The State of Wax: How Australian record stores have handled COVID-19

Three stores around the country shared their stories with us

For Australian record stores, 2020 was gearing up to be a huge year. While physical sales weren’t as strong as they’d been at the height of the vinyl revival a few years back, most shops were still enjoying a successful trade, and a bumper Record Store Day blowout in April was shaping up to be a huge revenue driver for stores both big and small. Then, all a sudden, March happened.

Within a matter of days, everything went from hunky dory to near-apocalyptic. Panic-buying, stock market crashes, massive job losses and an overwhelming sense of dread resulted in a world-wide shutdown of sorts, and to nobody’s surprise, it was local retailers and venues that suffered the most.

 

For most record shops, the impact was immediate. Record Store Day was canceled - not just once, but twice - and as doors began to close around the country, many shops were doubtful that they’d ever reopen to the same foot traffic they’d encountered pre-pandemic. 

 

Weeks ago, we reached out to a number of stores around Australia to find out more about their experiences with COVID-19 and how it had impacted their trade, as well as their predictions for what would happen when (and if) the world returned to normal. The answers we got helped paint an image of how the industry will fare over the coming months, and are reflective of the general state of retail thus far. 

 

Of course, every store is different, and not all stores will be impacted in the same light. However, if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that the future is uncertain, and these stores need your help more now than they ever did - so make sure you go dig through their crates and put some cash in their tills whenever it's safe to. 

 

Repressed Records - Newtown, Sydney NSW

Repressed Records is an independent Newtown institution, and has been considered as one of the area's most popular stores since emerging on the scene in 2002. They specalise in punk, alternative, indie and DIY music, and also carry a range of zines, cassettes and prints. Co-owner Nic Warnock gave us these responses. 

 

 

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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How was your trade prior to COVID-19? 

It was fine, equal to the year before.

 

When did you start to realise that the operation of your store might be changed significantly  by the virus?

Early in the New Year when there was warning that we might be in for a global pandemic. Late February we started talking about the possibility of shutting our door.

 

How have you altered your operations to survive financially in the pandemic? Are your doors still open, or have you shifted to delivery/online only?

We shut March 18 and recently reopened on May 16. Since shutting our doors, we continued selling new records via our webstore as well as some second-hand stock on Instagram. We’ve been offering free delivery in the local area and also offered free shipping Australia-wide for orders of $100. Altering our operations is still an ongoing process as we’re still in discussion with our landlord about a reduction of rent, which makes it hard to plan for the future.

 

Has this shift come easy for you? Are people buying less records now that the streets are quiet?

Since we have shut the door the streets in Newtown have looked very quiet, but we saw this as a positive response to reducing the spread of COVID-19. I guess we’ll find out what impact the quieter streets will have after a few weeks of being open again. We’re preparing for things not going back to normal.

 

While we have a great local customer base, we also rely on visitors for interstate and overseas who specifically search out the shop. From local bands on tour, to tourists buying tote bags as a memento of their time in Sydney, to Elton John and Henry Rollins. We’re going to miss them all in the near future.

 

Do you think these events will have a permanent impact on the functionality of record stores? Why? 

The shop has been going 18 years so we’ve experienced ups and downs before, none as immense as this, but we’re confident we can keep truckin’. If we can get through 12 months, we think there will be a place for us in the future. We feel that people are always going to gravitate towards a unique physical space. We are concerned about the survival of other areas of our independent music community, particularly independent record labels and distributors.

 

Do you think there’s anything else that can be done by the community to support independent record stores in this time?

Of course. We are biased, but it’s the smaller record stores and community minded music initiatives that will need your support. Avoid the temptation to put more money in the hands of the Jeff Bezos of the world. We have faith that our customers will show us support if they’re able to, and it’s our duty to give them a reason to support us by keeping the store interesting and community minded. 

 

Rhubarb Records - Victoria Park, Perth WA

Opening just in time to reap the rewards of the vinyl revival in 2013, Rhubarb Records now boasts two stores in Leederville and East Victoria Park, and also operates a successful indie label to promote local acts. Rhubarb Records' East Victoria Park owner Liam Lynch gave us these responses.

 

 

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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How was your trade prior to COVID-19?

Trade prior to COVID-19 was good - no complaints at all there!

 

When did you start to realise that the operation of your store might be changed significantly by the virus?

The day that Record Store Day was postponed was definitely when it got real. A lot of preparation goes into that day and we had some great things planned. We'd also just placed our order for the stock. So I guess when we found out that was no longer going ahead in April it was a bit of a kick in the guts.

 

Importantly though, we understand it was a measure that was 100% necessary. After that, when the government health and safety restrictions were put in place, when the world was completely changing around us it became apparent that this crisis is much bigger than vinyl records. At that point, you start to feel concern for the important things like your family and friends. And with no time frame to go by, you also begin to wonder if the world will ever be the same after all is said and done.

 

Thankfully, Australia seems to have handled it all quite well and people are taking restrictions seriously. We implemented these restrictions for the number of people in the store, provided hand sanitizer as well as thorough and regular clean downs of everything in the shop. These measures are still in place and people have been happy to comply. The sense of community spirit that has been brought on as a result of this pandemic has been really encouraging too. 

 

How have you altered your operations to survive financially in the pandemic? Are your doors still open, or have you shifted to delivery/online only?

After looking at what we could do to make sure the store was safe for patrons, the first thing we did was put a stronger focus on online sales. When the government directive is to stay at home as much as possible, you want to do everything you can to make sure people can still buy records whilst complying with this advice. So we uploaded a lot more stock onto our website. Our new stock is there, and most of our second hand stock is now on Discogs.

 

We still love to see people browsing in-store of course, and with restrictions here in WA easing up it's a lot easier for that to take place now. But I think we'll continue to keep that online presence going for the foreseeable future. We also now offer free home delivery for orders $60 and above within the Perth Metro area, and that has been pretty successful. It's nice to get out on the road sometimes too!

 

Has this shift come easy for you? Are people buying less records now that the streets are quiet?

The impact on business was immediate and severe, like all other small businesses. I certainly wouldn't say it was easy, it's an unprecedented situation so it was difficult to know how to handle it and what to plan for. The number of people on the streets dropped significantly, and understandably so. 

 

I'd say we lost about 70-80% of our foot traffic during the most severe part of it. Online sales grew a whole lot, which is great to see though. People still need some escapism and records are such a great way to do that...escape from reality. I think being stuck at home has been a gateway for newcomers too, we've sold a few more record players! We did see a steep drop in second hand stock getting around. Luckily, all of that is beginning to return to normal now. 

 

Do you think these events will have a permanent impact on the functionality of record stores? Why?

Record stores have been around for so long now, they've seen some shit. I think if anything, we might see indie record stores with a bit more of an online presence but the real focus will always be coming in to dig through crates. That's the essence of it after all, the thrill of the dig. I also think that stores will be stronger in the long run now, and better equipped to deal with any crises in the future. So my answer to that would be mostly no, with an asterisk! 

 

Do you think there’s anything else that can be done by the community to support independent record stores in this time?

As I mentioned earlier, I think that the show of support from the community has been fantastic. People have supported us by purchasing online, coming into the store and complying with our health and safety restrictions, as well as on social media and other platforms. There's a great community here in Victoria Park, and people have really gone out of their way to ensure the survival of local business.

 

There's a great Facebook group called 'Support Our Strip' where locals can recommend a small business to shop at, or grab a coffee and a feed. So people have been really pro-active about it and I couldn't really ask for more than that. I also see a lot of the same kind of support for other record stores around Perth which is great, we've all gotta support each other!

 
 

Landspeed Records - Canberra ACT 

Landspeed Records recently celebrated their 25th anniversary slinging wax, merch, turntables and other goodies to the general Canberra region, and are renowned for having one of the most accommodating and inclusive record store environments in the country. Owner Blade Budak gave us these responses.

 

 

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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How was your trade prior to COVID-19?

Our trade at the start of 2020 was pretty steady. There had been some issues at the start of the year with the bushfires and a lot of smoke in Canberra but things were getting back to normal in February and March. We were also really gearing up for Record Store Day which is our busiest day of the year.

 

When did you start to realise that the operation of your store might be changed significantly by the virus?

The first sign that things were about to change fairly significantly was when word came through on Friday March 13 from the US that Record Store Day was getting postponed to June 20 (this has now changed again). I then had a phone conversation with the owner of a prominent Sydney store and he was hoping things weren't going to be as bad as they'd been during the GFC. I tried to re-assure him they wouldn't be, I was very wrong. From there things progressed very rapidly and by the following Monday it looked as though we would be closing for up to six months.

 

How have you altered your operations to survive financially in the pandemic? Are your doors still open, or have you shifted to delivery/online only?

Yes, our doors have remained open the entire time albeit with reduced hours Monday to Saturday 11am-4pm. We have also been mailing out a lot of stock and been offering a back door curb side pick up option. Prior to this event we weren't selling online at all but it forced us to set up a webstore. So I guess that's one positive to come out of the whole thing. The website is still very much a work in progress as the majority of our stock isn't on there yet. We've also set up on Discogs to list some of our rarer/more valuable stock and that has been doing really well with a lot of orders coming from overseas.

 

Has this shift come easy for you? Are people buying less records now that the streets are quiet?

No I certainly wouldn't say the shift has been easy, there were some fairly anxious times at the start and to be honest I've probably been working as hard as I ever have. I've been working in the shop each day and then on the online side each night.

 

As great as selling online is, in some ways it requires a lot more effort. Put it this way: it's a lot easier putting a record on a shelf and having someone just come in, pick it up, give you the money and then walk out the door - no answering emails, lining up at the post office and chasing tracking numbers, etc. People are still buying vinyl; it's an activity that fits with the isolation life. There's a lot less people on the streets and a lot less people coming into the store but those that do come in generally have been buying a bit.

 

Do you think these events will have a permanent impact on the functionality of record stores? Why?

I think it's definitely changed things. Store like ours that previously didn't have an online component have needed to adapt in order to survive.

 

Do you think there’s anything else that can be done by the community to support independent record stores in this time? 

The best thing people can do is continue to buy from them. It comes down to what sort of shops and businesses people want to have around when this is over. If you don't support them at this time they may not make it. When it comes to shopping online people have a choice where to spend their money and who to support.  If we want access to a broad variety of music we need to keep independent stores alive.

 

Find out more about this year's edition of Record Store Day and be sure to support your local store.

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