Entertainment & Arts

Frankie and the Heartstrings: Record shop boys

Frankie and the Heartstrings
Image caption Frankie and the Heartstrings work full time in the shop in Sunderland

When indie band Frankie and the Heartstrings released their second album this summer, they were so alarmed by the lack of record shops in which to sell it that they decided to open their own.

"We were coming to the completion of our second record and the main story on the news one day was the fact HMV had gone bust," says singer Frankie Francis.

"At the time, a couple of local record shops had gone bust as well. We thought 'We've got this record coming out, but there might not actually be anywhere to sell it on the High Street.'

"So we thought we'd take a stand and open our own record shop."

With help from Sunderland City Council, the band took over the empty tourist office in their home town. "There's no call for it any more, for various reasons," Francis says solemnly.

Pop Recs Ltd was only supposed to open for two weeks to mark their album's release in June. But the band say the reaction has been so good that they are keeping it open for as long as they can and have plans for in-store gigs through to next February.

Image caption The shop hosts in-store gigs by bands such as Dutch Uncles

Four out of the five bandmates work there full time and, last month, the venture earned them the title of hardest working band in Britain from the Association of Independent Music.

When I visit, the lead singer is manning the coffee machine, busily grinding beans and frothing milk as the shop fills up before an in-store gig by visiting Manchester band Dutch Uncles.

Drummer Dave Harper and bassist Steve Dennis are behind the counter in a state of harangued dishevelment - passing coffee cups, jabbing the till, fetching supplies, pausing to chat to friends.

Indie circuit stalwarts, Frankie and the Heartstrings made the top 40 with their debut album in 2011 and have a loyal live following, but are still waiting for that breakthrough to the big time.

"We're a band with not much money… and we've put what money we have into this project just to show bands can take a stand," Francis says.

"If we can do it on a street level, why can't people further up in the music business be as proactive as us?

"We're engaging with loads of bands and labels to come and do things and because of that we're selling records in Sunderland for all these bands. That wouldn't have happened if this project didn't exist."

Image caption The shop sells new and second-hand records as well as drinks, food and art

But does it really matter whether we have real record shops selling real records any more? "I guess it matters more to us because we're in a band and we know how many records people sell," Francis replies.

"Even 10 years ago you would have sold double, three times, four times the amount of records that you sell now.

"I think it's very important to engage with people and make them realise the value of actually owning music, especially on vinyl because we're very romantic in that we take a lot of time over the artwork and the way it's laid out and the way the whole thing feels and looks.

"We just want to try and make that connect with people and explain to them why it's such a cherished item."

A few months ago, Francis was simply a flamboyant indie rock front man. Now, he talks about business plans and the deals he has struck with various record labels.

"We're five kids from Sunderland who have been messing around in the back of a van for five years touring the world," he says.

"It's quite easy to slip back into the crazy gang mentality, but we've had to put our businessmen heads on."

Image caption The band give pride of place to their second album The Days Run Away

The group's second album missed the top 40 and they are now between record contracts. With minimal money to be made from album sales, mid-ranking indie bands must find other sources of income.

Dutch Uncles are critical favourites but their three albums have not troubled the top 40. Singer Duncan Wallis says the idea of making money from selling records just does not occur to bands such as his.

"It's just not something you really consider," he says. "You only think about the money to be made out of touring, at this level anyway."

Frankie and the Heartstrings say they have sacrificed summer festival fees in order to work in the shop, which earns them "enough to get by, and that's all we care about".

Image caption The shop promotes releases by other local bands

The alternative would be much worse - getting proper jobs.

"The shop, if you maintain it correctly, could become an income for the band," Francis says. "If it wasn't for the shop we would all have to be in work now."

Until now, the band have survived on the money they have made from their music. When a pizza company used one of their songs in a TV advert, the group lived for a year on the proceeds.

Francis says: "I don't think there's any shame in that any more because you don't make any money from selling records, so you've got to make an income somehow."

In the store, the band also sell their own coffee blend and brand of beer, and Francis admits they make more money from coffee than records most days. Like many other independent record stores, they know they cannot survive by selling music alone.

Work by local artists and photographers adorns the walls and there are dedicated racks promoting records by local bands.

"We've had kids from the local area who've come into the shop, bought some records and the next week they've come in and said, 'We've just started a band, can we have a gig in here?'" Francis says.

But the most prominent space is reserved for the new album by Frankie and the Heartstrings.

The singer laughs: "If we're going to run a record shop, we're going to be number one in the charts every week in this store."

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