We visited Brighton’s Resident Music store

In a city not short of record shops, Resident Music’s owners have made theirs a home-from-home for customers. Wesley Doyle settles in…

Talking Shop: Resident Music, Brighton

It’s an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in mid-April and there’s something of a carnival atmosphere to be found around Kensington Gardens in the North Laine area of Brighton. A queue of people line the street, chattering excitedly. Music – live and played by a DJ – is all around, while nearby cafes have opened early and set about serving the 300 or so extra customers they’ve found on their doorstep. To the uninitiated, it may seem as if they’ve stumbled upon an urban music festival. But for those in the know, this vibrant celebration of all things musical is 2018’s Record Store Day, Resident Music-style.

Talking Shop: Resident Music, Brighton

As exciting as this all sounds – and this scenario was repeated in record shops nationwide – it won’t have featured in any mainstream coverage of this year’s event. Much of the attention focused on the limited nature of the RSD releases and the likelihood of them ending up on eBay or Discogs. For the owners of Resident, who pride themselves on making the day special for their customers, it’s a bit disappointing. “It’s really important for people to remember it’s not just about the product,” says Natasha Youngs, Resident co-founder along with Derry Watkins. “The original ethos of making your local record shop part of the community and getting people through the door seems to have disappeared, as the press just want to pick up on the novelty of the releases. I think that’s a real shame, as there are some amazing local stories that come out of participating shops, but they don’t end up getting covered.”

Community is an important concept to Youngs and Watkins and it crops up several times in conversation. They met in 2000 when they were both working for Virgin Our Price; their ideas about what made a good record shop were shaped, for better or for worse, by their experiences – at first on the high street, and then later, at head office. “We took a lot from the earlier days of Our Price,” says Watkins. “Especially in terms of how the shops would reflect what was going on around them. A lot of indie shops at the time seemed to have stopped caring about their customers and had basically become boys’ clubs. A good Our Price was almost like an indie when it was allowed to localise itself.”

Youngs’ experience of late-90s record shopping in independent stores bears this out. “They could be quite intimidating environments,” she says. “I never found anywhere I felt welcome, and it didn’t need to be like that.”

When the pair found themselves “involved in a particularly depressing project”, they decided to strike out on their own. “We were putting a lot of energy into something we didn’t believe in,” says Watkins, “and we thought, ‘why don’t we just do this ourselves?’.”

Setting up Home

That was in 2004: a time when music retail was in flux, particularly on the high street, and Youngs and Watkins experienced it all first-hand.

Talking Shop: Resident Music, Brighton

“I can’t even remember how many people literally laughed in our face,” says Youngs. “Our friends thought we were insane to do it, as everything you read was how the record shop was no more and downloads were the future. Even Our Price were swapping out music for phones at the time.”

Despite incredulity from their soon-to-be former employers (“I always said that there would still be independent record shops long after the chains had gone,” says Watkins, “I was definitely laughed at for that one”), they started to put things in place in preparation for launching their own shop. “Getting finance was really difficult,” says Youngs.

“We had to sell a lot of our stuff, including our flat! Derry took redundancy in one of the many restructurings at Virgin Our Price and we pooled as much as we could before we finally found a sympathetic business manager who got what we were doing.”

With a business plan and finance in place, the pair set about finding a shop in their chosen location. “We always felt that you should open a store where you live,” says Watkins. “The best record shops reflect the town or city they’re in, and it makes a massive difference if you feel connected to a place and to what’s going on there.”

Vinyl Stronghold

However, where they live happens to be Brighton, a city renowned for its concentration of record shops (Watkins estimates there were around 20 chain and indie shops in the city in 2004, when they launched Resident). Vinyl sales were at an all-time low (less than 5% of total music sales) and CDs were at a never-to-be-reached-again peak. With this in mind, they started by stocking only CDs and set about finding their place in an already crowded market.

Talking Shop: Resident Music, Brighton

“We felt that most of the other shops were quite niche,” says Watkins. “And we wanted to appeal to people like us who weren’t being catered for elsewhere. It wasn’t about a particular type of music; it was more about people who were into music but felt intimidated by other places.”
While the duo were happy to be the go-to place in Brighton for the CD enthusiast, even Resident wasn’t immune from the return of vinyl.

“Vinyl was really well catered for in Brighton, but more and more people started asking for it and, eventually, we started stocking a few bits in a box on the counter,” says Youngs, “which became another box and then another and another. At the time, the shop was half the size it is now, and we were still stocking a lot of CDs while trying to squish the vinyl in. People were crawling around on the floor trying to buy records!”

With Record Store Day increasing demand further, and with the small shop at breaking point in 2015, they took the plunge and leased the adjoining property, taking down the dividing wall and creating the Resident that people know today. It proved to be a good business move, as vinyl now accounts for 70% of their over-the-counter sales and 95% of their online trade. Despite its near-extinction, Watkins was always sanguine about vinyl’s survival.

“Vinyl disappearing was led by developments in hardware,” he says, “and after a while, major labels didn’t want it anymore, so the pressings just got worse and worse.”

“It seemed as if every album I bought was more like a flexidisc than an album! In the end, I gave up and thought, ‘I can’t buy these’. It’s great that it’s back as a viable format, and I can’t see it ever dying now. People just hold more affection for vinyl than any other format.”

Rack ‘n’ Roll

Resident’s regular in-store performances are another string to their bow. Again, in a city where live music is thriving, the pair had to find their own way of doing things. “Brighton’s got such a huge music scene, so doing in-stores can be quite difficult, as you don’t want to be treading on local promoters’ toes,” says Youngs. “We try to be really careful about it and make sure that we do something different.”

Talking Shop: Resident Music, Brighton

Despite having big names such as The xx, Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling play the shop, the pair maintain the best in-stores are the ones where the artist embraces the shop as a performance space. “I remember when Jeremy Warmsley played in the shop,” says Watkins. “He turned up early, went over to [retro bric-a-brac shop] Snoopers Paradise and bought a couple of old instruments and used them in his set.”

The Dresden Dolls also made an impression. “They were playing later that night at [local venue] The Concorde, so for the in-store, they played totally acoustically and did only cover versions, so their audience wouldn’t hear anything they were going to play later.”

For Youngs, return visits from The Maccabees, Field Music and Micah P Hinson show what can be achieved when you build a relationship with an act.

“I also loved last year’s This Is The Kit in-store, they embraced the customers and talked to everyone in a really lovely way. Or The Duke Spirit; Liela performed in the middle of the shop and got everyone to stand around her. Things like that are unique events for the customer, which is ultimately what a record shop should be providing if they’re getting it right.”

And if the dedication of their customers is anything to go by, Resident are definitely doing that. Back to Record Store Day, and their queue for Saturday morning starts at 5:30am the day before – prior to opening, they find 300 people queuing outside.

“We have a hardcore of half-a-dozen people who compete with each other to be the first in the queue,” says Youngs. “But most people are a bit more sensible now and realise that they don’t need to queue overnight to get what they want. We order a lot of stock, so we recommend people spread it out over the day. Don’t stress… come later in the afternoon, enjoy some music and make a day of it.”

As the oft-repeated saying goes, every day should be Record Store Day – a phrase Youngs and Watkins are more aware of than most people, since not only are they business partners, they’re also a married couple. “It can be difficult for it not to take over your life,” says Watkins, “particularly when you’re working in a business that involves something you’re both passionate about. It can be a struggle to switch off at times, but ultimately, it makes the business stronger.”

The lines between work and home life can blur in other ways, too, particularly as Youngs is responsible for the Resident aesthetic. “I’m a bit of clean freak and I found record shops generally really dirty and scummy. Sorry! I’m not a big fan of the old idea of cratedigging and getting really dusty and dirty with grit under your nails. It’s not really me!”

Work-Life Balance

The big wicker chair where customers could sit while listening to music may be gone, but there’s still a definite homely vibe to the shop, with its clean lines and dark wooden floors giving the impression of being in someone’s living room.

“We were saying the other day that our house is starting to look like the shop,” laughs Youngs. “The light fittings are ones we really wanted at home but didn’t have the space, so they ended up in the shop. We have to be really careful!”

With the Resident brand so strong, and the current shop clearly a proven success, surely the next step for the duo is to open a store in a new location?

“It’s been talked about over the years,” Watkins concludes. “But we’ve always resisted it. Not just because it’s so expensive to open a record shop, but because we wouldn’t be living in the area. To provide the same service somewhere else would be really difficult, we wouldn’t know what we were doing in the way that we do in Brighton. We see our customers out all the time, everywhere we go. We’re part of the community here.”

Talking Shop: Resident Music, Brighton
Talking Shop: Resident Music, Brighton
Talking Shop: Resident Music, Brighton

The Big Three
Three albums Resident’s customers love

For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)
“This showed us that if you really get behind a record early on people will respond to it,” says Watkins. “We were at one of his first UK shows (at Brighton’s Great Escape Festival in 2008), everyone was already singing the songs and the record hadn’t even come out in the UK yet. And people responded to it more than anything ever, and it became a defining record for the shop.”

Slave Ambient (2011)
“The War On Drugs were a band that changed things for us with regards to the perception of the shop,” says Youngs. “We really pushed their first album and some customers were surprised that we’d gone down that route, but we sold a lot of copies. It was Slave Ambient that people really picked up on, though. I loved how it made the shop feel when we played it, and it was amazing live, too.”

Skeleton Tree (2016)
Abattoir Blues came out when we opened in 2004,” says Watkins, “and he’s come in over the years… In 2013, we’d made Matthew E White’s Big Inner our Album Of The Year when Push The Sky Away had just come out; Cave was in the shop. He said: ‘Who the fuck is Matthew E White?’. He was fine though, and bought a copy!”