Business: Shutting up shop
Clive’s Record Shop has been a central part of Shetland’s musical life for the past three decades, but now all that is coming to an end. Clive Munro, the shop’s eponymous owner, speaks to Neil Riddell about the highs and lows of his time behind the counter, and explains the pressures that finally led to closure.
At some point in the next few weeks Clive’s Record Shop will shut its doors for the last time, heralding the end of an era for music lovers on these shores. Anyone looking for the latest releases or wanting to dip into back catalogues will have virtually no option but to turn to the internet, either legally or otherwise – something many folk have already been doing for years, of course.
In many ways, given Shetland’s small population it is surprising owner Clive Munro has managed to cling on for so long following the advent of digital music and faced with the unstoppable march of online retailing behemoths such as Amazon and Play. Both of those companies are registered in the Channel Islands, meaning they can import albums into Britain without paying VAT due to an EU rule known as “low value consignment relief”, leaving the UK treasury out of pocket and allowing the online giants to undercut smaller businesses by £2-3 an album or more. Though chancellor George Osborne has hinted at putting a stop to this loophole, it will come too late for Clive. His hope of being one of the last independent record shops left standing has been dashed.
Asked what he thinks will be lost now he is closing down, Clive refers to English chef Rick Stein’s remark when travelling around Britain filming a TV series, to the effect that he felt something had gone awry in any community which was without a decent restaurant. Clive feels the same way about towns lacking in decent record stores and bookshops. “I think there’s something wrong there”, he says. “But, you know, it’s maybe me being a bit of a dinosaur.”
Turning the clock back to 8th December 1979, the day he first opened a music shop at what is now the folk festival’s office in Burns Lane, Mr Munro remembers The Jam’s classic Going Underground topping the singles chart. Pink Floyd’s The Wall was the bestselling UK album in his first week of business and also the first LP he recalls shifting in significant numbers. Clive, now 55, opened at the tail end of the punk era, which was swiftly followed by what he recalls as a dismal period where synthesizers were in the ascendancy and “horrible stuff” like Ultravox and Visage followed in the wake of Gary Numan.
The shop closed for a short time before reopening at the south end of Commercial Street near the Queen’s Hotel on 15th May 1982. It then switched to its existing premises above Lerwick’s bookmakers at the north end of the Street in 1990, and for most of the past two decades has been run by Clive in partnership with his sister, Caroline Miller. This summer’s final throw of the dice, an effort at running a scaled-back operation, didn’t work out. The idea had been to concentrate on back catalogues and older films, moving away from stocking the chart music flogged at knockdown prices by local supermarkets. “But to be honest, after five months the sales haven’t even been up to our lowest expectations, so it’s time to knock it on the head,” he says matter-of-factly.
While inevitably the records he has sold have mirrored the course of popular music over the past 30 years to some extent, what sells well in Shetland has quite often bucked the national trend. Happily coinciding with Clive’s own taste, the big sellers have tended to have a strong classic rock hue, often with a liberal dollop of country, folk or blues thrown in. He can remember selling as many as 2-300 copies of Steve Earle albums in the late 1980s. Earle, Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam never charted particularly highly in the UK but “I’d be selling more of that than any Michael Jackson album that was out at the time”.
Although he modestly tries to play it down, many music lovers within the community credit Clive with having helped shape the tastes of two generations of Shetlanders. He has always been ready to share his views with customers, providing a personal touch and human interaction you simply don’t get with buying online or at a supermarket checkout. “A lot of folk would come in maybe not intending to buy something, they’d hear Creedence Clearwater Revival [Bad Moon Rising was booming through the speakers when we met] or Tom Petty or something and say, ‘oh, what’s that?’ and get into it a bit like that”, he recalls. “I’ve enjoyed the craic – that’s why I could never be bothered to go into the internet. The face-to-face contact and speaking to people has been a big part of it.”
I should perhaps declare a personal interest here. In my latter days at high school, almost every penny I earned as a part-time cleaner was used to stock up on albums from Clive’s – too often at that time, admittedly, on low-grade guitar groups from the fetid arse-end of Britpop. Since moving back home in 2007, and with my taste having moved on somewhat, I have found Clive’s to be an invaluable resource for stocking up on new Americana and indie acts and delving into the back catalogues of songwriting greats including Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan and Neil Young – often at prices cheaper than you’d find in most other places. And quite often you’d get a knowledgeable and friendly chat about the halcyon days of 1970s Americana to boot.
The shop was once a popular Saturday hangout for schoolkids, but more recently it was noticeable that the number of folk thumbing the CD racks or thronging around the film section had rapidly diminished since the buoyant times of the 1980s and 1990s. Those days seem destined for the history books, not just here in Shetland but virtually everywhere across the western world. Though a broader range of music is now available through the internet than ever before, there is a fear that supermarkets stocking only the top 50 or 100 albums will serve to homogenise people’s tastes.
Although High Level Music is still with us, an important outlet for Shetland musicians and bands to sell their music has been lost, even if that is something Mr Munro is rather lacking in sympathy over. “I feel a bit ambivalent about that because, of all the people in Shetland, musicians in my experience are about the worst for buying anything themselves to be perfectly honest. If they don’t buy anything themselves, how do they expect other people to be going and buying their stuff?”
While warmly appreciating the sympathy of some of his regulars, he is also a bit bemused by expressions of sorrow from those who rarely used the shop of late, describing it as “ironic, irritating even”. “We’ve got 722 ‘friends’ on Facebook – if I’d seen half of those as regulars over the last few months we wouldn’t be in [this] predicament.”
To those who don’t know him, that might sound like bitterness. But despite his evident and understandable disappointment that over 30 years of crafting a living out of his number one hobby are drawing to a close, Clive – as genial a guy as you could wish to meet – does not seem resentful. He was more than happy to wax lyrical with Shetland Life about islanders’ distinctive music-buying habits.
The penchant of many in Shetland for all things Americana can be traced all the way back to the days of the original, yodelling Jimmie Rodgers, and to Hank Williams – whose music, of course, helped spawn the Thomas Fraser phenomenon. More recently, bands with fairly small worldwide fan bases such as The Jayhawks, Minnesota’s recently reformed peddlers of tight-knit alt-country harmonies, have sold dozens of copies here.
“I’m not really sure how it started, to be honest, whether it was merchant seamen bringing records back from America, but it has always been there and roughly corresponded to my taste as well,” Clive says. “So it wasn’t that difficult to sell it as something I genuinely liked anyway – though I never managed to turn as many people onto The Band as I’d have liked.”
The shop oversaw rapid technological shifts, first from vinyl to cassette and then onto CD, followed in the past decade or so by the arrival of mp3s, the short-lived Sony minidisc format and a surprise revival in vinyl sales which latterly saw him restocking the format – again at very competitive prices. One point in the late 1980s was “quite difficult”, he says, because music was being released simultaneously on three physical formats – vinyl, cassette and CD – making it easy to overstock new albums.
Clive happily admits to not being especially enamoured with newer technology: “I’ve never used an iPod in my life. Maybe I should have got up to date a bit quicker . . . but in terms of the shop I don’t think there’s much you could have done. You just need to look around nationally – there’s people in shops all around the country who are much more up with the technology, but it’s not saved them from what’s happening anyway.”
He is more enthusiastic about revived interest in vinyl, albeit as a niche pastime, with many new releases now being pressed as 180 gram LPs after a lull where it appeared the technology might die out entirely. Clive believes vinyl has a “mystique” about it and thinks there is “a bit of truth” in the theory that its analogue sound is better than that produced by CDs, which can sound “too trebly, a bit shrill”.
“I think in a way CDs have contributed to a decline in serious interest in music,” he continues. “I don’t think people ever got quite as much in love with them as LPs. People can now buy vinyl and know it’s not going to bobble around on the turntable. I’m sure in the late eighties the companies deliberately decreased the quality to speed up the demise. You’d see them wobbling around on the turntables – people had to put pennies on the end of the stylus just to hold it down.”
He believes the business is no longer profitable primarily because of internet competition and, to a lesser extent, the advent of digital music and the impact of local supermarkets. “Right now, I feel a mixture of sadness and relief as well that I’ve finally made the decision. I’ve felt in limbo for probably more than a year, to be honest. I knew that the writing was on the wall when the Tesco extension came, probably about the final straw on the camel’s back. That probably sounds like I’m blaming Tesco, but that wouldn’t have mattered if people hadn’t all decided to go there.
“Digitisation is part of it, I’m sure. According to official statistics CD sales haven’t actually fallen that much – they’re on a gentle decline rather than a steep decline, so I guess people are still buying CDs but they’re buying them elsewhere. Our chart CDs and movies really fell away reasonably sharply when Tesco’s extension opened, but I think really Amazon and Play.com . . . is the biggest factor.”
There is a danger that if the current trajectory continues, this community and countless others like it will one day wake up and realise that the gargantuan retailers have won, and there is little in the way of choice left. The passing of Clive’s represents yet another blow for an ailing Commercial Street, with unoccupied shops increasingly commonplace and many other businesses struggling. Clive traces the area’s decline back to the mid-1990s when now extinct supermarket chain Safeway opened larger premises at South Road and soon after shut its small store opposite his shop, now owned by the chemist Boots. He has little faith in the BID (Business Improvement District) project designed to regenerate the old town centre, dismissing it as “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic”, and says he worries tour operators may stop taking cruise ships into Lerwick Harbour if things get much worse.
“It’ll have a knock-on effect – you get these cruise liners coming in and it’s going to be a pretty bleak prospect for them. I don’t know what you can do to revitalise it either. Most people I speak to reckon the Street needs a good food outlet. I’m pretty sure that [Safeway closing] was the beginning of the decline.
“You talk to anybody about it and they all shrug their shoulders. They feel it themselves but there is nothing they can do about it. The reason the Street is suffering is lack of customers – that’s people’s choice, they’re doing it to themselves. At one time the Street was quite vibrant – it’s just that cheaper alternatives came along, they made a conscious decision that rather than support the local shops they’d get the stuff elsewhere.”
Looking to the future, on a personal level Clive is simply looking forward to enjoying a “normal family Christmas” after year heaped upon year of hectic, stressful festive periods mostly spent manning the tills. “I’ve usually been like a cat on a hot tin roof and undoubtedly difficult to live with all these years,” he says. He has no clue what the future might hold after devoting virtually his entire working life, save for a short stint working for P&O at Victoria Pier, to the shop. “After that I’ll have to think what I can do. How easy is it to get into journalism?” he quips. “In fact, possibly the reason I’ve clung on here so long is because I’m quite apprehensive about options for what I might do.”
The closure was probably an inevitability given how times, and people’s habits, have changed. But while it is easy to over-romanticise these things, the obvious convenience of clicking ‘buy’ on iTunes, downloading from pirate websites or flinging a CD in the trolley along with the weekly grocery shop doesn’t shake off the feeling that when Clive pulls the shutters down for the last time, it will leave Shetland’s cultural life that bit poorer.