Talking Shop: Drift, Totnes
Drift Record Shop, in the Devon market town of Totnes, has launched its own magazine and festival without abandoning its ethos of supporting emerging acts. Gary Walker finds out more…
When Rupert Morrison took up a job at the tiny World Video & Music shop in the beautiful Devon town of Totnes, he surely can’t have envisaged where it would lead him. Two decades later, he’s at the helm of one of the UK’s most pioneering independent record shops, championing vinyl releases from some of the world’s brightest unheralded talents. Drift Record Shop even has its own music festival and a free newspaper.
Now in its second home in this alternative-spirited market town at the mouth of the River Dart, Drift is a record shop that would grace any of the nation’s major cities. “I started working at World Music & Video when I was about 16,” recalls Rupert. “A few years later, around the turn of the century, when I was about 19 and at art college, my parents had some redundancy money and were looking to invest in something. I’d been offered the shop by the previous owners, but I wasn’t in a position to buy it. My folks asked if they were still interested…
“We got the shop and I realised fairly quickly that calling a shop World Music & Video limited what we could do, and people didn’t realise it was a record shop. So we rebranded as Drift, because I was running the Drift record label and that gave it a spiritual home.
“It was a shop about the size of a living room. One of the first big successes for us was the Buena Vista Social Club album… it just resonated so perfectly with the audience we had.
“At the time, we sold a handful of CDs a week and couldn’t really get hold of vinyl – there wasn’t a huge amount of new vinyl being pressed, but we sold shoeboxes full of Buena Vista Social Club for a while. I’d be fascinated if someone could tell us what kind of numbers we did on that record. That was a big ‘the system works’ moment.”
Six years ago, the store moved from its humble, somewhat pokey confines to a larger store at the top of the town’s steep, quirky high street. Today, Drift is one of the most handsome record shops in the UK. Its elegant, black-painted front with gold logo and floor-to-ceiling windows enclose a double corner-unit shop, stacked with a lovingly curated, constantly updated selection of new releases and infused with the heady aroma of fresh coffee from its in-house cafe.
“People did such damage to the reputation of record shops for decades that people are afraid to go into them, they’re intimidated. so the first thing is, welcome people in – make sure they feel as if they’re being attended to” – Rupert Morrison
“We’d been looking to move for ages,” says Rupert. “We got lucky in identifying the move towards vinyl. It was something we’d always been trying to stock more of, but we were able to show labels and distributors we were pretty committed to it, and off the back of that, we were able to stock more and more. Finally, the shop space came up and we went for it two-footed.
“In terms of ethos, we only have a couple. Firstly, people did such damage to the reputation of record shops for decades that people are afraid to go into them, they’re intimidated. So the first thing is, ‘Don’t be a dick’, welcome people in and make sure they feel as if they’re being attended to and their custom is appreciated.
“In terms of curating the shop, it’s just a rolling schedule. Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens was our record of the year last year, and it’s still just a breathtaking, extraordinary listen, but I can’t stock it all the time. I’m sat here at the moment with invoices in front of me for Mark Lanegan, The Raincoats reissue, Blondie, At The Drive-In, the Nick Cave reissues, mountains of Slowdive, Mac DeMarco… we want to support our friends at labels, music makers, distributors, we want to listen to everything and make sure we’re giving a damn good boost to the work they’re doing and get the music out there.”
Indeed, the proportion of Drift’s stock that’s made up of new releases is striking. While Beatles, Stones, Dylan and Bowie reissues and large second-hand sections are many shops’ necessary bread and butter, Rupert and the team have bravely filled their racks with albums by emerging bands and cult heroes. This is an indie paradise in all senses of the term and on our visit, releases by Thundercat, Dirty Projectors, Nadia Reid, Father John Misty, British Sea Power and Ty Segall take pride of place on the display units. In a town with a population of only 8,000, that could be considered a risky strategy, but it’s paid off for Drift.
“Being passionate about it and revolving through stuff is important to us,” says Rupert, whose own lightbulb moment came when he first heard Nirvana’s Nevermind, aged 11. “Every time you come into the shop it looks different – and that’s the aim. People’s awareness, particularly in the culture post 6 Music not going out of business… people are into listening to new things, it feels like a positive time. A part of the business model is collectors and fetish… would we have sold as many copies of the Slowdive album if it wasn’t on a limited silver pressing? Or sold hundreds of the Radiohead [OK Computer reissue] record in 39 minutes, if it hadn’t been a limited blue-vinyl pressing? We could have sold 10 times what we did. It’s not something I’m particularly supportive of, it’s part of that fetish culture, but it keeps us in business and means we get to buy in a bunch of Doug Tuttle’s record, which is very good.
“We go as deep as we can while trying to stay informed on stuff. A central ground of interesting, progressive music-makers seems to be where we lie.”
“One of the most disheartening Record store day things for me was when one of the guys who’d been in the queue and picked up everything he was after, got to the counter and said, ‘Thanks, great… see you next year!’” – Rupert Morrison
Record Store Day 2017 was the busiest day in Drift’s history, although Rupert has mixed feelings about the direction the event has taken and questions how much it supports emerging artists in need of publicity.
“It was bonkers,” he says of the shop’s busiest day yet. “We didn’t put on any events this year, because we wanted to focus on the best possible shopping experience. We got more people than ever through the door. We traded about 30 per cent up; the online trade on Friday night was about 45 per cent up on last year, which was already the best-ever day we’d done.
“In terms of its ability to generate money, as long as you reinvest it in stuff that’s cool, I’m really into it, but Record Store Day in general for me has lost its sparkle. It’s become too general and it’s catering for too many people. The more shops you get in, the more it’s dulled down. The Danny Brown release [Ain’t It Funny] was one of the best releases, but I think I’ve still got a copy left, yet the David Bowie releases… it’s catering to the biggest possible audience, and it’s great to have the BBC as a partner because of the coverage, but the amount of times they were talking about something really interesting, or progressive young music-makers – someone like Rose Dougall and Toy doing something together, or The Proper Ornaments reissues… that would be great. Even Sun Ra, Priests or Loop, all these really interesting out-there reissues, but it’s kind of the same-old, same-old.
“I don’t want to get too stuck up and say Record Shop Day should just be for pompous old record-store twats, but I think it’s missing a trick. One of the most disheartening things for me was quite early on, one of the guys who’d been in the queue and picked up everything he was after, got to the counter and said, ‘Thanks, great… see you next year!’.
“There’s nothing less charming than that, ‘support a local indie record shop’ – as if we’re a charity – but if you just turn up once a year and buy everything else wherever you buy it, we won’t be here. There won’t be a Record Store Day and there won’t be Father John Misty deluxe limited editions and Dirty Projectors and all these amazing records we support through various cycles, before they become the Elbow people are interested in buying.”
The shop’s success has also given birth to the passionately written and authoritative free newspaper Deluxe, an enthusiastic mouthpiece for new bands and indie record stores. “We cap the adverts and keep it very specific to our indie friends,” says Rupert. “It’s a nice opportunity to talk to music-makers, artists, record-shop owners and record buyers, but it’s always very specifically about record shops. What it highlights is that record shops are very important to people. They’re the start of the journey and without them, lots of people would be in a very different place in their life – although probably better off.”
Sea Change Festival, now in its second year, is another offspring of the Drift family, transforming Totnes into an alternative-music hotbed across several venues on August Bank Holiday weekend. The 2017 edition features a line-up including Temples, Blanck Mass, Gold Panda, Ryley Walker and Aldous Harding.
“We’re very fond of Totnes,” says Rupert, “but I came from spending a chunk of time in London, where I saw bands every night and felt very much part of the music scene, helping out with labels… To come here and there be absolutely nothing, I found it a bit stark. We started putting on shows, like Hiss Golden Messenger and William Tyler. William and [Hiss Golden Messenger mainman] Michael Taylor were touring together and stayed at my parents’ house and my dad bent their ear about the Civil War all night…
“We put on Date Palms, Black Twig Pickers, Steve Dunn and all these people before they’d really popped, and we’d get really shitty attendances… Then we did a show for Record Store Day, where we reached out to Ninja Tune and did a dual party, and we sold 300 tickets without announcing who it was – and I was like, ‘Oh right, it’s spectacle, that’s what people need’. I realised it needs something much bigger to get people to come along. We ran the first festival and luckily sold out, and this year, the tickets are selling twice as fast, which is great.”
Returning to Drift, we ask what Rupert attributes the recent vinyl boom and his store’s growing success to.
“There are a bunch of reasons why people have got into buying vinyl. There’s fetish culture, people wanting the limited elements… with the At The Drive-In record, it seems almost everyone who’s bought it has bought the purple copy as well as the CD or a black-vinyl copy; I think a lot of people are buying these limited pressings and not necessarily playing them. I find it frustrating – records are made to be heard – but it’s a structure that’s still enabling labels to release music. If people are listening on Spotify and not listening to the vinyl, then I guess it isn’t any of my business. I’d love to think it’s just because vinyl’s fucking cool and sounds better, but I suppose it’s a rich tapestry of reasons…”