Interview: Phonica Records
A version of this interview originally appeared on Coggles.com in November 2012.
Soho record shop Phonica has been dedicated to unearthing the best and most forward-thinking electronic music for nine years. It's the first place that DJs dig for the latest dancefloor cuts before their weekend gigs, and its discerning reputation has helped expand the brand into a clutch of labels and an occasional party. We talk to Phonica manager Simon Rigg, one of the Soho record shop’s founding members, about vinyl sales, their ninth birthday and the sounds of now.
Phonica turns nine this month: at a time when more record shops are closing than opening, how has yours weathered the storm? It’s adapting to the times and noticing when a new sound comes along. You look at the shops that have closed down in the past 10 years and a lot of them didn’t diversify. Music genres fade in and out of popularity very fast and if you don’t acclimatise, you’ll struggle. We wanted to have all good electronic dance music of all genres in one place. I think we were the last record shop to open during that time [in 2003], because record shops were a dying breed.
Have things changed since then? Can a record shop survive in this day and age? Phonica has shown that it can. Even a new shop such as Kristina Records [a record shop that opened in Stoke Newington, northeast London last year] has showed how to do it right. There are enough young people who still want to have good records every week, whether that’s lavishly packaged collectable vinyl or vinyl-only releases to spice up their sets. I still think you need to go into a record shop to find interesting music because most of the digital stuff out there is pretty limited.
In an interview with east London club Dalston Superstore, you said that record shops are even more important today because they are “real world social spaces”. What did you mean by that? I think we have an important role in building a community, especially as, for many, purchasing and discovering new music is something you do at home, on a computer on your own. It never used to be like that. Phonica is at its best on a Friday afternoon, when all our regulars come down, or on a Saturday when a lot of the DJs playing that weekend in London visit the shop. People bump into one another or organise to meet in the shop and interact with each other. Our in-stores also help with that atmosphere too. They let people know that we’re not just here to sell records, we’re also here if you want come down and listen to good music.
For many people, walking into a record shop and asking to listen to records can be quite an intimidating experience. How does Phonica counteract that?When we opened, we were conscious that we didn’t want to be like that. We have records behind the counter but everything we sell is also in the racks so you can serve yourself. It’s not as though you’re relying on a member of staff – you can go on YouTube and listen to it on your phone before you buy. I also wanted Phonica to be a warm environment, like a lounge. We have a three-piece, a sofa and a lampshade, which you would have never found in record shops before.
How do you react to the incredibly fast-paced nature of electronic music? We move with it. When I buy stuff, it’s according to what myself and the staff think is good, new and exciting – and also what people buy. From the 500 records I am offered every week, we’ll stock 120 of them, so they’ve passed some kind of quality threshold to get on our shelves. But our customers move fast too: if a label has got to their fifth release and they’re churning out the same stuff, they won’t buy it anymore. Our customers are always looking for the next interesting genre of music, label, artist or producer. So, with short runs on vinyl, we have to go out there and grab all the copies we can so we’ll have them to sell.
Despite record shops closing, the vinyl sales are supposedly rising. Have you noticed this? It’s the question I’ve been asked most in the last nine years. People have come from Brazil and China to interview us about it - even the BBC came and did a report in here about increasing sales, but our sales have remained static since we opened. Vinyl isn’t thriving again, if you compare it to what it was like before. What is happening, though, which is exciting, is that vinyl is picking up new, young customers.
Obviously what Phonica sells is imperative to its popularity. What music are you best known for representing? When we opened we became famous for electro-house and we were stocking a lot of German releases from Kompakt and the Get Physical labels, which no one was doing at the time. And afterwards we became known as the “minimal” shop, for stocking music by Ricardo Villalobos and Luciano. Today, our main sellers are house, techno, disco edits and the dubstep-techno hybrid that’s doing so well at the moment, but we also cover funk, soul, reggae, electronica and more leftfield releases.
What labels and sounds have caught your attention this year? Other than the quirky house of Brooklyn-based label L.I.E.S., there hasn’t really been a dominant new sound or scene this year, which is good. A lot of German labels have subsided and the interesting music is coming from the UK again, as well as the US and new places that we haven’t heard from before, such as Russia and its close neighbours, Ukraine, led by the Vakula label. There’s also been a resurgence of techno with the UK’s own Regis and Surgeon enjoying critical acclaim.
What’s exciting about UK music, in particular? Producers like Bicep and Citizen, as well as floorfilling, bass-heavy house anthems from Julio Bashmore and the Futureboogie label, are selling by the bucket load. But what have also flourished are indescribable records from around the world that exist on the fringes of traditional genres like house, techno, electronica, disco, bass and even the remnants of dubstep. These are records that would never appear in a Beatport ‘Top 10’ chart, and are being released by small labels like Trilogy Tapes, Mathematics, Dixon Avenue Basement Jams, Kontra Musik, DJ Sotofett's Sex Tags Mania, Blackest Ever Black and Kyle Hall’s Wild Oats. Definitely ones to watch out for.
Bicep headlined your ninth birthday party at XOYO. What’s special about them? They are the flavour of the month but they’re also really good DJs combining new productions with a detailed knowledge of classic house music. They really are the sound of now – which, ironically, is the sound of ’90s house. Everything is on a 15-year cycle. It’s the return of speed garage next.
During Phonica’s nine years, what has been your most memorable moment so far? There have been so many, from the early days when it was myself, [Radio 1 DJ] Heidi and Tom Relleen running the shop to in-store sets from Richie Hawtin and the Minus crew, Carl Craig and Tensnake. We also had an in-store performance from The Hackney Colliery Band one year, who led everyone out of the shop in a procession to Carnaby Street and back. My favourite in-store was from Four Tet, three and a half hours, a great atmosphere and steamed-up windows! Record Store Day has also been a constant favourite: last year was our busiest day ever, sales-wise and shop-wise. We had DJs and live acts playing all day from 9am till 9pm and it’s great that people come and support their local record shop.