You can see why the start up of it’s own record label by supermarket chain Sainsbury’s would provoke within independent record shops the sort of confusion and suspicion you might otherwise only witness when a particularly trendy flock of sheep at an indie disco spots a wolf dressed like Kurt Cobain.
Large retailers don’t have a great track record of respecting their competition. For example, they can use their buying power to extract better deals from suppliers, putting them at an advantage. They are also a fair weather record shop – only there in the good times, able to go back to selling spuds and carrots when people draw in their purse strings.
Many years ago a record shop owner in North London told me Supermarkets were selling CDs cheaper than he was able to buy them from his wholesaler. Little wonder so many independent record shops went out of business in the last thirty years.
Sainsbury’s foray into vinyl last year therefore looked like an opportunistic move whilst vinyl is a hot commodity. Over 200 Sainsbury’s stores sell records, leading to the retailer’s laughable, but vaguely defensible claim last year that it owned the largest chain of record outlets in the U.K.
The largest and yet least attractive, they might have added.
The Moscow of record shops, if you like.
Sainsbury’s can do this because they only sell a couple of dozen different titles. This means they can get the best price and profit buying in bulk and they don’t have a long tail of stock tying up money – vinyl has to be paid for up front and if every outlet has even five copies of Thriller, that’s over a thousand copies to fund while it sits on the shop floor.
If you look at the best selling records on Discogs, they are not new releases, but classics such as Thriller, Rumours and Dark Side Of The Moon. Beatles and Bowie. So Sainsbury’s has stuck to those titles that they believe are guaranteed to sell.
All very sensible and low risk, but that’s the demand for a thousand copies of Thriller being sucked out of independent record shops. Fair enough if you live in a remote part of the U.K. not serviced by a record shop, but otherwise undoubtedly a Bad Thing for independents.
Someone at Sainsbury’s is clearly looking at ways to improve their profit margins.
Clearly Sainsbury’s are unable to make their own music. Howard from those Halifax adverts showed us all too recently – to our cost – what happens when real people try to make music. It’s best left to the professionals.
Instead, Sainsbury’s has decided – in a world where making Spotify Playlists is less hassle than going to the shops, let’s not forget – to put together that old staple: The Compilation Album.
They have also asked the question: Why pay a middle-man if you can take production in-house, keep the margin, and release under your own brand. We see this all the time with own-label “taste the difference” and “essentials” ranges.
Very often when a supermarket does this something is lost. The soup or beans don’t quite taste like Heinz.
And yet, against all the odds, something of a miracle has occurred.
It’s actually rather good.
Sainsbury’s record guy, Pete Selby, really knows what he’s doing. And he has hired Saint Etienne centre midfielder / author of “Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop” Bob Stanley. There is literally no-one better qualified to put together a compilation album. And yeah, pipe down: I’m including you, Gambaccini…
Even in a world of Spotify Discovery and playlists there is room for a well-put together compilation album.
It’s easy to get wrong. If you are old enough you will remember Top of the Pops compilation LPs released in the ‘70s. All the latest hits, re-recorded by a bunch of session musicians. Dreadful. And even compilations with the original artists (I recall a “Rock Anthems” album from K-Tel in particular) eventually tend to tread the same familiar songs.
Stanley’s compilation albums for Sainsbury’s have a retro art design and a nice mix of familiar songs (Elton John, 10cc) and, just when you aren’t looking, he throws in a song by Linda Perhacs.
Is this taking food from the mouths of indie stores? Well, Sainsbury’s has already sold 12,000 copies of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. It’s already happening. Whether the sort of people who buy from Supermarkets are cannibalising indie stores’ sales is less clear – the wider supply of vinyl may grow the market overall, but we should assume there must be some effect. Record shops didn’t go out of business by the hundreds just by coincidence.
But these compilations? There are 1,500 of each, being sold for £18. So that’s £54k of sales. If everyone who bought the compilations usually shopped in an indie, and therefore diverted their money to Sainsbury’s instead, split between 300 independent record shops, that’s a maximum of £180 per shop they have “lost”.
So while it isn’t great news, neither is it the end of civilisation. Well done to Sainsbury’s for not producing something dreary. Just don’t do it too often, though. We like our indie shops. And if you are head of music at another supermarket? Forget it. We’ll tolerate this as a gentle aberration, but we don’t want dozens of the things. It’s up to us, the consumer, to keep our record shops in business. We have all seen what happens if we lose discipline and start buying all our stuff from larger retailers.
Happily for both consumers and independent record shops, there is an alternative to annoyingly attractive supermarket own label compilations put together expertly by members of Saint Etienne. Bob Stanley doesn’t just limit his talents to providing music for grocers (“Music for Grocers”. Now there’s an idea for a series of compilation albums…).
Ace Records are an independent reissue label who lovingly produce some of the best compilation albums you will find anywhere. Beatles covers by America’s black artists? Tick. Dylan covers by English folkies? Tick.
And earlier this year they had Bob Stanley produce a compilation for them, which they called “English Weather”. It’s every bit as nice as the Sainsbury’s compilations, if not nicer. And, what’s more, you can’t get it from Sainsbury’s. You have to go to your local indie retailer.
Think of it as the equivalent of buying your loved one a present to say sorry when, after buying The Sainsbury’s compilations, you pop in to your local record shop to buy English Weather…