My first real job in technology was at a small record label called Bright Star Records at the time when Napster was causing irreparable damage to the record industry by giving away music to the masses, for free. The effect of this was devastating. Music suddenly became valueless, in monetary terms at least. The business models that music had relied on to monetise its output disappeared, almost overnight. And I was sat in a small room in Belfast wondering just what the hell to do with these new things called mp3s. We had albums to sell, artists to promote, studio bills to pay, tours to cough up for. If we couldn’t sell the few thousands records that were required to pay for these essential things, surely we had no future?
And so I had a meeting with the management, where I put it to them that we could simply give in and give the music away. Sure we’d need to figure out how to make money in other ways, but Napster was a fait accompli. There was no point in fighting it, it was only going to get worse. Soon there would be 30 Napsters, they would spring up quicker than governments, Metallica or anybody else who was against it could shut them down. The people had spoken, they were willing to ‘steal’ music, and no-one had any real power to stop them.
In short it didn’t happen, we never made a decision but within weeks of release all of our music was available on Napster. The decision was made for us, the people made it. They became their own distributor, the power was in their hands. The revenue stream of selling records all but evaporated. I resigned, not because of this, but because I wanted to look at other things. There was a technical revolution starting to get into swing, and I wanted to be part of it, not against it. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I sure as hell knew that doing nothing was not an option. The record label lasted a year. I guess no-one ever decided how to do things differently?
Fast forward a few years and I had embedded myself in technology to some degree. I’d got to know software and a little bit about business. A friend was quite literally given a small record record shop in Belfast over a few pints of Guinness. Backbeat Records had been around for about 10 years. In its early days it had thrived, but by the end of its decade it was in steep decline, barely making enough money to pay the bills and buy the proprietor a couple of pints that evening. And anyway Paddy had had enough. He was heading to Berlin and a rollercoaster life with the ex dancer from Hawkwind. You couldn’t make it up.
Anyhow my friend asked me could I help out, and I agreed. It seemed like a great challenge. Record shops were over. Everything that had made them once the hub of teenage rites of passage and the home of people who hadn’t really grown up was gone. iTunes was in their pockets. The Pirate Bay was giving away everything a record shop could hope to sell. CDs were worthless. The last hope was vinyl, the beautiful old relics of a bygone age, but people still loved them. They were the antiques of music. Surely we could make some money on selling those?
In my head, this was easy. We had 2000 odd stock items int he shop. There was money there. Now most of them no-one would want, but there were some gems in there. Once we had gotten the dead rat out of the place (don’t ask!) we would be ready to roll.
And so we started marketing with no budget whatsoever, put a website together, got the social profiles on the go (including MySpace to give you an idea of the era, actually it’s still up there at http://www.myspace.com/backbeatbelfast) We held gigs in the shop on a Saturday afternoon (see here for one of those too! http://www.myspace.com/video/vid/37654073).
We printed up some cheap flyers. We started hooking some things on eBay. We bought the Record Collectors guide and started learning about what was good and bad in collectible records.
Within a few weeks it started to work. People became aware of the pokey little record shop in the old arcade that looked like something from the 1970s. They didn’t exactly come in their droves you understand, but we had some better days. A salary could be paid, meagre granted, but it was progress. Maybe there was hope after all?
To bring things full circle my ex-boss from the record label heard about the shop and donated a huge amount of CDs and promos to the cause. We had some great stuff to sell! Then a BBC DJ Joe Lindsay came in with a ton of stuff to donate also. There was a community out there who though that saving this shop was as important as we did. Together we could fight the tide we could make this a success against the odds. It was exciting, and felt like rebellion which was even better.
Being a tech head, I was hyper aware that if we really wanted to take things to the next level we would need to be selling online. E-commerce was something I was very very familiar with and comfortable with and I started looking into options. Ebay was okay, but there was a lot of competition on there. We needed to be selling direct to the people in our locality. I doubt the term hyperlocal had been invented then, but that was the next step in my head.
We had an old PC in the shop, a barcode scanner and an internet connection. I quickly found some very cheap software for cataloging books that also worked perfectly for records. And so we started making an inventory of what we had. In my head the ultimate aim was to see a number, how much value did we have in the shop? No-one knew of course, we weren’t ‘real’ retailers in a way and so hadn’t began to consider things like gross margin. We were recording sales on a spreadsheet and totalling stuff. For my friend that was techy, that was good enough in many ways. After all he had loads more stuff to do. Re-arranging shelves, talking to customers, keeping an eye out for dead rats (again, don’t ask.) And so it was left to me to get the technology in order.
Of course at the heart of this there were a few problems that were difficult to solve. At the time I was a director of our web business, No More Art, and a founder / director of the Oh Yeah Music Centre, a charity project set up in Belfast to support local musicians in Belfast with the guys from Snow Patrol. Time poor wasn’t the word, time bankrupt would have been closer to the truth.
Also it quickly became clear that a record shop’s inventory wasn’t exactly easy to control. Much of the time there was only one of everything and this presented a very practical problem. What if Robert sold it in the shop and then someone bought it online? It wasn’t like we could just order another hyper-rare Black Sabbath vinyl in mint condition! We needed a way of making sure that when something was sold, it stayed sold both in the shop and on the website.
With budgets for anything in the shop still being non-existant I started looking at off-the-shelf e-commerce systems like Magento. In the other business we had the servers to host something, so much of what we needed already existing in one form or another. Or at least so I thought.
After many evenings and weekends scratching my head, trawling the internet, talking to other tech heads I was getting nowhere. And anyhow even when I had got the stage where something looked like it might give us what we needed, the week in between had seen a big change in inventory! Things had been bought in, things had been sold out. And this wasn’t something we could stop from happening for any length of time or we wouldn’t be able to pay the bills. Nightmare!
What we needed was a system that allowed us to fully integrate the shop’s inventory with that of the webstore, and to automatically remove items from sale in real-time (or as close as possible) so as not to create a logistical nightmare. And in order to keep the shop going we HAD to start selling online, so there was no other option.
We looked high and low, rang ePOS providers, range e-commerce providers (yes kids in the old days we still used phones) but hit a blank every time. There were systems available, but the 15K that would be required in order to get one was never going to be an option for this business. And so largely, we did nothing. I pissed around and wasted time with e-commerce installs while Robert got on with running the shop and trying to keep the doors open. Over time, the task became too great and the shop was again in steep decline. There were further donations from great folk like the DJ David Holmes and Small Town America Records in Derry but by then the writing was on the wall for Backbeat. Saving a record shop was not as easy as I’d imagined. In the end the shop was sold on for a very meagre sum to the next brave soul who was going to try to reverse the trend. Unfortunately, he never did either.
In the midst of all this my colleagues and I in the web business had started to think about the problem. How many other shops had this issue? How many weren’t selling online at all? How could we solve this? In the end the answer seemed simple.
We would create software for all the parts in the chain, ePOS, webstore, mobile and we would use the power of the cloud to host and store all of the data. Inventory problems would be a thing of the past. Multi-channel selling (as it’s now known) would be possible. Independent shops would have the technology to compete with the bigger guys. Oh, and the rip-off of ePOS and webstores had to end. If we could create this system and a business model that would allow it to be affordable to the Backbeats of the world.
Last week at AirPOS we released the system that Backbeat Records had been looking for. We hope that it will be the Napster of the retail world, we hope that it will obliterate the culture that says software needs to cost a fortune in retail. We hope it will make the call out fees, the maintenance contracts, the rip off installs and the sheer mystery of retailing online a thing of the past. And all for under £100 per month. Just like Napster, we’re putting the choice and the power into your hands. We hope you’ll use it.
Now maybe we’ll go see if that old unit in the 1970s arcade is still empty and have one last go at resurrecting the dead?
Oh wait, it’s Independence Day not Easter.