Empty Shelves

Sydney’s independent record stores face uncertain times

Chris Wu pauses philosophically, and shakes his head.

?It’s very hard,? he says, reflecting on his time at the helm of Gifted – the latest in a line of independent Sydney record stores to splutter and fail. ?I think it was very hard for me not to say yes to running the store, because it’s every music-loving person’s dream, to own a record shop.?

A beanpole 30-year-old with a checked jumper, a reflective air and the ability to talk in flowing, articulate paragraphs, Chris Wu is draped along a caf? chair in Surry Hills, just around the corner from the current office of his label and touring company, Popfrenzy. He opened Gifted on top of his work at Popfrenzy when the opportunity for a space with ?a lock-up garage and a kind of shopfront? arose in May 2005. Tucked up a side street not far from where we’re sitting, Gifted was arranged like a fantasy living room: an airy, white-washed space with a large couch and a bunch of well-thumbed magazines always to hand. ?All the furniture was bought really cheaply, or we just took it from the road,? Chris says, explaining the Gifted set-up. ?The only things we really paid for were the shelves – we got some friends of ours to make them.?

Gifted was run by people whose tastes could be broadly classified as ?indie?, but the store also carried underground hip-hop, electronica, even baile funk: as long as it was ?at the forefront of new music?, Gifted would stock it. That is, until they ran out of money. The store lasted almost exactly twelve months – not long, but long enough for Chris and his co-manager Tommy to realise that their business simply wasn’t viable.

?You have in your mind how many CDs you need to sell each week, and it really is quite simple figures,? says Chris. ?We weren’t getting anywhere close to that amount: after about four or five months we knew we were really struggling. We had regulars, but the problem with a shop like ours is that you need a constant turnover. We failed because people weren’t buying, and they weren’t buying because we didn’t have any new stock, but we didn’t have any new stock because people weren’t buying! We would have loved to have ordered more stock, but we just didn’t have the money, or when we did, we had to pay rent – there goes X amount of thousands.?

Rent is the millstone around the neck of every Sydneysider, resident or business owner. Rent in Sydney is high: disproportionately high compared to the rest of NSW and even higher when compared with Australia as a whole. According to the NSW Office of Fair Trading, 80% of new small businesses fail within the first five years, and for businesses in Sydney, rent is often the factor that tips the scales. Combined with a State government and city councils whose appetite for urban development is nothing less than salivating, the conditions mean that independent spaces struggle for a secure foothold.

Gifted hasn’t been the only recent casualty of Sydney’s savage rent prices. Just a few minutes walk up the main Surry Hills thoroughfare of Bourke Street, fellow independent record store Sound and Fury also foundered.

?We both lasted for almost exactly the same period of time,? ponders Adam Mills, ex-owner of Sound and Fury, on the parallel fate of himself and his near neighbours. ?Gifted opened up within a month of us opening up, and they were closed within a month of us closing. It’s too scary.?

Sound and Fury was an ambitious concept – perhaps a little too ambitious. Occupying a large space on Bourke St underneath one of the many ?prestige living? apartment complexes that dot the city, its aim was to stock the best in experimental music from around the world, including a fair slice of the ever-expanding CD-R scene.

?We definitely bit off more than we could chew with the shop,? Adam says, assessing his mistakes. ?We wanted to be this huge shop – a combination of Red Eye [Sydney] and Synaesthesia [Melbourne]. But we didn’t have enough capital to build something that big. We went crazy with it and then halfway through we ran out of money – We were spending too much money on rent. We weren’t even paying rent, we were just amassing debt.?

Still shaken by his brief, brutal experience at the business helm, Adam is back today behind the retail counter – but as an employee, not an owner. He meets me on his lunchbreak in the solid, sandstone heart of the Sydney CBD, dressed in the demure uniform of a large book chain. He’s working for a store that, as a company, is representative of a retail model that depends upon selling lots of popular stock very cheaply. It’s a model that Sound and Fury tried to deviate from, although Adam understands its merits.

?A shop like JB Hi-Fi,? he says, speaking of the music business, ?opening up a little way before we did – they succeed because no one’s gonna pay $28 or $29 for a CD that they can get for $23. It doesn’t matter how against ?corporate this? or ?JB that? they are – I’m gonna try and save six bucks if I can on a CD. They do carry everything; everything that Inertia [distribution] has, they stock. We tried to combat that by going further out and getting stuff that was totally unique, which is fine, but you can’t do that on a big scale, because there are only a few people who’ll be interested in buying some CD-R that someone in Oklahoma’s made. The more CD-Rs we got in, the more we sold, because a CD-R is ten bucks, so people can take a punt on it. But at the same time, artists aren’t producing them in big enough quantities to sell massive amounts.?

The rise of the ?big box? retailer – be it in music, books or groceries – and the subsequent decline of independent shops, is a circumstance well documented across the Western world. It is a circumstance that speaks to the rapidly changing relationship between stores and consumers: at a time when consumer ?choice? has increased exponentially, via the Internet, the role of non-virtual shops becomes akin to that of a glorified warehouse. Retailers can certainly use the internet to their advantage, as a research and purchasing tool of their own, but the central role that an independent record store once played as an information hub for various subcultures and underground scenes is now declining. Who needs a local shop with limited stock when you can effectively trawl the globe for what you want? When it comes to music, the role of downloading and peer-to-peer file sharing only adds to the difficulties that a small store faces.

Chris Wu offers this analysis of the problem: ?JB Hi-Fi are very smart. They have a very good range – whoever does the ordering knows their stuff. But I guess what they realise is that gone are the days when you would go into a record store and speak to them, in order to find out what was going on. They know that nowadays, when people go to a record store, they know exactly what they want. You can find it all online now: you can listen to it all, you can read about it, you can find out everything about that release. The only thing you haven’t got is the actual CD, and so, now that you know about it, you just go in and buy it – That customer-shop relationship has really changed.?

Both Gifted and Sound and Fury were established with the aim of creating a space that would serve as a central, public focus for a particular music community. Regular live performances, the chance to stock releases from an in-house label, and the development of long-term relationships with record buyers – these were the elements that both stores tried to build upon. It’s an old-fashioned model, and it comes as no surprise to hear that Chris Wu and Adam Mills both spent their formative record-buying years in the handful of independent Sydney stores that pioneered just such a mode of operation.

?I grew up going to Phantom and Waterfront, Red Eye, Silver Rocket,? says Chris, recalling some of the legendary Sydney stores that flowered in the wake of punk. ?I went there just to say that I went there once a week! It was always a dream [to be like that].?

?Waterfront was my favourite record store when I was a teenager,? Adam comments. ?When we opened up we got a lot of people saying ?Oh, your store reminds me of how Waterfront used to be.? That was really exciting to have people compare it to that shop, because that place was amazing.?

Stores like Waterfront rode out a period where the independent music community in Sydney – and elsewhere – was tight-knit and, to a large extent, self-reliant. But the mainstreaming of independent music throughout the 1990s significantly eroded the niche role that such stores once played. Frank Cotterell, former manager of Waterfront, saw the shift as it happened.

?I guess with Nirvana breaking big, companies said ?Okay, there’s going to be a lot of cash here,?? he says. ??Therefore, we’re going to do the deals with all the chain stores.? All of a sudden we were selling 1000 Nirvana records, but then it went down to 50. People like You Am I were our friends: with their first three records they’d come into the store and sign 500 CDs and posters, and drink Coopers with us. Nobody in the big stores really cared about Australian independent music, but then when those bands became big – the [distribution] deals were happening with all the big stores. We kind of lost our business then. It became other people’s business.?

Frank has had thirty years in the record industry, and while he is generous in his praise of those who have tried to carry on in the Waterfront tradition, he is also realistic about their chances of success. ?I can’t imagine someone who has a love of music, and who wants to serve a particular niche, starting out today,? he says. ?I want to give those stores an award, just for standing up and wanting to be like that, but it’s never going to work.?

Waterfront began as a punk/hardcore store, and it’s probably fair to say that hardcore, in particular, remains one of the few subcultures capable of sustaining its own infrastructure, quite removed from the mainstream. It is a movement large enough to support a significant number of bands, labels and DIY venues, and, with its sustained critique of consumer capitalism, one of the few to try and tinker with prevalent economic models. A hardcore shop might seem like a contradiction in terms, yet a focus on community over sales seems, perversely, to ensure a measure of success.

Paint It Black – a punk/hardcores specialist with a sideline in left-field indie – is a store that has bucked the Sydney trend by managing to stay open: two-and-a-half years and counting. It took its name and its philosophy from a song by Melbourne hardcore band Far-Left Limit: ?When I see a billboard I want to paint it black.? Needless to say, that particular 7? is always kept in stock.

The place survives because, rather than in spite of, strict punk economics: maintenance and repairs are DIY, stock is sold for little more than its cost price, and its proprietors are willing to work without pay. ?This place isn’t profit-driven, as you may have noticed,? laughs Aaron Evil, one of a few nearly full-time volunteers who keep the store running. ?I think that our ultimate goal would be to pay wages and have enough money to continue the turnover of the shop, but we’re not really aimed at expanding.?

Paint It Black is a space where the welcome you get is not contingent on your ability to spend money; its well-worn couch receives a steady stream of friends, pets, and passers-by. ?I hate that sterile thing with shops,? comments Aaron. ?Even some of the more indie shops in Sydney are a bit too like that, a bit too in-and-out. We wanted to have a place where you could hang out, where you could talk some shit – I don’t know, like a clubhouse??

It is a shoebox-sized store; a tiny rectangle of space squeezed into a row of shopfronts on Enmore Rd – a street that once formed part of the famed ?bohemian? thoroughfare of Newtown. It’s a bohemia that has increasingly given way to gentrification, but Aaron argues that some of the area’s former character has remained.

?The people are still around. The shops have changed, but the same people who brought that culture to the place are still here. I figure that we’re trying to be a throwback to those times.?

But with a reliance on a limited – one could well say diminishing – number of dedicated customers, is the independent record store a ?throwback? whose days are inevitably numbered? Disadvantaged by the cost of paying rent, the tight margin of a small store is now, more than ever, in danger of being completely eroded by the growing ability of music fans to listen and research online, at their leisure. The role of the Internet within the music industry is a complex one, neither entirely good nor bad. Its many effects, however, including the erosion of the artefact (CD or vinyl) in favour of digital files; the spread of knowledge across geographic boundaries and hence the breakdown of subcultures once strictly delineated; and the ability of listeners to circumvent purchase entirely, represent an irreversible change in patterns of music consumption.

?You walk the line,? observes Frank Cotterell, pondering the future of his current employer, Mojo Music. ?We’re here for a few more years, but I wonder if in five years? time anyone is going to be here.?

Adam Mills, for one, sees little chance for a store like the one he tried to create with Sound and Fury. ?That’s got a lot to do with wounds still being fresh and that sort of thing,? he acknowledges. ?But it seems like with the whole music retail thing there’s a paradigm shift happening, with ITunes, and with JB Hi-Fi undercutting everyone on price. I read somewhere the other day that in some sectors vinyl is actually outselling CDs, and whether that means CDs are on the way out in favour of vinyl I don’t know. But the little independent store, I don’t think there’s much future in it.?

?I’ll always have a bit of hope that maybe we could do something again,? he says, ?but it was a pretty bleak year, seeing it from the other side of the counter.?