James Hanley 13th Apr 2021

Open for business (again): The UK's indie record stores rebound after lockdown

Having been forced to keep their doors shut since the beginning of January, non-essential shops in the UK were permitted to open again yesterday, much to the delight of independent record stores and their loyal customers.

Leading independent record stores have reported encouraging sales on their first day back in business following the loosening of national lockdown measures.

Non-essential shops were permitted to reopen yesterday (April 12) after the Government eased Covid-19 restrictions that had been in force since the beginning of January – and customers appeared keen to make up for lost time.

“There’s a lot of pent-up demand,” said Phil Barton, owner of Soho institution Sister Ray Records. “People obviously want to get out and haven’t been to a record shop for four or five months, so they’re keen to get back.”

“It’s gone really well,” agreed Alex Bailey, Assistant Manager of London’s Rough Trade East. “We’ve been busy, it’s been a nice vibe and it’s been financially successful, so I think everyone’s happy. People have been chomping at the bit to come in – they have been starved of it and now they’re being let loose.”

It was a similar story at Eel Pie Records in Twickenham. “There’s been demand from our customers just to come in and have a chat, pick up stuff they’ve ordered during lockdown and get back to normal,” said Co-Owner Kevin Jones. “It’s been great.”

In the North, Manchester’s Piccadilly Records and Bolton’s X-Records both enjoyed busy returns, while in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, TNT Records boss Dave Turner could not contain his delight. “We had a couple of people waiting this morning before we even opened the doors,” he said. “The sun’s been shining on us all day; the vibes are flowing into the air and we’re bouncing back into action.”

Kingston’s legendary Banquet Records elected not to reopen yesterday on ethical grounds. “But we’re at pains to point out we don’t have any problem with people who do,” explained owner Jon Tolley. “We’re just seeing how it goes really and watching what other people do – not just at the record shops, but other people in the town centre. It’s been pretty busy today and social distancing seems to have been forgotten, which was our worry. [The pandemic] is not over yet and we don’t think you can social distance in our record shop. It is small and dingy, and that’s kind of its charm, but for us to allow people to browse while social distancing, I just don’t think they’re going to have the experience that we want them to have.”

Soho's Sister Ray

He continued: “We’ve got a busy website, so we’re just concentrating on that and we’ll be open soon enough. None of our customer-facing staff have been vaccinated yet and nobody wanted to wear a mask all day long, solidly serving random people from the public. It’s not that they’re not safe, it’s just they’re not comfortable and I want people to be stoked when they’re working here, so it’s just not for us yet. But we’re in the fortunate position of not having to reopen. We can choose not to and still be busy, so we’re in a lucky place in that sense.

“I’m no fan of the Tory government but I think the support for high street retailers has been really good. The support for many other aspects of the music industry has been poor, but we can’t grumble because we’ve been looked after.”

Inevitably, the pandemic has hit physical record sales, which fell 24.6% to 21.1 million in 2020, according to figures released by the BPI. But the vinyl revival has continued to go from strength to strength, as sales climbed 11.5% to 4.8m – rising for a 13th successive year.

“In lockdown, people have wanted music,” reflected Tolley. “Music has been important and lots of people have bought lots of records. People have wanted to do something that doesn’t involve looking at a screen and they can’t spend their money at the pub or at football, so they’re buying records.”

Despite the multiple lockdowns, physical revenues dipped only 2.6% to £210.3m, as retailers adapted their business models to the new normal by pivoting online.

“We were a retail shop with an online presence. We’re now an online retailer with a retail shop,” said Sister Ray’s Barton. “We’ve completely changed the dynamic of what we do.”

“We have massively stepped up our mail order business,” added Natasha Youngs, Co-Founder of Resident in Brighton, which plans to reopen its physical store next week. “We’re lucky that we already had a really good website business and we’ve just ramped that up, basically. So business-wise, we’ve been fine, we just had to change our focus.

"The idea that if you don't use us, you'll lose us has been understood. Everyone realises the benefits of what these little shops do."

“We were in a good position where we didn’t actually furlough any staff, we kept everyone on and just adapted their roles. There has been a small amount of government grant money available, but nothing compared to what we’d have if we had the counter operational.”

For Eel Pie Records, the transition to online took longer, but has paid off handsomely. Sales dipped around 20% year-on-year, according to Jones, but the situation could have easily been worse. “We’ve worked really hard over the last 12 months to get all of our stock online because, although we had a website prior to the lockdowns, we only really put on new releases,” he said. “We hadn’t put any of our second-hand stock online and that’s about half of our business, so we went from having about 50 titles online to 10,000 titles currently. That was no easy task.

“Maintaining it is still relatively labour-intensive, but there’s been a couple of real upsides. One is that we were able to maintain an income during the lockdown periods. Secondly, we’ve got all of our stock online now, which has absolutely made us a stronger business. But we didn’t get into this to be an online retailer, that is not what motivates us. We want to be a physical shop and most of our customers want us to be a physical shop too.”

Campaigns such as LoveRecordStores, National Album Day, HMV Vinyl Week and Tim Burgess’ Twitter Listening Parties have also been credited with helping shore up the figures, alongside the flagship Record Store Day, which was split over three days in 2020 and will return over two dates – June 12 and July 17 – in 2021.

“The idea that if you don’t use us, you’ll lose us, has been understood,” said Tolley. “Everyone realises the benefits of what these little shops do.”

“Record Store Day is always huge for us and splitting it across the three days last year was quite tricky logistically from a shop point of view, but it made it more manageable for customers,” said Youngs. “We got three separate hits of interest in the shop and so it was really good, but we would have been pleased to have it back to one event this year.”

Resident in Brighton

“Last year was important because it gave people an opportunity to try Record Store Day online,” cautioned Barton. “This year, I’m slightly more worried about it because I don’t want Record Store Day for record stores to be an online thing. Record Store Day should remain a day for record stores.”

Overall though, there is increasing reason for optimism. But the elephant in the room remains the threat of a further lockdown at some point. TNT’s Turner is relaxed about the prospect. “I think we’d be OK,” he said. “If it did happen again, people know what to expect.”

“We have adapted our business and made ourselves resilient to a lockdown,” added Eel Pie’s Jones. “We would do what we’ve been doing for much of the last 12 months, which is operate online, deliver locally, make sure people can get what they want and keep people interested with our social media and other comms. So we would survive, but it wouldn’t be as much fun as having a shop and it is much harder work.

“The plan now is to get back as much of normality as we can. We’re already back to normal, apart from the usual precautions around wearing masks, hand sanitising and social distancing, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that, as a nation, we don’t see much of a third wave and can hope for better times ahead.”

James Hanley

Freelance Journalist, United Kingdom

James Hanley is a freelance journalist, specialising in the live music business. He began his music industry career as news editor of Audience/Live UK magazines in 2012 before moving on to Music Week, where he spent six years as senior staff writer and remains a regular contributor. He also writes for publications including M Magazine and Champions Journal.