UK music retailer Rough Trade, as of late, has been on a roll: The store just reported a 25% increase in Q1 sales, won Music Week's Retail Brand Award and is in the middle of expanding to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. .Biz spoke with store co-founder Stephen Godfroy (@sgodfroy) about all of the above and more on the eve of Record Store Day, which Godfroy rather eloquently described both as a "music retail equivalent of a Diet Coke and Mentos geyser" and a "12 hour hit of transcendence, taking record stores to a Shamanic level of ecstasy..."
Billboard.biz: What’s your official title and what are you doing these days?
Stephen Godfroy: Rough Trade Co-Owner & Co-President. I help safely navigate us into the future, while colleagues help protect the past, manage the present.
What did you do before all this?
I worked for some large multi-nationals that inadvertently taught me the tragic weaknesses of corporate business, before proposing a joint-venture to Rough Trade. That led to The Album Club - a 2003 music discovery service -- that leveraged Rough Trade's peerless recommendation authority to deliver a 'less is more" monthly selection of new music. Its success assisted Rough Trade in attracting inward investment and I became a co-owner and starting work on what became Rough Trade East. Since then, we've strategically fortified the foundations of the business, nurtured the brand, developed a bespoke online platform... Now, it's time to grow.
You are credited with the successful launch of the 5,000 square foot Rough Trade East store in 2007 in the middle of so many indie music retailers closing – how did Rough Trade manage to survive and flourish in that time period?
Rough Trade East returned music retail to its forgotten, original intent, by providing curious minds of all ages a place of congregation, celebration and discovery. We used daring scale and creativity to redefine the expectation of what a store can be, to be not simply a place of purchase, but a place of worship.
As this interview is pegged to Record Store Day, what has Record Store Day meant to you both in terms of your store and personally?
Commercially, RSD is the music retail equivalent of a Diet Coke and Mentos geyser, a crude combination of ingredients that ordinarily shouldn't be thrown together: hundreds of items released on a single day, added to a media-fueled open invitation to thousands of people to descend on the store at once. The resulting effusive spectacle is towering spray of momentary sales, but it's a bit of a mess, unquestionably in need of further refinement. Personally, I love the RSD 12 hour 'hit' of transcendence, taking record stores to a Shamanic level of ecstasy, where they become a conscious-altering intermediary between the artist and listener.
Rough Trade East is prominently featured in the film “Last Shop Standing” which is being screened at stores during Record Store Day, what'd you think?
"Last Shop Standing?" This may come as a surprise to some people, but I do have a life outside of music retail. Suffice to say, watching that would probably certify me insane.
What RSD exclusives are you most excited about?
Only those we get decent levels of stock of. That's one of the major flaws of RSD, the nonsensical fashion in which limited edition product is unevenly allocated across the stores, without any prior indication of quantities until the delivery is made, often only hours before opening.
I’ve heard complaints about Record Store Day: shops can’t get the exclusives they, stock sells out quickly to re-sellers that scoop them up and sell them on eBay, there's no advance ordering — what's your take?
From an organisational point of view, RSD requires plenty of refining, and such issues are driving that necessity.
Rough Trade’s Q1 2013 earnings report saw a 25% sales increase, how exactly did you accomplish that in what may still consider to still be a volatile music retail environment?
We've a confident grasp of our sustainable competitive advantages, along with a healthy perspective that looks at music retail from the outside, in, not from the inside, out. We also balance the value of the past, present, future to successfully represent and serve each. Music retail is volatile only so much as it's in a perpetual state of flux, an eco-system so fragmented and complex, it defies generalisation. We now live in a post-digital era, where multi-format consumption morphs to reflect whichever offer is most relevant to each individual at any given time. Someone buys a smartphone, they then change their relationship with music accordingly. The same person then walks into Rough Trade, and they change their relationship with music once again. There is no 'all conquering' format, behaviour, offer - it's complementing and co-existing that matters. We recognise that our biggest competitive threat isn't another music offer, it's how people chose to spend their time. Our response is to create destination experiences that defy convention, that have no precedent, where purchase is just 1% of a much more rewarding, meaningful and memorable occasion.
You also won Music Week’s Retail Brand award last week, ahead of both digital and physical retailers, how’d that happen?
As a retail brand, Rough Trade is like any story, in that it's not a statement of truth. It's an elaborate pattern, a mandala, a construct whose virtue lies in its harmonies and its paradoxes and its evocations. Such traits characterise many a great recording artist, which is presumably why the industry finds us, as a brand, so endearing.
What roughly is your balance of sales between digital, physical, incidentals?
We've only just begun to introduce a digital offer, so as a proportion of sales, they're minimal, with vinyl and CD (all new, we don't sell second hand) being the bulk. However, as we increase the digital offer, we expect its share of sales to rise, proportionately. Very soon, we'll also be rolling-out our Rough Trade Card, which allows customers of our London stores to automatically enjoy download copies of the physical items they purchase in-store. Our tills marry the offline purchases with the customers online account, creating a seamless multi-format, multi-channel offer. It's a world-first, developed by us, something we expect to prove very popular when we introduce into the US later in the year.
What kind of incidentals do you sell?
It varies from store to store. As for NYC, you'll soon find out, it's just a few months until we open.
What is the status of the Williamsburg branch of Rough Trade that we’ve been hearing about in "Waiting for Godot"terms?
It's been a few years since we decided W'burg was our next store location. I can verify that the spirit of 'Cripplebush' (old Brooklyn town) lives on, with swamp-like bureaucracy making settling a wearisome, crippling task. Having said that, I'm pleased to say the end is now in sight, and we expect to open toward the end of the summer, start of fall. We've done a lot of work already, but there's an intense final phase left to go. One thing that has kept us going has been the affection, excitement and support we've received by everyone who's so far been involved and party to the project, from our local Community Board, right up to the Majors office.
What will the new store feature?
The past, present and future of music retail, served up steaming hot, with an aroma of excitement that wafts across not just the East River, but across the continent.
What about food and a venue that we've been hearing about?
There are plenty of exciting features, details of which we'll release as we approach opening. Follow @roughtrade for updates.
What's your take on Williamsburg's Sound Fix closing on Record Store Day?
When you glance at the flotsam and jetsam of store closures, music or otherwise, the words of the great American essayist, John Burroughs, come to mind: "a man can fail many times, but he isn't a failure until he begins to blame somebody else." That may seem harsh, but success more often than not comes from recognising the opportunity in difficulty.
What's your advice for people looking to get into music retail?
To anyone considering a vocation in music retail, spare a moment to marvel at Pieter Bruegel's The Fall of Icarus, the subject of W.H.Auden's wonderful poem Musee des Beaux Arts. The subversive implication behind it being that if you don't like the history that's given to you, get on with creating your own.