what are your memories of it?
The manager Jim Cooke was a Notts County fanatic and one of the nicest guys I ever met in the music industry. The first time I called I was driving around with a big Mercedes van crammed full with 9,000 records and CDs. Jim came in my van, pulled out a hundred albums by a Liverpool band called The Icicle Works and put them on the floor. I presumed he was making space, so a minute later I started jamming them back in the rack. Jim then told me he was buying them all. That’s how they worked, buy huge quantities and sell cheap. It is only now it has gone that record buyers appreciate what a great shop it was.
In the past do you think record store owners shot themselves in the foot?
Yes. The shops that made you feel uncomfortable are the shops that have closed. The record shops left have survived because they make the customer welcome; for them it’s never too much trouble to find that exclusive record for you.
Do you still work with any Nottingham record shops?
I still sell to Music Inn, Heavy Sounds and a market stall in the Victoria Centre called Pendulum, who have no connection with the East Midlands chain of the same name who recently closed down.
What can record labels do to help support independent record stores? Is getting behind Record Store Day enough?
Since Last Shop Standing was released the UK record companies have been superb as they now support independent record shops. I think they finally realised how important they are to help in supporting new artists. My argument with them is why do we have a hundred exclusive releases available just one day per year? If they had exclusive releases throughout the year it would encourage music fans to visit record shops on a regular basis.
How detrimental are online retailers such as Amazon to independent record shops?
Our online retailers are great at what they do but they have a twenty per cent advantage over high street retailers. The vast majority of new CDs purchased online in the UK are shipped from the Channel Islands. This is because if you ship anything from the Channel Islands under £18 it is VAT free. Have you ever ordered a few CDs online and thought to yourself, how come they all arrive in different jiffy bags? If they put them in the same bag the value of the package would be above £18 and therefore liable for VAT. So because of this our supermarkets and online retailers have operations there. This loophole is the main reason why we have lost so many record shops. The government is currently looking into this issue.
Why is there a massive price difference between an album in a supermarket and the same one in a more traditional record store?
Due to spending power supermarkets get bigger discounts than indies. Supermarkets use CDs to attract people to their store, often working on tiny margins because nobody leaves a supermarket with just a CD. Whilst there they will purchase other stuff like milk, bread and ready meals; that’s where the supermarket makes its money.
Do you think people buying physical music is a dying trend?
Sadly we have lost a whole generation of music buyers and it is a slow process trying to get them back. The music industry’s handling of digital music was an utter disaster. First they didn’t explain to the public that stealing music was no different than going down to your local shop and nicking a loaf. Secondly, instead of seeing digital as the future of music they deemed it as the big bad enemy. They should have done a deal with Napster before it became massive. Trying to close them down was a PR disaster and only encouraged more young people to download.
With the apparent demise of the HMV chain is there an opening for more independent record stores on the high street?
I would not read the last rites to HMV just yet, I think their long term policy is sound. They will make a profit of over £30 million this year. They just borrowed too much money to expand as sales dropped rapidly. I know of fourteen new record shops that opened this year. Many major towns don’t have a record shop and there are opportunities for the right people with passion and an expert knowledge to make it work. Record shops can survive as Record Store Day shows. They need to adopt the model similar to Rough Trade and others by supporting new music, local bands, and by becoming the place in town for people to meet. They should put on bands every week, sell coffee, t-shirts, music accessories, books and have a great selection of vinyl.
Last Shop Standing (Whatever Happened to Record Shops?) is published by Proper Music and is available in all good record and book shops. If possible buy it from an independent shop.