UK RECORD STORE INDEPENDENTS: Flying the Flag for the Underground

3 May 2023

We visited three record stores across the country to spotlight and celebrate their cultural importance.

For decades now, the UK has acted like a hub for underground music — a place where subcultures, genres and movements have burgeoned and infectiously spread globally. From acid house filling abandoned warehouses with the other-worldly sounds of Roland’s TB-303, to jungle’s skittering polyrhythms catapulting listeners into the future, the UK has represented a hotbed for unbridled musical creativity and passion over the last half of a century.

Central to the UK’s rich and diverse sonic landscape are the many record stores spread throughout it, offering spaces where knowledge can be shared, gems unearthed and new musical avenues explored. Without these pivotal institutions, it’s safe to say underground music wouldn’t exist as we know it in the UK, with record stores acting as the amplifier of musical discovery.

In celebration of that, we visited three record stores from across the country that are flying the flag for their cities and the movements that inhabit them, shining a light on what makes them crucial in keeping contemporary music culture alive. 

Rubadub | 35 Howard St, Glasgow G1 4BA

The Glasgow underground music scene is one that’s remained in a state of palpable excitement for decades now, with the city representing one of the global tastemakers in electronic music. Integral to this deep appreciation for electronic music has been the city’s very own Rubadub: a physical and online store specialising in underground electronic music and specialist audio and DJ equipment. We caught up with Mark, who has worked at Rubadub for a decade in various capacities, to discuss the legendary store and its cultural significance. When asked what Rubadub represents, Mark responded: “what it represents is harder to pin down in words, but there's a strong independent and DIY element that's run through our history right up to the present day. We think — and hope — we're pretty approachable across the board, and we've never been remotely interested in perpetuating the old record store trope of being grumpy gatekeepers. In short, we like to stock, sell and distribute stuff we care about and rate, and we're all heavily invested in this culture outside of work, too”.

Since 1992, Rubadub has represent an institution of the music scene in Glasgow, inspiring generations of local DJs and counting an array of industry heavy hitters — Andrew Weatherall and Carl Craig, to name just a few — as early fans. Throughout the early 1990s, Rubadub represented one of the catalysts in igniting Glasgow’s love of techno, providing access to sought-after releases that were at the time unavailable elsewhere. On the importance of underground music in the city of Glasgow, Mark said “underground music is as essential to Glasgow as it is to any other city, and we have a seasoned history here that we're proud to have played a fairly long part in. Apart from facilitating DJs and producers through sales and advice, we try to support local initiatives that provide support and programs for people who are starting to get into this whole thing”.

For over three decades, Rubadub has remained a pillar of Glasgow’s music scene, a longevity Mark says comes down to two things: “being adaptable has been pretty important for us, but that being backed up by a shared vision of what Rubadub represents is an essential factor there. It's a funny old game — there's almost as much on-the-fly as there is pooling from 30 years’ worth of knowledge, and I'm sure anyone who's run or been involved with a specialist independent business for more than a few years would tell you the same!”. A crucial element here also comes down to the community surrounding Rubadub, with the store holding an avid following since the day it opened its doors. “Without community and punters, I dare say there's no way we'd have made it this far. We're incredibly lucky with the people we have around us and worked with in the past and present, and it's always a two-way street”, said Mark.

Beyond just a record store, Rubadub represents a go-to for DJ and production tech, something which progressed from the figures who have worked at the store, past and present, and their love of hardware. It’s not an intimidating atmosphere in the store, either, far from it, as Mark says “It's worth noting that we're in no way hardware snobs, though. Hooking someone up with their first controller, synth or drum machine is always pretty rewarding, and even though we have a wealth of expertise between us, you can't know everything about everything. So occasionally you're learning with the customer too, which is important to convey to break down the often-intimidating aspect of physical electronic instruments”. It’s an approach that translates over to searching for new music, with Mark saying “it's the same with records; when you're still getting teenagers coming in and buying some classic Kenny Larkin or Basic Channel on a recommendation, along with a bunch of new stuff, all is right with that aspect of the world”.

586 Records | 1st Floor, Atlas NE, Orbis Community, 65 High St, Gateshead NE8 2AP

586 Records carves a unique space in the landscape of Newcastle’s independent record shops, offering a haven for vinyl lovers to get lost in racks of house, disco, techno, soul and beyond. 586 stands as Gateshead’s only record store, located just past the Tyne Bridge in the Orbis Community building: a space that champions collaboration between creatives and communities. The store is a reflection of the passion and enthusiasm of its founder, Tony Daly, a key advocate for Newcastle’s underground scene for over two decades as a DJ and a promoter. When asked about his time putting on lauded techno and house nights, Tony said “I’ve had my hand in the scene here now for 23 years. I started off doing a night called Reverb where we brought Weatherall and DJ Bone to Newcastle. I then moved onto Suono which was a more laidback, Balearic type of thing. I also helped bring Greg Wilson to Newcastle, not long after he started DJing again”. It was this passion and involvement in the scene that would act as the precursor to 586, with Tony commenting “I’ve been selling records coming up to 20 years now, going to different towns and cities. As most people do when they’re DJing, going through the quid racks and finding things you can sell for a bit more”.

Prior to opening 586, personal experiences had led Tony to reflect on what he wanted out of life, commenting “It was the need and desire to make a change in my life and how I was living. I’d recently been released from prison and I needed to make some huge changes”. Faced with the option of being shoehorned into a job which he would’ve hated, Tony decided to turn his passion for collecting and selling records into a physical business, “my other option was to back into what I was doing, which was a no no, or be shoehorned into some dead-end job which I absolutely hated. My girlfriend at the time, who also worked in a record shop, said “look, why don’t you give it a go? What’s the worst that could happen?”.

Customer engagement is something integral to 586; a lot of the music I discovered when I was younger would be recommended by Tony, where he’d come over and add to the pile I’d picked out to listen to. When I mention this to Tony, he responds: “a huge part of having a record shop is putting people onto new music — it could be things they might know or you could throw them a curveball, and if they buy that curveball, even better. It’s about sharing and a record shop is the perfect place for that”. 586 sells both newly pressed vinyl and second hand, some of which is sourced from coveted names in the industry – Andy Barker of 808 State being one of them. On the enjoyment Tony gets from digging through collections or unearthing gems, he said “I’m like a kid at Christmas. I still get that feeling when you find something that you either know is worth money, or it’s something more personal and something you’ve been after for a long, long time. It happened in Carlisle a few years back, I found something I’ve been after for years and I did start filling up. It was amongst Mantuvani and Harry Secombe records and I found an album by The Durutti Column — there’s one track on it called Requiem Again which is a beautiful piece of music”.

It’s a passion that blossomed from the age of 14, where he would deliver music magazines on his local paper round, like NME, Sounds, Melody Maker and Record Mirror — “I would sit on a wall every so often and read what was forthcoming in these music magazines. Then when I was paid on a Saturday morning, I would head into Sunderland and track some records down that I’d read about. As time went on and I started DJing, I would be visiting different towns and cities and seeing what they had in available”. Upon visiting 586 for the first time, you’re instantly struck by the sheer depth and breadth of electronic music available, with racks filled with techno, house, electro, disco — and all of the niche offshoots in between — waiting to be explored. We touch upon this topic, where Tony speaks about the genres and movements instrumental to both his musical interests and the curation of 586: “my background really is acid house and the rave era. The rave era to me cuts off at like ’92. A lot of what I was selling when I first opened this shop was records that were thinned down from my collection. Then when I had the good fortune to be in touch with Andy Barker, that collection was predominantly early to mid ‘80s electro and hip hop, as well as early Hacienda days ’86 through to ’88 and ’89 and then the 1990s bleep sound. So mostly, I would say the old school sound that’s influenced my stock of records”.

Phonica Records | 51 Poland St, London W1F 7ND

It would be difficult to imagine the underground music scene of London without one of its most important institutions: Phonica. Since being founded in 2003, the Soho-based store has represented a hub for immersing yourself in the vast spectrum of electronic music, curating some of the finest techno, house, electro, disco and associated subgenres the world has to offer. In celebration of the much-loved store, I chatted with Simon Rigg, one of the store’s original founders, to discuss its journey and the importance it plays in the history of the UK’s dance music culture. On reflecting upon opening the store back in 2003, Simon said “it was a difficult time to open back in 2003 — a lot of shops were closing down and vinyl sales were on their way down. I was managing another Soho store at the time, Koobla, but I was approached by Vinyl Factory who wanted to open a vinyl store in the Poland St space. Myself, Tom Relleen and Heidi moved to open the shop and take it on the direction we wanted — to be a shop selling all kinds of dance/electronic music rather than the genre specialists which were around at the time”.

On discussing the differences between then and now, Simon touches upon the difficulty in buying records back in those formative days — “we were buying records from the back of vans and listening to records played to me over the phone so, nowadays, it’s much easier to select records”. Despite the difficulty faced in those days with the economy of vinyl being in decline, Simon credits the unique curation of Phonica as key in its survival: “I think we survived at the time as we were selling records you couldn’t find anywhere else in London: German imports, Kompakt, Playhouse, electro house then morphing into minimal and the sound of Villalobos”.

Throughout the years, Phonica has seen a number of lauded DJs and producers as regulars — Floating Points, Ben UFO and the late Andrew Weatherall, to name just a few, have all been regulars. When asked about what attracts these figures into the store, Simon touches upon the good-old enjoyment of physically listening to and digging for vinyl — “we are just providing good, new music — a one-stop shop, as it were, for all the music you want. Of course, you can buy most things digitally or you’ll be sent them, but nothing beats listening to a pile of exciting new vinyl releases in the shop or digging through the huge back catalogue to find a missing gem”. Beyond just a destination for some of the finest releases from the dance music sphere, Phonica also encompasses something much more multi-faceted, with its very own Phonica label and associated offshoots. On what kickstarted this move to starting the label in 2008, Simon’s response is one that paints a picture of a very natural step in the Phonica history: “the label started off basically because we had productions by staff such as Hector and Anthea and we really wanted to put them out, plus people were offering us tracks. It's not as though we had this idea of this is what we're going to do, it was more that we had good music and we wanted to put it out! Now, we have a number of labels that are related to the store and the staff: as well as the main Phonica label, there’s Phonica White, Special Editions, deep house label Karakul, Alex Egan’s own Utter label and Luther Vine’s Phonica AM offshoot”.

Another branch to the multifaceted nature of Phonica is its legendary in-store events, offering a space for like-minded enthusiasts to come and witness intimate sets by industry luminaries. When asked about the importance of community, Simon said “at the most basic level, we are a meeting point for all in the community, whether that be a Saturday afternoon listen or one of our in-stores. We must have had a few hundred of these over the years, with everyone from Ron Trent to Four Tet, Peggy Gou to Rival Consoles or one of our numerous, packed-out Louie Vega in-stores”. In the last two decades, the world of dance music has shifted, evolved, extended its network of subgenres and niches, and Phonica has been witness to it all. Reflecting upon this, Simon said “it’s a lot more fragmented these days and there are less of those records that crossover and unite different groups — it’s also a lot harder to predict what people buy. There’s always been a core group of music-lovers that are enthusiastic and push the scene and music forward, but their voices can be drowned out by social media and the big-name DJs that sell. Saying that, there is still so much great music coming out on a daily basis”.

writerJack Grayson
|photographerMatt Smith, Ant Tran & Will Aitchison