Scotland's record shops on Record Store Day 2021
With record shops open once again and Record Store Day 2021 just around the corner, we chat to some shop owners about how their past year has been and get some of their top RSD recommendations
“Bigger than Christmas” – so goes the phrase uttered by George Macdonald, who runs Edinburgh record store Underground Solu’shn, describing Record Store Day (RSD), the annual dedicated shopping holiday for vinyl obsessives and music enthusiasts. Over a year into a pandemic that has seen record shops shuttered for in-person custom for extended periods of time, 2021’s two designated Saturdays for the event (12 Jun and 17 Jul), and the hundreds of special releases that come with them, are potentially bigger than any Christmas ever; they could be life-saving for small – often one-person-operated – businesses that have seen their very survival questioned by the impact of coronavirus lockdowns.
“The premise of the day is to keep shops open, and that is one of the things that it has managed to do very successfully,” continues Macdonald. “There's probably not many [record] shops in the UK that would have survived the last five years without Record Store Day.” That this instalment falls just as the country gradually moves out of this uncertain period and into a different – though still quite uncertain – one, the day is even more vital.
The Skinny spoke to some participating record stores in Scotland, and the good news for those who adore these places is they are on their feet and approaching the day with enthusiasm and anticipation, despite capacity and distancing measures restricting the extent of what they can showcase. In Dundee, from the ashes comes something fresh, with the newly opened Thirteen Records hoping to fill the gap left by the dearly departed Groucho’s. And indeed, vinyl record sales seem to be in rude health – according to the British Phonographic Industry, 2020 was one of the best years for vinyl purchasing in decades.
“There’s a complete vinyl boom going on just now,” says Stephen McRobbie, co-owner of Glasgow institution Monorail, “and all the pressing plants are over capacity, so it’s taking longer and longer to turn records around.” Perhaps this is because consumers have spent money on music that may have gone to pints or holidays; or because the soul-crushing nature of lockdown has meant mining joy in the places you could still find it (guilty!); or because the dedicated visitors to record stores felt an obligation to support them through a difficult time (though as more than one shop owner opined, bigger companies that had significant resources for back end online services sucked up most of the trade, meaning not all of this boost can be attributed to goodwill custom going to the independent outlets that really needed it).
Stores being closed has meant a need to be nimble online (which is acknowledged by RSD organisers, as the unique list of releases will be available to sell on store websites after the event), not only to encourage continued sales, but to keep up a dialogue with regulars and get the attention of new customers.
“Our sales have actually been pretty good through lockdown, quite steady, probably a lot better than we anticipated – our online side has grown massively and, in some respects, that’s been really positive,” says McRobbie. “It’s forced us to look at what we were doing [before] lockdown. We always saw online as a secondary activity. From the start of Monorail, being of the music community in Glasgow, and of the world really, was a big part of what we wanted to be. And what we do on social media and with our mailouts is we try to represent ourselves in the same way. I think we’re quite a friendly shop to come to, I hope, so we try to be informative because that’s the bottom line, but we try to have a lightness of touch.”
Macdonald adds: “We're very appreciative of all the local people, regulars, and people further afield who don’t have a record shop near them, who ordered online and pretty much kept us alive. It hasn’t always been pretty, but we're trying to take positives out of what we have done and try to improve what we're doing. We’re very lucky to have something like Record Store Day to help us bounce back, and it's been amazing to get the shop open again recently – we've been really busy.”
But being unable to allow large swathes of people into stores and venues, there's a lack of the fanfare and trimmings that come alongside the products that will be sold. “I think it becomes more simply transactional in a way,” says McRobbie about this year’s event. And while that’s not to be sniffed at considering the circumstances, RSD is about more than just generating business. Record stores are hubs of conversation and discovery and their absence from life throughout the pandemic has as much of an impact on culture as it does the economy.
“For me, it’s less about the exclusive records and more about the community spirit and the promotion of the bands and labels we work with through the year,” says Darren Yeats, owner of Edinburgh’s VoxBox, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in May and is known for its Record Store Day street party in the heart of the city. “I don't think this year, that I can put on an event that would make me happy or would be appropriate with the current restrictions.”
Hosting “the wee and the wonderful in tiny venues down the street and stopping the traffic” is the norm for a VoxBox RSD event, Yeats enthuses. “The sun has always shone. Last year, after many years of chasing, the stars aligned and we were excited to finally have shop favourite Siobhan Wilson on the bill. And the pandemic scuppered the event before it could be announced.”
The event usually distils all that community-building and cultural sharing into a single day, with long queues, packed crowds and live performances. Even if it will be a nice earner, the reality this year, as it was last, is quite different for obvious reasons, and it highlights what a loss it has been to the collective consciousness that record stores have been unable to exist as physical spaces, even as they’ve continued to trade.
“There's a whole 25 years of history of people coming in the shop, we've probably served over a million people,” says Underground Solu'shn's Macdonald. “A lot of those people may have met each other here, and formed very good connections and strong positive experiences almost randomly. There’s a positivity that comes out of people getting to hang out in a place that shares music, history, experience, knowledge, technical information, supporting all the things that people need to encourage their musical journey. You've got this place where the more time you spend there, the more you can get out of it.”
While Record Store Day isn’t perfect – store owners variously commented on the lack of representation in the release list, the corporate PR nature that can sometimes befall it, and the issue of often buying in event release stock that doesn’t match the usual kind of music found on a normal day – it’s difficult to find fault when something so specialised is so necessary at this very moment.
“It’s still incredibly important,” says Yeats. “The releases will all be special to someone. I always say you could have a queue of 500 people all wanting something different. No one is expected to like them all. I love Record Store Day to bits.”
Record Store Day takes place at participating record shops on 12 Jun and 17 Jul; more info can be found at recordstoreday.co.uk
Scroll on for Record Store Day recommendations from some of our favourite Scottish record shops