Record Store Day in Wales
Primarily, digital downloads and streams are being blamed. With the likes of iTunes, Last.fm and Spotify making it simple to purchase or listen to individual tracks, people's desire for instant musical gratification can be met with the click of a mouse button.
Secondly, UK supermarkets all stock CDs, but in parallel to the value toasters and freeze-preserved plums, they're all mass-market chart music. Selling them at low-profit prices means that the independent shops simply cannot compete on price.
So, attacked on two fronts, what is the future for the independents? I suspect that the days of indies stocking Christmas chart-toppers are long gone, but could there be a way to sidestep the twin assault of downloads and cheapo bargain-basement supermarket fodder?
Like all businesses, record shops can turn a profit if their stock fits their audience. Increased specialisation, catering for a particular audience, seems to be an answer.
Shops like Cardiff's Catapult have long been specialising, in their case to the dance market. Speaking to the Western Mail's Karen Price, store manager Simon Thomas says: "We have had to specialise a lot more over the last year - we now specialise in dance music across the spectrum. A lot of dance music relies on low-end bass frequencies and you can't replicate it in a download. It means that we are safe."
Dance music is also reliant on vinyl to a larger degree than any other genre. Vinyl was once predicted by many to completely disappear, but sales have plateaued in recent years. Shops like Catapult are able to cater for this market, and vinyl should continue to be a large ingredient in the continued success of independents.
As far as other genres go, the vinyl market is the preserve of what might unkindly be termed 'geeks' - the indie and rock superfans whose relationship with vinyl extends from the aural into the physical. That demographic is one that Newport's Diverse Records is well able to exploit. Again talking to the Western Mail, Diverse's Matt Jarrett says: "Our core customer has a few quid in his pocket and a music room and they like buying vinyl as it sounds better than downloads."
Jarrett and Thomas both touch on one factor that suggests that 'serious' music fans will be less inclined to go down the digital download route: an mp3 file contains far less information than a full lossless audio file and, as such, can't communicate the full depth and complexity of music in its original form.
But is the 'serious' music fan an endangered species?
Now admittedly my partner's 18-year-old niece had never seen a piece of vinyl before a few weeks ago ("That's a big CD" she said of a seven inch single) but there's hope for vinyl specialists, according to Jarrett. "American labels are including download codes with their records now," he told The Western Mail. "So instead of buying CDs, the younger market will buy vinyl, because they like the quality and then download it for free to listen to it in their cars and on their mp3 players."
Some independent stores have the luxury of a captive local market and do well from physical sales in the face of the download menace. Andy Davis of Andy's Records in Aberystwyth says of downloads: "Have you ever seen one? If I can't see it or touch it or feel it, it doesn't exist". Davis might sound like he's spitting in the wind, but his healthy local record-buying community uses his shop as all independents used to be used: as something of a meeting place and hang-out.
Cardiff's own Spillers Records also has that ambience - a dark cave of musical fandom in which the merits of new folk or glam rock can be debated with knowledgable staff. Spillers also has the advantage, even in the face of pressures including rent increases in the newly-revitalised city centre, of having a well-orchestrated public profile stemming from its status as the world's oldest record store. Public goodwill and its famous fans - not to mention getting people to pay to advertise your store by buying those de rigeur t-shirts - mean it's better-placed to weather the current storms than many other independents.
"I think of record shops as being your favourite uncle who you never go to see, but then you feel sad when he dies," Andy Davies says. It sounds maudlin, but as the cliché goes, you don't know what you've got till it's gone.
For the time being, Wales' independent record shops are doing a good job of targeting the small numbers of enthusiastic customers that are the secret to their longevity. It's economies of scale: ignore the chart fodder and stock material that sells to the cognoscenti. The independent record shop is part and parcel of our cultural life and it would be a great shame to hand over completely to the faceless electronic vendors of music.
What are Wales' independent record shops doing for Record Store Day?
- Spillers: Live sets from Christopher Rees and The Automatic, plus DJ set from Bullet For My Valentine
- Catapult: appearances from Netsky and local drum'n'bass stars
- Diverse: acoustic set from Jimi Alexander
- Andy's Records: goodie bags for customers
If you know of any other Record Store Day events taking place around Wales, please leave a comment below.