Kevin Buckle: The biggest losers in music revolution are new bands, not shops

I moved house last Friday, which is why there was no column last week. For those asking, it didn't go well and more on that once the lawyers give me the all-clear! One thing I did end up doing was going through lots of old stuff and even I had forgotten just how different things used to be selling music.

Saturday, 8th September 2018, 6:00 am
Young Fathers' Cocoa Sugar is the album of the year. Picture: Getty
Young Fathers' Cocoa Sugar is the album of the year. Picture: Getty

As I write this, Young Fathers have just been announced as the winners of the Scottish Album of the Year award and things are now very different for them and their fellow nominees from even five years ago, never mind a decade.

There was a misconception when sales started to move to labels and artists that shops were simply concerned about losing out. This may have been true at some basic level but for those of us more concerned with breaking bands and introducing new music to our customers the concerns were of a more far-reaching and long-term nature.

We sold many albums from new artists on the back of more established album sales. Extra sales occurred in three ways. Some folk would come in for an album in particular and ask if we had anything else to recommend. Depending on how long it was since they had been in we would go through anything we thought they might like.

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I remember one guy from New York who had family in Edinburgh and came over every six months and bought a lot of stuff from Scottish bands. He came in the shop one day with the usual request of “what’s new?” and I asked how long it had been since his last visit. “Eighteen months,” he said, “I’ve been busy”. Three hours and 21 CDs later he went away a happy man.

Others might be more specific, buying for instance the new Belle and Sebastian album and wondering if we had anything similar.

Finally, there were customers who really just came in to buy one album but we knew we had something they would like also. Anybody who likes The Twilight Sad cannot fail to like There Will Be Fireworks, for instance. In that case there would sometimes need to be some salesmanship involved but so confident would we be that we would always offer to take an album back.

Sales were always going to decline but from a shop’s viewpoint by taking those bigger artist sales away it dramatically reduced the opportunity to promote newer musicians. Looking at those old masterbags as I was clearing things out we were regularly selling 50 to 100 of a local artist and I’d say only 20 to 30 of those were from the artist’s fanbase, with the rest on the back of other sales.

Now things are so different it is as if what I’m describing was a lifetime ago rather than less than a decade and there is definitely no going back. The idea that availability of music online both to listen to and buy would replace what happened in shops has of course just not happened and there is now a new generation of both artists and shops that have no memory of such times.

Every week when selling online I get messages from old customers who always mention the bands to which Avalanche introduced them. Of course big bands weren’t always big bands and Frightened Rabbit, Mogwai and Belle and Sebastian head that list. Withered Hand, Meursault and There Will Be Fireworks aren’t far behind and given Avalanche has sold just over 3000 albums by those last three artists alone it puts today’s figures into a frightening perspective.

Again I regularly get asked by artists what they can do to raise their profile and actually get people to listen to their music, never mind buy their music, and I don’t really have an answer any more.

Shops, meanwhile, have actually more than replaced those lost local band sales with an endless stream of vinyl reissues, though nothing replaces the huge chunk of sales now lost to labels and bands on bigger releases. On vinyl, artists and labels can often take two-thirds of sales, leaving CD sales to Amazon and HMV.

Sadly, it is as I initially feared, and the biggest losers are not shops but new bands, meaning that now it is more and more about who you know and not whether you are any good.

Cocoa Sugar album win is sweet – but Young Fathers don’t need it

So Young Fathers’ Cocoa Sugar has been named Scottish Album of the Year. They are worthy winners but there is a problem in a way – the award will make little difference to them.

Of course the award is for the best album so the judges are not there to help promote someone’s career but certainly given the amount of money spent on the award more benefits to Scottish artists should be gleaned.

I’ve often wondered if maybe a best debut album category would help guarantee a newer artist gains some benefits or even if having winners for different genres and then an overall winner might work. I’m well aware of the possible complications but as with the Mercury Prize something is needed to make the award more relevant in today’s climate.

Of those that performed I enjoyed the Orkney born multi-instrumentalist Erland Cooper the most and Declan Welsh and the Decadent West are the Scottish Arctic Monkeys every record company is looking for.

It will be interesting to see if the format remains the same next year.

Royal High players keep their cards close to their chest

In less than two weeks the public inquiry into the proposals for the Old Royal High School to become a six star-hotel starts and is set to last for six weeks. Anything but a success for the hotel will see the building empty for some time to come, which will be a massive blow to the maintenance of the building.

With the odds for the hotel appeals being successful currently at no better than 50/50 I think it is really important that the public are made aware now of what happens next if the appeals are unsuccessful. Certainly it is not a simple case of the music school moving in and between the council, the music school and the hotel I think they owe it to the public to say what will happen in that scenario.

However I imagine all sides will instead keep their cards close to their chest, with the hotel claiming they will hang on to the lease they have, the music school giving the impression they will take over and the council saying nothing at all.