We talk to Phil Barton, owner of record shop Sister Ray on Berwick Street, about why he thinks people cherish the day so much, what it is about the music industry that means less and less physical records get sold and what he’s most looking forward to in the lineup and releases for this Saturday (April 18th).
So how long has Sister Ray been around?
I’ve been the owner since 2003, it’s been on the street since 1987 and I’ve been a member of the crew for the whole time, be that working or not working or being a sales rep or whatever. For the best part of 30 years I’ve been involved.
Has music always been what you’ve wanted to do?
I’ve always worked in the music business. I worked for a record shop in Nottingham, that was the first job I ever got. And then I started working for record companies, Island, MCA Records, Parlophone, then I worked Andrew Lloyd Webber. I’ve managed bands. I’ve done everything really. At one point I thought, “I’d really like to have my own shop”. Which is the stupidest idea ever.
So I bought a shop in Brighton and I closed it down because it wasn’t making any money. But I’d already bought this one, and already bought another one in Nottingham, which was part of the one I used to work for when I’d just come out of college. Then the recession hit and we had to close a couple of them down. I’ve kind of been doing the record shop thing for about 15 years now.
You’ve been there for all the Record Store Days so far then.
Yeah, we sort of drove the first few. Spencer, who used to work at Rough Trade, he was the initiator over here at getting it up and running. We’re still in touch now, he’s a good lad and still working on it.
Why do you think it’s turned into such a big event for people?
It wasn’t to start with, it’s grown. I think the reason it’s grown in popularity, despite the fact it gets terrible press and gets knocked all the time by people who should know better and by people who have got nothing better to do than be negative, it’s so easy to type negatively than it is to type positively. As we all know, people who moan are louder than people who praise. Anyway, the reason it’s popular and the reason it’s got so big is because people like it.
People wouldn’t entertain the idea of coming if they didn’t feel like it was a good thing to be involved with. It astonishes me that people moan about it so much.
There’s no real reason to moan about the celebration of music.
People always find a reason to moan about everything [laughs].
What have you got going on at Sister Ray?
The staging area, in the corner of Berwick Street and Barber Street, we’ve got Shaun Keaveny will be compering. We’ve got John Cooper Clark, Young Knives, DJ Yoda, a guy called Ryley Walker. It’ll be a massive event, all the shops in the street are getting involved again.
Do you think the digitalisation of the music industry has an affect on Record Store Day?
Well, it’s the anti to that. It’s the,
“yeah, there is still a physical world out there should you just pop your head above the parapet”.
And there are people out there that still want to buy physical product, okay there’s less and less of them but it’s the complete opposite of the digital world. You’ve got to get out and get involved, you’ve got to meet people, you’ve got to go out and rub shoulders, you have to get out from in front of that screen.
Do you enjoy the fact that artists do special releases for Record Store Day?
Unfortunately, I think it’s more the record companies that release stuff just for Record Store Day. But, I’m not going to knock something that brings people into the record shops.
It will become self-governing in a way, because record companies aren’t going to release loads and loads and loads of stuff if no one buys it. If it becomes unpopular then record companies wont get involved. If someone says, “I’m going to release 1000 copies of some unreleased Beatles tracks” – fantastic. 1000 copies won’t be enough, but if someone says, “I’m going to release 1000 copies of the new single by Dick Jones and The Jonseys” – who are they? Do you know what I mean? You can’t do it, there has to be a demand for it. If there’s no demand for it, it won’t happen. The fact is there’s a demand for Record Store Day so people want to be involved.
The funny thing is, people actually enjoy it, despite what you read online. “It’s just the record company cashing in a marketing campaign”… No, people quite like it.
It’s not like bands actually make money from record sales like they used to.
Are you doing anything that is digital for Record Store Day?
I’m like the anti-Christ when it comes to online really. We used to trade online on various platforms, since we moved from one side of the street to other we don’t have as much room so we’re getting rid of all the things that don’t make any money. All the things that don’t make money for us are online. We make money because people like coming in to see us. We don’t have a selling presence online anymore. I just don’t do online. Okay, we use a bit of social media and we do this that and the other but we don’t sell online. People ring all the time saying, “can you send us your list?” We don’t do it, it’s not what we do. That’s the way we work.
Do you think there’s any correlation between a decrease in record sales and big bands touring more to make up for the money they lose?
Yes. They make so much money now off playing live. 20/25 years ago, a record company would have to put money in to support a tour because ticket sales wouldn’t cover it and the merchandising wouldn’t cover it, all the peripherals we have now with touring, wouldn’t cover it. Now a band of a decent size can go on tour, sell a lot of tickets, sell a lot of merchandise, and sell the rights to the DVD… They’re making money out of touring.
People like going to festivals too. People get paid a lot of money to play festivals. If you’re a working band over a period in the summer you can be doing 2 festivals every weekend. You do a London one and then a Paris one and then next weekend you do Spain and Yugoslavia. And if you’re headlining or playing a reasonable part in the bill, you’ll be coining it in. Absolutely coining it in.
It’s quite sad that there’s no push for record sales.
There’s no one to buy the records. One thing I’m not bitter about is that people have choices on how to consume music.
There’s three ways of consuming music, you either buy a physical piece of product, you download it or you stream it.
It’s alright, you know? I’m not going to stand on people for doing any of those. But as far as record companies are concerned, they were making most of their money out physical sales. They’ve got to work out a way of making more money out of the acts that they sign. And the way they’re making money these days is making 360 deals where they take a bit of the live action, they take a bit of the merchandise, they take a bit of the record sales, they take a bit of the publishing. They’re putting their fingers into all of the other revenue streams that a band used to have for themselves. Record companies used to take money from record sales. Record companies are now taking money from publishing, from live, from merch, from all over, just because that’s the only way they can make money from a band. It’s a different way.
Have you got any standout memories from the last seven Record Store Days?
There’s been good stuff. It was great seeing The Ruts, The Ruts DC as they’re now known, headline last year’s festival. It was great. It was a nice moment. Brian May popped in on the Friday before Record Store Day just to show a bit of solidarity.
Not because he’s the guitarist in Queen but because he sees value in record shops.
What a lovely gentlemen, it was nice to see him.
A kid came up to me after one of the Record Store Days and said, “thank you so much, I got everything I wanted”. I was like, “oh great, nice”. He’s a really good customer and he’s really excited about the whole day.
People queue at ridiculous times don’t they?
The queue starts the night before.
What releases are you most looking forward to for this Record Store Day?
Me? I kind of stopped collecting records to be honest with you so I’m not really that bothered about collecting anymore. I’ve got all the ones I want. Unless it’s something to do with The Clash, or The Damned, or some other dosey punk band that I like.
There’s a few interesting things though, there’s a Metallica cassette which is the first ever cassette they ever sent out when they were a young band breaking out for the first time. This cassettes quite legendary and it goes for about £300/£500 if you could ever find one.
The first Maccabees album that never came out on vinyl is coming out on vinyl. I like The Maccabees, they’re all chums from Brighton. The Young Knives are bringing out a 10” with a wrap around magazine, which sounds quite interesting. There’s tons of stuff, tons of stuff. Usual things, David Bowie’s got a something coming out, there’s a Sex Pistols version of Never Mind The Bollocks Picture Disk. The Northern Soul film that came out, the soundtrack to the film is a box set of 7” singles so now we’re releasing that as an album. That is the one thing that we can never get enough of. I would have all of them if I could. Northern Soul at the moment is really big and people want anything. That’ll be lovely.
You can see the full Record Store Day lineup here.