How you can help your local independent record shop amid the coronavirus crisis

NME investigates the "existential threat”, as one shop owner puts it, that Covid-19 poses to the record industry

As the coronavirus crisis heightens across the world, we’re already seeing its impact not only on our health and everyday lives, but a potential long-term effect on our livelihoods too – and the music world is no different.

We’re seeing festivals, gigs and tours cancelled daily, venues uncertain on their futures and musicians themselves finding new ways to reach audiences.

Amid all this, traditional record shops, too, are in a struggle to stay afloat, with the general public urged to stay home and avoid non-essential travel. Some stores have chosen to remain open, others have opted to redirect their trade online, but what’s reflected across the board is uncertainty.

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“Everything is overshadowed by the uncertainty of what is around the corner,” Philip Barton, owner of Sister Ray in Soho, London says. “For every business plan I write, a week later I’m writing a different one. I think that’s the same for every independent store… I thought we were in a healthy position in regards to the future, but the future is so uncertain that we’re in as much of a mess as everybody else.”

The fight to survive

As of Friday 20th March, Manchester’s Vinyl Exchange remains open, as does the city’s Piccadilly Records, the latter only accepting card payments currently. In Bristol, Idle Hands Records announced earlier this week that it would move to an open by appointments-only system while implementing safety measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic, before moving to order online, pick-up in-store policy.

Thursday (19 March) was the last day open for the time being for Glasgow’s Monorail Music, with store boss Michael Kasparis telling us the rapid escalation of the crisis forced the decision to be made. “Up until last week, we didn’t think we would have to close, but the situation has been so fluid and fast changing.”

Barton says that Sister Ray will “be open for as long as we can be”, albeit with slightly reduced opening hours and less staff than usual. Banquet Records in Kingston upon Thames, however, have taken the decision to close.

“I can’t see there being any moral position to staying open,” says Jon Tolley, Banquet co-owner and local Liberal Democrats councillor. “If the Government advice is to limit your social actions unless they’re necessary and you decide that buying a record is a necessary thing, then I think we need perspective. It’s immoral to have my doors open and I couldn’t live with that.”

“There’s a financial cost to making these decisions… it’s hitting us as well but we think it’s a price worth paying,” Tolley adds, while admitting that his decision to shut up shop may have come easier than it would to others given that not all businesses may be in such a stable financial position as Banquet.

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“Arguably, Banquet is in a better position than others to deal with it… I say all of this with the caveat with Banquet is a bigger independent record shop than others… I understand that’s a position of privilege that’s probably [influencing] my decisions.”

Plummeting sales

Either way, most businesses seem to have been severely affected. Banquet recently tweeted that their takings were down 94.5 per cent on the previous week, while Richard Farnell from Manchester’s Vinyl Exchange tells us that both footfall and sales have dropped “by a huge amount”. Barton concurs that the impact on sales at Sister Ray has been “absolutely catastrophic,” while Monorail say quite simply: “We have nobody coming into the shop.”

Barton tells NME, “Our turnover is in pieces. We have a high wage bill, high rent, high rates, then that feeds down to high tax bills, high VAT bills – high everything. Then when your revenue drops by 90 per cent, you really are up against it… Without revenue, we can’t pay rent suppliers. The little money we do have has been earmarked to pay staff.”

One reason for the plummeting sales, of course, is the decrease in footfall. “People are being told not to go out, to only go to supermarkets or pharmacies, which is fair enough. They’re not visiting independent outlets,” Barton notes. “Anywhere they don’t have to go, they’re not going.”

Another reason is the heavy financial burden that consumers are already starting to face, and the anxiety that comes with it. Barton says: “The problem is people aren’t spending money full stop. They’re keeping their hands in their pockets and credit cards firmly in their wallets.”

Farnell tells us: “People quite rightly fear for their livelihoods there will be a sharp decrease in folk actually wanting to spend any money at all,” while Tolley adds: “People aren’t confident in where their next pay check is coming from, so is now the right time to be buying things that are such a luxury [as a record]?”

“It’s a strange situation where people may have loads of time to listen to records but no money to buy them,” adds Kasparis.

A luxury purchase

Nathon Raine, director of the Leeds-based online shop Norman Records, can understand these consumer concerns too: “If you’ve been put on statutory sick pay or lost your job, you’re not thinking, ‘I’m must keep buying those vinyl records,’ you’re going to have to put food on the table. There may be a few hardcore people where vinyl is their bread and butter but that’s few and far between. For most people, it is a luxury purchase.”

“We’ve already had quite a lot of cancellations overseas,” Raine notes, “from Spanish and Italian customers in particular, where people are extremely worried about their financial situation and are cancelling existing orders with us. We expect that to become more of an issue with domestic customers too as the economic impact of coronavirus starts to bite.”

Shift to online

With their physical stores in threat, shifting to online seems the logical next step. “Online sales are a small, but growing, part of what we do,” Barton says, explaining that the plan for Sister Ray currently is to ramp up their online presence if they are forced to close their doors.

“We’re working to put more stuff online… we have staff putting interesting stuff on Discogs and using other platforms to sell. We’re trying to keep as busy as possible.”

Credit: Getty

However, whether there will be enough of a consumer migration to online to help bolster revenues is not currently clear, but both Banquet and Monorail say they have seen a slight spike in online sales. Tolley says: “We don’t really know [whether online sales are increasing]. There’s nothing scientific to it, but my feeling is that some people are buying records to help out the independent record shops, which is very appreciated.”

Further problems ahead

Online-only doesn’t come without its pitfalls, though. After all, one of the many things to love about record shops is their very physical, tangible quality. Also, there is the worry that consumer staying home will simply resort to streaming instead. As Raine explains: “People will be able to get their music fix elsewhere. Spotify is still going to only be £9.99 a month.”

The logistics of online trading could very well be hindered by the coronavirus too, with a lack of workers to fulfil orders. The prospect of lockdown poses an issue as the self-isolation of staff will also affect the ability to process and ship orders, meaning that customers will start to get delays, which in turn it could further cause people not to place orders.

“We have to consider the health of our staff as well – in the event of forced closure we’d like to still be able to work behind the scenes to get stock on the website, but that means our staff would still have to take public transport and take themselves out of isolation,” Farnell says.

“If lockdown procedures are in place across the country, there won’t be anyone in the office to pack and ship the records,” Raine says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a physical shop or an online one in that instance.”

Record store owners fear there’s potential for mail delivery disruption too. Royal Mail say they are “actively monitoring the rapidly evolving Coronavirus situation” and that their “ways of working [are] under review, noting that “there may be more changes in the coming days and weeks”.

As well as the decrease in consumer demand, Raine says, “the supply side of things is getting quite hairy too… We’ve already had warnings from one of our key distributors saying they wouldn’t be shipping anything until the middle of April, at the very earliest. That will cause delays for us.”

That’s before considering the “travel bans, custom lockdowns and border controls are all coming into play across the globe,” Raine adds. “It’s bound to affect the supply of records.”

These issues look likely to result in pressing plants stopping production en masse and album releases being pushed back, prospects that Tolley says “are all probable rather than possible.”

Creative solutions

Some record shops are having to come up with creative solution to increase cashflow in this trying time. Glasgow’s Monorail Music is among those urging fans to purchase vouchers, a move which would provide the business with much-needed revenue now and allow customers to exchange for vinyl later.

Meanwhile, Raine says that Norman Records are considering how they can get their staff working on other things should their business be temporarily halted: “What we’re all thinking about is that if we can’t sell records, what else can we get our staff doing? We might end up doing some more content production and that side of things. Just to keep people employed for as long as we can.”

All the record shops we spoke to reinforced how the staff come first at a time like this, and how they’re all looking to prevent any redundancies. “The most important thing is to keep people in employment,” Barton says. “My staff have been fantastic in all of this. They have really rallied around. People are the most important thing – if you look after them, they will look after your business.”

What can be done

So what can music fans do? The message seems simple: if you can, and while you can, please buy. “If you do have the money, and you value music, then treat yourself. Treat yourself now,” Tolley says. “Chances are you’re going to be isolated at some point, so treat yourself and get a record in the post. Music is a good way to get your through.”

But be patient for your orders to be fulfilled too, and if you’ve purchased tickets for in-store gigs, refrain from asking for a refund right away. “Sit on the ticket for a bit, wait until that rescheduled date is announced and then, if you can’t make it, cancel then,” adds Tolley.

The UK government recently outlined plans to offer grant funding of £10,000 to small businesses in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, but there are concerns surrounding the time it will take to apply for this, with many businesses needing help now. So what other measures do record shop owners want to see?

“I think the idea of us not having to pay rent until later is sensible,” Tolley says. “If there’s some way of legislating for that, that would be helpful. Business rates reduction is helpful, but it’s a small fraction of what we pay on rent. So rent reduction is more important, so that we can’t have evictions based on this.”

Farnell suggests: “An immediate introduction of a universal basic income for every citizen of the UK. Expensive yes but essential for the protection of people’s livelihoods.”

Meanwhile, Barton says that the government’s priority “needs to be to stop people from being made redundant”, because “you’re going to need these people when we come back”.

“We want to see some kind of protection in place – just as every other business out there is worrying about at the moment,” Raine says. “I guess we would be classed as a luxury, non-essential business and that’s fine, but for people we work with, whose wages we pay, we are essential.”

Ultimately, Tolley says, “our revenue streams come from the public and if they are worried about how their finances are, then we won’t have money coming to us. So we’re looking for protection for jobs and self-employed people.”

A degree of positivity

The problems facing record stores are “potentially an existential threat”, Raine says, but there remains a degree of positivity: “We have to hope that we can ride it out and that our customers will keep on buying from us and remain patient that orders – if not fulfilled straight away, – will be fulfilled, and they’ll continue to buy from us.”

And if shops are going to survive, Barton adds, it’s going to take everyone’s help to rally and support: “When we do get out of this, we’re relying on the good will of our customers. We’re just hoping that people will start to visit us again.

“There are about 300 really good record stores around the UK that are looking at a really bleak future. The landscape will be somewhat difference after this, so if you can make a difference, please do.”

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