Talking Shop: Diverse Music, Newport
Diverse – a shop, a label and a mail-order business – proves Wales has plenty of room for more than one famous record-shop institution. Garth Cartwright heads to the ’port to find out how a small indie record store became a go-to vinyl destination…
South Wales may be home to the world’s oldest record shop – Spillers of Cardiff – but Diverse Music in nearby Newport is also a truly legendary vinyl emporium. Initially opening in 1988, Diverse has gone through changes of ownership and location over its three-decade existence. Throughout, the retailer has maintained its position as not just a unique independent record shop, but also a vinyl hotspot. Co-owners Matt Jarrett and Paul Hawkins tell the story of a visionary independent record shop.
“Diverse was opened by John Richards,” says Jarrett. “Mark Southall was his trusty staff member from other shops he ran, and came with him. Paul Hawkins worked there as a Saturday boy, before leaving to live in Brighton. Kevin Donovan also worked there. I came along later on. After a decade of running Diverse, John decided he was too old to run a record shop and started a vinyl-only label… He then entrusted the shop to Mark, Kevin and a returning Paul.”
Both Sides of the Counter
“I wasn’t involved in 1988 when the shop opened,” says Hawkins. “I was 15, and still in school. But I did buy an album in the first week of the shop opening (The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues). The original owner, John, was a friend of the family. My uncle knew I was becoming a music freak, so he introduced me to John and I was delighted to find kindred spirits behind the counter in both John and Mark. They’d run a shop together and knew what they were talking about! I bought all my LPs at Diverse from then on, until I headed out of town to university. In the holidays, I’d badger John for a job, and he relented around 1995, as a part-time position came up. Three years later, John decided to move on, and sold the shop to Mark, Kevin and me!”
“Just after John left, Diverse moved to our current location on Charles Street,” adds Jarrett. “It was a bit smaller and a bit cheaper. It’s served us well since. I was a customer who started work here in 2007, primarily to run the shop, that was being slightly neglected as the mail-order side grew. I became a partner a couple of years later and now, after Mark and Kevin left, it’s just me and Paul. John then ended up selling the Diverse Vinyl label to Paul and myself, too.”
The dynamic duo ensured that Diverse operated successfully as a record shop, specialist vinyl label and mail-order outlet. By handling such operations, they’ve won Diverse an international reputation. Hawkins notes that when Diverse first shifted to larger premises in 1991 – “just in time for the Nirvana explosion!” – they stocked all formats: “Including tape packs for ravers – remember those?” and did great business. Most importantly, Diverse’s founder anticipated an impending resurgence of vinyl, “as we were still stocking LPs while other shops had dropped the format entirely. We were receiving more and more calls from out of town, fans desperate to carry on their vinyl collections. So we set up a mail-order outlet. This proved to be our trump card. What the worldwide web took away from us in terms of CD sales, it returned in spades of potential to sell vinyl all over the world. We soon became one of the largest independent retailers of vinyl in the country!”
This leads to the fascinating story of how a Newport record shop developed into a leader of the vinyl revival. “Diverse never stopped stocking vinyl, but during peak CD, the dance-music industry basically kept it alive,” says Jarrett. “At that time, people buying those white labels would ring the shop from all over the country. That led to John compiling a database and then a very basic website to make it easier to sell by mail order. That expanded to all the vinyl that was available. Even when I joined, the challenge was to dig around and find vinyl releases to add to our website. Now, it’s far more a case of deciding what not to stock. Ironically, I suppose, given the beginnings, we don’t do an awful lot of dance music anymore.”
Before the vinyl revival, Diverse experienced the boom that comes when a local music scene receives international attention. “The mid 90s were also a pretty cool time in Newport,” says Jarrett. “It was branded ‘The New Seattle’, with bands like 60ft Dolls, Dub War, Novocaine and Flyscreen flying the flag. The scene was amazing, with American bands, especially punk bands, playing TJ’s and smaller shows happening in Le Pub and local bands playing regularly in The Riverside as well as regular shows at Newport Centre. An ideal place to have a record shop, really.” Newport’s time as a rock hotspot passed, but by then, Diverse was developing into a vinyl outlier.
Licence to Thrill
“Around 2000, 2001, the market was so hungry for vinyl releases that we desperately pitched ideas to labels about what would sell on vinyl,” says Hawkins. “Our strong position in the market had led to us becoming something of a go-to place for information on the vinyl market. Before long, the idea was pitched that if the labels weren’t releasing new albums on vinyl, we could license them ourselves.”
Step in John, Diverse Vinyl’s original owner, who returned to the fold to set up Diverse Records – a vinyl-only label producing audiophile-quality LPs. John has the accolade of licensing the first-ever vinyl releases by Alison Krauss, among others. The label became a benchmark in both the quality of the music, and the vinyl it released. Diverse Vinyl was in a position to give John the heads-up about popular enquiries for vinyl, which fed ideas to Diverse Records about what to pitch for. The label has now been running for 16 years, with over 50 releases under its belt, although such is the demand to turn a profit on physical sales among record labels, it’s becoming increasingly hard to procure licences. “Whenever we approach a copyright holder these days, it’s more often that we give them the idea to press the record themselves! Consequently, our roster has become far more contemporary, and often we deal direct with an artist, looking to make vinyl to sell on tour,” says Hawkins.
Diverse Vinyl caters strongly to online orders, while the shop more reflects its proprietors’ musical tastes. “We’re Diverse by name, diverse by nature,” says Hawkins. “We’ve always been famed for stocking a range of all genres, although it’s much easier to sell what you know about, and as with many independent record shops, the stock does tend to reflect the tastes of its owners. Consequently, you’ll find plenty of quirky indie rock, noisy punk, Americana, folk and classic reissues across the board. Again, we’d love to have the space to satisfy more tastes in-store, but for the time being at least, we play to our strengths – this includes US imports for audiophiles, which has become something of a specialism for us over the last 20 years.”
“The shop is massively vinyl orientated and we stock a bit of everything,” notes Jarrett. “What Paul said, plus a lot of jazz, blues, folk, soundtracks and a bit of electronica. And a bit of reggae, funk, soul, metal, krautrock and prog, too.”
Record Store Day, both men admit, helps – but isn’t essential. “It’s more a celebration and fun day for our regular crowd, to be honest,” says Hawkins.
Like many a good independent record shop, Diverse are involved in booking and promoting live music around Newport. They also have a sense of fun that won them national attention when they issued a calendar which featured shop staff recreating classic album covers in fancy dress. “We made a Christmas card for our regulars with us recreating the cover of Blondie’s Parallel Lines,” explains Jarrett, “and it went down really well, so we decided to recreate another 11 sleeves for a calendar! Queen, The Doors, Kraftwerk, Frank Zappa, Saturday Night Fever… and we roped some customers in for Band On The Run. We thought we’d sell a few and make a bit of money for Nordoff Robbins, but Metro got hold of it, then the tabloids – and we ended up on the BBC website and on HTV Wales news.”
“The results were hysterical and terrifying in equal measure,” adds Hawkins. “The national coverage helped to sell the calendar out completely.”
For more information on Diverse Music, click here.