The future for record stores


Image: A selection from the B’s. How many of these do you have?

While my friends in New Zealand were still at school, I was making apprentice wages, spending almost all of it on records. Our small town didn’t have a record store as such, but the local department store stocked the latest pop records. At the time, LPs were pressed at a factory in Wellington owned by His Master’s Voice (HMV). My copy of ‘Please Please Me’ (The Beatles), for example, was issued by Parlophone in Mono. It still plays OK but it sounds thin compared to the sophisticated sounds of Pink Floyd or the Moody Blues.

New Zealand’s music fans had the jump on most other countries when the latest Beatles album became a ‘must have now’ item. The masters were shipped to Wellington and the presses were set to work. Other countries usually had to wait for a shipment of imported records.

‘Please Please Me’ was rushed out by Parlophone in March 1963 (I was 14), so maybe I bought it with money from my paper run. Parlophone was eager to cash in on the title track, the group’s first No 1 hit in the UK.

Roll forward to 2023 and my LP collection is stacked neatly in two cupboards, very rarely played. I have a good quality record player hooked up to my stereo with a pre-amp, so I’m not sure why they don’t get more of a playing. Ah yes, it’s the getting up and flipping the record over to the six or seven tracks on side two.

The big change between my teenage consumption of music and now is that, for the most part, we listened to music in one room. We would typically lie on the floor (parents were out, obviously), and crank up the volume. There may have been alcohol.

By comparison, today’s music listener can stream an endless Spotify playlist from their phone to a Bluetooth speaker at home or in the car (or through earbuds). It might be inferior quality, but it’s easy.

What set me off on this tangent was reading about the imminent closure of the Sanity record chain. Our town has one of their outlets. I didn’t shop there often but bought a few CDs – Kasey Chambers, Troy Casser-Daley. Now, as stocks starts to dwindle, I’m having a look for bargains. They sell DVDs too.

Sanity is closing all 50 stores as leases expire and moving to an online business model. Sanity is not the first retail chain to retire from shopping centres, where so many retailers have found that the foot traffic doesn’t always translate to turnover to offset higher rents.

This is not an isolated development, with a couple of Brisbane record stores closing their doors and Melbourne’s iconic Basement Discs set to do the same. Co-owner Suzanne Bennett told The Age that the impact of Covid and a drop in foot traffic reduced revenue. The CBD store was established for 28 years and famous for its in-store performances by musicians including The Teskey Brothers, Paul Kelly, Billy Bragg and Justin Townes Earle. This is not to say Basement Discs is going out of business. Suzanne and partner Rod Jacobs will continue to operate online and have a dream of opening another shop in the suburbs.

As I discovered, after chatting online with former colleague Noel Mengel, there are still some funky record stores around in Brisbane. But the independents have mostly moved to the suburbs to find cheaper rents.

Noel, who was chief music writer at The Courier-Mail for 15 years, said that most shopping centres had an independent record store. In recent years most have closed or moved to the suburbs.

“Every shopping centre had one, usually as well as Sanity or HMV, for example Sounds at Chermside, Brookside Music Centre and Toombul Music. Rockaway Records is a groovy store still going at Carindale Shopping Centre. It used to be near the Paddington shops before that.

“There are lots of Indie record stores now in Brisbane, but rents are too high in shopping centres. The independents include Sonic Sherpa at Stones Corner, Stash Records at Camp Hill, Dutch Vinyl in Paddington and Jet Black Cat in West End. So that niche market, import vinyl thing is going OK.

“But those shops really used to add something to the shopping centres.

Rockaway, established in 1992, is one of the last indie stores in Brisbane shopping centres. Long-established Rocking Horse Records and Record Exchange continue to trade in the CBD.

As music production formats and distribution began to change, famous record stores like Harlequin and Skinny’s disappeared. Even with Sanity moving out, there are still big retail chains in shopping centres like JB Hi Fi that sell CDs and vinyl albums.

We old school music listeners grew up browsing record stores, from the days of vinyl in the 1960s, through the transition to cassettes (1970s) and CDs (the 1990s) and into the brave new world of downloading and streaming music. This arguably began with Apple Itunes in 2001, although the original Napster found a way in 1999 for users to share music through peer-to-peer file sharing.

Although it was shut down in 2002 after a plethora of legal actions, you may be aware that Napster re-emerged later under new owners and is now a legitimate alternative to Spotify.

The best and most popular physical record stores are those that specialise in rare and second-hand vinyl. They are not always easy to find, as they need to find a shop in the suburbs where rents are viable.

Long-time reader Franky’s Dad (aka Lyn Nuttall) is someone who has a history of browsing in such shops. These days though he confesses to preferring streaming services like Spotify.

“Platforms like this are made for me. They seem to have every track in the universe. They don’t of course, but lately my bowerbird approach is served by YouTube, where numerous collectors seem to have posted their entire collections.
“These days I can find even the most obscure or lost tracks from the 50s and 60s”.

Lyn, who hosts the website poparchives began collecting vinyl 45s via mail order in the 1980s & 1990s, mostly through record auctioneers – “I think I paid the rent of one bloke in Sydney.”
“I do miss combing through the racks for the physical object. Even at the time I used to say that half the pleasure was the hunt and the item in your hand after you’d paid for it.

Noel Mengel, now a freelance journalist who also plays in his own band, The Trams, says Brisbane is well served by independent, suburban record stores.

As the figures below show, there has been rapid growth in demand for vinyl records. Noel welcomed the recent addition of a vinyl pressing factory in Brisbane as there were previously huge delays for those pressing vinyl.

“The community radio station 4ZZZ does a great job playing Queensland music and the independent stores sell their records.

Figures from ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) show that vinyl album sales ($28.51 million) outsold CD albums ($23.90 million) for calendar year 2021. Vinyl sales have increased steadily since 2012 (then just $1.85 million) compared to CD sales in that year ($193.49 million).

All of which reminds me I promised my niece I would bring some of my old jazz records when we visit NZ next month. She and her husband only listen to vinyl. I reckon they are on to something.

Last week: It was Wirth’s Circus.

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