Friday, June 29, 2007

Fopp - what does it all mean?

So now Fopp has gone out of business. This just a few days after HMV posted some poor results and Prince announced that his new album will be given away with the Mail On Sunday.
The first Fopp I went into was in Glasgow about six years ago. It was small but they knew how to organise their material in clusters and if they got their price points right you ended up filling a basket, either with the kind of middling back catalogue like Pink Floyd's "Meddle" you had never bought on CD or something faintly camp like a Jimmy Smith record from the late 60s. What I always liked about Fopp was that they didn't have everything. I find masses of catalogue over-facing these days. I know I can always get those things on line in my own time. I used to buy things at Fopp as presents. But then the shops got bigger and suddenly they were everywhere, the prices of the other stores came down to meet theirs and the experience was no longer so special.
The reaction of the City pages to all this news is pretty glib. It's the internet, apparently. I don't think it's as straightforward as that. I don't have any definitive handle on this but I've spent enough time in record shops - on both sides of the counter - to offer this ten point guide to what may be going on with CD sales:
  1. The supermarkets now discount the top sellers from which the specialist shops traditionally made their money.
  2. Even megastores find it hard to match the breadth and depth of an Amazon, iTunes or eMusic. The harder they try the less congenial they become.
  3. Too much mainstream music has had the magic surgically removed from it, the better to suit the marketing machine.
  4. The time and money that used to be invested in recorded music is now just as likely to go into other forms of entertainment.
  5. The CD is an essentially unlovable medium. It does not quicken the pulse.
  6. An increasing number of men now avoid going into shops, because they can.
  7. File sharing.
  8. Because we know everything will be available forever, we no longer feel the same urgency to buy.
  9. Most records are overrated as a matter of course. The public has been hyped too often.
  10. On the internet you can spend hours just mooching around music. (You're doing it now.) This is an experience you previously could only get in a record shop.


  1. Anonymous8:29 pm

    All rock solid reasons. Number 8 in particular chimed with me. When I discovered file sharing sites I was excited to think of the overlooked gems I would now be able to find with ease. However as I began to scoop them up I realised I was getting nowhere near the thrill I would have got from finding ooh lets say "Fill Your Head With Rock" in a second hand store or charity shop. I guess that says something about the music itself not being the most important thing but I am a bit of a rock snob - and happy to be one thanks.

  2. Anonymous8:41 pm

    I'm sorry to see Fopp go. I work in central London and spent many a lunchtime in the Shaftesbury Avenue store.

    It can only be about 9 months since their 'flagship' Tottenham Court Road store opened, so things must have gone downhill quickly.

    I visited Virgin in Oxford St at lunchtime today and it all seemed very tired and in need of a real overhaul. Fopp always seemed very bright and lively, and the choice of CDs on promotion was nice and eccentric.

    Very sad.

  3. That last point had been the one thing that kept me thinking that we would lose something if all music shopping went online: the chance to randomly stumble across music we would never otherwise encounter...

    Until last night, when I realised I had been surfing mp3 blogs and downloaded records by The Walker Brothers, James Tenney, The Gordons, and Screaming Lord Sutch. None of which I have properly heard before, and not all of which I would ever buy; but the odds are I will want to pay later for something by at least one of these artists, which I would not have bought otherwise.

    Of course, this presumes that there's a record company that wants to sell these things to me.

  4. Anonymous9:10 pm

    A very sad situation. I hadn't heard that they had folded, so off I went to the Shaftesbury Ave branch this afternoon, only to find a whacking great padlock and chain on the door.It still didn't occur to me that they had gone, so I headed up to the Tottenham court road flagship store,only to see loads of depressed looking blokes walking away from firmly shut doors. Sorry for all the people who worked there, they always seemed a bit more helpful than the Megastore types.

  5. Agree with all the reasons, another is that to compete with the internet and file sharing, cd prices have had to come down which obviously has hit margins and to compensate you have to increase volume, which is not easy when overall sales are going down!

    I probably fit into number 6 on your list. I don't like going shopping. But if there was a shop that was local and interesting to go to, I probably would.

    We don't buy wine from supermarkets, even though it is probably cheaper there, but because we prefer to go somewhere that is a bit more interesting.

    It's not exciting or interesting going into record shops anymore and part of this is your point 5. Is this a result of record companies treating everything as "product"? If packaging was more interesting and there were limited editions, etc. like 20 years ago would people still go to record shops?

    Record companies are great at shooting themselves in the foot. At a time when bands were adding quite interesting things to cd singles the ruling that they could only put 3 tracks on them came in. I never bought another single after that day. Once the single went and the whole exclusivity/collectability/limited availability thing went, I think it was a bullet in the heart of record shops.

  6. It's incredible how something predicated for a while has happened so quickly, berwick st has been culled with the stores dwindling very suddenly

  7. Excellent post, having recently been made redundant from a music chain in New Zealand,I feel their pain. I think they overstretched themselves when the purchased Music Zone. I know some of the key Fopp people from my HMV days and they are excellent retailers, so I can only imagine that the chain became too large to handle.It's very sad.

  8. Anonymous10:44 pm

    I find it very disappointing as Fopp was the only chain I actually liked, and I have spent a lot of money there. I thought their selection of books and DVDs as well as CDs was well picked and very nicely priced, much better than Virgin and HMV. I don't actually think that the catch-all excuse of the internet did them in. It is more likely that they grossly overreached themselves with that huge Tottenham Court Rd store and the purchase of Music Zone - 67 stores (!). Their recent burst of megalomania left them with large borrowings and rising interest rates, plus declining sales. Had they stayed at the level where they were successful - small stores with good prices and stock (only 5 stores seven years ago), I think they would have been alright. Certainly I would have expected them to outlive Virgin and HMV had they done so, and I would have much preferred that. What a shame their success went to their heads, and they wildly overstretched themselves. Small is beautiful, folks. I only hope something rises from the ashes of their demise. I feel quite sad that now it looks like I will have to do most of my purchases online - how indescribably dull, no trips to the shop to look forward to, coming back with unplanned and unexpected discoveries. More solitary behaviour at the bleeding computer - I don't like it!

  9. Anonymous5:10 pm

    I dunno, my mate went into HMV in Grafton St. here in dublin yesterday and got the Springsteen "Tracks" boxset and the Johnny Cash "Legends" boxset for 20 euro each. There's still unplanned and unexpected gems there to be had

  10. *stands up and applauds*

    I did wonder if Fopp just weren't selling their products too cheaply? I too spent a fortune in there, and will really miss their random product and really informed and friendly staff in their Camden branch.

  11. Point 6 - it's not only men who delight in being able to avoid going into shops!

    Although, everytime I buy a CD which is not from Action Records in Preston I feel a bit guilty.

  12. I'll really miss Fopp. Many lunchtime hours spent in the Bath branch. Eclectic selections, nice clear price-pointing, good clustering and lovely staff. Also, they promoted unsigned local acts with their "return if you don't like" policy (can't recall what it was actually called).

    Agree with your points also. I wonder how Rough Trade are doing?

    Only one quibble - how can you describe the muscular hammond chops of the great Jimmy Smith as "faintly camp"? You should be forced to spend a night in his chicken shack.

  13. Anonymous9:47 pm

    Fopp only recently arrived in my town so I'm really disappointed they've gone so soon. Overstretch in a really low margin market seems to be the big factor, but perhaps the sector needs a more innovative approach. What I'd like from a music store is the ability to plug in my iPod, swipe my credit card and upload my Mr £40 goods in-store, perhaps having a coffee or a read at the same time. Basically a little home from home.

    Of course this may already be possible at internet cafes, but as a rural dwelling middle-ager I have not yet ventured in to find out.

  14. Anonymous11:19 am

    The price thing between independent & High St chain is nothing new. Back in the late 70's I was in a long-gone record shop in Chiswick High Road.

    A punter came in for the latest Pink Floyd. The owner asked if he could hang on for a bit, as they had to go down to the stockroom and open another box of them, as it had been selling so well they'd just run out. Meanwhile, the assistant disappeared out the back.

    We went on with our business and I noticed the customer was still waiting. Eventually the assistant comes back with the item, apologises for the delay, said he had trouble locating the box and the satisfied punter leaves.
    That took a long time, I said. No wonder, said Andy, he had to go up the road to WH Smith's and buy it, come back, take their sticker off and re-bag it.
    Why? Because it was cheaper to buy it in at Smith's special retail price than for him to get it from his usual distributor.

  15. Anonymous5:39 pm

    Reading about Fopp and HMV fills me with dread. My fear is that the only way I will be able to buy the music I love in the future is via the desolate world of online or the trolley horror show at Tesco. Somebody needs to figure out a viable proposition for music retail pretty damn soon please otherwise Terry Leahy wins and music becomes another crass commodity to chuck in your trolley at the end of your weekly shopping trip. And don't tell me to 'mooch' around the internet - that is not the rich experience I used to get in a record shop David. It is as fulfilling as wandering around an NCP car park after dark occasionally approaching strangers and asking them if they will be your friend.

  16. Anonymous2:03 pm

    Come on, homeground - I've met loads of nice people doing that.

    If you find the right web sites (including the Russian one that nobody wants to mention), you can have a great time ordering, making complilations and having a drink at the same time. Better than most retail outlets.

    You must have had some great record shops near you, because here in West London, I haven't been in anywhere that's given me a rich experience in many years. (Apart from the local NCP).

    But your main point is valid. Browsing multiple racks of vinyl/CD will be a gone pastime soon.

    Someone has to be thinking right now about how to get people away from their PCs & into music stores, to let them buy onsite music downloads to memory sticks or direct to mobile/mp3 player at web-competitive prices, up-sell them with accessories, mp3 players, & associated stuff with a decent margin on it, to allow it to be profitable. The touchy-feely richness of displays of thousands of album sleeves is what you're going to miss. (and isn't a well-stocked record shop the very antithesis of the 'spoilt for choice' consumer problem in this week's papers?)

    If someone can take those issues and make them into a viable High St proposition that encompasses today's technology in a friendly and 'cool' environment, then you'll have a true retail genius.
    Never mind those who earn millions in bonuses by sticking cheap cashmere jumpers in their shops at Christmas, you'll have really earnt your money if you can pull this one off. (...and that's not another NCP gag).

  17. Here's an idea for increasing the real (as opposed to virtual) CD outlets. I've always thought that it would be great if pubs sold CDs. They could get a well stocked free jukebox and keep a stock of what's on it. Regulars would discover new music and visitors would hear and buy pub favourites. I don't think I've ever regretted a CD purchase made after a few pints. For a perfect shopping trip they just need a curry house across the road as well.

  18. I like the way you think, JW.