The queue outside Sister Ray Records for Saturday’s much-hyped annual Record Store Day began in earnest on Friday evening. “We had a regular camp out here at around 5pm last night, two hours before we closed,” said Rachel Jacob, 27, at the shop in Soho, central London.
Thirteen hours later, masked up and hands lathered in sanitiser, that customer was the first through the door, picking up a limited edition David Bowie LP. “He was so excited, and that gives me a proper smile,” said Jacob, who moved from Manchester to work in London. “I started my job here a month before lockdown! It’s a relief to be back.”
Every year, for the last dozen years, music fans have crammed into record stores to get their hands on one of the exclusive releases made available for one day only. This year the day is especially significant for the 230 participating record stores up and down the country, who are each desperately hoping it will help them claw back some revenue from the financial disaster inflicted by Covid-19.
The music industry has weathered multiple threats to its business model in the last few decades, but the pandemic is the first to damage almost every aspect of its infrastructure. “Record stores are the sorts of places you could never replace, if they go they won’t come back,” said Juliette Jackson, lead singer and songwriter of the all-female four piece The Big Moon.
Jackson urged fans to keep supporting shops: “The beauty of record stores is their community. You can go in there and talk about music and see bands and learn things that Google doesn’t know.”
But organising the day has not been without its problems: it was originally due to take place in April, then June, and has now split itself across three “drops” in August, September and October.
UK founder Spencer Hickman, formerly of London independent retailer Rough Trade, was keeping his shop in Margate shut. “The whole point of being in a record store to me is flicking through the racks, chatting to people in the store, and you can’t really do that in our current climate,” he said. Two years ago, Rupert Morrison, owner of Drift in Totnes, Devon, claimed the event was a gimmick with a “heavily oversaturated and predominantly bland collection of kitsch, novelty and album campaign box-ticking”.
But the day has become a vital shot in the arm for businesses and musicians trying to survive. Organisers claim it is the biggest trading day of the year for independent music stores, akin to a Christmas boost, that shifts as many as 130,000 records in a day. Hundreds of artists – this year including Pink Floyd, Christine and the Queens and the Weeknd – have taken part and the mood in Soho was buoyant.
Caroline Battenburg, 57, travelled from Gravesend with her family to feed her 16-year-old’s newly acquired vinyl habit. “My son is bankrupting us,” she joked. Waiting in her wheelchair outside Reckless Records, glamorously draped in a purple shawl, Battenburg was excited to be listening to records again: “It’s fantastic, he’s been discovering my indie stuff and pulled New Order out of the loft. We’ve been up till 4 in the morning during the lockdown talking music, listening to music.”
By mid-morning the queues around Sounds of the Universe, Phonica and Reckless Records in London’s Soho, which would usually have been snaking round corners into the next street, had all but disappeared. Jeram and Asha Dave, 20 and 16, had bought a Funkadelic LP – known better as “a vinyl” by their generation – for their dad six months ago and were now in town to choose their first records. “I check out social media first to see what’s out there, what’s new, what’s good” said Jeram, who had settled on buying J Hus’s Big Conspiracy. “It’s just a different experience when you listen to records,” said Asha. “You can hold one, it’s more real than streaming. And it sounds better.”
While it’s a far cry from vinyl’s early 1980s market peak, when 300 million units accounted for $2bn (£1.5bn) sales, record sales have been growing for the past 12 years and now stand at 4.3 million LPs. Vinyl albums now account for one in every eight albums purchased in the UK across digital and physical formats.
In June, Tim Burgess fronted #LoveRecordStores, a campaign that delivered a £1m boost in sales after 50,000 records were shipped to stores. The Charlatans frontman has been a hero for artists and fans throughout lockdown; his regular Twitter listening parties have seen hundreds of thousands of followers taking part. An album is chosen by Burgess, and the bands – from Aztec Camera to The Zutons – tweet stories about its making, track by track, and interact with fans who all listen to it at the same time. Burgess said the parties seem to be having an effect on sales. “Artists and independent record shops have noticed that people are buying copies of the records we feature – and lots of them on vinyl too,” he tweeted. “People get music they love and shops get much needed sales – thanks to anyone who has bought a copy of an album we’ve featured.”
Back on Soho’s streets, Leigh and Tomoyo Wildman inspected their new haul. They first met in a club 12 years ago and a shared love for music had been a foundation of their 10-year-marriage. “He’s my personal DJ, we have hundreds of records and he knows what I like,” said Tomoyo, 47. “He’ll play songs while I cook, we’ll go dancing when we can. It’s a buzz.”