So far, 2016 has been a pretty distressing year for music fans. While many were still reeling from Lemmy Kilmister’s departure to the great gig in the sky, the passing of rock n’ roll sovereign David Bowie only seemed to heartlessly tear open a still-fresh wound in the music-loving community. While not as globally-devastating as the passing of some of rock’s greatest monarchs, the Bristol community received another shock with the closure of one of the city’s most enduring record shops, Head. Having worked at Head up until its closure, seeing it cave in to the multitudes of threats that record stores face in the modern day is just so disheartening, and it makes you question how long until they die out altogether.
Head started out its life in the Galleries in the ‘90s as a Virgin store, later becoming a Zavvi retailer, and finally re-opening independently as Head. Head is joining the waves of independent record stores closing down across the South West, such as Bath’s Raves From The Grave, which shut down in June of last year. There are a multitude of reasons behind the much-loved store’s closure, but the most prominent is merely a sign of the times. Independent entertainment retailers face even more competition now than ever before with the advent of online streaming, downloading, and piracy. While great leaps in technology have considerably improved our media culture for consumers, it’s sending independent businesses to the chopping block. As of 2014, digital revenue streams grew by 6.9 per cent to make as much money as their physical counterparts, and the numbers will do nothing but increase as the market continues to expand.
While streaming and downloading have knocked a major dent in physical record sales, retailers like HMV and Amazon can still sit comfortably atop their thrones as the UK’s leading music vendors. Corporate bigwigs are unaffected while independent businesses are left in a perpetual drought of sales, and some attempts at boosting record spendage in the indie market appear to have gone awry. Record Store Day, an annual event initially created as a call-to-arms of supporting independent music stores, has been criticised for “betraying” its original intent, and effectively doing more harm than good. Bristol’s own Howling Owl record label delivered a savage open letter which berated RSD for being “co-opted by major labels” and harming independent ones. The limited-edition releases manufactured for the event also have a much larger buying-in price from dealers, and have to be bought at “firm sale”, meaning they cannot be returned. Essentially, the event is a pure gamble for independent stores, and unfortunately Head was dealt a bad hand. Piles of unsold limited-release RSD stock gathered dust behind the counter in the months that followed last year’s event in April. Even a Black Friday sale couldn’t move half of the leftover records which Record Store Day distributors promise that fans will clamor for on release.
Record stores and entertainment retailers have a far different place in consumer culture these days. You no longer need to reserve a copy, queue up and purchase the new Adele album on release day. Everything’s completely at your fingertips online, which leads consumers to question why they’d go to the extra effort of buying a physical CD or DVD? Their existence is almost ephemeral. While record stores as a business aren’t as prevalent as in previous decades, they still act as a watering hole for like-minded music fans from all walks of life. When moving to the area a few years ago, I remember all the feelings of apprehension and anxiety that come with moving to a new city melting away upon discovering Head. It wasn’t just a record store to me. Record shops aren’t just a place where you grab the new Taylor Swift; they’re a social hub, a place of pilgrimage that represents and solidifies a sense of community in music much like the rich sonic heritage that Bristol has nurtured for years and years. Head has been one of the most rewarding, fascinating jobs I’ve ever had because of all the colourful, vibrant characters I’ve served and worked with during my time there. You can take away just as much happiness from a bright-eyed kid buying the new Adele CD than you can with a silver-haired veteran bolstering his Lou Reed collection. Therefore, my plea is simple, and one that is shared by music fans the world over: support your local record store. Not just on RSD. Not just when HMV’s out of stock. Put your money into an independent instead. When you put money into a local business, your money isn’t going toward a corporate suit’s new BMW, you’re giving back to the community. It’s a humbling feeling knowing that your money’s going towards someone’s lunch, gas bills, vet treatments for their cat, and ballet shoes for their daughter. The record store is a key social element of music culture, and we can’t allow it to die out.
There is some hope, however. While digital sales of individual albums are declining as fast as their physical counterparts in favour of streaming subscriptions, vinyl sales continue to soar, with UK sales growing by 56 per cent in the first half of 2015 alone. Though vinyl may retain the affections of dedicated music lovers, some good things must come to an end. Though it comes from a place of sadness, all the sympathies we’ve received from customers, as well as all the sincere anecdotes about how much they loved coming into the shop, are enough heartfelt evidence to show that local record stores can make a difference in the community. At the time of writing, our manager Griff, who’s worked with the store since the Virgin days, plans to have Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells to soundtrack the shop’s final closure. Though I initially thought Tom Waits’ Closing Time, or Daniel Johnston’s “Some Things Last A Long Time” would be the obvious choices, some of you music boffins out there might recognise Oldfield’s 1973 classic as the first record to be released on a Virgin label. So it’s nice to see that, at the very least, we’re not ending on a finale, but a new beginning.