Whether it’s the whir of fresh coffee being ground at the bar or ending up awkwardly wedged up against the avant-jazz CD racks, in-stores performances carry an unmistakable charm. There’s the nervous excitement of not just getting to watch your favourite artist live in unique surroundings, but the opportunity to meet them and pick up a signed record or poster. It goes beyond the usual gig memento – a ticket stub or wristband are often shoved into a shoebox and rarely see the light of day again, but a signed record is truly irreplaceable.
The return of record shops has been most welcome, but live music – a crucial part of their identities and business – may still be some way off, and this is disrupting emerging artists the most. Entire release campaigns are often centred around these intimate events, with tours of iconic record shops across the country carefully scheduled around an album’s release. These shows can dramatically boost chart positions, as well as strengthening existing bonds with fans all across the UK. In a climate where physical connection is of immense scarcity and value, these intimate moments are sorely missed.
“If you told me when I was 15 that I’d be standing behind a counter with a pen in my hand putting my name on an album, and for that to actually mean something, my mind would be blown,” says Conor Curley, guitarist in Fontaines D.C. In-store shows – accessed by purchasing a ticket and physical bundle from record shops – played a major part in the story of their thrilling debut album ‘Dogrel’, which landed in the Top 10 in the UK Album Charts last year.
Along with countless others who’ve had album release plans scuppered since the pandemic hit, the Dublin band will miss out on an all-important in-store run supporting their second album ‘A Hero’s Death’, out on July 31. “I wish we could go out there and speak to people about this record”, Curley says. “We’re probably never going to release like this again, so we just have to appreciate it for what it is. People are just going to digest the album as a standalone thing. It’s more like releasing a helium balloon rather than being in a hot air balloon and being beside it all the way.”
“Being able to meet people all over the place and gauge their reaction to the album in such a personal way last year was surreal. It might be an Irish thing but to be stood in front of a line of people wanting to tell you how much they like something you’ve done can be very anxiety-inducing. Everyone has their own story and it’s a very special thing to be able to do.”
Emily Waller, Marketing Manager at Rough Trade, says that the biggest appeal of an in-store is the way that it bridges the gap between artist and fan: “There’s no dressing room, no crew, it’s laid back; it’s your stage to do with what you will, there’s not that awkward barrier that you have at more formal gigs. Watching the audience reaction is always amazing, especially if it’s a highly anticipated record. It’s such a buzz to see the band play the new songs on the first day and you can have the record in your hand.
As well as dissolving those barriers between artist and audience, in-store events can be a sure-fire way to boost chart positions during the week of an album release. The BBC reported that Rough Trade – with stores in London, Bristol and Nottingham – can represent 75 per cent of total release week vinyl sales for a Top 10 album chart entry. Often, these are boosted by performances and signing sessions at their stores.
In October 2019, Foals clinched their first Number One album ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part 2’, their campaign including a signing session at Rough Trade East in London, where fans could pre-order the record to gain access to the event. Waller says that incentive to fans makes a massive difference to first week sales. “To be able to say ‘We’re going to sell out a 300-capacity venue in release week through selling our albums as a form of entry’ is hugely enticing to labels. They can be crucial addition to an album campaign.”
She adds: “I also think it’s nice because we feel we can help the artists in that campaign, particularly if it’s their debut record and their first run at things.” With the independent retail chain hosting thousands of in-store events across a calendar year, this impact can’t be overlooked: “The importance of getting in those charts are massive – they can really open doors for new artists. What it means for them and their ability to go on and connect with their fans, the funding they get and the exposure is crucial.”
‘Out-store’ shows have also become huge over the years and further help these chart positions in higher-cap venues, with stores holding external events with entry through purchase of an album. Few do it better than Kingston’s Banquet Records, whose sweaty New Slang club nights have seen everyone from Wolf Alice through to Justice perform over the years. Entire campaigns can be planned around these intimate comeback moments, too. In November 2018, The 1975 made their live comeback with a New Slang show at Pryzm in Kingston.
Indie heroes Sports Team would no doubt have benefitted with the extra boost of in-stores around the release of their debut ‘Deep Down Happy’. The album was narrowly beaten out to Number One in the UK by Lady Gaga’s ‘Chromatica’, with a reported 600 copies making the difference. The band’s previously arranged in-stores around the release are currently slated for August, but the buzz around a week of in-shows around release is tough to replicate.
“We’d have been rocketing – we’d have had the platinum disc on the wall,” drummer Al Greenwood jokes. “In-stores were going to be a massive part of the campaign but our fans still stepped up and blew us away.” The band’s listening parties on social media offered a chaotic and hilarious glimpse into the community that propelled them into the chart position.
Those shows may well have provided that crucial final push, the band are mainly gutted about not being able to share the release experience with fans. “Nothing sinks in until you step on stage in front of your fans going wild and opening up the pits when you start your first song, that’s when the whole thing becomes so real and visceral,” says Greenwood. “We’ve had that robbed from us and getting to do that on the in-store dates is something we were all just giddy about.”
“In-stores were going to be a massive part of the campaign, but we’ve had that robbed from us” – Al Greenwood, Sports Team
The absence of in-store events has left others instinctively navigating the situation. As part of their successful push for a Top 20 album, London punks Dream Wife opted for an online in-store tour for their second album ‘So When You Gonna...’, recording one song for five different iconic UK record stores, which aired for free through their respective Instagram accounts.
Fresh off the virtual stage at Banquet Records in London, bassist Alice Go says this was an obvious decision. “It mattered all the more to try and make that connection. It’s never going to be the same as a live show but hopefully it still brings joy and connects people.”
“In this time where everything is so dislocated and isolated, there’s this emphasis on the real and physical. Even the act of getting a record sent to your door still feels like this really important down on the ground thing.” While there’s no guidebook on how to steer the ship through a pandemic, Go says this concept was second nature. “We’ve always been really engaged with our fans online and that’s important to us and people in our musical community. It’s been a time of trying to utilise that and make the most of it.”
It’s also been important for stores themselves to fill the void in the absence of live events. Emily Waller says: “Live shows are a huge part of the Rough Trade experience, so what could we do to emulate that and keep people engaged and updated with what’s coming out and also support the artists? We’ve been doing artist live streams in our Transmissions series. This was really set up as a support network for bands who were stunted creatively because they can’t get out there and tour.”
In-stores also offer a chance to build their audiences regionally – especially in cities that are left out of the usual touring circuit says Mez Sanders-Green, frontman of Hull band LIFE. “It removes that face in the crowd mentality because you’re making that personal connection which you don’t often get at the bigger gigs because you play a show and you’re back in the van and on the motorway, With an in-store, it feels like it’s your chance to talk to everyone in that specific city who likes your music. It just seems so personal and yet so exciting for the artist to have that interaction.”
For galt-pop artist Nilüfer Yanya, these events offer a chance to connect with fans who aren’t able to attend regular gigs: “There’s no age restrictions on the in-stores so it’s an opportunity to meet fans of all ages. Some people might not even want to come to the shows but still come down to the in-store.” She says the legacy of the stores can add to the weight of the occasion. “All of these places have such a legacy behind them in themselves. These buildings have been here way longer than you’ve been alive and – hopefully – longer than you’ll ever live.”
While nobody can be sure of how and when this intimate form of live music will return in a physical sense, Waller believes lockdown has brought about new ways to highlight the artists that they love which will continue even when normality eventually resumes. “I think this pandemic will change the landscape of music promotion. While we’re all desperate for the venues to open and there’s nothing like the experience of a physical gig, there will be this newfound education around what you can do online.”
Despite the gradual reopening of some record shops, the roadmap to the return of live music in those establishments are uncertain. For now, we’ll have to hold close those memories of seeing a soon-to-be-great act in such fitting surroundings. Emma Snook, Product Manager at Partisan Records [home to Fontaines DC and IDLES] emphasises this sense of emotional value these events offer. “An in-store at an indie always feels like a true celebration of the records we’re releasing. The IDLES‘ Banquet out-store the night before ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ was released was an epic countdown to it being out in the world. Fontaines D.C. playing outside Rough Trade West in the rain for Record Store Day was a unique live experience.”
It’s refreshing that artists and stores alike are taking such innovative strides to capture that release week buzz in a virtual sense. Until we can enjoy live music in any surroundings let alone intimate ones, it’s important to keep up our end of the deal as fans to engage and support in the meantime. As Waller puts it: “Just because the world is on hold it doesn’t mean the music can’t carry on.”