10 Years Of Repressed: How A Niche Store Bucked The Trend
Ahead of its 10-year anniversary, Repressed owner Chris Sammut talks not MAX EASTON about the growing mythology of his Sydney store, the changing climate of music retail and why Royal Headache is a more bankable asset than Gotye.
If the lessons of the record stores on King Street, Newtown, are anything to go by, 2012 is a harsh environment to be selling music. In the space of six months, the gentrifying bohemian strip of Sydney’s inner-west has seen closures by So Music and Fish Records, yet that big glass shop-front at the fork of King Street and Enmore Road belonging to Repressed Records continues to stand. For its 10-year anniversary, Repressed is moving further down the road to a new location, its third since opening in 2002 in Penrith on the western edge of Sydney’s sprawl. The question is, in the world of streaming music, rampant piracy and digital downloads, how has Repressed managed to not only survive, but thrive?
As owner Chris Sammut explains, it’s a matter of knowing your product. “You can’t try to be everything for everyone,” he says. “You just focus on what you’ve got planned, find your niche and focus on that.” It’s precisely that focus that has seen them become the Sydney retail hub of Australia’s burgeoning punk and garage scene; a shop that, for many, is the first stop for any of the country’s much-hyped DIY releases. In turn, it’s become the spiritual home to some of the nation’s most respected independent labels – from Bedroom Suck to Negative Guest List and R.I.P. Society, the label born within the walls of Repressed via ever-present staffer Nic Warnock.
Appropriately, as I walk into the shop on a quiet Thursday night (one of the final nights at this location before its move), Sammut is playing R.I.P. signee Royal Headache’s self-titled debut. It’s a release that’s mentioned often throughout our interview and sits as Repressed’s highest moving unit to date.
From Penrith to Newtown
How did Repressed start?
I used to work for Beatdisc in Parramatta, and then moved when he [owner Peter Curnovic] opened another store in Penrith. At first, I was working there alone for four years, then he offered it to me to see if I wanted to buy it. After that, I was there for about six years and we’ve been in Newtown for four years now.
So it was purely via that opportunity that all this happened?
Pretty much. I just bought the stock off him. It wasn’t an outrageous risk. I mean, it was, but it’s something I’ll recover from by the time I’m 70 or something.
Did you have much support out west?
It was actually pretty good. I met some really cool people out there and I really liked it, but towards the end, once the Westfield [shopping centres] expanded, people tended to move away from there. There used to be a uni there with a music course, there used to be a lot of students, but after a while it all went away. And then JB Hi-Fi came. When you’re in a niche market, there’s a limit to how niche can you be.
So that’s why you moved to Newtown?
I could’ve just closed up when all that was happening, but I sensed there was a bit of an opportunity and a market [in Newtown]. It always seemed to be our kind of place and our kind of vibe, a place where you can support a niche a lot more than out in the suburbs, and people come here for that kind of thing.
And you started with the idea of playing to that niche and stuck with it?
Oh yeah, we always had that alternative/punk/garage kind of thing. That was always the idea.
Do you think that what Repressed and R.I.P. have done from this location could have happened in Penrith?
I don’t think so; I mean, R.I.P. is Nic’s label, and he’d probably do alright without us, but it probably does help him with having a shop front and everything … I just don’t think there’d be that level of interest out there. Nic’s a young guy, he’s in the bands and he’s socializing. All those bands live around here – the location is pretty important to how it all happened.
Nic started at Penrith didn’t he?
Yeah, he worked at our Penrith store. I gave him a job because he had a Stooges shirt pretty much. [Laughs] He was like 17. That day someone quit, and some uni student freaked out when he walked into the shop. He went, “Oh my god, there’s something fucking good in Penrith”, and I remembered him. So I asked who the guy in the Stooges shirt was – and that was pretty much it. He’d only come into the shop twice. I probably should’ve made a little more money out of him before I offered him a job.
Would you ever go back to Penrith?
No. [Laughs] Nah, no way. In a way, I was quite disappointed. I grew up in the suburbs and I thought it’d be really cool to do something around there, but I dunno. It was the time where downloading started, and they were the first to be attracted to that kind of thing. I was really disappointed in all that, but that’s life, it’s a business and you’ve got to do what you can to survive. I’ve got a house to lose … and probably a wife.
Did you decide to focus on punk and garage because that was what you were into, or was that just what presented itself as an opportunity?
Oh yeah, that was what I was listening to. I always dabble in other things, but at the end of the day you’ve got to sell stuff too. I always liked a lot of metal, but that doesn’t sell well here.
It feels like if it was gonna sell anywhere, it’d sell here.
You’d think so. Maybe it’s the shop as well – it doesn’t seem to attract that crowd. I still try to sell it anyway – cause I like it - but it’s a bit of a vanity project. At the end of the day, I’ve got a lot of rent to pay here, and you just have to measure things and go with what’s doing it for you.
Do you struggle with sticking with the plan? Like, do you ever get the urge to stock something like a Gotye album to get a sale or two out of people walking by?
Well, no, because the funny thing is, I don’t think we would have sold a 20th as many copies of the Gotye album as we did with Royal Headache. Royal Headache was something we’re associated with, and that went through the roof for us. We’ve probably sold more than anywhere else in Australia, and I’d rather sell that than Gotye any day. It was one of the best albums released last year, and almost anyone who bought it would say the same thing. That level of excitement – you just don’t see that very much anymore.
I suppose you’ve seen a lot of records come through Repressed that didn’t get picked up as much as they deserved?
Oh yeah, bands like Kitchen’s Floor, but that’s probably a bit dirge-y for most people. Then bands like Total Control and whatever, they’re as good as anyone else in the world. I’m 41 now, and even for me those bands are really exciting. There are some good quality bands that are sort of un-stylised and with something to say - it’s a great no bullshit kind of thing happening in Sydney and Australia at the moment.
Do you think it’s a particularly special time for local music?
Oh yeah. I think it has a lot to do with some good labels. Obviously R.I.P., and Bedroom Suck and Negative Guest List, they’re putting out things they believe in, and that makes a lot of a difference - it excites people. Nic’s got such a great knowledge of music, I used to think when I was his age that I knew what I was talking about, but he’s incredible. He even tells me what I’ll like now: “You’ll like this, you won’t like that.” Obviously he’s just got a really good ear, he knows what to put out and he always makes a little bit of money out of it - and the bands are always happy.
I suppose it puts you in a unique position to map what’s going on locally as someone who’s been pretty central in selling the records that people are listening to around here.
Yeah, it’s great. Because these are bands with something to say who are good people – they’re doing it all for the right reasons. It’s great to see that and it’s exciting even for me. I love it. It doesn’t matter what era you’re from, a good band is a good band.
Are you still interested in releasing bands after you put out the Damo Suzuki and The Holy Soul record on the Repressed banner?
Yeah, maybe. It’s just putting the time into it and getting that kind of network going, but it was fun and I really like the record. You never know, but it’s hard enough running a small business. Getting the extra money to do things like that is money you could put into advertising or getting new stock in to keep people coming here. If I’ve got some extra cash one day and could sign someone I really love, maybe I would. But putting the time into promoting it all and posting the records off to other stores – I dunno.
You’re moving about 100 metres down King Street, why the location change?
It’s a rent thing. We’ve been here a long time now, so we have an idea of what we’re going to make a week or a month by the end of the year. Coming here was a bit of a punt and I could have started in a smaller location really, but at the time it was pretty good value and we’ve got a better idea of what we can do in a niche market now. We’ve got this massive frontage here, but what’s the chance of a random person coming in to buy Mount Carmel on vinyl? It’s pretty minimal. We’ve got a better idea of how to fit it out too. We were pretty broke when we left Penrith and this was about twice the size of the Penrith store, so trying to fit it out and pay the extra rent, everything was so improvised, but fuckin’ hell, that’s rock ‘n’ roll.
But you know your model and you know what the shop’s going to be?
Yeah, as boring as it sounds, you gotta find what people want from you, and once you’ve got that worked out, hopefully you can move on from that. One day, maybe I’ll get two days off, or a week’s holiday … And then people will be calling me a wanker for getting holidays, or something.
Is having that niche the only real way around the changing music market?
There’s got to be people who actually want to buy something. That whole Top 40 thing, there’s no point at all in trying for that, you need to have avid, key music lovers, they’re the only people that are going to buy anything anymore. Either that or you rely on guys my age who find it boring to sit at a computer. The excitement comes from the younger people. Any enthusiasm in finding new stuff comes from the youth, older guys like me know exactly what they like.
In retail in general I guess it’s pretty rare to see that kind of loyalty for a shop.
Maybe people just feel sorry for me or something.
Celebrating 10 years
You’re celebrating the move and the 10-year anniversary by hosting a couple of shows at the Red Rattler [on July 6 and 7]. What was the idea behind that?
We used to put on shows when we first moved to Newtown, but haven’t done that for a while. We just thought it’s been 10 years, let’s get a couple of bands from a few labels who’ve had a lot to do with the shop - guys who’ve helped us - and have a bit of a celebration. Maybe I’ll have two beers and go nuts mate. The Friday night we’re having a punkier night that will be Straightjacket Nation, Loose Grip from Brisbane and Low Life and Raw Prawn from Sydney. Then the Saturday night show will be Damo Suzuki and The Holy Soul, who’s our only release so I’ve got them on beck and call; UV Race from Melbourne, who are such a fun little band; Per Purpose from Brisbane off Bedroom Suck; and Model Citizen, who’s Nic’s other band. Nic’s obviously done a whole bunch of organising for this as well. It’s funny, sometimes I go to shows and people ask me how long I’ve been working for Nic.
[Laughs] Does that happen often? One of my wife’s workmates is a young girl. The other week she was talking to her and said, “Oh, it’s so cool your husband owns a record store. I went to this show and I saw your husband playing.” And she’s gone, “What are you talking about?” Nic’s like 22, and my wife is 38 … and the girl was thinking Nic’s a bit young to have a four-year-old kid. [Laughs]
Will you do shows semi-regularly now?
I’d like to, we’ve done it before, we’ve had the in-stores for a while.
Do you get much trouble out of those? For the Royal Headache in-store with the people spewing down King Street, you had a policewoman barge in with a, “What do you think you’re doing, mate?”
Not really. Actually, once we put on a punk show at the Bald Faced Stag, and the bar manager was complaining about this little plywood step that got broken cause someone was slam-dancing or whatever. He was in a weird mood. Then there were these guys moshing and they grabbed a guy with a wheelchair and threw him up, and a security guard thought it was some kind of attack, so he goes to stop them and someone’s girlfriend smashes him in the head with a glass bottle. And I’m just standing up the back watching all these punk guys running the bar manager to the back of the room. So I yell, “Show’s over!”, take the money from the door and I look at all the money I’ve lost. Then I’m sitting on Parramatta Road watching all these cop cars turning up. I felt like Malcolm McLaren or something. A very polite Malcom McLaren who’s a bit more concerned about the money he’s lost, thinking, “This’ll be funny in a few months.”
How long do you reckon you’ll stick with Repressed?
I’ve always worked in record stores. I knew the guy who worked at the old Red Eye, and that was all he knew. He was that kind of era of guy who couldn’t imagine working anywhere but a record store. I wonder what he can do now, you know? Maybe walking up to a kid on the street going, “Do you care about the Velvet Underground?” I don’t know what I’d do.
So you’ve always worked in record stores?
For years. I’ve owned one for 10, and before that I was working in record stores. I’m an instrument fitter by trade, I used to work down at Bankstown airport. But it’s funny, I had all these shitty jobs and all I wanted to do was work in a record store. Pretty ambitious, hey?
Ah, but you don’t work in a record store, you’re a small business owner…
An entrepreneur! The next Richard Branson! Retail is hard, it’s just a constant fight. My wife’s got a really good job and that helps. We live in Seven Hills [in Sydney’s west] instead of the city - that helps too. You have to be a certain kind of person to do it, competitive in a way; I just don’t want to quit. I would if it was terrible and my family was suffering for it, of course I would, but I don’t want to give up now. I think it’s very close to being a really good business, but the rent here is a bloody killer. The rent here is $65,000 a year, and I don’t earn anywhere near that, believe me.
That’s a pretty big overhead to start with.
Yeah, and for what we’re selling … To even survive that is an achievement in itself. You know, if it weren’t for Royal Headache. [Laughs]
How many Royal Headaches will there be to float you this year?
Hopefully a greatest hits. Maybe the out-takes. A live album. Come on Nic!
“You need to have avid, key music lovers, they’re the only people that are going to buy anything anymore.”
Those would all probably sell really well actually…
That record just keep going. Every day they’re selling. Seriously - almost every single day. It’s insane. You know, something like Gotye, I think, “Should I buy 100 copies of this and try to sell it?” Then there’s Royal Headache that came form nowhere and I wonder if I’m under-estimating what I should be ordering. We were lucky with that, it was just because Nic was putting out the album and we had the stock here from the first moment, and it just sold. It made me wonder if I should start ordering piles of these other things, and that failed. That was a disaster. Like that Nirvana box set? That was fucked. Initially I ordered 50 of the things, and those were 70 bucks wholesale. Now I’m selling them for $74.95. You try to be optimistic, but it’s this constant balance between being overly optimistic and overly cynical about it all.
Like a middle ground between hating yourself and loving yourself?
I’ll end up bipolar by the end of the decade.
How does your wife take it?
She has never complained. She’s always helping. Maybe if I was depressed and I was bawling my eyes out she’d ask me to quit, but if I’d married the wrong person or someone with the wrong idea of a small business it could’ve been over, but she’s great. You can’t do this without a good partner, there’s no way…
What are your thoughts on Record Store Day?
That’s my one good day of the year. It’s like six times what your greatest Saturday is. You know, all these people I’ve barely seen come out and you realise how many people know about you. The weird thing is though, we sold more of Scott & Charlene’s Wedding and Lower Plenty than any of those exclusive record store day releases. We got Lower Plenty on Friday and we almost sold out by the end of Record Store Day.
It’s just an excuse to buy something for people then?
I guess. Some of these records are like a mini-event, or it feels you need to put an event on for them.
It must be hard to pick. That Constant Mongrel record seems to be doing nothing, and even the Woollen Kits record, I really thought that’d do something big. How do you manage to stock the right numbers of these things? Yeah, the Woollen Kits record has been a real slow burn, we’ve sold a few of them, but it’s all over time. For Royal Headache in the first few weeks people wanted it so bad. It’s strange that a certain thing gets people excited and another won’t, something like Constant Mongrel, I really like it, but sales-wise, it doesn’t come anywhere near Royal Headache, but it’s not that much worse. It has been selling, but not rabidly. When we got Eddy Current’s Primary Colours, that was massive, but people get very excited very occasionally. I get 10 of Eddy Current and they go in a couple of days, so I get some more. With Royal Headache I was lucky ‘cos they were Nic’s, I didn’t have to pay up front, I just took them from the box and handed them straight to someone over the counter.
It must be harder again since most of these records aren’t pushed in the press or on the radio, you’ve got so little to work on.
It kind of annoys me that in the street press or Rolling Stone, so few people in these major outlets go, “This Royal Headache album is one of the best Australian records for years.” It’s like they’re too worried about their reputation to come out and say something like that about a band no one has heard of before. But now it’s on triple j and Pitchfork are raving about it and all that took a year. Things like that and Kitchen’s Floor, I dunno, it obviously has something to do with money and what they get for advertising. I’m sure it’s hard for magazines too, but they’re supposed to be music magazines aren’t they? It’s kind of sad really. I think I’ve bought more copies of Rugby League Week than any music magazine.