Flashback: Selling vinyl in the digital age
Despite the rise of online downloading, there is still demand for a physical product, says Mark Burgess, founder of Essex Road’s Flashback Records
Mark Burgess came to London to be a rockstar. He still looks the part, with his long blonde mane, but ended up selling second-hand records instead, just to make a living. “And then it became a career,” he tells me when I sit down with him at Flashback Records on Essex Road. He opened the shop in 1997 and today runs arguably one of the best and most successful record shops in London.
Growing up in Yorkshire, Burgess moved to the capital just after college at 21 and worked in second-hand music for roughly ten years – “learning the trade” as he says – before striking out on his own. He was still living in Islington when he set up his store, initially only selling pre-owned records, DVDs, CDs and clothes. For the last three years, he has been expanding his stock to sell new vinyl releases as well.
Sitting in the crammed office-slash-storage space in the back of the store, surrounded by shelves and shelves of records and paperwork stacked high, we’re interrupted by one of Burgess’ employees. Ten of them help run the business in Islington as well as Crouch End, where Burgess lives and where he took over an ailing record shop in 2006. Nowadays, the boss has to spend most of his time with the organisational tasks that a successful business entails, rather than just hanging out at the store – it’s not all John Cusack in High Fidelity if you’re doing it seriously.
“When I set it up 16 or 17 years ago and it was me and a couple of mates, there were times when you literally had nothing to do because there wasn’t enough work generated,” he remembers. “It was a really small operation to start with. And then slowly, as time has gone on, I’ve employed more and more people, and my mates have gone on to do other things.”
Contrary to what you might think of a traditional record store in the digital age, Burgess says business at Flashback has been growing pretty much consistently since he started.
“Last year sales of physical product actually went up, against the trend of years and years of decline in the music industry, so it’s actually quite a fascinating time to be involved in it,” he says. “I think it’s taken a while for there to be a balance between digital and physical, and I think we’re achieving that at the moment. I think it’s settling down.”
New vinyl accounts for roughly 20% of turnover now, the rest is still used and collectible vinyl as well as CDs and DVDs, although Burgess expects the income from new releases to keep growing. “But then again, the rest of the business is also growing because there has been this massive resurgence of interest in vinyl,” he adds. “So whilst the new vinyl is growing, the second-hand vinyl is also growing, which is great.”
On top of that, the average value of the records is going up and footfall is increasing too, which Burgess credits to their strong web presence and the various in-store events like gigs and DJ nights. He also makes sure the store isn’t too intimidating to someone who’s not used to the world of record enthusiasts.
“One of the things I’m very insistent on when employing people is that they understand the ethos of the company, which is we’re nice and pleasant and welcoming to customers and we know what we’re talking about. A record shop just per se is intimidating; we try to offset that as much as possible. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re looking for Lionel Ritchie or Sonic Youth, you know, we will still try to help you out!”
Big dreams aside, it is probably for the best that Burgess didn’t end up playing the big stage then, not least for his flock of loyal customers – and really everyone that ever passes through his store. Now 48, he has actually picked up making music again a couple of years ago. The band are called Red Horses of the Snow and are busy releasing their second album on Flashback’s own record label, as well as preparing their first live gigs. “I play bass live, they don’t let me sing,” laughs Burgess.
And what does he like most about the area where he set up his shop? “One thing Islington Council doesn’t get sufficient credit for is their policy on Upper Street and Essex Road of not allowing any big chains to open stores. I think that creates an atmosphere in Islington that is more attractive to people looking for something slightly more independent. If they hadn’t done that it would just turn into another Bluewater or Westfield or something, and we would probably no longer exist.”
Burgess says he loves his job for a lot of different reasons – he gets to listen to music at work, wear his own clothes and, really, doesn’t know how to do anything else. “But when it comes down to it, if someone comes in with an interesting pile of records, just going through the records is still fascinating to me. Even after 25 years in the business, I still get a big buzz out of that! And whilst I have that, I’m happy here.”