Shelf Life: Record Collector

Sheffield music emporium...
Record Collector

“A lot of the people that grew up in music boom of the 40s, 50s, 60s whenever – when there were maximum 4 TV channels and what else was there to do when the TV went out at 11? They’d go to clubs, see bands or play records and they to a certain extent are the people that are being marginalised in that the whole world has to go online – people who have done one thing all their life which they were quite happy with”.

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With the festive season just passed, it’s painfully unlikely that many of us bought our friends and relatives an ‘old-fashioned’ compact disk from an independent record store. Amongst all the excuses, it’s likely that you couldn’t find one. But Barry Everard, the co-owner of one of Sheffield’s staple record shops, Record Collector, believes that the demise of record stores doesn’t have one sole reason though the reasons are interlinked. It’s a fateful novella that includes anti-hero Amazon, her partner the World Wide Web but not excluding us, the people. So easily influenced by marketing jingles of ‘50% price slash’ or ‘Free One-Day Delivery for a limited time only’ it’s tough to admit that through laziness (in the name of ‘efficiency’) we’ve become embroiled in the online world. Forget tradition, forget fulfilment and forget a happy ending – there is no protagonist in the tragic story of the record shop.

But Record Collector isn’t a tragedy. In fact it’s a survivor, fuelled by the owner’s passionate struggle to a keep a human face in the industry of music buying. Over the years, the store has been a haven, hub of activity and place of discovery. It’s where Everard first heard a tape by a few pipe-dreaming Sheffield University students teeming with potential and acted as an early guide. Very soon they would be laden with the unshakeable epithet of ‘Mercury Prize Winning, Gomez’.

The digital age isn’t entirely a vicious machine but it is an industrious one. Separating us from the product in the name of mass produce and instantaneous pleasures, it cuts away any competition. Yet in the face of pressure, Record Collector has stood proud, consistently listed amongst the top 5 of record shops in the country.

Clash’s chat with Barry – owner of the shop for 25 years – starts on a sombre note…where the industry meets the taxman.

Amazon’s tax actions seem very under the collar – as though people’s attentions weren’t focused on it so they got away with it for that reason.

People may think here we are speaking in December it’s big news now but say in like end of October, nobody was talking about it – it really has been a best-kept secret. We’re always told about how the Internet is now this frontier of super-cheapness, which – now we know – is super cheap because they don’t pay tax, which has really bad implications for shops. I had a look at some statistics only to find out that some of the stuff that we sell is cheaper than Amazon.

It’s also because Amazon have been helped by this truth/mythology of like ‘don’t use shops, go to Amazon, it’ll be cheaper. And also, you know, I won’t get in trouble for saying this but Amazon lack on their specialist material - if you go to record shops it’ll be as cheap or cheaper than Amazon. It’s a lazy mythology for people to go ‘oh, Amazon will be cheaper’

Yeah, I guess the root of that is the way they market the company as well. In not having to pay tax, they have a lot of many spare to advertise the – albeit faulty – ethos.

When I started this particular business in 1978 the rent that I was paying here was virtually nothing – something crazy like £10-a-week but since then, rents gone into the tens-of-thousands – Amazon don’t have to pay fixed costs like that. I know the disparity between what shops have to deal with and what companies like Amazon’s condition is because I grew this shop in the golden age. When I started here VAT was 8% and now it’s at 20%. All my costs were lower back then so we could grow a business. Not to mention that is you had an average level of enthusiasm

Amazon’s line seems to follow suit that for a lot of people music is now just something to be consumed rather than comprehended…

People’s attitudes to music have been shifted slightly. For a lot of people it’s just free stuff, free records, free musicians – just free, and that’s another switch.

I noticed some specialist stores in Sheffield closing up and selling exclusively online. Would you ever consider turning this place into an online format - perhaps to level the playing field - or is there still something priceless and magical about walking into a record shop? 

You’re a member of the public, you’ll have to tell me that! For me there’s some sort of magic about it but that’s because I’ve always consumed music first on vinyl – we were initially a vinyl record shop – and then on CD. So hey, we have to keep mutating. I’m actually driven by enthusiasm and we got more driven into the niche market. As the younger end of the market relate less and less to the artefact and sometimes to the personalities I think. There’s always a culture of knowledge I think with music fans whereas now it’s just yards of stuff for a lot of people.

…I’ll ask that despite Amazon marketing that they have cheaper ‘stuff’ to sell, how far do you think it’s the responsibility of the music fan alone to buy – or want to buy – from a record shop?

We were featured in a book, that’s been turned into a film called ‘Last Shop Standing’ which tackles how the UK’s best record shops are carrying on and continuing. I think the main thing is knowledge and choice – not just about downloads – but about keeping places for books and music on the high street, that keeps it in the ‘real world’. There’s a lot of quality in music stores and not to mention that there are people in record stores who you can ask and they’ll direct you to stuff.

Shops work on the basis of serendipity so a lot of people may walk into a record store with what they think they want to buy, then they might go through the racks, pick up something they’ve always wanted to have and then pick up something else because they looked at the cover art or something and thought ‘this is really interesting’.

There’s something different about having a CD as a music lover – even though I have an iPod, I still want the CD. When I’d trawl through record shops with minimum amount of pocket money as 14, and always end up wanting to buy something that I never intended to get, for sure…

Yeah, in a small or large way the action of [going into a record shop] changes your life.

Yeah, and I don’t think this is possible on the internet to the same extent. Most of the time when you browse, you have something very specific in mind and you want that specific thing to be fulfilled – it’s sort of instant gratification. Whereas in a record store you don’t have that instantaneous ‘thing’, it’s more of a discovery and process, would you say?

Yes definitely – also with that random process, everybody works differently. One thing I’m proud about in this store is that it separates music into genres but we have really in depth sections for everybody and that’s a matter of pride. And one of the reasons is that you’ll get people who only buy jazz or rock or reggae. But then you get other people – you’ll talk to them and they want everything by a certain artist and some who’ll say ‘I’ve got one of those; I don’t need another. But then you also might get a person who’s life journey starts- you know like a kid whose house is dominated with classic music and then they’ll go on a different journey which takes them to all different types of music. But then you also get a remarkable amount of people who don’t just stick in one genre. We’ve had people who start of buying country music and end up buying opera. We can’t dictate that, all we can do is anticipate people’s demands.

You get music blogs and magazine that try to be tastemakers but I guess that’s different to discovering something on your own just buy walking through a record shop.

Anther thing in a shop like this – the clue is in the name ‘record collector’ – is that our stock is very comprehensive. When I actually thought up that name it was more to say ‘come in’ rather than ‘go away’ – it wasn’t meant to be an elitist thing.

I’d initially come here assuming that because you have a student village right by you that a large demographic would be student based, that’s how I discovered the shop. Would you agree with this, and the general view that it’s the younger generation that stay enthused by music? 

I can tell you how this place used to be. In order to try and have a day off, because in the past 25 years I’m here 6 – 7 days a week, I decided that I was going to have a day off every week. So because everybody goes off on a Wednesday, I decided for that to be my day off.

When I started, we couldn’t do that because it was college half day – meaning you go shopping, you to the library, you do sport. It used to be the case for our kind of shop, that Wednesday was one of our biggest times. Lectures are finished and everybody just comes in and rams the shop. It was the centre of student activity. Someone once described this shop as being the best location for a record shop in this country, in that we aren’t in the centre of Sheffield but we are in the centre of the student village.

Pre-internet days, on Wednesdays we just could not shut it. But I for one, I’m not vexed, I’m not hurt, I’m not confused – I’ve got used to it now. But there seems to be a connection between enthusiasm and wanting to get connected with the world and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of that. I’m not sure if your average student gets sent some of Ellie Goulding or Green Day or Limp Bizkit and then says ‘I’ll have a few yards of that’.

The hub and sense of community, it’s not really something you can understand now unless you go to a gig. I can’t think of any other way that’s analogous to the experience of a record store nowadays. And this includes stores like HMV because there’s still that distance – it’s a business first before it’s a distributor of music, at least that’s what it’s become. How do you think this bodes for the future – do you think people will get progressively disinterest or be directed in different ways?

I think people who still run shops like this are – well, they just like the people they serve in that they are true believers and really passionate about it. They believe that music is really important and don’t have a vested interest except as fans. This place is a hub, it’s a crossroads, it’s a capital, it’s a place where bands form, bands meet fans – it’s where likeminded people meet.

What I find interesting in terms of the physical copy is how the artwork has been made to accommodate the online and digital content – the dimensions are made to fit in that tiny little iTunes box.

Imagine what it feels like for us! We grew up with 12” LPs. So when you look at these compressed versions you think ‘very nice’ but the detail has been lost. Johnny Marr is quoted as saying that his son and a lot of his son’s friends look at vinyl as being like a deluxe version of the CD.

His son actually went to Sheffield University and is an aspiring musician. Have you ever met him?

Yeah, he’s a good kid. And that’s another highlight actually because I understand that Johnny Marr often comes into this shop though it’s fairly low-key and in cognito, as people do. We’ve had a lot of musicians and s in over the years and the way we treat them is with respect.

But Johnny Marr came in and I don’t tend to musicians and stuff for various reasons but one of them is that you don’t want to say some stupid stuff, but I’ll speak to them if I’ve got something to say. I friend of mine Steve Fellows who was part of a success band in the 80s had sad that he’s once been on a panel show with Tony Wilson of Factory Records and Johnny Marr. Johnny Marr was asked about who had influenced his guitar playing and he’s replied Steve Fellows. So I thought I’m not going to ask you a stupid question, I didn’t even want to ask him if he was Johnny Marr. So I just said, ‘Does the name Steve Fellows of Comsat Angels mean anything to you?’. He said ‘Oh yes I remember the first time I saw them’.

We just continued talking and he said ‘I understand you’re something of a legend in these parts’. I thought there was something wrong with that because it’s me supposed to be saying ‘you’re really great’, but I was touched by that because most of us who run these shops, you keep wondering whether it’ll be a scarier ride than it used to be – you wonder whether Amazon will pay tax or if you’ll ever be able to compete on a level playing field, or people think of your shop as a place where people used to go. It’s touching that someone like Johnny Marr knows who we are and has a positive opinion of us.

To wrap things up, the question I was going to ask you was ‘tell people why they should buy CDs and continue to support independent stores’, but is that the right question?

Well, I’ll give you the answer to it. It’s a case of ‘let 1000 flowers bloom’ or a million flowers bloom. I can’t tell you how many albums have been printed but we take on original copies and second hand copies so in a place where millions of titles have come in we take on the role of being part curator and part re-circulating it back. So in terms of cultural folk memory users and terms of discovering people, well I hope no one has a dismissive idea of music. It’s easy for some people, and I hope not many, to say I’ve never heard that so it can’t be any good. I’ve heard many times people come in here and say ‘oh there’s nothing new out’. There’s great stuff here, there’s stuff that newspapers and journalists have enthused about over the years.

And maybe even passed them by as well.

Yeah definitely –it’s the nature of availability as well. Like X-Factor culture, as in X-Factor dystopia where product is at it’s most reductive. With X Factor, with Amazon and when supermarkets came into the picture – where the range of stuff you could find was reduced. They can’t stock everything so they’re going to stock the fast movers. What happens to that stuff that’s in the margins - the library aspect of things rather than the best sellers? We’re standing here now next to the jazz section that’s got about 3000 titles. Now when supermarkets started stocking titles, record companies would obviously go ‘great’ and just take all the sales of the big titles and if they racked it, it sold. It had the knock on effect, because we wouldn’t sell so many. But when Norah Jones and Jamie Cullum, their record companies couldn’t get them into the supermarket and they came to us going ‘please help us’. We got them, we sold them and we charted them.

Of course what happens with the 2nd albums is that the supermarkets get on board, they take it, we can’t sell it. The sad thing is, is that shops get wiped out over the years as a result of that. There were 7000 to now less than 300 specialist shops dedicated to music.

Words by Michelle Kambasha

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