The struggle for independent record stores to compete against large global behemoths—such as Amazon—is a well-documented story. What is perhaps less understood, is the equally challenging position of running an independent online music store. One such outfit is Norman Records, based in Leeds, England. Norman Records started when the internet was in its infancy, and thanks to a huge amount of passion from the owners and their team, they remain a significant independent alternative for online vinyl in the UK. We caught up with one of the company directors, Nathon Raine to gain some insight into how the business continues to thrive in a competitive online retail market.
How did Norman Records get started? What’s the story behind the business?
Norman Records was set up by Phil Leigh in 1995, literally operating out of a bedroom in a shared house in Leeds. Building on his own obsession with leftfield music – ask him to try to pick his favourite Can album and you’ll regret it – Phil took to photocopying lists of records he could get hold of and sharing them with fellow vinyl lovers via the wonders of the British postal system. A rudimentary website was set up in 1997 or so. A better one started to take shape around the year 2000, and things grew from there really.
As a business that started in the 90s, you’ve survived a lot of change in how music is consumed – including the decline of CDs and re-rebirth of vinyl. How has this affected your business?
Well, vinyl never fully went away. It’s always been the format of choice for the kinds of bands and artists we love the most – weird outsiders, electronic pioneers, experimentalists, etc. Obviously, we now sell more vinyl than we ever have done, but even when it looked completely dead and buried as a mainstream format we were still eking out a living from it.
The recent resurgence has obviously changed things for us in many ways though, of course. We’ve had to get more efficient and professional in order to cope with customer demand. We now welcome things into our catalogue that in previous years we wouldn’t have bothered with (because nobody would’ve bought them from us). And we’ve had to adapt to stay competitive online as the likes of Amazon and HMV muscle back into territory that was previously ours.
Oh, and don’t underestimate CDs! We don’t cover them as well as we used to, but they’ve been growing in popularity again recently too…
What continues to drive you toward a focus on physical product?
Love. Simple as that, really.
You just can’t beat that feeling of holding a new record from an artist you adore in your hands. Taking it from its sleeve for the first time. The anticipation of dropping the needle. The first blast of noise, or the gentle opening notes, or whatever, coming from the speakers.
Streaming is great too – a world of music instantly available at your fingertips – but it just doesn’t have the same magic. Never will.
What are the pros and cons of being an online-focused record retailer?
Online is insanely demanding. Things change very quickly. Keeping on top of the tech required is a major problem. New competitors and other threats can emerge with obscene haste: Google can release an algorithm change overnight and within a few short weeks you’re left wondering about whether or not you’re gonna have to cut back on something or let a member of staff go.
And that’s before you even think about more abstract stuff like the harsh anonymity of an online operation. We sell a product that’s all about tangibility, a product that attracts fellow obsessives, a product that elicits discussion and shared enthusiasm. We see a surprising amount of in-store customers because of our ‘click and collect’ service, but it’s fair to say that pretty much everyone here at Norman Records would probably prefer to work in a more usual, physical, bricks-‘n’-mortar record shop.
The pros? Well, not having to actually run a usual, physical, bricks-‘n’-mortar shop is the biggest one. Us online retailers can moan with the best of them, but you only have to look at what’s happened to so many physical stores to feel grateful.
As you allude to, online retail for vinyl records is increasingly competitive, particularly when you consider the formidable force that is Amazon. How does Norman Records compete in this challenging market?
Amazon is a juggernaut, that’s for sure. Industry sales figures are notoriously unreliable but we gather that Amazon and HMV together flog more vinyl than every other shop combined. Throw in the likes of other online behemoths like Discogs and Ebay and we feel like we’re living permanently on a commercial knife edge.
How do we compete? Well, juggernauts and behemoths are by nature impersonal. We’re not. Whether it’s our personal customer service or our album reviews we basically try to replicate something of that in-person record store appeal.
What makes Norman Records unique?
Not sure ‘unique’ is the right word, but we think we’re among the best at what we do. We love music. We love vinyl. We love making our customers happy by sending them the vinyl they love with the minimum fuss possible. Simple!
What vinyl releases should we be paying attention to right now?
Ask any of the staff here at Norman Records and you’ll of course get completely different answers from each. Take a look at our regular reviews for the latest picks.
The closest thing to a collective opinion, though, would be to keep an eye on MALK (our Album of the Year winner from last year) – in particular, his current release as Mahatma X. Do whatever you have to do to secure a vinyl copy of the Insides reissue (we’ve sold out). And if anarchic, lo-fi Scottish punk from the 80s is your thing then one of our biggest recommendations this year is the Nyah Fearties reissue. Or, if the idea of a Japanese Kate Bush appeals, then try Akiko Yano’s Japanese Girl.
Oh, and you know how we mentioned CDs earlier? You should definitely treat yourself to the sumptuous Eliane Radigue CD boxset.