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The record store blues

I've spent most of my life amassing a library of exotic, eclectic sounds.

Kevin Buckle, owner of Avalanche Records in the capital
Kevin Buckle, owner of Avalanche Records in the capital

Some might think it's a life wasted. They might be right. As a 21st-century music collector I'm happy with all formats. However, while I certainly don't consider myself a Luddite, the sound and feel of quality, heavyweight vinyl is definitely special. From the shimmering shellac and embedded grooves to the glossy artwork and enigmatic sleeve notes, a vinyl record one of the most pleasing items on Earth. A well-packaged CD is less so, but is still very satisfying. In contrast, an MP3 or WAV file may give you similar aural pleasure, but can you love and cherish them? I think not.

As we descend into this year's festive spendathon, stories of the decline of the high street are high on the agenda. Retail outlets are suffering and none more than the humble, independent record shop. Seriously important to my education and upbringing, these dusty treasure troves helped steer me through music, turbulent teenage years and art in general. Starting in a St Andrews cubby-hole called Tracks, then graduating to legendary Dundee emporia Groucho's and Chalmers & Joy, my inquisitive mind was piqued and my pockets emptied of cash by this new world of sonic invention.

Moving to the capital in the late 1980s, Avalanche Records was to become my Mecca. However, it was recently announced that owner Kevin Buckle will be shutting up shop on January 6, 2013 unless there's a radical shift in his fortunes between now and then. Avalanche is not alone in heralding a tragic death-knell for the business. In 2012 Rounder Records in Brighton, Intoxica in London and CE Hudson's in Chesterfield have all shut up shop due to deteriorating sales and waning interest. Hudson's is the saddest story of all. Closing the doors to the oldest family-run record shop in the world after 106 years of trading, its owner Keith went bankrupt, losing his own home at the age of 77.

Statistics show that at the peak of their popularity in the early 1980s, there were around 2200 independent record shops across the UK. Now there are only 280 – a number that has actually increased by 11 since 2009. Shops have sprung up in Plymouth, Cambridge and elsewhere, while the trend for "pop-up" short-leased stores seems to be increasing as well. But the overall prediction tends to be one of doom and gloom.

One man who has taken it upon himself to try to raise awareness of the situation and attempt to stop the rot is Graham Jones, author of the excellent Last Shop Standing and presenter of a film of the same name. Funded by music fans, a benefit concert and an anonymous donation, the documentary is currently showing at film festivals and cinemas, and calls into Edinburgh's Cameo on December 10. It plots the rise, fall and rebirth of the independent record shop and focuses on reasons for their recent problems.

The growth of digital music, downloading and illegal file-sharing are huge determining factors, of course, but Jones also sites a VAT loophole, Low-Value Consignment Relief (LVCR), as "the silent killer of record stores". The law exempted businesses in the Channel Islands from paying VAT on anything under £18. Amazon, Tesco, HMV and Play.com all took advantage of this, underselling almost everyone while sending out products in separate jiffy bags to take advantage of the loophole. An incentive to help flower growers and dairy manufacturers was exploited by companies undercutting independent record shops. This was thankfully closed in April 2012 and Jones reckons there is now a virtually level playing-field. The damage has been done, however, and it seems that people's purchasing habits have changed.

Is there a solution for record shops? For price and convenience, digital music will always win hands down. Perhaps if distributors and labels used a "consignment" model, where shops paid only for what they sell, they could have 30% more stock on the racks and the indies wouldn't accrue so much debt via normal credit terms.

When on holiday or working across the UK and abroad, my first port of call is the local record shop. It's the personal touch that counts, with recommendations of music I've never heard before. Much like a good radio show or a mix-tape from a friend, a successful shop won't just give you what you want, but open up new avenues and possibilities. Tucked away in more obscure parts of a town centre, off the high street, it seems that the record shop must adapt. Graham Jones believes they need to become "a meeting place, somewhere to read, a specific place to go; like record shops when they started".

I couldn't agree more, and Glasgow's excellent Monorail shop within the Mono cafe, gallery and venue, or the ingenious Pie & Vinyl in Southsea, Portsmouth are examples of that. With artists' instore performances, as well as refreshments and lounging areas, record shopping perhaps needs to become an "experience".

Whether it's Christmas shopping, Record Store Day or just an ordinary Saturday browse, we mustn't take Avalanche and Coda in Edinburgh, Monorail and Love Music in Glasgow, Apollo in Paisley, One Up in Aberdeen, Europa in Stirling, Concorde in Perth and various others for granted. I think musicians, media, labels, shops and customers all need to work together to help this synergy continue. If not, an integral part of our cultural lives may cease to exist – and that will be a very sad day indeed.

Vic Galloway presents on BBC Radio Scotland on Monday, 8.05pm-10pm (repeated Friday, 10pm–midnight), www.bbc.co.uk/radioscotland. He also presents a new series of concerts at The Mareel in Shetland, starting with The Phantom Band, Honeyblood and The Last on November 24. Contact Vic at www.twitter.com/vicgalloway

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