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indie record shops

'People need something tangible': How Ireland's indie record shops are thriving in the Spotify age

“Oceans of downloads on a hard drive are a bit soulless.”

THE PROBLEMS THE music industry has faced over the past number of years have been well documented. Physical sales have tumbled while streaming has soared, leading record shops to shutter left, right and centre. Casualties have included HMV, which closed all its brick-and-mortar stores in Ireland two years ago.

An unlikely vinyl boom, however, has meant that many independent record shops in Ireland have found a new lease of life. Not only are they surviving, but they’re thriving.

“We are seeing things improve year on year,” confirms Adrian Walshe of Spindizzy Records, a record store located in George’s Street Arcade. A far cry from a few years ago when opening a record store seemed like a foolhardy enterprise, then.

Spindizzy Records started out life as a mini-market in 1996 before expanding into its current incarnation. The shop now sells a mixture of CDs and vinyl, old and new. Walshe says its biggest sellers are vintage vinyl records followed by new vinyl records.

This is a trend across many of Ireland’s record stores.

Steamboat Music is a music store in Limerick that stocks musical instruments, records, CDs and more. Owner Mark Carey says that while CDs still account for a significant proportion of sales, vinyl is their star performer.

Case in point? The shop began buying and selling vintage vinyl just one year ago, and it already accounts for a third of their total LP sales.

“It is incredible to see just how popular it has once again become,” he says. “I can’t think of another example in any other field of a seemingly outdated format not just having a
fad resurgence, but becoming the centre of attention again within its industry.”

In the mid-2000s, a number of long-running record shops closed around Ireland, including Comet Records, Redlight Records, Zhivago Records, BPM Records and The Vinyl Rooms. Those that remained hung on by the skin of their teeth.

“We suffered a downturn in business around the end of 2009 largely as a result of the economic crash,” says Adrian Walshe. “We had to streamline the business which unfortunately meant staff cutbacks.”

Within a few years, however, things had turned around somewhat. Vinyl was back in vogue and a whole new generation were falling in love with the format for the first time.

Vinyl may not have been good news for chain music stores, but it represented an opportunity for independent record shops to diversify and carve out a new niche for themselves.

“Vinyl has made the record shop model a viable business again,” says Mark Carey of Steamboat Music. “Funnily enough it means the market is now more suited to the independent store and not the HMV-like mega chain. And for record buying at least, I think that is how people prefer it.”

So what exactly is behind the surge in vinyl’s popularity? Adrian Walshe of Spindizzy reckons it’s down to people wanting something they can hold with their hands.

“They need something tangible. They want superior sound quality. It’s in our nature to collect the things we love. Music is incredibly important to all of us. We simply want more than a download. Oceans of downloads on a hard drive are a bit soulless after all.”

Brian Foley of Freebird, a record shop celebrating its fortieth year in business this year, posits that the resurgence is down to “the sociable and physical aspect of shopping that you can’t get with streaming”.

Each of the record store owners interviewed for this piece remarked on the wide range of customers coming in to buy vinyl. It’s not confined to any one generation, but has instead proven itself to be a format that resonates with students and old age pensioners alike.

Does this bode well for the future then?

“I think there is a bit of a fad regarding vinyl at the moment which will gradually fall away,” predicts Steve Taylor of South East Records. “But if a small fraction stay with it, then that’s your next generation of collectors.”

“No matter what medium is out there, be it streaming or Spotify, there will always be people who have to have the physical thing.”

For now, record stores are looking to futureproof their businesses so they aren’t too reliant on one revenue source. Spindizzy Records has recently made the foray into selling records online, while Steamboat Music has started selling used records, vinyl accessories, comic books and more.

Nearly a decade ago, Richard Branson predicted that there would be no record stores open in 2020 and described them as a thing of the past. Fortunately, it seems that rumours of the record shop’s death may have been exaggerated.

“I think we’ve survived the worst of it,” says Walshe. “Record shops are here to stay.”

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