If only shoppers had an independent state of mind – Kevin Buckle

Topping & Company are aiming to open their fourth UK outlet in Edinburgh
Topping & Company are aiming to open their fourth UK outlet in Edinburgh
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Much excitement on my Twitter feed on Thursday as it was announced that Topping & Company, the booksellers, were seeking permission to convert the Royal Bank of Scotland building in Blenheim Place.

For residents it was even better news as up until recently there had been plans for the building to be a hostel. Of course the fact that this good news came in the same week that HMV’s fate rested with what offers administrators had received was not lost on many.

There is a common misconception that record shops and bookshops are very similar and face the same challenges. While this may seem true on the surface it quickly becomes clear that things are very different. Bookshops may have a cafe and possibly sell a few gifts but they very much sell books. HMV on the other hand has depended on DVD sales as well as music for some time and DVD sales are suffering even more than music.

To add to HMV’s difficulties, reading a book digitally is far less satisfying than listening to music digitally and while streaming music goes from strength to strength ebooks stalled in 2017 and are now in decline.

Certainly record and bookshops both have to compete with physical sales online but again music is sold far more aggressively online, ironically by the very labels and artists who are so keen to see HMV survive. Authors and their publishers on the whole tend to leave book selling to bookshops.

It looks like there are three bidders for HMV and rumour has it they are all different types of bids. The three most obvious scenarios are that somebody keeps most of the shops open, there is an offer to just keep a smaller number of shops open or a bid is made just for the intellectual rights. Of course by the time you read this it may all be decided and also some other possibility may have been accepted but I think it is safe to say that moving forward will be a struggle whatever happens at a time when bookshops can genuinely look to the future.

Of course the music industry doesn’t help itself with its constant optimism right up until things go very wrong. Vinyl was never going to save HMV and yet reading the headlines you would never have guessed. Similarly there are now considerably more “record shops” but they are not the equivalent of all those lost over the last decade or so.

Any coffee shop or cafe with a few racks of records is classified as a record shop and certainly two years ago when I checked at the height of the boom for new shops the majority fell into this description.

The most obvious clue, though, is that the two small chains with the ability to expand didn’t do so despite claiming they would. When FOPP was taken over by Hilco as part of the HMV brand over five years ago one of the key promises was an expansion of the FOPPs and that just didn’t happen despite appearing to be a sensible move.

Similarly, Rough Trade announced expansion plans for the UK some years ago but so far have simply taken over Rise in Bristol and opened in Nottingham, causing the already big independent there to close – so no overall gain at all.

Topping & Company already have shops in St Andrews, Bath and Ely so can now definitely consider themselves a small chain. Those record shops out there that are doing well, and yes they do exist, will sensibly be sticking with what they have.

What will be interesting once HMV is trading normally again will be if customers and artists alike will be “supporting” Mike Ashley, Amazon or whoever the new owners are the way they have been giving their money to a major international vulture fund for the best part of six years.

Most people could if they wished give far more of their custom to independents but choose not to do so. These shops also have nice staff who would like to keep their jobs so it would be good to think that after all that has happened people might think twice in the future about where they spend their hard-earned money. It also goes without saying that Edinburgh already has many good bookshops so while Topping & Company is a good addition to the area those who survived through the worst of times should not be forgotten too.

A more considered opinion on HMV will make sense once new owners are in place but for now the one thing that does apply to both record shops and bookshops is that you can never go wrong supporting independent stores.

Steve lightens the load for record shops

Steve Mason’s latest album – About the Light – was released yesterday and independents have a lovely silver vinyl version. Steve (pictured) of course was previously in The Beta Band and has since gone on to have a very successful solo career.

It’s a great day for releases by Scottish bands as as I mentioned last week The Twilight Sad also have a new album out on double blue vinyl which again is only available from independents.

While these gestures to the indies are helpful, HMV have been given great advantages by record companies in the last few years despite calls for a level playing field after the Hilco deal and I do fear just how much more will be given to anybody now prepared to take on HMV this time.

It’s time to show us the money

More and more I see figures stating the economic benefit of Edinburgh’s many festivals and projects and yet there is not only never any explanation as to how these figures are obtained but also no mention of exactly who benefits from these economic gains.

With such large sums of money quoted – often tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds – more detail is certainly necessary yet the media on the whole just dutifully repeats all these figures without any checks whatsoever.

If for instance the vast majority of the economic benefit for a festival was simply more visitors spending more money on their accommodation and food then that is something that would be extremely relevant on several fronts.

These figures are always produced by the organisers who have a vested interest in saying how wonderful they are and it really is time these many figures were looked at more closely to see if the benefits claimed are widespread or simply apply to a lucky few.