“I don’t know what will survive”: Australian record stores grapple with coronavirus

Business is bad for record stores around the country, and expected to get worse

All corners of the Australian music industry are suffering during the coronavirus crisis. On their part, record stores around the country tell NME Australia their sales are dropping, with business looking set to spiral down over the next few months.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Australia’s live industry is by this point well-documented; government bans on public gatherings have led to scores of concerts and festivals being cancelled or postponed, with millions of dollars of income and thousands of jobs affected.

Read more: Here’s how to help the Australian music scene during the coronavirus pandemic

Record stores have also been hit, but by the more widespread pressure on the public to stay indoors and avoid crowds so as to cut the risk of coronavirus transmission. That has led to reduced foot traffic and sales for record stores. Nic Warnock and Damien Arkins, owners of Repressed Records in Sydney, closed their store indefinitely on March 17. They estimated takings were down 20 per cent in the days preceding the closure.

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The decision to closed Repressed, Warnock said, came less from finances and more from the feeling that they had a “social duty to close”, after seeing record stores in North America they admire make the call, including Mississipi Records in Oregon and Hanson Records in Ohio.

“We started having the conversation at least a week ago. We were concerned about the spread and on a more emotional level, thinking about some particular customer groups that we really wanted to encourage social distancing,” Warnock told NME Australia.

Repressed Records
Repressed Records in Sydney shut its doors on March 17 due to social distancing concerns. Photo supplied.

Owner of Canberra’s Landspeed Records Blake Budak told NME Australia their business had “noticeably dropped” in the past two weeks.

“The nosediving Australian dollar also really impacts a record store as so much of our stock comes from overseas. But I’m most worried about having to close for a really long time and not having any money coming in to pay the bills,” he said.

Paul Cook, owner of Heartland Records in Melbourne, said his business was saved this week by interstate music fans who were stuck in town after Download Festival was cancelled.

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“Who knows what next week will bring,” he said.

Few of the other record stores NME Australia spoke to wished to consider closure right now. Budak feared not knowing how long a temporary closure would last. He still anticipates a temporary closure at some point.

“Hopefully it won’t have to be for too long and hopefully we’ll be able to use that time positively. The shop could do with a long overdue spring clean and re-organisation,” he added.

Cook and Warwick Vere from Rocking Horse Records in Brisbane agreed.

“I’ve been in constant contact with other stores and apart from Repressed…we are all soldiering on, whilst taking every precaution,” Vere said.

“We may have to close but who knows, at this stage it will only be if enforced,” Cook added.

Read More: “This is the biggest challenge of my life” – Australian artists on the coronavirus’ devastating financial impact

Many record stores plan to follow the lead of bookstores around the world in transitioning to online home delivery, but not all have the current capacity to achieve it. Landspeed doesn’t currently have an online store, and so Budak has turned to Discogs, an online marketplace for vinyl and CD to list rare and valuable records in the store’s archives.

“That’s been doing well so if we are closed, we could continue to list our stock there,” he said.

Others are less sure of their capacity for e-commerce.

“Unfortunately, we’ve spent a lot of time trying to make our physical store better rather than compete on internet platforms,” Warnock said.

“One has to assume the postal service will not be operating if nothing else is, so website sales are not going to help in a total lockdown situation,” Cook said.

Warnock outlined plans for “inventive and safe ways for delivering music” from Repressed Records in the coming weeks, including home delivery, but was unsure of details.

Despite predictions vinyl will outsell CDs for the first time since 1986, the record store industry remains brittle. On March 13, Record Store Day was postponed. Hundreds of vinyl and cassette releases are sold exclusively through independent record shops for one day only during this annual event, which was supposed to be held this year on April 18.

However, record store owners who spoke to NME Australia downplayed the financial impact of Record Store Day’s postponement and potential cancellation.

“Record Store Day is not the financial impact that I’m worried about,” Warnock said. “We’re a record store – our business is mostly focussed on being a good store. We are always trying to keep things interesting and have conversations. We have a real life community that comes in here every day – that’s more of an issue than RSD being pushed back.”

Vere remains convinced the postponed date of June 20 will still go ahead.

“The positive financial impact will just be further down the track.  I really don’t think the customers will mind too much,” he said.

“It’s a sizeable hit, but it may be a nothing compared to the overall loss of business we expect to see over the coming months,” Budak said.

Budak, who is also the president of the Australian Music Retailers Association (AMRA), has been planning an alternative record sale to the postponed RSD on the same April weekend.

“The record companies have been really supportive of us doing this and have been putting together some great deals. We’ll have to see how things pan out for this over the next few weeks but there are provisions in place to make this an online-only event if required,” he said.

The knock-on effect of any potential record store failure is a more permanent devastation on amateur record labels and bands, who will lack a physical outlet to sell and promote their music.

“The major labels will pull some money out from somewhere to keep surviving. I’m concerned about the creative amateur networks struggling,” Warnock said.

“A lot of the records that we sell in [our shop] and feel a real kinship with, don’t make them as their sole form of income…But a lot of those people work in service industries – places where people’s work will be impacted. I don’t know what will survive.”

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