Record Sales – some historical context

With the collapse of Fopp, profits down at HMV and Virgin, and the seemingly endless litany of independent shops going to the wall, the soothsayers and doom mongers all seem to be predicting the apocalypse. When I wrote the initial piece on Fopp a couple of days ago, I noticed the BBC site had reeled out the old cliche about the company being “the latest victim of the slump in CD sales”. I neglected to comment on that particular piece of ill-researched nonsense, but should have done. Just last month, total sales figures were released that showed, according to the Guardian, that “although music companies and retailers are announcing new download stores and other digital music projects almost daily, the UK CD market has shown little sign of the declines seen in other important countries such as Germany and the US”. Sales in fact have been steady. The singles market has collapsed, but Fopp didn’t sell singles.

There is increasing competition and lower margins in the mainstream market as prices have fallen. Albums can be picked up cheaply at Tesco and Asda, but if specialist record shops are seriously suggesting that they are operating in a similar market to supermarkets then they need to look at their stocking policies. Record shops can still thrive in the world of Amazon, Tesco and Ebay if they identify a market that’s not in direct competition with huge multinationals. Joe Bloggs’ local emporium is never going to be able to compete on price, but he can flourish if he finds a niche and fills it.

In the world of food sales, the days of the small general food store appear to be numbered. They cannot compete in price or range with the likes of Tesco. Some food stores, though, are thriving. Delicatessens, organic and wholefood stores and farmers markets have all identified a niche that the supermarkets cannot compete with, either due to simple economics, or just as importantly, a political will by consumers to support independent and specialist traders. This analogy can be as easily applied to music retailing. A shop that specialises in jazz, dance or independent (rather than indie) music can provide a service that even Amazon and HMV cannot hope to compete with, let alone Asda. Monorail in Glasgow, for example, thrives in a city that has seen shop after shop close its doors. This despite having a location in the back room of a bar and restaurant that means casual, passing trade is non-existent. The secret is simple. A clean, bright and airy shop, staff who know their stuff (and don’t look down on customers who may not), and a fantastic selection of stock that includes a lot of stuff you really don’t see anywhere else. There are still shops, though, who operate in dingy, poorly lit premises, with carpets that haven’t seen a hoover since they opened, surly staff, and overpriced stock that is so grubby it looks like its been salvaged from someone’s bins. No doubt Ebay, downloads and decining CD sales will be blamed when they close down (and I am thinking of a couple of shops in particular here).

The music industry has never had good times – not if you believe them. Before downloads it was the fact that we couldn’t export our bands any more. Before that, people were too busy clubbing and dropping E’s to buy records. Before that, “home taping was killing music”. Back in the dim and distant past, jukeboxes and radio were predicted to kill the music industry. A fragile shellac 78 cost $1 in 1950 when the average wage was $75 per week in the US. Radio was free. But people still bought the records. The industry even survived the Great Depression, although only just. In 1927, 140 million records were sold in the US. In 1932 the total had fallen to 6 million. Now that’s a crisis.

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