Kevin Buckle: Record industry stuck in the same old groove

Record shops are forced to accept the scraps from the table of bands like Radiohead. Picture: Getty
Record shops are forced to accept the scraps from the table of bands like Radiohead. Picture: Getty
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Many years ago when Avalanche was in West Nicolson Street and the internet and websites were in their infancy we had a lovely gift shop called Diggers next door. I went in one day and found a pile of small boxes on the desk that served as a counter and next to the pile a collection of leaflets. Intrigued, I asked what was happening and was told that just recently the boxes had started to have these small leaflets added saying if you like this gift you can find more on our website.

Now the owners would spend many hours and indeed days travelling to source unique gifts you might not find elsewhere and would always have a range of whatever the particular artist or maker had to offer. If you liked something you could be sure to go back and find more. So as not to lose business to the fledgling internet every box had to be opened and the leaflet taken out.

Chemikal Undergrounds Stewart Henderson

Chemikal Undergrounds Stewart Henderson

Later, as websites became more common even the distributors would advertise you could buy directly from them and when the details started being printed on the boxes then there was nothing more that could be done. Repeat custom was a big thing for Digger so while it made little sense for the many students nearby at Edinburgh University to go to all the trouble of buying online when they could just nip into the shop it did look like the start of a slippery slope.

I did however console myself with the fact that it would never work with music. So much of what we sold was a result of playing music we thought our customers would like in the shop or from recommendations based on a customer’s taste in music. That did not translate well online. Yes people could listen online but even in the early days the choice was vast rather than the curated playlist of a record shop. Recommendations online were even worse. At the time if you bought a U2 album the site recommended you bought another U2 album ! Even now while recommendations have greatly improved they tend only to work well within a genre.

Similarly if bands and labels started putting in leaflets saying buy our next album directly then surely shops and distributors would never stand for it and more importantly what would be the incentive to promote that first album? I was of course spectacularly wrong and right at the same time. The amount of music available to listen to online is now overwhelming and nothing has successfully replaced the ability of a good record shop to break a new band. On the other hand the “buy directly” part has expanded hugely from a simple leaflet to offers of exclusives to social media promotion to sites like PledgeMusic. Even so, this still only works well for established artists.

While shops and distributors now regularly only sell ten per cent of what might have been expected in those simpler times they accept the scraps and say nothing.

Nobody is ever going to say “Hey Radiohead, you’ve done everything you can to sell your new album to your fans directly, we’ll just give it a miss.” I know several record shop owners who being big Radiohead fans had to buy the limited box set from the band! The numbers are so small now for new bands that they never really get to take off, never mind make that important second or third album. Radiohead would not want to be judgeded on Pablo Honey!

Labels meanwhile may be taking business from shops but all but the biggest still struggle to survive and cannot invest in new talent themselves.

Stewart Henderson of Chemikal Underground, one of Scotland’s finest and established labels, makes all these points very eloquently in the new documentary Lost In France, which takes a look at the indie music scene in Scotland in the 1990s (check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VcnYTK0AuCQ).

The current way of things doesn’t work on so many levels. Why would a shop retweet a band when their bio then links to their new album – often with something extra not available in shops. It is the more recent equivalent of when bands would go into a shop asking if they could put their album launch poster in the window but not bring any albums for the shop to sell.

Many in the music industry now describe the current situation as unbalanced. A more accurate description would be broken.

Could we see a Waverley arts hub down line?

With news last week that there was soon to be a planning application with City of Edinburgh Council to develop a bar, restaurant, theatre and microbrewery on Market Street, next to Waverley Station, it only reinforced my thoughts that that whole area at the back of the station could become a real hub for the arts and interesting retail if promoted properly.

Response to the Waverley Arches may have been disappointing so far but with The Frutmarket Gallery and The City Art Centre immediately in view on leaving the station the area’s arts credentials cannot be faulted and whether then walking up Cockburn Street, along Market Street and up Jeffrey Street or indeed along the Arches there are already some well established restaurants and galleries and it is just maybe the retail side of things – always the hardest to get right on the high street these days – that needs to become better established and promoted.

Festival failings can’t be ignored

It looks like the numerous problems caused by the commercial use of public space during Edinburgh’s many festivals will become an issue in the upcoming council election. Everything from the money that is being made to the mess that is left behind needs to be looked at very carefully and it will be interesting to see which candidates think this is a matter worth campaigning on.

Given the strength of feeling from the good citizens of Edinburgh I think it would be a mistake for any of the parties to ignore the issues raised and I’m sure there are many who look forward to hearing what solutions are proposed.