Could the indie record store be on the comeback trail?

By Johny Cassidy
Business producer, BBC News


The third annual UK Independent Record Store Day comes as figures show a slight reverse in the decline of the indie music retailer, but what does the future hold?

image captionBristol's Rise record store is one of the new kids on the indie shop block

Last year, the UK had just 269 independent UK record shops, a figure that has now risen to 281.

But it is still a long way off the 900 which existed just five years ago.

They faced tough competition from the big players - supermarkets and online retailers such as Amazon - in a shrinking market.

The slight increase makes Spencer Hickman, founder of Rough Trade Records and the person behind UK Independent Record Store Day, confident that the future looks bright.

"There's lot of love out there for the old independent record shop," he says.

"People are waking up to the fact that all towns across the country are becoming identikit, and the small indie retailers are disappearing. They don't want this any more and are finally saying: 'no, enough is enough'."

But while the organisers of the annual event may be celebrating news of green shoots in the sector, industry figures suggest things are far from rosy.

Changing habits

The Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA) says the value of music sales in the UK last year was £1.2bn, down 4% on 2009.

Much of the slowdown has been driven by a dramatic change in the way consumers have been buying and listening to music over the last decade.

Combined digital revenues across singles and albums now account for 23.4% of the value of the recorded music market, compared with 18.1% last year and just 12.4% in 2009.

Although digital downloading is a growing trend among music lovers, figures show that people are returning to album sales rather than single downloads. In 2010 the value of digital album sales hit £146.8m and outstripped the digital singles market for the first time.

Vinyl comeback

Mr Hickman is hopeful that the popularity of digital albums will give a corresponding boost to vinyl sales.

"The fact that digital downloading is moving to album sales rather than singles shows a change in listening," he says.

"We can press the shuffle button on our iPods, but it's nice to sit back at home and listen to something in full; that's why vinyl is becoming so popular again.

"There's nothing like dropping that needle for the first time and hearing the slight crackle, anticipating what's coming up."

The shopping experience is also important, he believes.

"Consumers want to go into a shop and to stand chatting to someone who knows about music."

image captionThe rise of digital music has had a big influence on consumer trends

From the 6,560 music retailers, only 269 of these were independent, and according to BPI statistics (from 2008) indie stores represented only 2.4% of total music sales.

Mr Hickman explains that Record Store Day kicked off three years ago as a direct response to the mass-marketed music coming from TV programmes.

"People across the board are now fed up with the music coming from television shows, they want somewhere where they can go and chat about new bands and labels," says Mr Hickman.

"Indie shops are perfect for this and Record Store Day is showing that there's still a massive interest."

Hard times

Ben Cardew, news editor of Music Week, argues that an independent presence is "crucial" as it can "introduce people to new music and to the idea of buying music" beyond the top 50 offering from supermarkets.

And while some independent stores may be having a renaissance, even the big high street names have suffered in recent years.

Retail giant HMV hit trouble with shares plummeting earlier this month as they issued their third profits warning this year and said pre-tax profits would be around £30m, less than half of the £69m recorded last year.

image captionHMV shares have taken a knock this year

Chris Cook, business editor of music business service CMU Daily, agrees the firm has lost its way lately.

"While they saw a drop in sales over the vital Christmas period, independents like Rough Trade East saw sales rise," says Cook.

"People like the community feel of an indie shop and feel the warmth there. It's somewhere for them to hang out and to swap music stories and knowledge. Maybe HMV should look at them."

Vital role

Mark Kelly, keyboard player of Marillion and CEO of the Featured Artists Coalition, agrees that independent stores play a "vital role" in engaging the public with music.

"Record stores often have a social as well as commercial role so people can try before they buy and hang out with other music enthusiasts," he says.

"The day the traditional record stores die, will be a day most musicians and music lovers of all ages and stages will mourn. Like all of us in the business of making and selling music, record stores have to innovate to continue to capture the attention and wallets of fans."

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