Northern Ireland’s vinyl enthusiasts haven’t had it so good since the early 90’s. Up and down the country, a host of dedicated record stores cater to a wide range of differing tastes and personalities.
Before we begin, it’s important to consider the landscape of the scene in Belfast at the turn of the 21st century. A time whenever Web 2.0 started giving us websites like Amazon, which were able to undercut shops on price and then Napster/Limewire/iTunes. The combination of which not only delivered a blow so devastating to the music industry that it took over a decade to recover but it also shaped the minds of the youth: why spend money on something when it can be downloaded for free?
The above, combined with declining sales in general and other factors, saw a succession of once mighty shops closing. By 2007, we had lost Hector’s House, Dr. Robert’s, Dougie Knight’s, Bass Division, South City Records, Darkstorm, Our Price, Golden Discs, The Gramophone Shop and Caroline Music, while Virgin became Zavvi (which died a year or so later).
While stalwarts like Backbeat, Atomic Collectables, HMV, Movie Xchange and the various Oxfam units kept the faith (and Terri Hooley doing his bit with both Phoenix Records and a rebranded Good Vibrations), it felt like a time of stagnation. Sure, you were always going to get your chart stuff. But what about stuff that was a little more obscure? Plus, what about the social side: meeting likeminded types and having them recommend stuff to you?
That began to change in 2009.
Backbeat had changed hands and premises a few times over the years. Paddy Calvert was the main man for a long time with a devotion to reggae that was infectious. However, he left Belfast in 2008 and sold the business to singer/songwriter Robert Holmes (RIP). Robert did his best, but he lasted under a year. Once Gary Fahy took over the place in May 2009, the focus of the place changed overnight.
Filling the shop with reissues of classic, yet more obscure, albums and new releases, mainly from a variety of hardcore punk and metal acts. It was extreme and made no apologies for it. And people noticed.
Suddenly, there seemed to be a new crowd out buying music. Plenty of ones in their mid-20’s picking up the new Oceano or Municipal Waste records. But significantly, there were now ones in their 40’s as well. Ones who had dropped out of sight whenever the aforementioned stores ceased trading but were now back and with disposable income as well.
Around the same time, Jeff Doherty and Kelvyn Williams teamed up by ordering in stock in and pulling from their extensive collections for their shop. Christened Dragon Records, it opened in April 2010 and there was an immediate response from collectors, especially those who were into more esoteric material. Then, after some negotiation, Gary agreed to join forces and the shop we all know today truly began.
Within less than a year, Head appeared in Victoria Square, Magpie Records opened just across the street, Andy’s stall at St George’s Market became an essential stop for serious collectors and the Oh Yeah Centre started hosting regular record fairs. It soon became evident that there was a burgeoning market for records. And, with Sick Records appearing in March 2014, the explosion began in earnest.
Two big questions asked by most about the ‘vinyl revival’:
- Who buys records these days?
- What sells?
In answer to the first, HMV employee (and former Head stalwart) John Scott is emphatic that “…the clientele seems to be mostly teenagers and people in their early 20’s. Followed by the more serious middle-aged record buyers.” Ian Pearce, a dealer who can be seen at various record fairs around the country, says that he’s comes across a few types: “the person who doesn’t own a record player but wants to get into music. The older guy who just wants to chat about the time X performer came to Ireland. The person who checks everything to see if it was made in Ireland. The person getting back into music and buying nostalgia for their past.”
Jeff Doherty (Dragon Records, Starr Records) notes that “the older heads outnumber the youth, but I think a lot of that is down to kids not having the same attachment to independent shops, preferring the supermarket aspects of somewhere like HMV where you can get a Batman t-shirt, new headphones and Japanese sweets as well as whatever’s out on vinyl that week, whereas the older types prefer the intimacy and friendliness of an independent store.”
With regards to what sells, although the answer varies from shop to shop, it’s not a surprise that albums regarded as classics (Rumours, Sgt. Pepper, Nevermind, Loveless, Led Zeppelin IV, Pet Sounds, Astral Weeks) are consistent sellers across the board, being bought by everyone from 16 to 86. Good news for the industry, as it means they can consistently repackage and resell their back catalogue indefinitely. Ian confirms this perception, noting that Queen and David Bowie albums always sell for him.
Combine this with high pricing (at times, a single LP can set you back £25) and the most prominent buyers being men of a certain age (mid 30’s and upwards) as they are known to have more disposable income, it suggests a ticking time bomb. However, there are signs elsewhere that might disprove this theory.
K-Pop is a staple of HMV’s sales, with the likes of BTS releasing CD box sets (with each member of the group getting their own) with posters, stickers, photo books and colouring paper. Retailing around £25, it’s common to see kids buying two copies, according to John Scott “K-Pop has been a massive success for us… Yes, it’s expensive but the kids don’t seem to mind paying it, given they know they’re imported from South Korea. And trust me, they can be picky as they tend to go for ‘a certain version’ that has ‘a certain postcard or badge’ included.”
As well as this, cassettes are selling to younger types these days. In 2021, the biggest selling cassettes were from Olivia Rodrigo, Lana Del Rey, Wolf Alice, and Billie Eilish. That’s quite impressive considering their target audiences were probably only toddlers whenever cassettes were still freely available. Scott even says that he finds himself fielding questions from “middle aged folk…older metalheads asking when the new Iron Maiden…cassette is arriving.”
Despite all of this, there is a perception that the trend is one based in novelty. Scott notes that HMV only get “…around 4-5 tapes in per year if we’re lucky…it’s more of a niche market especially in Japan. Even though cassette quality is excellent, it’s hard to find a decent tape deck…and I can’t see kids spooling tapes like we used to when we were younger!”
Jeff is also sceptical, noting that while there are flourishing labels like Cruel Nature that exclusively release music in cassette format, the releases are normally limited (50 copies at times) and their music is generally more obscure, hence an even more limited market: “In Dragon, we’ve stocked numerous cassette releases from local acts and black metal bands, but hardly anyone looks at them.”
What can we take from all of this?
When asked this, Scott is both pessimistic and optimistic: “Personally, I see cassettes being a niche market…that won’t last for much longer. I see CD’s trickling out by the end of the decade once record labels get their fingers out and go full throttle with uncompressed Blu-Ray music. Vinyl, I hope, will never die – they have tried and failed multiple times. The prices WILL rise over the next year or two…but they should return to an acceptable level hopefully in 2024/25.”
He also notes that sales of dance music, one of the genres that helped to keep vinyl alive in the late 90’s/early 00’s, “…has nosedived in…the last ten years due to that genre concentrating on digital sales and streams.”
The physical format (be it vinyl, CD, or cassette) still has a power and a draw that streaming doesn’t have. Plus, recent world events have demonstrated how easily manipulated and transient digital can be (as Ice Cube once put it, digital “…is just a promise that might not be kept tomorrow”), so the desire to own something is very strong.
Of course, the mass market appeal that these formats enjoyed 30/40 years ago is long gone and it would be foolish to expect sales to return to the peak of the early 90’s. Jeff points out that “…the biggest selling release on vinyl this century (ABBA’s ‘Voyage’) sold over 29,000 copies. Compare that with ‘Smash’ by The Offspring, which sold 11 million on an independent label.”
Plus, there is evidence suggesting that younger buyers are picking up the items more as fetish objects as opposed to tangible ways to listen to music, although Scott disagrees that this is the majority position: “
At first, back in 2014/15 there were kids just buying them just for the sake of owning it…but when more kids started coming in with their parents…, there was a broader conversation regarding the belief that music sounds better on vinyl. As a result, “…we saw sales increase from the youth, along with record player sales…. Now…these kids come in regularly with and without their parents spending their pocket money or hard-earned cash on classic artists and recently released albums.”
So, we can conclude that, while the numbers of record shops in the country are greater than ever, the future is less clear. Jeff believes that “the future is selling less of more. But, as long as records are produced, people will buy them.”
Find Your Nearest Record Store
Today, Northern Ireland’s record loving community are spoilt for choice with a huge number of dedicated shops to venture round:
Belfast Records Stores
- Dragon Records
- Starr Records
- Andy Paraskos’ stall at St. George’s Market
- Sound Advice
- Life’s a Riot
- Voodoo Soup
- Time Slip
Rest of NI Record Stores
- Cool Discs, Abbazappa (Derry)
- Fairhill Records (Ballymena)
- Choons, Bending Sound (Bangor)
- Boneyard Records (Omagh)
- Number One Records (Larne)
- Vanilla Records (Magherafelt)