A slow fade out for music shops in an age of downloads

LIKE many people, I remember buying my first record – The Riddle, by Nik Kershaw. It was 1984 and I was 11 years old.

My parents had bought records before which the family could sit and listen to, but this was the first one I'd bought myself. It was my choice, my pocket money and I went into the record shop and paid for it.

It was a 7" single with a smooth, glossy cover featuring a moody black and white photograph of the pop star and a gnarled-looking tree in the background, and I barely took my eyes off it until I got home.

It may sound like I'm wallowing in misty-eyed nostalgia here, and perhaps I am, but this rite of passage has been repeated by youngsters up and down the land ever since the advent of rock 'n' roll. But all things must pass and yesterday's announcement by HMV Group that it will close 60 UK stores over the next 12 months as part of a raft of cost-cutting measures, appears to sound the death knell for high street record shops.

Less than five years ago you could walk into HMV, Borders and Zavvi in most city centres to buy your CDs. Two of these have gone, and now HMV faces uncertainty after a 13.6 per cent slump in like-for-like sales in the UK and Ireland and a 21 per cent drop in its share price, although the firm, which also owns Waterstone's bookshops, says it is confident over its long term future.

One of the problems is that CD sales are in freefall.

According to the latest figures released by The British Recorded Music Industry (BPI) this week, the number of CD albums sold dropped 12.4 per cent to 98.5m last year from 112.5m in 2009. Sales of CD singles has also dropped from 2.5m to 1.9m, with digital tracks accounting for 98 per cent of overall single sales.

The digital revolution, along with rising levels of illegal downloading, has hammered CD sales. To download a single track costs around 79p which is less than you will pay for a CD single. A decade or so ago, record companies were making a healthy profit on big-name album sales, but profit margins have shrunk dramatically since then, which has had a knock-on effect.

The decline of high street record shops has been going on for several years now and for those in the business it's a sign of the times.

"It's sad, but it's a reflection of the growing trend for digital technology," says music writer Chris Charlesworth.

However, it's not just the online market that has undercut record stores like HMV, the big supermarkets have added to the competition allowing customers to pick up cheap CDs and DVDs on their weekly shop.

But not everyone believes the days of record shops are numbered. Ian De-Whytell, owner of Crash Records, in Leeds, doesn't think they will vanish from the high street just yet.

"I'm not too alarmed about our short-term future because we have a strong understanding of the local music scene and what local customer demand is. Whereas perhaps HMV isn't able to fine- tune its stores in the same way that independent record stores can."

Crash has been going for 25 years now, during which time the way we listen to and buy music has been revolutionised. "Sales of CD singles have plummeted and CD albums have been taken over by online companies like Amazon and play.com and are sold at ridiculously low prices that we can't compete with," says Ian.

"But we sell a lot of vinyl and a lot of younger people have discovered they like having LPs and 7" singles and consequently that has been our growth area." They also sell concert tickets, T-shirts and limited edition prints from gigs in Leeds, which has helped them carve out a niche market.

"We have deliberately stayed clear of the mainstream. We've had to find ways of making sure that customers have a reason for walking through our door and for us that means knowing what they want and offering something a bit different."

As a result, Ian believes Crash has a closer relationship with its customers compared to mainstream record shops. "We have a loyal customer base who like what we're doing and want us to succeed. We're an independent shop that attracts independent-minded people who are committed music lovers but don't necessarily want to buy their records online."

The long-term future may remain uncertain but there will always be those for whom walking into a music shop and buying a record remains one of life's little pleasures.