Can’t stop the diggers: Belgian record stores today

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Life as the shopkeeper of an independent record store has never been easy. Even though the popularity of vinyl records has flourished again in recent years, being an independent seller still requires a lot of hard work and dedication. Throw an unexpected shutdown in the mix, and you can see why life as a record shopkeeper might have become a lot more stressful. As the restrictions posed on businesses in response to the current pandemic are slowly being relaxed, record stores too have been allowed to open their doors again under certain conditions since last week. We contacted four different record stores of different shapes and sizes to shine a light on the impact of the lockdown.

Total chaos

“At first there was chaos”, says Karel Van Audenaerde, manager at Ghent’s Music Mania. “You have to keep in mind there were a couple of very stressful weeks before the national lockdown. We wanted to stay open, making sure we could pay our bills, but as the days went on, we realized we needed to take our responsibility. We closed the shop before the government shut the whole country down. Needless to say, sales plummeted”.

Suddenly, managing your webshop became a number one priority for record stores across the country.

When vinyl junkies can’t dig in the crates physically, they will do so online. Suddenly, managing your webshop became a number one priority for record stores across the country. “Our webshop was never our core business”, says Crevette Records founder Pim Thomas. “It gave a small taste of what was available at the store, so people were stimulated to come over in person. That is what the record digging experience is all about: listening to stuff you wouldn’t normally check out, giving and receiving recommendations, etc.” Indirectly, overall sales have gone down for other reasons too. Since there are currently no parties, concerts and festivals taking place, many people are not discovering new music in the same way they would usually. All of a sudden, Crevette had to switch gears and update the website with their stock as fast as possible. After all, if it wasn’t on the webshop, the record couldn’t be sold. “We optimized the website, solved the bugs and uploaded our stock”, says Thomas. “It was always one of those things at the bottom of the to-do list, you know. I’m sure it would have taken us ten times longer to fix the webshop in normal circumstances (laughs)”.

Webshop to the rescue

About two weeks into the lockdown, Thomas and Van Audenaerde notice that webshop orders have started to rise dramatically. “Our online orders went up 600% compared to what we were selling before”, explains the latter. “We were lucky our webshop was already functioning well, but now we had to level up to make the digging experience as close to the real thing as possible”. For example, Music Mania rigorously added tags to all their records, so that a customer could easily listen to similar releases on offer and they offered free shipping for orders over €40 or a free record for orders over €150. “All of a sudden, we started selling records that have been collecting dust in our crates for ages”, says Van Audenaerde. “This was only possible because we doubled down on the webshop, social media and newsletters to stay connected to our clients”.

Those campaigns on social media in support of local products and artists had a visible impact. - Karel Van Audenaerde

Some stores, like Warrecords in Antwerp, don’t have a webshop (yet), leaving them in a vulnerable position. “We have been planning the webshop for ages, but it was just impossible to get it up and running so soon”, says manager Warre Geens. “Instead, we made a lot of online promotion through our social media channels, which worked relatively well”. Warrecords kept selling their stock directly to their customers, even offering a bicycle delivery service if you lived in the area. Although Brugge’s Cherry Picker Records, which only opened last year, does have a webshop, they have set up a similar home delivery service too. “As our online sales have gone up, our client network has grown significantly too”, explains co-owner Cedric Verstraete.

But what about the suppliers of the vinyl? Did the distribution not hamper when global shipping nearly came to a standstill? Higher up the delivery chain, vinyl distribution took a severe hit in those crucial first weeks, leading to a chaotic reorganization of the new release deliveries. Depending on the sales strategy of the record store, this meant that some shops didn’t receive the new records they had planned for, although Van Audenaerde was not particularly worried about this. “Like many others, we don’t just work with one distributor, so we’ve never seen the stream of new orders dry up completely. It certainly looks like the industry is finally catching its breath, so I predict that the distribution schedule will be normalized by the summertime”. Crevette’s Thomas, who also offer vinyl distribution services, agrees. “First there was confusion, and distribution halted because so the future was still very unclear. This only turned out to be a small hitch, because soon the orders stabilized again. Now, many releases get sold out on the distribution level already, which is an excellent sign”.

Another positive sign is that the share of Belgian releases in sales has gone up. “All those campaigns on social media in support of local products and artists did have a visible impact”, states Van Audenaerde. “Belgian music already sold well, but it does a lot better now. We’re happy to give local releases a little extra attention during these times”. Last month, Record Store Day (which would take place on June 20) was cancelled. Instead, the dedicated releases will be spread over three dates to support independent record stores. A sign of better times to come?

It doesn’t look like the shutdown stopped the record store managers from buying more records. On the contrary.

One question remains, though. Do online sales make up for the lost income of the regular ones? It looks like the answer is ‘no’. All the store managers we contacted came to the same conclusion; webshop sales have increased, but the numbers are still tiny compared to what they would sell usually. “The impact has been substantial, to say the least”, says Thomas. “Our share of online sales may have doubled from 15% to 30% (of total sales), but that still means we have lost 70% of predicted income. That’s far from ideal when you rely on small margins. We’re lucky that we received a nuisance premium, and we were able to put my co-workers on forced temporary unemployment, so that meant we could survive”.

Cleaning out the basement

If the record store owners weren’t feverishly trying to set up a webshop, they did have a lot of sudden spare time. “As we were just open for a couple of months, working non-stop, the lockdown was actually a welcome break for us”, says Verstraete. “But it didn’t take long before we got that itch again”. Cherry Picker Records soon launched a mixtape series on Mixcloud, Warrecords hosted livestreams in their empty storefront and even recorded a podcast series in which they ask their regular customers to present their favourite records. Back in Brussels, Crevette Records, C12 and Kiosk Radio joined forces to sell special Support Your Local Scene t-shirts. Initiatives like these are necessary if you want to stay relevant nowadays, especially if your income depends on it.

A pandemic provides the ideal moment to reorganize your back-stock. “Crevette Records never had a tidier basement”, laughs Thomas. “Out of necessity, we greatly expanded our stock”. Van Audenaerde concurs. “At last, we were able to clean up our stock and get a lot of second-hand gold back in the shelves. There’s absolutely no shortage of fresh supply”. It doesn’t look like the shutdown stopped the record store managers from buying more records. On the contrary, everyone we talked to said they kept buying up new releases and second-hand collections. At least now there is time to price and catalogue new additions accurately. Music Mania, Crevette, Cherry Picker and Warrecords all claim their offered stock has never been bigger.

Somewhat surprisingly, the pandemic even provided the perfect moment for Ampere’s latest adventure. The Antwerp nightclub is preparing the opening of its record store, located at the entrance of the venue. “Since we have closed our Sound Architecture record store five years ago to focus on running the club, we have never stopped buying new stock”, says Joachim Marynen. “Managing both projects at the same time proved very difficult, but now that the club is closed, we found spare time to get the Ampere record store up and running soon”.

Five people max

Since last week, commercial businesses in Belgium are allowed to open their doors again, albeit with stringent conditions that would ensure the necessary social distancing. “Only five people are allowed inside at the same time”, explains Van Audenaerde. “The whole counter is fenced off with plexiglass, and customers are required to disinfect their hands, wear a protective mask and wear gloves. Listening to the records at the ‘listening stations’ is still possible, but only with your own headphones”. The same rules apply to the other record stores. That said, it’s hard to say customers have come back in the same pre-pandemic numbers, but it’s a step forward many were desperate to make. “The real diggers have found their way back, but we’re still missing out on the others. In combination with the online sales, it has created a relatively stable situation for now”, says Van Audenaerde.

Just like going to a nightclub, music venue or festival, crate-digging is an experience that can’t be replaced with online alternatives easily.

The good thing is that record stores, unlike many other businesses, have a loyal customer base, which means the five available slots in the store are mostly filled up with regulars. “I don’t like the words ‘clients’ and ‘customers’, because they are our friends that support us”, says Thomas. “They are the ones who kept on buying records, and they are the ones waiting in line now”. At Cherry Picker Records too, basic face-to-face contact with your clients is what the owners missed to most. “We’re back on track now because of them. People visibly go out of their way to support us. That gives us hope for the future. All in all, it looks like people will have to stay home for the time being, so people will buy records”, says Verstraete. That optimism is shared across the board. “Our current revenue from store sales is perfectly in line with what we sold beforehand, so I’m not worried”, says Geens. “We’re going to get through this even stronger in the long run, improving our webshop while remaining to focus on our brick and mortar sales”, concludes Thomas.

Conclusion

Something that has become very clear is that just like going to a nightclub, music venue or festival, crate-digging is an experience that can’t be replaced with online alternatives easily. Yes, online sales allow for some much-needed space to breathe, but unless you’re not selling hundreds upon hundreds of orders every week, this economic shift is not viable in the long run. After all, what attracts record collectors is the real experience of talking with the owner or other customers in the shop, digging through dozens of crates and listening to music you might never have discovered online. Taking into account the careful optimism expressed by the record store owners we consulted, and there are plenty of reasons to think the industry will survive. Vinyl junkies will still need their fix - and Belgians will need a lot of music to get them through the coming months. Other than that, independent record stores are still (and will always be) dependent on the loyalty of their customers. Next time you buy a piece of vinyl, remember you’re not only supporting the artist but the hard-working people behind the counter too.