Steve Beauchampé likes his music… and his music shops. He’s pleased to find a favourite alive and rockin’.
As HMV teeters on the brink and with the rescue plans of its new owners sounding far from convincing, Birmingham’s music fans may have been alarmed to see the shutters come down on long-established independent record retailer Swordfish. But the good news is that having vacated their Temple Street site at the end of February, Swordfish is still standing, and has relocated a few hundred yards across town to 66 Dalton Street, near the Victoria Law Courts; a little less visible maybe, but still very accessible to their core forty-something office worker customer base. The new shop opened last Saturday to the relief of owners Mike and Gareth, the duo who set it up as Rockers in Hurst Street back in 1979.
“We survived the move,” exclaims Mike, “and the good news is that people have found us. On our opening day we were packed out, and by mid-afternoon we couldn’t physically have got anyone else in the shop! Already we feel at home here, I think we’ve managed to re-create something akin to the old Rockers store.
Indeed so, and while the premises are smaller, they are still a decent size and easier for customers to navigate around than the Temple Street shop. Mike says that the new store has more character, a remark that at least one of the steady stream of enthusiasts calling in to search through the racks on a cold Wednesday afternoon agrees with: “Yeah, it’s like Rockers, and like a record store should be, knowledgeable, friendly staff… give me this over HMV any day.”
Yet while Swordfish now trades very heavily on the vinyl revival, HMV’s inability to access new stock has already benefited them according to Mike. “On Monday we were the only place in central Birmingham to have the new Bowie album and we’d sold out by early afternoon. We’ve had more in since and they’re going very well too.”
However, while Swordfish will stock some new CD releases, falling demand for the format, and the low to zero profit margins needed to compete with the likes of Amazon and iTunes, mean that for several years now the store has been concentrating on vinyl, a niche market, but one that is growing. Mike: “There’s a new album just out of unreleased Jimi Hendrix recordings that’s initially only available on vinyl. It’s sold really well and while we’ll have the CD version in, we’ll sell more vinyl copies.”
Things seem to have turned full circle in the 34 years since Duran Duran bassist John Taylor suggested the name Rockers when Mike needed to register the then fledgling business for VAT. Moving to the former Vincent’s classical music store in Needless Alley in 1990, just as the golden age of CD sales was reached, the premises soon became too cramped (some lunchtimes you’d have to wait for someone to come out before being able to go in!!!) the transfer to Temple Street in 1996 gave the duo their largest ever store in a busy city centre location. Then came downloads and the demise of record stores, not just in Birmingham, but across the globe (something Mike predicted to me in the mid-1990s). Sadly the landlord didn’t seem to sympathise and the rent on Temple Street became intolerable, a typical scenario facing independent shops throughout Birmingham city centre.
Whilst those loyal, salaried, music fans who are willing and able to pay substantial sums for a first pressing Beatles mono album or a Led Zep or Dylan rarity, or who will gladly pay £20 for a vinyl re-issue (analogue only please!!) for the long term, Swordfish needs to widen it’s customer base. Thus, perhaps rather belatedly, there’s now a website, and a Facebook page – compliments of Gareth’s son Tom) the effect of which surprised Mike: “Suddenly, we’ve been getting a whole new demographic, youngsters who want catalogue artists like the Beatles and the Stones, but who appreciate having the artefact rather than just the MP3 or WAV. They’ll download new bands, but they want the physical item for the older groups.”
How the new store will develop remains to be seen. They sell concert tickets and specialist music magazines, and there’s long been a Swordfish record label, albeit not a particularly active one. Mike: “We’ve got a few ideas we want to try and we’ll be looking at developing the website, but right now my priority is more straightforward – to get a telephone put in, it should have been done last week but we’re still waiting!” And, as one more Bowie album is sold, a call to the Sony rep might be first on Mike’s to do list.