View From The Side: Are Urban Outfitters Saving Vinyl?
No longer can it be said that vinyl is “making a comeback”. Like Sharon off Eastenders, it’s back and making itself known. The music-buying public’s interest in the seductive black discs has sustained as sales increase each year, and according to a statement made by Urban Outfitters chief administrative officer Calvin Hollinger this week, the ubiquitous hipster hyperrmarket is now the number one vinyl peddler in the world.
It’s no surprise. Record Store Day 2014 was the most successful yet, with shops reporting a 91% rise in sales from the week previous, but not everybody rejoiced in the celebrations. If you'd listened to the full-timers, for whom vinyl isn't an annual street party but a way of life, often their livelihood, they'd have told you of the continuing problems the resurgence brings: that the pressing plants are pushing smaller releases back in favour of more marketable one-offs, or that the majors are muscling the independent labels out of the one market they've been able to survive in for years. It seems success, in one sense of the word, is not without its problems.
So where did Urban Outfitters appear in all this? Ever ones to crash onto a speeding bandwagon like a cartoon anvil, the leviathan of pre-packaged counter-culture sniffed out a marketing opportunity a few years back and started to fill its shelves with records. Not the greatest selection by anyone’s standards, charity shop fodder to put it politely, and charging an astronomical (in relative terms) blanket price of £6 a pop.
It made perfect sense. The ‘young generation’ have no point of reference for how much a second-hand record should cost. £6 seems reasonable for a tangible object to express your identity among mates, in comparison to say, a t-shirt or a poster. A connoisseur may look at the kitsch pink cover of Rod Stewart’s Greatest Hits, an album any serious digger will have flicked past thousands of times in Oxfams around the country, and recline into an almighty facepalm, but to an 18 year old immersed in a culture of irony with a loose understanding of the concept of vintage, it’s cool.
It’s not only second-hand records they’re flogging either. The chain now stocks new releases, no doubt helping to make Jack White’s Lazaretto the biggest selling LP since Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy in 1994, but even those often come with a higher markup than elsewhere.
If Mr Hollinger’s comments are to be believed however it seems the company’s audacity has paid off, as it usually does for them. The question is, what does this mean for the remaining independent record shops?
Daunting at the best of times for a newcomer, the past image of many record stores was one of stuffiness and elitism, and it must be said it wasn’t always without reason. I can recall staff in some of London’s most renowned shops visibly laughing at customers who'd pronounced the title of a track or artist wrong. That's not just the mild grumpiness that comes with dealing with the public on a daily basis, that's plain being a twat, and for too long they did their industry a disservice.
Thankfully that reputation has been put right by a cluster of stores doing business the right way, reigniting the community spirit that drew people to them in the first place. Love Vinyl in Shoreditch is a reminder of what a record shop should be, and crucially offers the kind of service and knowledge Urban Outfitters could never match. Jake Holloway, one of the team of dealers who opened the shop earlier this year, said "I think we have a better selection than Urban Outfitters in our bargain basement where all records are a pound. Charging the hipster nation £6 and up for an R. Kelly record is just daylight robbery. I'd love to know who does their buying”.
Jason Spinks from Kristina Records, another name helping to keep London’s music scene in a salubrious state, doesn’t think the trend will last. “Urban Outfitters is a fashion shop, and vinyl is now fashionable” he says. “I hope it stays that way but they will probably move on at some point.”
Being optimistic, it seems Urban Outfitters are facing a catch 22 situation which could ultimately pay off for the independents. If the chain introduces a new generation of music lovers to the glory of wax by flogging them overpriced records with their too-small-beanies, surely it won’t take long for people to realise they’re having their pants pulled down and go elsewhere? Rather than steering customers away from the independents, they’re actually opening the door to scores of potential vinyl heads who may never have gained entry into the culture otherwise, in a similar way to Lomography did and continues to do for analogue photography.
Once the customer has a taste for wax they’ll inevitably find their way to places like Love Vinyl, Kristina, Piccadilly or Phonica, where staff can recommend music based on their experience and intuition rather than placing it near the tills, offer a selection of properly curated stock over charity shop hoards, and most importantly become a place for community, ideas and interaction.
Jason from Kristina Records agrees “I really don’t think it takes anything away from us. If anything it could get people thinking about buying music on vinyl and ending up at smaller shops to get a more dedicated and specific service, and ultimately a more satisfying shopping experience."
This may well be a blessing in disguise.
Visit the Urban Outfitters music section on their site HERE.
Tom Armstrong is co-editor of Sabotage Times