Friday, 7th March 2014
A mild, sunny day which seemed otherwise unremarkable to the average person in Belfast. One of the first days of spring that propels everyone into a state of optimism and euphoria at the level of Vitamin D now flowing through the veins.
But, for those in the know, it was a day that would begin a renaissance in the Belfast underground.
It was the opening day for Sick Records.
Located in North Street, it was close enough to Writers’ Square to siphon some of the kudos of the Cathedral Quarter but managed to retain a vibe of untapped potential due to being located in a street long run down and awaiting gentrification.
I remember the day all too well. I called in around 11:15 (with Dragon Records co-founder Jeff Doherty) and, while not the first person there, I was the first to buy a substantial number of records. They were:
- Teho Teardo & Blixa Bargeld – Still Smiling (£24.95)
- Centuries – Taedium Vitae (£19.95)
- Dead In The Dirt – The Blind Hole (£14.95)
- Various – Killed By Deathrock: Vol. 1 (£17.95)
- The Accüsed – The Curse Of Martha Splatterhead (£9.95)
Not a bad haul. And the guy behind the counter, Kenny Murdock, went out of his way to pick up on my interests in the more extreme end of music, as he freely admitted to having little knowledge of it in terms of what to order in. He seemed a humble sort and was clearly modelling the shop on Monorail Music, the legendary record shop on the outskirts of Glasgow city centre. No bad thing, at all.
Perpetually kitted out in a light blue denim jacket sporting a quiff streaked with grey and an accent somewhere between Derry and Coleraine, Kenny was seen by some as a stereotypical hipster. In actual fact, he is a devout music fan always prepared to cross boundaries to ensure that he hears a great record. Something he demonstrated numerous times in the shop, and him regaling you with what was selling in the shop and what was worth listening to were always worth a visit.
That sort of enthusiasm is beaten out of most people by a certain age, who simply retreat to their old favourites and bemoan anything that came out past a certain point as not being worthy of what came before. Maybe, to a degree, I can see why people adopt this attitude. But it’s not a healthy one. Change is consistent and every aspect of life and culture is up for grabs. Hiding behind what came beforehand won’t help.
And Kenny was proof of how retaining an open mind pays off.
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I do have to admit I was never big on the name.
Borrowed from The Cramps, Sick Records was probably intended to denote not only the 50’s hipcat lingo of records being so good that they were ‘sick’, but also carried on Lux Interior’s mission of keeping music as sick and depraved as possible, because who wants to see rock stars doing good around the world? Surely a rock star’s place is down at the barricades hurling petrol bombs, as opposed to playing benefits and shaking hands with politicians?
While I understood and respected the connotations, I always thought it was a bit weak and dated. But hey, this was a superficial issue. It was all about the stock and the company. And, on these fronts, the shop excelled.
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In retrospect, Kenny timed it perfectly.
The legendary stores, Dr. Roberts, Caroline, Hector’s House, were long gone and the shops that were left were a mixed bag.
Although Dragon Records had existed for four years up to this point, they had shifted focus into the second-hand market due to it being much more profitable than new records. Andy Paraskos’ stall at St. George’s Market was a treasure trove of rare records which rarely, if ever, crossed over into new stock. Head was usually solid in what they could get you, but they operated in a strange terrain as they were effectively Zavvi/Virgin under a different name but they billed themselves as an independent store, and HMV’s stock could be extremely bland.
Sick took elements from all of these places and combined them, meaning we had a legitimate independent record store which only stocked new releases. Something which hadn’t been seen in Belfast since the early days of Dragon Records and certainly on a scale not seen since Dr. Roberts.
The "resurgence of vinyl", which had been an ongoing process since 1998, was beginning to take off and there was a peak of interest in labels like Ghost Box, Fuzz Club and Death Waltz Recording Company putting out obscure psych, hauntology and 80's video nasty soundtracks.
Although these labels had been operating for a number of years previously, their records took off in Sick. Soundtracks from John Carpenter films, Sonic Jesus and The Advisory Circle became constant sellers, due to appealing to a certain type of record buyer i.e. ones in their 40’s who watched these horror films as teenagers and recognised the imagery used in hauntology. Crucially, there was still enough of a cache of coolness surrounding the whole scene, as if you had to be inducted by someone in the know.
Metal and hardcore were also big sellers owing to labels like Deathwish and Southern Lord being shrewd enough to press up various editions in different colours of vinyl, with Dopesmoker by Sleep being one of the perpetual bestsellers in the shop, even crossing over to people who wouldn’t normally go near metal, while the likes of Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats seemed tailor made for the Sick clientele.
Record Store Day became a celebration of this, seeing performances from the likes of the Bonnevilles, The Mighty Stef, Robyn G. Shields and The Penny Dreadfuls, among others, while people queued for their limited edition Ramones boxsets or their Section 25 12’ singles. Although the event is now noted for its deluge of landfill slop, these were slightly more innocent times, when there was a genuine air of excitement and even a sense of community.
A secret society if you will.
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It was a whirlwind three and a half years, but it came to an end in October 2017.
Although the shop was still doing well, Kenny had remarked to me that he was somewhat disillusioned at the fact that he had bowed to pressure to stock back catalogue releases from the likes of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd, which were now outselling new releases.
It’s important to remember that this was never the intention of Sick. While Kenny had nothing against those bands, it wasn’t the aim of the shop to simply stock records that could be easily found in the likes of HMV. Unfortunately, these artists consistently sell and it’s better to have that money yourself than someone else. And when you start doing something purely for money, it might be time to get out.
Music fans have complex relationships with their chosen loves, so it’s wrong to view such decisions in a purely logical fashion. It’s not like selling food because, unless you’ve an eating disorder, you’re not likely to have a complex relationship with food, so to treat music as something to be sold would be to miss the nuances and contradictions that run through fandom
There were undoubtedly other factors as well but, in retrospect, selling such releases seemed to be going against the original ethos of the shop.
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Nowadays, Belfast is a very different place for records.
The success of vinyl, as well as Record Store Day, means that there are now more record shops in the city since the late 90's - as well as other shops in places like Bangor, Ballymena, Derry and even Drogheda - so it’s more ubiquitous than ever.
The blurring of boundaries between “serious” music fans and the pop kids is complete, so it’s now quite possible to see Taylor Swift and Charli XCX fans parading their copies of the newest record alongside grizzled, seasoned veterans who still dart their eyes around the store in case anyone else is thinking of nabbing the only copy of the new Facs LP. And both sets of fans continue to buy up classic releases from the heritage acts (Rumours is one such record), outselling new releases.
Also, arguably, the bottom has fallen out of the market for some of the more niche areas like soundtracks due to overpricing, overfill and overflow. Do you really want to pay £50 for a double LP version of the Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack because it’s splattered white vinyl? Likewise, do you really need another Acid Mothers Temple live record?
On that train of thought, the abundance of variations (blue, black, green, red, bone white, clear etc) that are now only available as pre-orders from websites mean that the more dedicated type, who must have to eat out of a bin until payday, simply order all their variants off the website, instead of trekking down to the local record store who might only have the plain black version.
Simply put, the market is saturated. We’ve never had it so good.
Yet we have lost something.
From 2012, up until about 2016, there was a feeling that record collectors were on at the forefront of something. We noticed that more and more albums were being pressed on viny, we noticed more and more people expressing an interest in vinyl. We noticed that the boundaries between certain genres were beginning to blur, leading to indie music blogs bigging up the likes of Miley Cyrus and Rihanna, both of whom issued albums on vinyl in this period.
And while few of us thought it would get to the stage where Tesco would stock the new Iron Maiden LP, there was the thinking that our preference was coming back into fashion. Slowly, surely, but it was happening.
Respect for the format.
Like I said, Kenny couldn’t have timed it better.
For a period, Sick Records was an incredibly exciting place to visit, it opened a lot of people's minds, forged a lot of friendships and brought a genuinely underground feel back to the city.
🎷 🎸🎻 🎺
This interview, originally published on MetalIreland, was conducted with Kenny Murdock in December 2014.
Q: Why start a shop, especially in this current climate?
A: My reason for opening a shop is simple. I always wanted to do it but felt that my life was too busy, my kids were too young, and I didn’t want to be an absent father or that it just wasn’t a good time to open a record store because of the financial climate.
I have used various excuses as reasons not to do it over the years. Truth was, I just wasn’t brave enough to do it. Now that my kids are independent, it seemed like the perfect time to “give it a go”.
The upturn in the sales of physical product over the last two to three years was a huge factor but I’ve found that only a small percentage of customers are new to buying records. Like me, most had grown accustomed to buying on-line. Hopefully the people of Belfast will value the relationship that can develop with a good independent store.
Q: Do you have any particular aims that you’d like to see the shop achieve?
A: Our aim is not too lofty. I’d be happy to survive and still be trading in 18 months. Honestly, I’m not looking too far ahead. I’m of the opinion that opening the store was the easy part. Keeping it going and making it a success will be the tough part. We’d like to develop our relationship with the music community in Belfast.
We’d like to play our part in helping good local talent thrive and, to that end, we’d encourage local artists to call in and say “hello”. We would like to make the front of the shop available to local bands / artists on a Saturday afternoon to come in and play live to help promote a new release or just to help spread the word. I think it’s important that we’re not just a retail venture.
Q: Currently, Belfast has (as well as Sick) Dragon Records, Head, HMV, Good Vibrations as well as a fine stall at St. George’s Market. Realistically, does Belfast need another record store?
A: I hope so. I think we provide something which hasn’t been available in Belfast since the demise of Dr. Robert’s in 1999. I’ve always looked at the multiple music retail outlets in other cities in Ireland and the U.K. and wondered why Belfast couldn’t sustain a good independent retailer.
I believe that it can, but it took a huge leap of faith to take that chance. Thankfully, the people of Belfast seem to feel the same way. We feel very fortunate with all the goodwill we’ve been receiving in our first year of business.
We’ve been given a huge opportunity here, not to make squillions of pounds, but just to be integral to the music community here. And to matter. We promise we’ll try not to screw that up.
Q: Are you aiming for a particular kind of record buyer in the market?
A: Not really. Perhaps, because of our own obsessions, we’re aiming at the avid music fans. I like to think that very little of what we stock is incidental music. It’s not meant to be on in the background. And I’ve been told that our name is aimed at kids. There might be some truth to that. It’s difficult to introduce new music to some older vinyl-heads like myself. We think we know better; you see.
Q: What is the biggest selling genre in the shop?
A: At the start, it was metal. By some distance. Belfast has always had a very discerning metal fraternity and we knew we had to cater for that. We’ve been trying to provide different catalogues like Southern Lord, Relapse & Earache and trying to keep the stock fresh at the same time. It’s true that sales of Metal were huge at the beginning, but it continues to sell steadily.
I think our sales of Alternative and Electronic music has eclipsed the sales of Metal, but those genres are more dominant the shop. More than any other genre, metal bands place a huge importance on multiple sales to each individual customer. Limited versions and multiple colours are normal practice, sometimes only available through the label.
It doesn’t help if those aren’t available to us, it places an onus on the fan to order on-line.
Q: Describe the average record-buyer in the shop?
A: That group dynamic doesn’t change, really. We get predominantly middle aged males whose kids are independent and who finally have some disposable income. We’ve had a lot of young males 17-28 who buy lots of metal and experimental metal, but the older generation have really embraced the Electronica explosion around at the minute.
Q: What have been the biggest metal/hardcore sellers this year?
A: I had to take a look at this because, as I’ve said before, metal is not my field of expertise. Our biggest selling new releases have been Earth – Primitive & Deadly, Sunn O))) – Terrestrials, Code Orange – I Am King, Scott O))) (Sunn O))) and Scott Walker) – Soused and Swans – To Be Kind.
Our biggest selling re-issues have been Sleep – Dopesmoker (by a mile) and Earth – The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull. I’m expecting the new Obliterations LP to make a push into that list by Christmas.
Q: Has there been any of those releases which has crossed over so “normal” types are buying them?
A: Definitely the Scott O))). Not sure what they made of it though because it seems like it’s un-cool to diss that album so I’m not sure everyone has been honest in their appraisals. And the new Earth LP seemed to attract a lot of Lanegan fans…. perhaps even more than the last Lanegan album.
Q: Now that it’s been nearly a year since the shop opened, how is it holding up?
A: We’ve been open for 8 months and it’s been fantastic. There were a few long days through the summer months but, all in all, it has exceeded my expectations. We’ve concentrated on stock to the end that we’ve succeeded in doubling our numbers of titles in that time.
I had previously targeted achieving this in 18months -2 years so we’re way ahead of schedule on that. We’re also making contacts on a weekly basis with bands and smaller labels who are self-releasing. I think we’re still only scratching the surface. There’s much more to come.
Q: How much has location played a part in the success of the shop?
A: I always knew that the shop had to be in Belfast. Then it was a case of finding the best affordable unit. North Street is pretty central and we’re on the ground floor. Having a door which opens out onto the street is a huge plus. Hopefully the on-going expansion of the local University, which is only a few hundred yards away, and the increasing footfall on the street, which is visible every week, will help.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.