Rupert Morrison on what the rebirth of vinyl tells us about “stuff”
By rob hopkins 12th December 2013
The Drift Record Shop describes itself as “an immaculately curated independent music specialist based right in the heart of the Devon countryside”. Picking up on Ruth Potts’ suggestion yesterday that “wherever practical and possible develop lasting relationships with things by having and making nothing that is designed to last less than 10 years”, we thought it might be good to pop into Drift for a chat. We spoke to Rupert Morrison, who runs the shop, to hear more about the vinyl revival and what it tells us about how people relate to artifacts of beauty.
One of the things that’s been quite marked in music over the last few years has been the return of vinyl back from the dead pretty much. What does that tell us about how people’s relationship with music and how they buy it is changing do you think?
For us, we’ve probably sold about as much vinyl now as we always have. It’s just a case that the awareness is drastically different. Things like Record Store Day and Black Friday have just passed, stations like 6 Music and The Guardian have been particularly supportive as well. The awareness of the format of vinyl, the awareness of independent retailers, the awareness of actually going and buying a record from a local record shop has become a hugely supported thing and I think in this sector, more than any other sector. You don’t get a network of shoe shops or even book shops, which would seem like a very logical thing, coming together under an umbrella of marketing and support. It’s really just awareness.
More vinyl is being pressed now than for the last couple of decades. The prices are better, the availability is a bit better. But the best part, we always stock a comparable amount and certainly sell a comparable amount, but it’s nice that people want to come and get involved and maybe we’re diversifying in terms of demographics that are getting into it, particularly younger people, the kids.
And why do people buy it?
Vinyl? Because it sounds better. Because it makes them look cool. That’s what it’s all about isn’t it? It’s been an easy sell to people. It’s bigger. You’ve got a CD, whereas vinyl’s four times bigger, it’s bigger artwork and you buy it and carry it around and people know you’ve bought something. You can talk about analogue and how that’s what you’re into.
You can look at shops like Urban Outfitters, they’re very canny and their ability to track zeitgeists is second to none. They started selling Nirvana and Sub Pop and Sonic Youth t-shirts around 7 or 8 years ago, and suddenly everybody’s doing that and grunge is back with the kids and now they’re even covering that kind of stuff on X-Factor.
As soon as they started selling copies of hip-hop records, so NWA has just been reissued today. As soon as those records started appearing in firstly Urban Outfitters, I think Topshop even sells a few records now, it’s fashion. It’s a fashion thing and that’s why it’s been such an easy sell.
But the actual brass text of why a lot of people buy vinyl is because it’s a great format to listen to music on. I think that again it’s a slightly easy sell to people to invest in physicality when that physicality’s a bit impressive. It’s big. It’s a huge physical thing that you can hold. I think that’s why.
What’s the difference with something like if you bought, say, Metal Box by Public Image Limited on CD or had it as three or four 12 inches in the actual metal box? You make music as well (Rupert records as R.G. Morrison) and when you make music to be on a CD as a long list of tracks, how different is it, as an artist, when you’re preparing something you know’s going to be on vinyl with 2 sides, 4 sides, 6 sides or whatever?
When we were writing the new record, we programmed it as 2 halves, so it wasn’t just a case of “that’s about the half way mark and which side does the last track fall on, that’s the first five and that’s the second five”. Traditionally always the track 7 is the strong track because it’s the flip, it’s the first track on the B side. You do have to programme things in a certain way. I know a lot of my friends and peers who are in bands actually write in the context of 2 sides, or 4 sides if they’re on a slightly more affluent label! Not to suggest my label aren’t, it just doesn’t require 4 sides.
I think traditionally it’s a format that musicians have grown up with. It’s existed for longer than any of us so the fact that it’s still here is why it’s such an enduring format. The most important records that I own are always on vinyl even though I probably own more CDs and cassettes than I own vinyl. It’s just that that’s always been a cheaper format and a bit more throwaway, so I just, growing up, had all three. But I haven’t got a tape player at the moment. I’ve got lots of boxes!
I think in terms of the quality of actual audio, if you’ve got a good amplifier then you’ll hear the difference. If you’ve got a good stylus you’ll hear the difference. But I think realistically a lot of the more domestic, budget players won’t make that much difference in quality between CD and vinyl. But there’s always a process of how you consume that music. It’s not as easy as to skip forward. There’s certainly no shuffling and you do pretty much have to sit and listen to something and then flip it over and listen to the other tracks. I think when everything’s so disposable and at your fingertips, it’s a different way of consuming music. I think you tend to listen more. I think that’s had an impact as well.
I was watching a video on the Erased Tapes website all about vinyl and what they do, the care and the artistry they put into that, creating these beautiful, beautiful things. What’s your sense of how vinyl has become something that’s really just gorgeous and exquisite?
Those guys are a slight exception because they’re all based in Berlin and they’re completely mad, eccentric German guys who have put themselves in a position where they can do that. But there’s a certain fetish element. With things like Record Store Day, there’s certain customers who queue up and come in who we see once a year, they turn up on Record Store Day and are buying things based on what they’re told is the exclusive nature of the element.
It’s a more laborious process, making vinyl. It’s kind of like alchemy, in terms of mastering the records. There’s so many different factors. It’s a very artisan thing and it’s a finalising part of the process which has been the recording process. Vinyl mastering engineers are amazing. The guy who masters my records, a great guy called Noel Somerville, mastered the Boards of Canada records. He did such a good job when they first made those records making the plates that he pointed out that there isn’t really any point in him remastering those records from tapes, just get the plates he made. As soon as he said that and went ahead with it, he realised that he’d done himself out of a couple of days of studio time!
With somebody like Noel’s work, he went through the process 15 years ago. Those physical plates, they got them, they pressed them, and those records still sound fantastic. It’s a complicated thing, it’s not quite the same as just flattening audio and putting it on CD. It’s an artisan thing.
In terms of packaging, vinyl is bigger. There’s a guy locally, I think it’s called Live Work Unit. What he actually produced for his CD packaging was amazing. It was almost like an A3 size poster that he’d worked out how to carefully fold down so it formed the shell of the packaging. There were tracing paper inserts, it was a really beautiful thing. So you can put that attention in, but in terms of mass producing something, it’s different economics isn’t it?
What difference does it make for a small, independent shop like you as part of a local economy like this? Does it feel like one of the things that’s an essential part of the mix that distinguishes you from, say, Fopp?
I think the biggest thing with us is our actual process of presenting things. Realistically, you could go into our shop or go into any number of independent record shops today and the same records have just come out and will be on the racks. We get the same press releases so if they felt like talking about it they’d probably say the same things, they’d probably play the same records. There’s a fair chance you could go into any of those independents and pick up the same records today, so it’s about how we curate what we get in.
We certainly don’t take everything, I’d say we only take about a third of what’s actually offered to us. There’s a huge amount available and I think a big part is the curating process. In terms of getting people to come in, having limited stock and exclusive stock helps, and they tend to be a bit more expensive so selling those units can certainly help in terms of having a slightly quieter day.
We’re not particularly close to any of the big retailers like HMV or Fopp. Plymouth and Exeter still have HMV shops but I don’t think it really affects us a great deal to be honest. I certainly wouldn’t want them to go. I think HMV is run terribly, and I think the people who have been put in a position to do so are complete idiots and they’ve proved themselves to be incompetent and inept beyond belief, but they’re still there and I just hope that the goodwill they’ve been shown and the support they’ve been shown by distributors and labels that they turn a corner and you do still have a large physical high street retailer.
We’re lucky that we’re able to do what we do where we do it, but there are lots of places that you can’t just rock up and take a fairly big shop space and do something as decadent as we’re doing, because the overheads are just not viable and even someone like HMV are going to get driven out of that equation, and it’ll just become a Primark. You then won’t have that physical retailing and it becomes the norm that people don’t physically see things, which feels like a sad situation to me.
One of the things that you do so beautifully here is the love and care that you put to the Deluxe newspaper that you do and the booklet of the 2013 Records of the Year, it’s all so beautifully designed. What is that ingredient, do you think? Is it just that the people who run the shop are music nerds?
Rupert’s mum: What we set out to do was produce the best shop we could and produce a shop that we would want to walk into, and I think that makes the difference.
There was someone on Twitter the other day (@willrobertcen) who said “if Santa had a grotto it would look like this” (and posted the photo below). That’s something really magical. If you love music, it’s really nice.
We’re very lucky in that we’re able to do it. I don’t say that lightly because it’s a really difficult time. I think globally people are feeling it, so even when you scale it right back to problems of traffic directions and getting people to physically come into the shop, it’s a really hard thing to do and a really hard time to do it. We are supported, and we’re very grateful to be given the time and opportunity to do that but I think as soon as you don’t care about this, it is a job and we are geared around commerce, that’s what we’re here for.
Although it’s nice to have information written on the front of the CDs and booklets produced about things, it’s produced as a mechanism to make the process more svelte, for people to come in and find what they’re after and spend money, because that’s what we’re here for. But at the same time, it’s not got huge profit margins. If we were interested in making huge amounts of money then I think we’d be running off t-shirts and hitting the mechanisms and models that much more successful people do. It’s about loving that we do it. We’re not looking to become as big as Fopp because as soon as you do, you lose the part that we enjoy doing so much. So long as we accept that there’s not any retiring, we’re happy to keep on keeping on.