Once, legend has it, Cambridge was a fine and plentiful land for music lovers. Its venues were spacious and numerous, and every other street was alive with record shops. You couldn’t move for them, or so the rumours say.
Times changed. One by one the majority of independent stores slipped out of the high street and into the history books. Places successful in their heyday all fell victim to similar circumstances; Andy’s, Jays and Parrot Records ceased trading long ago, and all that remains of Hot Numbers is the café that pays it tribute and a faded mural on Kingston Street.
Now, tentatively, Cambridge citizens find themselves at the start of a new day. Not one but several outlets have sprung up, seemingly out of the blue – a boom as loud as the silence that preceded it. All specialise in vinyl – a format thought extinct, that recent years have seen boldly flourish. After a decade of striking changes to the music industry, and the way we consume in general, is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
This sudden explosion of vinyl traders in the city seems to be more than just a local phenomenon; it’s becoming epidemic. National sales of vinyl exceeded one million in 2014, the first time this milestone has been hit since the nineties. The movement is fuelled not only by a nostalgia or even by a drive towards independent retailers – one suspects it runs a little deeper than that. Despite the ease with which one can socialise, shop and stream via the Internet, the one thing the information super highway hasn’t and cannot master is physical space – a real place to meet and greet, to browse and discover.
The word is community; an idea we’re drawn to all the more as it’s perceived to be disappearing. You’re never going to run into an old friend on Amazon, or stop for a spontaneous coffee on Spotify. Authenticity can be a murky concept these days, especially in pop music, and the resurgence of vinyl as a format could be read as a response.
For some, the passion never went away. “There’s a ritual involved with listening to records,” says Xavier of local psych-pop band Violet Woods. “It’s not a passive experience. You open the sleeve, put the record on, sit down and look at the sleeve (which in itself is a beautiful object). Music on digital medium is convenient, but you lose all these aspects of engaging with music.”
Relevant Records were the first to open their doors here in Cambridge, and the masses responded with unbridled enthusiasm. Twitter was ablaze in the weeks preceding – as good a sign as any quite how deeply the city has been missing something like this. Thankfully, they delivered.
“From how we’ve been received as a whole, I think the people of Mill Road have been really wanting somewhere to hang out, listen to music and drink coffee for some time – that’s one of the most recurring sentences I’m hearing,” says Angie, one half of the husband-wife team that runs Relevant. “So far I haven’t heard anything negative – only really, really positive things.”
As well as an ample supply of eclectic releases, living on the floor above is a warm and friendly café space. Their tagline and ethos is ‘records and recuperation’; and where better to meet like-minded audiophiles for a chat than in a record shop? If you’re a Romsey resident, chances are you’ve popped in already. With locally sourced foodstuffs and regular live events on the horizon, they’ve managed to find the perfect balance of social and commercial – a great start.
To the public the abundance of new outlets may seem sudden, but behind the scenes it’s a different story. Some have been in the process for a very long time. Lost in Vinyl founder Rob echoes a theme we’ve heard from everyone about their respective projects.
‘You’re never going to run into an old friend on Amazon, or stop for a spontaneous coffee on Spotify’
“It’s always been something of an ambition to open my own shop, I just never thought it’d be feasible. Vinyl is making a real comeback over the last few years, and for enthusiasts like myself it never went away…”
The rise of vinyl as a popular medium isn’t the driving factor, it’s the climate that makes long nurtured dreams possible. “I don’t think there’s one specific thing that’s led to such a resurgence,” he continues. “I started Lost in Vinyl just under two years ago, primarily as an online store… A year or so ago, one of our customers sent an email saying ‘Thanks so much for the great service! I must pop down to your shop one day’. That kind of planted the seed for taking it to the next level.”
Based in Magdalene Street, at the time of going to press preparations were still underway for the grand opening. “I think our unique selling point is that we’ve placed ourselves in the heart of the city, providing a range of harder to find releases that appeal to the enthusiasts out there.”
With a background opening stores for both HMV and Virgin, Lost in Vinyl are no strangers to retail. If you’re looking for that rare special edition, Lost in Vinyl will be the place.
And what of the future? At this stage, it’s all to play for. A third shop, Legion, was said to be opening in addition to the above – perhaps by the time you read this, there’ll be more news.
Speaking to music and arts blog Slate The Disco, broadcaster and writer Rich Hughes summarised the situation best. “There’s a certain trepidation when something you’ve craved for so long suddenly becomes available. In the case of record shops in Cambridge, since the death of most of them I’ve been waiting, and praying, for someone to take a chance…
“Could we finally have a meeting place for us like-minded individuals, those of us who are only happy when strolling the streets with a bag full of new musical goodness, racing home to play them? Time will tell, and I wish them lots of luck. It is, most definitely, a start.”