Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

The end of the Road

There was a lot of shocked reaction here and elsewhere last week as news spread of the imminent closure of Road Records in Dublin. For the last 11 years, Dave Kennedy and Julie Collins have seen their shop on Fade …

Tue, Jan 20, 2009, 14:19


There was a lot of shocked reaction here and elsewhere last week as news spread of the imminent closure of Road Records in Dublin. For the last 11 years, Dave Kennedy and Julie Collins have seen their shop on Fade Street become, like all the best record stores worldwide, something more than just a retail outlet. It was the fact that the closure of the store would mean an end to this community centre of sorts for a certain community of Irish artists which seemed to sadden people the most.

The analysis for the closure has already been done. As the owners have pointed out, Road is pulling down the shutters for the last time because selling CDs is no longer a viable economic model in this day and age of downloading, filesharing, competition from online stores, reduced retail footfall in the city-centre, a greying music-buying demographic and the increased costs in keeping a Main Street record shop open. Add in a recession which is getting worse in this country with every passing day (the economic downturn seems to be happening here faster than anywhere else – it seems the slide is every jot as dramatic as the rise) and you can see why Dave and Julie have reached the end of the Road. There is also, obviously, no money to be made from operating a community centre for Irish bands.

Of course, those factors are not just unique to Road Records. We also saw Abbey Discs disappear in the last few months as Billy Murray did the sums and decided he couldn’t keep going. That closure was as big a shock to many as the Road news. I’m sure the dwindling number of indie shops who are still in business in Ireland are wondering who will be next. Worldwide too, the changes in the sector which began a couple of years ago when the Tower brand disappeared from US streets continue to occur – see last week’s news that the landmark Virgin Megastore on New York’s Times Square is to close.

What probably makes the Road story so newsworthy for On The Record readers is that the store was an outpost for Irish releases. It became one of the shop’s USPs – it was where you knew you were likely to find a rake of new indie releases in the racks. Relationships were built between the shop and those acts – the shop plugged the acts and the acts supplied the music knowing that they were not going to be ripped off. To be fair, though, other Irish shops were just as user-friendly to local acts, but Road were the ones most closely identified with emerging scenes and who made a virtue out of this.

Despite what some people might think, it is just not possible to sustain a retail business from selling Irish rock and pop music. If it was, you’d have every single chancer flogging Out On A Limb CDs and Road would not be closing down. The audience for Irish rock and pop CDs and vinyl is way smaller than you might think and, as Road found out, the financial reward from stocking these is certainly not enough to stay in business when all the other pointers indicate doom and gloom.

Leaving aside the well-intentioned plans for farewell gigs and the like to mark the passing of Road for a moment, the real question is what’s next for music retail in this city and country. Few industry observers are optimistic about a future for this sector. If shops do survive, chances are they will not be stocking the same volume or variety of Irish and indie releases as Road has done for the last 11 years. Releases which generally sell in small quantities will become harder and harder to find in domestic shops. The fine art of spending a pleasant hour browsing in a shop and coming across random nuggets is about to end.

Yet, you have to wonder if there are other reasons for music retail’s poor showing in Dublin at present. Last Friday afternoon, I spent a few hours wandering around Groningen and browsing in four well-stocked record shops. It’s the fifth year in a row that I’ve been in that Dutch city at the start of January and as far as I can remember, all four shops have been in business all that time. Each one seems to be doing good business and obviously has a year-round customer base. Given that the population of Groningen is just over 180,000, it’s quite remarkable to me that the city can support at least four (as far as I know, there are more stores elsewhere in the city) record stores. It’s not a price thing – there may be some good bargains but they’re not giving the CDs away – and it’s not just because there are 45,000 students attending the local university (do students still buy CDs?) and I’m sure Dutch commercial rents and rates are on a par with elsewhere in Europe, yet the shops are still in business.

So why can’t Dublin, with its supposedly healthy band scene and allegedly huge number of music fans, support a shop like Road? Are music fans content to rely on MP3s and online streams to find out about new local bands? Is it the case that Irish fans really do prefer the live gig to the recorded album? Or is it the fact that we’ve decided CDs and vinyl are a luxury we can do without now that there’s an economic downturn about?

I’m genuinely interested to know what readers think about this. We’ve already done the “oh, that’s terrible news” last week (and don’t get me wrong – it is terrible news), but bands are unlikely to stop making music and trying to flog a physical CD or record because Road is no longer open for business. Are there any solutions out there? Or is the end of the music retailing sector as we have known is really nigh? Over to you.