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Rough Trade did more than just survive the digital music revolution. They flourished. At a time when most of NYC’s veteran record shops were putting up “For Sale” signs, Rough Trade was building the biggest record store in the entire city: a 15,000 sq. foot warehouse stacked with thousands of vinyl records, books, complete with coffee shop, bar, performance space, and as of this week, a brand new Sonos-designed listening room.
What kind of mind does it take to keep a classic record shop thriving in the modern age? We sat down with Rough Trade store Co-Owner and Director, Stephen Godfroy to explore the vision that’s made an independent mainstay stronger than ever.
Take us back to the start. Where does Rough Trade begin?
Rough Trade first opened in 1976, West London, on the doorstep of punk. This small neighborhood shop soon became not just a place to purchase the latest records from the exploding DIY music scene, but also a place to hang out for the artists spearheading the groundbreaking DIY movement.
So Rough Trade grew out of London’s DIY scene. Now it’s many years later and you’ve expanded across the ocean. What motivated you to open up stateside?
The decision to open in Brooklyn was made following the success of our flagship London store, Rough Trade East – a store that overcame the odds to prove that a record shop in the age of instantaneous downloads (2007) could be successful not just as a place of exciting new music discovery and purchase, but also a place of congregation for curious minds of all ages.
Having made the model work in East London, we then looked for locations that displayed similar characteristics, e.g. a burgeoning creative arts community. One location that stood out just happened to be the other side of the Atlantic – but the challenge proved irresistible. Four long years later, Rough Trade NYC finally opened in November 2013.
How does Rough Trade’s new community in NYC compare to the established one in London?
New York music lovers are more vinyl orientated compared to those in London, where CDs still have a (surprising?) role to play. In the UK, Rough Trade has an established recommendation authority for new music, compared to New York, where people are discovering us for the first time, hence only just beginning to appreciate our forty years experience as curators. Consequently, sales driven by our edit are greater in the UK stores, in comparison to NYC, but the gap is narrowing with each passing month.
The digital revolution has upended the traditional business of selling records. How have things evolved for Rough Trade over the years?
Rough Trade stores, large or small, have always served as a meeting place for the artist community, hopefully reflecting our efforts to faithfully represent music as an art form, not a commodity, despite our obvious retail context. With this as a guiding principle, how we then develop a store as a ‚destination‘ beyond being simply a place of purchase, is something that we aim to creatively reinterpret with each new store. If possible, as with our music offer, we look to embrace emerging trends before they surface on a wider scale.
Whether that’s being one of the first (UK) record stores to introduce a cafe (2007), introducing a custom b/w photobooth (2008), or hosting intimate in-store gigs, Rough Trade stores have a ‘petri-dish’ like freedom to experiment, which complements our primary focus on championing innovative and emerging recording artists.
What separates listening to vinyl from other ways of listening?
Vinyl is arguably the definitive audio document – an enshrined, crafted moment of creative self- expression shared between artist and audience. Commanding ceremony, tactile care, the ritualized respect of the encased audio is preordained, conditioned to be loved and absorbed. Consequently, the bond forged by vinyl, between artist and listener, is regarded by many as the most trusted, fetishized, intimate music format-induced relationship there is.
Vinyl sales and interest declined for a while. Now they’re back and seemingly bigger than ever. What do you think is responsible for this sea change?
Now that it’s possible to stream the celestial jukebox for the price of two cups of coffee, music lovers, particularly digital natives, can increasingly afford more than one listening format, enjoying the best of both worlds. Given the immense value and reward vinyl provides the listener, its popularity has returned, not as a token of nostalgia, but as the most lavish, multi-sensory form of music immersion available.
What does having a space to listen out loud mean for you in the store?
To offer a Sonos listening room, in which visitors to our NYC store can sumptuously enjoy listening to the best new music on vinyl, is a dream come true. It’s a perfect encapsulation of modern, multi-format listening enjoyment, reflecting how increasing numbers of music lovers now combine the respective merits of all formats, digital and physical, harmoniously.
We’re incredibly proud, excited and humbled to have Sonos become part of our NYC store experience, further enhancing our kaleidoscopic celebration of music culture.
What’s the experience you hope everyone who visits Rough Trade takes away?
The excited joy of having encountered the future!
The Sonos listening room at Rough Trade NYC is open now for everyone to come listen. Even better, the listening room is available for booking on Airbnb – apply for the chance to live out your ultimate record store fantasy and spend a night at Rough Trade NYC.