A quick tour around Real Groovy Records, Auckland

Record stores have interested me quite a lot recently.

My local independent record store here in Birmingham closed down last weekend while I was away in New Zealand, so to commemorate that fact, I visited a couple of Auckland record stores – Conch in Ponsonby, which is the spiritual equivalent of what Jibbering was (part cafe, part meeting spot, and a hub for local funk, hip hop and reggae DJs); and Real Groovy Records – a massive emporium of new and second hand vinyl and CDs, books, DVDs, computer games and so on.

Real Groovy is particularly interesting, because it went into liquidation last year and was closed down – but was rescued by an injection of capital (as I understand it) and was a thriving hive of activity when I visited.

It got me thinking about what music retailers can and should do to survive – and also about the extent to which the closure of record shops is quite the tragedy it’s generally portrayed as.

The guys at Jibbering love music, but were never really that excited about being in the retail sector. Closing the Jibbering store frees them up to concentrate on all of the other stuff they do brilliantly well – including music events, PA hire, art gallery stuff, duplication and festival organising.

Moseley village has lost a place to meet up and have a coffee (and I’ve talked elsewhere about what that means to me) – but I got the impression that not a lot of money was changing hands, and not a lot of units were being shifted of reggae 7″ vinyl, world music CDs and funk records. If I were to describe the mood of the Jibbering crew last time I spoke to them about this, there’s certainly a hint of nostalgia and sadness in there for the end of an era – but there’s a real buoyant, upbeat and optimistic undertone to the whole thing. It’s an excitement about what happens next.

Of course, not everyone’s in that position, and I know a number of people for whom music retail is their life. Scary times, then.

But there are plenty of things that can be done to reinvigorate local retail – even (and perhaps especially) in these tough economic times. The biggest stumbling block (as is so often the case) is a resistance to change and diversification.

Customer service is a biggie of course – but most importantly, making the most of new technologies to add efficiencies, promote, and build repeat business.

The solutions, as usual, need to be applied on a case by case basis, as appropriate – because each individual music retailer is entirely unique. It plays a different role in its local community, serves a different section of music fandom and has strengths and assets all of its own.

Sometimes the smart thing to do is close the doors and reinvent yourself. Sometimes, someone will come to the rescue, and sometimes you can be really, really clever – and imagine your way into a profitable and sustainable music retail operation.

I’d love to hear what challenges you’re facing and what you’re trying if you are running an independent record store. Any tales from your local music shop much appreciated too.

I’d be keen to work with an independent retailer to help develop solutions, invent strategies and brainstorm ideas. Let me know if you can think of any potential candidates.