Jude and Nick Clarke.

Rhythm Online are husband and wife Nick and Jude Clarke. From their humble beginnings as a market stall in the early 80’s, they developed into a typed catalogue and are now a burgeoning online website. Different from your usual online shop, there’s a DIY, lo-fi aesthetic to its look, recreating the feel of those record shops we all know and love. Their pages mimic the act of flicking through record racks in your lunch hour.

As Record Store Day becomes a bigger and bigger event, it’s perhaps worth noting that Rhythm Online have been snubbed from participating: they don’t have a physical shop and therefore don’t count. This is very short sighted. If Record Store Day was to champion something, it should be to help promote the independent, DIY sellers who are struggling to make an impact in this global marketplace, regardless of appearance. Popping to their home in Catherine Street to pick up my records I get treated to tea, cake, musical discussions and a chance to play with their cat. I don’t remember getting the chance to do that in any other record shops…

So, with RSD in full swing I thought it was time to celebrate the only option us Cambridge residents have to embrace independent record shops and to chat to Nick and Jude about Rhythm, how it all came together, what the future holds and why RSD might want to broaden its criteria. Visit www.rhythmonline.co.uk to get involved.

So how did it all start?

Nick: Well it started in 1984 as a record stall with Jeff Barrett who I used to work with in HMV. We set it up and spent about a year doing markets in the West Country including Plymouth and St. Austell and various others in the Summer markets. I did one Winter on my own when Jeff went to run a record shop with someone else and that was enough!

So then I decided to turn our stall into a catalogue as people would see the stall and like the combination of the music we were selling. This became a catalogue that was typed up every month and advertised in the classified section of the NME.

Jude: Typed up by hand!

Nick: Yes, this was prior to having a PC! It then gradually expanded and got bigger as the independent music scene grew in the 80’s and we always had customers from all over the world who’d buy stuff from us and also sell their own records. So we traded with people as well. I had one person turn up from Japan one morning expecting to find a big record shop, knocked on my door and asked if I’d sell his record for him! So we’ve always had an international basis for what we do and it seemed to attract enough interest to make a catalogue each month and gave people something interesting to browse through. Generally it was stuff they couldn’t find in their local record shops.

Do you think you’ve specialised in featuring music that isn’t readily available in usual outlets?

Nick: Well, we did then…

But you’re a lot broader now?

Nick: I think music has broadened out and the availability of music is much greater.

Jude: There was perhaps a clearer definition then of what an independent label was, do you think?

Nick: Yeah, it was very strictly independent, definitely something you couldn’t find in HMV.

So if it was on an independent label, you sold it? You didn’t sell anything that was major label?

Nick: Yes, though we do now. And I think in the 80’s and early 90’s, before the major labels cottoned on, they had a niche of their own. People would buy stuff from an independent label because it was more interesting than the stuff the major labels were putting out. Then, in the 90’s, someone like Sony would set up an “independent” label that they owned that was, basically, pseudo-independent, to try and capitalise on this.

I also think that there was a very strong “brand culture” around these labels, and you knew what you were going to get. You bought something from Mute, you knew what it was going to be.

Nick: And some of them have maintained that even now.

Jude: Yeah, there were some customers who would buy the latest release on a label just because it was on that label, to be a completest without even hearing it, or without knowing very much about it.

From your beginnings as a type-set catalogue, why the move to online?

Nick: Well, we were a bit too late on the change over really. We carried on with the catalogue till about 2000, then we took some time out and setup a website, trying to maintain the same format as the catalogue. It took a number of years to get that right really, and we only launched the site as it is now in August 2007, so that was less than 4 years ago.

Jude: But we’ve had an online presence of some sort from 2001.

Nick: So it was a question of building it up again and making the site attractive and having a lot of information that made it more interesting than just a total list of records.

Jude: But it was also important not to lose what was us about us. What people loved about getting the catalogue each month was the personal touch, the immense detail. It was transferring that and keeping the same spirit on the site. Not making it too slick.

You’re never going to compete with Amazon!

Jude: No, exactly. And you know you can get sites that look impressive but are soulless, and we didn’t want to do that. I do a little bit, but it’s mainly Nick who looks after the upkeep of the site. And if someone orders something and they want to chat about it then Nick is there and available to do so.

I never use the website, I just email Nick with what I’d like!

Jude: And we’re fine with that.

Nick: Yeah, and you know what you want! But some people don’t. A lot of my customers will have an intense interest in one band, more than I could possibly know, unless it’s a band I really like as well, and there are so many records on the site that you can’t know about all of them.

Jude: What we try to do, and aspire to do, is to model it like a record shop but “online”. I always describe it as an “online record shop”. Not a music website or something. There are different ways you can search and browse, trying to replicate the feeling of looking through racks. And people emailing Nick and chatting to him emulates the feeling of speaking to someone in a shop.

Plus you’ve got the trading aspect as well.

Nick: We have a ‘Wants’ list on the site that gets updated regularly. Say there’s someone who was in band in the 80’s, they can see their name on the list, and say “I’ve got a bunch of these in my loft and they’re available if you want them” so people can get music that they can’t get from regular shops at all, and it’s all through that personal relationship with the customer.

So you guys were snubbed last year by Record Store Day?

Nick: And again this year!

Jude: Yeah, we thought we were going to be included this year, but no. It’s quite confusing how they do it, there’s a main RSD website, which is American, and that’s got an international bit. Then there’s an English website. I contacted them and they said no straight away as we weren’t a “physical” shop. Then I tried the American one, and I could enter our details and we were listed there for a while. And a few people contacted us saying it was nice that we were listed. But it seems RSD found out about us and removed us from their listings.

Nick: And yet our customers expect us to be involved with RSD as we are an independent record shop. There’s no other shop in the area, and because of the nature of what we do, specialising in more obscure and hard to find things, they can’t really understand the distinction. If they’re in an area and can’t get to a shop, or they’re in Europe, and they know how limited these RSD releases are, they will want to be able to turn to us. The example is the Foo Fighters covers album, they’re a massive band and demand will far out strip how many are available and we’re hoping to get some from our supplier in America.

I was going to ask that, are you able to get hold of RSD releases?

Nick: Through a third party – not officially, we’ve got to go through a back door. It’s organisation is pretty chaotic. No one knows how many they’re going to get. You can’t order them in advance.

Jude: It’s well intentioned, but it just seems a shame that as we’re not in direct competition on the street, we can’t take part.

Nick: It’s a great idea and it brings people back to record shops, which can only be a good thing.

For a University, and quite an affluent town, it feels quite strange that there’s no longer any independent record shops in Cambridge. Why do you think that is?

Nick: I guess it is the Internet, really. And that people can’t afford a specialised music shop enough. I don’t honestly know, if we could afford it, whether we could set one up in the same vein as our website. There might not be a big enough demand for it. It does seem bizarre that Fopp is the closest we have in Cambridge…

Which is basically an HMV outlet…

Jude: Yeah, but Cambridge is pretty small…

Nick: Yeah, the student population swells it quite a bit…

Jude: And you wonder whether the student population is the market for records now.

Is the record “shop” still a pipe-dream for you?

Jude: If money was no object, which in the real world it always is, then we’d definitely do it. But the economic reality, with lots of record shops closing down, I can’t really see a way of making it work, unless it just covers the costs / shared interest etc. If there was a business model that would work, we’d have no qualms putting in the time and effort to make it work.

Nick: The VAT loophole closing would also help us – HMV.com can register off-shore and sell stuff a lot cheaper than we can, that would help us, just generally! We do it because we love it, we don’t make much money from it, but we wouldn’t be happy doing anything else.