At the Rough Trade East record shop in London’s Brick Lane, a man dressed as a giant hot dog is on stage introducing a song.
“Put your hands up if you’re afraid of spiders,” says frontman Murray Matravers of fast-rising band Easy Life, before launching into one of their typically quirky compositions.
Easy Life’s in-store live appearance has attracted a throng of enthusiastic teenage fans, all clutching newly purchased copies of their new album, Junk Food. The majority of the audience pre-ordered the album online and admission to the gig is included in the price.
Perhaps you thought young people didn’t buy records and CDs? Or that streaming is killing the physical album? Well, welcome to the new reality of music retail.
“The idea that physical and digital are incompatible, I think, is outdated,” says the shop’s assistant manager, Alex Bailey. “We’re selling more records now than we ever have.”
Rather than seeing digital music as the enemy, Rough Trade embraces podcasts and playlists, keeps a keen eye out for new talent and promotes its stores as community hubs.
The Rough Trade Edit podcast, newly launched in the past week, is billed as “your first stop for new music”, featuring staff picks, recommended albums and guest appearances by bands.
Three-quarters of Rough Trade’s sales are vinyl albums
Customers who visit Rough Trade shops are also invited to sign up to its Rough Trade Edit playlist on the Apple Music platform.
“This is a world-first streaming and vinyl retailer partnership, showing how the two formats are symbiotic, complementary, benefiting artists and audiences alike,” says Rough Trade Retail director Stephen Godfroy.
“We proudly and warmly endorse streaming as an affordable way to discover and enjoy music, it being very much a driver of vinyl sales,” he adds. “If someone develops a love for a recording, the best way to cherish that is to follow up the discovery by owning and enjoying it on vinyl.”
Thanks to a mini-tour of Rough Trade shops, including the chain’s outlets in Bristol and Nottingham, Easy Life have sold enough physical albums to earn them a place in the top 10 albums of the week.
And many of the people singing along with the band’s songs at Rough Trade East have travelled specially to London for the performance.
Receptionist Conor Austin and waitress Rebecca Foulger have come up to town for the day from their home town of Sandwich, in Kent.
Conor, 18, explains that he got a record player for Christmas and is keen to expand his vinyl collection, even though he has Spotify on his phone. “I think it sounds different, it’s a different sort of vibe,” he says.
Rebecca, 17, bought the CD to listen to in her car. “I don’t have Spotify Premium, so I get all the ads,” she says. “It’s easier to have just CDs.”
As the runner-up artists in the BBC’s Sound of 2020 poll, Easy Life are still building their fanbase, and Murray Matravers, speaking before donning his hot dog suit, sees Rough Trade as the ideal place to do it.
“People go to Rough Trade just to see what’s happening, and nine times out of 10, they curate a really good record,” he says. “In this shop, there will be at least 20 or 30 people who have no idea who we are and who are hearing us for the first time.”
Stephen Godfroy recalls that when he opened the Rough Trade East store in 2007, many people thought it was “commercial suicide”.
The MP3 and Apple’s iPod were already dealing a decisive blow to physical music formats and many record shops were closing down.
But more than a decade later, business is booming. “I’m pleased to say that Rough Trade is positively thriving, with our like-for-like 2019 UK sales up 25% overall,” says Mr Godfroy.
Vinyl is Rough Trade’s top seller these days, accounting for three-quarters of all sales. “Rough Trade can represent 75% of total release week vinyl sales for a top 10 UK album chart entry, with just four stores and roughtrade.com,” Mr Godfroy adds.
Even so, Rough Trade East’s Alex Bailey says CDs still have their market.
“We’ve got a few customers that will come in without fail every Friday and buy a pile of CDs,” he says. “I notice that more than with people coming in to get vinyl releases. CDs are still a viable product, 100%.”
Rough Trade seems to be riding high at the moment, but can its success last?
Mr Godfroy freely admits that his stores are “not emblematic of wider music retail” and that the chain occupies a “unique position” in a “very cautious, very fragmented, very distorted” retail climate.
But according to music industry observer Graham Jones, of Proper Music, who has written two books about record shops and the vinyl revival, Rough Trade is still the benchmark by which other shops are judged.
After the publication of his book Last Shop Standing, Mr Jones says he was approached by a number of people who wanted to ask him about opening a record shop.
“My advice was always, ‘go and visit some other shops,'” he says. “But the one I always advised them to visit was Rough Trade. As a model, they’re the best. They’re the ones you should definitely seek out before you open a record shop.”
In Mr Jones’s view, Rough Trade has flourished because “they’ve managed to stay fashionable – they’re an independent brand that music fans like to be associated with”.
But as he recalls, Virgin Records in the 1970s enjoyed similar cachet as a hip place to go before it expanded and lost that insider status.
As long as Rough Trade has its integrity, its place in people’s affections seems assured. But credibility is hard to win and easy to lose – a truth that must surely weigh on Mr Godfroy’s mind as he steers Rough Trade Retail through a changing music industry landscape.