With his ears cocooned in huge shell-like headphones, Ewald Dupan bobs his head to the beat while flicking through 12-inch vinyls in Rough Trade Records in east London. Having saved for months, the 24-year-old teacher is here for two days from Brussels with the sole purpose of trawling independent record stops in search of hard-to-find gems.
"You just can't find records like this in Belgium," he says. "Shops like this are for people who love music – the staff are knowledgeable and the records are rare."
But newly released figures reveal that Dupan – young, passionate about music and still prepared to pay for it – is one of a dying breed of people who still regularly go to record shops. Over a quarter of the UK's independent music stores went out of business last year, according to the Entertainment Retailers Association. In the record store heyday of the 1980s there were 2,200 stores; by 1994 there were 1,200. Today only 305 remain. The shops, and their dwindling number of committed owners, are, however, refusing to go quietly. This Saturday, more than 50 independent record shops from across the UK, and thousands more worldwide, will team up with top independent labels for Record Store Day.
With free in-store performances, signing sessions and exclusive buy-it-now-or-regret-it-later compilations and singles from bands such as the Smiths, Sonic Youth, Beck and Franz Ferdinand, it is a music junkie's dream come true.
The aim is to celebrate independent stores and highlight the role they play in finding, encouraging and distributing new music, says Spencer Hickman, from Rough Trade East, one of the day's organisers. "We want to let people know that we are all still here, and still selling brilliant music. We want to put out a positive message – that independent record shops are not just places to buy records, but communities. They are places to share ideas, where you can discover new bands by talking to someone who is just as enthusiastic as you."
Rough Trade East, which last week won retailer of the year at the Music Week awards for the second year running, is one of a few shops prospering in difficult times, with sales up 10% on last year. With its battered leather sofas, coffee shop and instore performances from artists such as Stereo MCs and Lily Allen, it is continuing a tradition that for decades has put independent record stores at the vanguard of new music. From Sister Ray in Soho taking a punt on the Arctic Monkeys' debut single, to the Manic Street Preachers getting their musical education at Spillers in Cardiff, independent record shops have been an integral part of the music industry's DNA.
But that is in real danger, said Graham Jones, founder of independent music distributor Proper Music Distribution and author of Last Shop Standing, which maps the rise and fall of independent stores. "Five hundred and forty stores have closed in the last four years. If they carry on closing at the same rate there won't be a single indy record store left in three years and that would be a tragedy," he says. Aggressive supermarket pricing, flagging CD sales, expensive high street rents and a generation of fans who expect music for free have left many shops close to bankruptcy.
At Action Records in Preston, which started as a market stall in Blackpool in the late 1970s, profits are down 25% on last year, says owner Gordon Gibson. Hit hard by the recession, he is stuck in a catch-22 situation shared by many stores. "You need to fill the racks and take risks or people just won't come in, but takings are down so you have to be a lot more careful."
Record store owners argue that their shops are hothouses for burgeoning talent, and some fear that without their nurturing hand many young bands will remain in obscurity. Others argue that talent spotting and idea sharing has not disappeared, but transferred, like other aspects of the industry, online.
But the social aspect of independent stores, their vibe and depth of knowledge is something that cannot be replicated online, argues Alison Wenham, chairman of the independent record label body AIM. "It's not about online and offline, it's about knowledge and trust. A good record store makes you feel special and rewarded. They give a personal touch and no matter how many gigabytes they put into the sky, that can never be replaced."
What the artists say in praise of the independents
Jack White, The White Stripes
I think it's high time the mentors, big brothers, big sisters, parents, guardians, and neighbourhood ne'er do wells start taking younger people that look up to them to a real record store and show them what an important part of life music really is. I trust no one who hasn't time for music. What a shame to leave a child, or worse, a generation orphaned from one of life's great beauties.
And to the record stores, artists, labels, DJs, and journalists; we're all in this together. Show respect for the tangible music that you've dedicated your careers and lives to, and help it from becoming nothing more than disposable digital data.
Alex Kapranos, Franz Ferdinand
There used to be a whole bunch of independent shops in Glasgow. When I was 13-14 I lived in the suburbs and would come into town to trawl them. At Monorail I knew the guys behind the counter, they'd know my tastes and play me new stuff. It's the best way of discovering new music. Now I know where the record shops are around the world and go when we are on tour. If we lose them we lose access to the staff's knowledge, to people who have a lifetime passion for music.
Hayden Thorpe, Wild Beasts
On a rainy weekend excursion to Whitby a few weeks ago I had a beautiful moment of clarity. When your holiday is soundtracked by Lady Ga Ga in just about every corner of your little universe then spirits do begin to splutter out. At my lowest ebb I found an independent record shop down a cobbled street. It felt like a warm hug and kiss. The limited but choice selection happened to consist of at least 90% of my favourite records of all time. It was as if it was MY shop.
Gavin Dunbar, Camera Obscura
I love independent record shops. I've worked in and shopped in them for years, I even briefly had my own one after I left uni, although it was small and a bit lo-fi. There used to be so many in Glasgow, you could spend your day wandering through the west end and into town, visiting 10 or 15 and picking up loads of records on the way. Over the past few years, slowly they've nearly all disappeared, there's only two or three left. Big chain stores don't cater for real music fans. So many great shops have disappeared. Music fans, real music fans, need independent stores to continue, to find great music that inspires and excites. Supermarkets might be great for getting your groceries, but who wants to buy their music in them?
Can it be any wonder that Record Store Day has between it and Earth Day only three days? Without wasting your time with every step of the equation, allow me to simply state that every day is, and must be, Record Store Day. Makers of records, let us just go easy on our packaging so we will, as long as the sun shall shine, remain spinning. May I suggest paper and plastic made from hemp fibre? Long live the independent record store! Long live the buyer and the seller! Long live the Earth containing all things! And long live you, reader.