The Northern Irish capital has seen the slow erosion of its once plentiful record shops over the past three decades. Cara Gibney visits Strange Victory Records to meet a pair of vinyl obsessives who are reversing that trend…
It’s hard to keep them on track, Darren Smyth and Jeff Doherty. We are in Strange Victory Records, their recently unveiled, independent, much needed record shop, run with business partner and fellow music nerd, Sinead Green. The pair are planning a forthcoming Edwyn Collins in-store, and opening bundles of posters for upcoming shows that need promoting – Lankum, She Drew The Gun, Jon Spencer & The Hitmakers… As we talk, a potted history of Belfast’s record shops becomes a thread running through the conversation. “Was it Sun Records & Tapes that replaced Smyths For Records? Was Dr Robert better than Backbeat?”
Everyone over a certain age misses the plethora of indie record shops that were such a staple of their formative years. The important alternative sub-cultures and musical identities created, bands formed, albums, singles, tapes, posters, tickets, zines, and scenes… We wore our music like a badge of honour. And in Northern Ireland we had an added element to the sense of sanctuary those record shops afforded. Away from the orange and green, from the security and controls.
Fast forward a few decades and Belfast is a very different place. In so many ways for the better, but in regard to the survival of record shops, not so much. And like many other high streets, Belfast’s city centre has had a punishing last few years. Much-loved Sick Records and Head Records fell to the economic sword, which was bruising for the scene in the city, and beyond. Then, a major fire in an iconic building cordoned off the main thoroughfare of Royal Avenue for a period. But, in the midst of this, three people were plotting, refurbishing, stocking and organising. On Record Store Day 2019, Strange Victory Records popped several bottles of fizz – and to much delight, relief, DJs, tributes, music and crate digging, they opened their doors for business.
“We opened Strange Victory Records because there was an obvious gap in the market in terms of people selling new vinyl in Belfast,“ Darren states simply. “There’s been a space now for the last couple of years and we felt it was about time we stepped up and did this.” Jeff’s take is slightly different. “Darren and I have been talking for years about opening a shop, but it’s been so long, he’s been saying it’s never going to happen. He annoyed me so much that I said, ‘Right, we’re doing it’. He thought he was bluffing me, but I bluffed him. Don’t try to get into those mind games with me! Anyway, we’re getting older. If we don’t do it now, we’re never going to do it. And if somebody else had done it we’d be fucking ragin’.”
But somebody else did do it, luckily as one third of their venture. “Sinead is basically the one who organises us,” Darren concedes. “She’s got really good ideas, and this just wouldn’t have happened without Sinead. We’re a couple of grumpy old bastards, she’s the one who gets everybody geed up.”
Sinead Green is Strange Victory’s self-employed bookkeeper with a wealth of diverse studies and qualifications including sound engineering, music technology, property development, letting management, business negotiation, and more. The years working in these various fields have helped her build up skills that underpin any business. But there’s more than straight-up business acumen that matches Sinead to Strange Victory Records. When we spoke, she was at home relaxing, after DJing the night before in Belfast’s Voodoo Bar. She confesses to having, since childhood: “an encyclopedic knowledge of really crap one-hit wonders. All the shit of the day. I seem to retain the information.” Or, as Jeff puts it: “Sinead’s a music head, really knowledgeable. When she DJs, you would realise you’re listening to something like, say, Primitive Painters by Felt. She really knows her stuff.”
And Jeff would know. Originally from Derry, his music obsession started early. “Since I was a teenager in the 80s, my Saturdays would involve getting the train up from Derry to Belfast to go round record shops. There were so many of them then.” His own record shop, Dragon Records, is a well-established institution with music lovers and record collectors. Renowned for his own in-depth music knowledge, the resulting expertise is evident in the selection he offers in his shops. “You know what to buy,” says Darren, encouraging him to talk about what he brings to Strange Victory Records. “I bring years of hurt, and all the money, and supposedly my expertise in music.” When they stop laughing, he shrugs. “I’ve had a lot of retail drilled into me over the years, and music knowledge… but let’s be honest, it’s always the records that you’ve picked that are more exciting to sell. You can give yourself a wee slap on the back when they sell.”
Darren agrees. “A lot of it’s instinct, you can’t listen to every record. It’s about knowing artists, having a good ear for quality, about being tuned in I suppose. And we are, we have to be. Between the shops and everything else that we’ve done, we’ve been at this for a long time. So, if we don’t know it by now, we’re bloody idiots opening this shop.”
Darren is the man behind Strange Victory Presents, the Belfast-based promoter responsible for bringing acts to the city, ranging from Jenny Hval to Daniel Johnston, from Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings to K-X-P. “I’ve been promoting for the past 30 years,” he explains. “I’ve worked for labels and in record shops, done some radio plugging, I’ve played in a band. A bit of everything.”
He lived in various parts of Britain for 16 years before moving back home in 2000. “I started putting shows on in Belfast in 2003. There were about 100 under the name of Fortune Cookie, and I’ve put on about 250 since I changed to Strange Victory.”
Jeff isn’t content with this answer and adds an important key element to the story: “Darren is considered the person in Belfast who puts on quality acts. That’s why the shop’s called Strange Victory Records. We’ve got a name that’s long been associated with good music.”
The mix of skills, experience, contacts, tastes and personalities is a steady foundation for the shop. “Between the three of us, it works well because there’s always a swing vote,” Sinead tells us. “At any point, one of us will be the voice of reason who can weigh things up and think about what the others have said and what the others want.” However, one point of order that has never been in contention is the fact that Strange Victory Records sells vinyl.
“Jeff is the only person in town I know who never switched to CDs,” Darren points out. “Progress does not necessarily mean that things are going to get better,” Jeff responds, with an air of having discussed this before. “This is why primarily we’re selling vinyl. And it’s why I did not buy CDs, because there’s something in a record. It’s not all about listening to it, it’s also the artwork, and it’s to do with something which is tactile. People of a certain age miss that, and younger people are getting it. I know there’s a bit of a trend but it’s all finished if younger people don’t get it.”
“There’s the resurgence in vinyl sales that’s been ongoing for quite some time,” Sinead goes on to tell us. “That whole thing about vinyl, the crate digging. There are people who enjoy doing that for a sport, finding the rarest most curious thing… vinyl has more scope in terms of its look and its aesthetic. All the different colours, all the variations that people want to buy. Vinyl is collectible, I don’t really know anybody who is an avid CD collector, but I know avid vinyl collectors.”
“The music in the shop covers a broad church,” she continues. “There’s an idiosyncratic selection through Darren and Jeff’s choices. Let’s face it, what Jeff doesn’t know about vinyl isn’t worth knowing. There are a lot of curiosities and strange pieces of music that you may not necessarily see elsewhere… the choice of stock also feeds into Darren’s gigs that he books, so there’s a certain identity there. But we don’t want anybody to come to our shop and think: ‘I don’t know any of these records, I won’t go back there’. We’re here for everybody, exclusivity can work against you sometimes.”
This is an attitude rooted in the original idea of the shop. As Darren explains: “The whole shop is for people to use the space in whatever way they want. For people to tell us what to bring in. We’ve been having quite a few in-stores, from punk icon Jordan to local acts. In fact, that’s one of the highlights of running the shop, supporting local music. We have plenty more in the pipeline, that’s why we built the stage by the window, and we have the outside area, too. We’re building a hub for the music community.”
“Building a community is what it’s about for me,” Sinead points out. “People like to go to a place where there are others who know what they’re talking about, and to talk to like-minded people.” And by Darren’s measurements, it’s working. “We’re getting people in here from across the board. It’s not just boring blokes in their corduroys. Well, a few, but not all… We’re a destination to meet with people and hear about music, listen to music, talk about music, and just have a cup of tea if you don’t have anything to say.”
Where would they like to be in five years? “You remember shops that have been there for 10, or 20, or 30 years,” Jeff replies. “In five years’ time, everything will be OK. In 20 years, we’ll both be dead.” As everyone contorts in laughter, Darren manages to state: “We will.” Eventually, Jeff finishes his answer. “Actually, maybe we’ll be dead in six years. So, yeah, everything will be OK in five years. But at least we’ll die happy.”