ALUN ROBERTS of JUST DROPPED IN
Independent record store.
Market Hall, FarGo Village, Coventry, CV1 5ED.
Alun Roberts owns Just Dropped In, the only independent music shop in Coventry dedicated solely to selling records, creating a scene and putting on gigs. We asked him a few questions about his background, what led him to open the store, his thoughts on the music scene in Coventry and for some exciting new recommendations.
Interview and edit by Adele Mary Reed. Photography by Kate Rossin
Hey Alun. Give us a bit of history about you.
I grew up in Croydon and moved to secondary school in a Northamptonshire village. It was alright but I didn’t really like it very much. When I left college I ended up working in a record shop in Northampton and in 1989 an opportunity came up to work at a Spinadisc store in Coventry. By then I was in a few bands and loved music so I knew there was a bit of a scene going on in Coventry. I hated living in a village so I packed my bags and moved to Coventry to work in a record shop.
So it was quite happenstance how you ended up in Coventry?
Yeah that’s right, it just so happened. By then most of my mates had moved away to uni or were doing other stuff so I was looking for something different to do anyway and as it happened, through working at Spinadisc I ended up doing a part time degree at Coventry University for seven years. It was just a great opportunity to be working in a record shop with loads of stuff going on.
Where was Spinadisc in Coventry back then? Tell us more about your days there.
It was mainly - because it moved in the latter days - in the Lower Precinct, right in the corner next to C&A. Where is now New Look. It was a big store, one of the best stores in the country. It won some national awards. It was great times. I worked there from 1989, became assistant manager and in 1999 I opened and managed their store in Rugby. By then, Napster and downloading was really starting to erode the industry and there was a lot of discounting as well. Play dot com was sending CDs in the post really cheap from Canary Islands or something like that with no VAT, so I left in 2001 thinking I’d never go back to the record industry. I thought: ‘that’s me done, really enjoyed it but time to do something different’.
What did you do next before you started up Just Dropped In?
I ended up working with my brother. He had set up the skate/surf shop Two Seasons and had opened a couple of stores which were working really well so he said come on board. I had loads of experience in retail so we ended up building the business really quickly, opening quite a few stores around the country over six years. We built up a really successful business which we sold to the surf brand Billabong. We were lucky we managed to sell it just as the crash was going on in 2008. Then I worked for Billabong for ten years which was really interesting. I was a senior buyer and merchandiser. Their head office is in the South of France and I went down there once a month or so but mainly stayed in the Midlands. It was a really interesting job but things changed and I took some redundancy in 2018, helped some mates out in the city of London for a bit which was fun but I didn’t want to be commuting to London too much so I came up with the record shop.
It’s interesting because I feel like the success of the skate and surf industry is inter-linked with what’s going on in music scenes. Was that the period of nu-metal?
Exactly. One of the things we did was have gigs in store in the skate shops. We were always playing music, it was part of the same culture. Because at that time it was really driven at kids as well so it was about trying to create an interesting atmosphere. It was remarkably similar in some ways.
So when did you start Just Dropped In?
In 2018, in the winter. It was pretty quick once I found somewhere. I looked at it a year before and I wasn’t sure but once that seed had dropped in my head… I just thought I really liked the culture of record shops and I could go around other cities and see it really working and I thought there was no reason why it shouldn’t work in Coventry. Once I’d decided, I tried to find a small place I could test it. I was so lucky that Fargo was around because I managed to pick up one of the small containers which was a really good way to trial out a business for six months. There was nothing to loose, just £200 a month rent. It was a way to see if there were enough people who liked the idea of an independent record shop being in Coventry again and thankfully there was. There were enough people who liked it enough to value it and share it with other people, getting them to come, which was the key really.
When did you move to the larger premises?
That became available in late summer 2019. It was about 3 to 4 times bigger. It was always my intention to find a bigger store so I could have in-store gigs and create interesting stuff for the City of Culture. It came a bit early for me in some ways but I knew it wasn’t going to come up again and it was all part of the plan so I went for it. Affordability wise, it’s pretty affordable compared to city centre rents. It’s a lovely unit, the industrial building is lovely - the amount of light you get through is amazing.
What kinds of folks shop at Just Dropped in?
A real mixture. There’s the classic 40-60 year old bloke who’s grown up buying vinyl who tends to spend the most. Apart from that it’s really eclectic. A nice mix of students coming in, young people - people of all ages. Everybody, really. Half the store is second hand so it’s all different genres, from 50s/60s rock n’ roll to funk, soul, Afro-beat, loads of jazz - there’s loads of sections in there for people to get excited about. In terms of the new, I tend to specialise in the independent scenes, less on the pop side. I let the second hand do the pop kind of thing. More students have come in since I moved to the bigger shop, it’s something a bit different to HMV with all the vinyl up on the walls - they love it and take photographs for Instagram or whatever!
How do you see the role of an independent music store fitting into our modern day digital landscape?
You need to have them both. I’m working on my e-comms side of the shop. It’s not something I want to major on, it’s really about local delivery - serving the people of Coventry. I’m not really interested in sending records all round the world. Hopefully they have record shops near to them and they should support their local record shops. It’s all about representing a record shop in Coventry, it being the best record shop I can make. The more people go online, which I know they will - we all do that - there also needs to be that opportunity to come in. The community needs to be nurtured.
How has Coventry’s music scene evolved over the years you’ve lived here?
When I came it was really really vibrant. When you’re in bands yourself, and there were practice rooms like the Rock House which was where Fargo is now, and there seemed to be a few bands getting signed - the scene felt really vibrant in the 90s. There were quite a few venues and I was putting on gigs. By the end of the 90s it felt less vibrant. It’s difficult when you end up having kids, start spending time on other things and working elsewhere and you come out of the scene and you come back to it. I stopped going to gigs in Coventry so much - obviously the Enemy were a big breakout band of the late noughties. Now, there does seem as if there’s stuff happening but it’s very disparate, and that’s another reason why I wanted to open a record store - as kind of a heart where people can find out about stuff, be old fashioned and put gig posters, and also local bands playing in store. Trying to create that scene, which a record store is an integral part of. We all go to things together.
Are you the only independent record shop in Coventry now?
There’s the hi-fi store on Spon Street, but otherwise yeah. The West Midlands itself isn’t blessed with loads of independents where as you go around some of the other bigger cities especially the likes of Bristol, Brighton, Manchester, Liverpool… there’s a really interesting scene of really successful stores. The trouble is building up a store to be of a level that’s sustainable but we’re getting there. The community is there, it’s just making sure people shop in Coventry and don’t go elsewhere. From my point of view, you have to build up momentum and volume. It has to compare and be good. You need to constantly have new releases come in which requires some scale which is difficult for small independents. That’s why having low rent is ideal - there’s more money for interesting music. People won’t come just because you’re local.
I see you’ve built links with other places in the city, for example putting on gigs with Tin Angel Records.
Yeah, Rich has been really helpful and really understood. We’ve put on a couple of gigs and they’ve been full every time. The crowds and bands have been really appreciative. Whoever he came up with I’d say yeah - it’s great to have that support. I really respect what he’s done with the label.
What have been your best memories of living in Coventry?
Well, I got married in the Cathedral! In the Chapel of Unity. Then we had a buffet in the Guildhall, cheapest buffet they could offer from the council! That was lovely. I’m really looking forward to City of Culture - I really hope it goes well and that what’s happening now [with coronavirus] won’t put the breaks on too much. It’s a great chance that won’t come round again, it’s one of the reasons I wanted to open the store - an alternative space for bands to play. Venues might get booked up so if someone wants to play some strange music to a small crowd then Just Dropped In’s the place. The idea’s to get a full licence for the CoC year so that allows me to be flexible and put on events at short notice, and have them as all ages as well. I enjoy afternoon gigs in the shop.
That brings me to asking you - what are Coventry’s best live venues?
I used to love going to the University - the student union on Cox Street, it’s such a shame that building’s not used for gigs anymore. In the 90s there used to be bands on all the time, it was amazing. I think The Tin’s amazing. I’d do anything to make sure they survive over the next year. I love the gigs at the Central Library programmed by Loud in the Libraries, fantastic idea. The variety booked there has been really interesting. Its funded by Arts Council, started in Lancaster, and is now programmed throughout the country. Really intrigued to see what happens with The Empire moving - I went to see Supergrass at the old building. Good luck to him, it’s going to a great location in the city centre nearer the train station so hopefully it’ll be really successful.
If you had to make a snap decision, what is your go-to favourite genre of music to listen to?
I’m inclined to say 60s/70s Soul. There’s something there for everybody - it’s uplifting to get you dancing or it can bring you down in tears. There’s so many classics in there whether it be James Brown or Al Green. “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” gets me going every time!
Choose a favourite record that has influenced you and your life - you can choose just one!
I really like Modern Lovers first album , it’s got that noisiness to it a bit like Velvet Underground but then there’s a tenderness in what he’s singing about. It’s an album I’ve always loved and gone back to.
What top 3 music releases of 2020 should we check out?
2020’s been hammered by the virus with lots of stuff being put back.
I really like the Porridge Radio album “Every Bad”.
Khruangbin - Psychedelic, soulful music. They’ve got a new album coming out I’m really looking forward to, it’s called “Mordechai”
Also the Soccer Mommy album “Color Theory”.
In the autumn there’s gonna be a huge mound of stuff that’s gonna come out. It’ll be strange - everyone will be competing for venues, and unfortunately there might be less around.
Best upcoming band to watch out for?
One of my customers sent me a recommendation last week - Mandrake Handshake. They’ve only got one thing on Spotify - I’ve been listening to it on my walks around the park, I don’t go for many because I get bored! But the last three walks I’ve played this, it’s great. Not that we should be doing handshakes at the moment.
What are your top 3 favourite pieces of album art?
Orange Juice - Can’t Hide Your Love Forever - with the dolphin on it
I love the old Beatles albums - With the Beatles, black and white on them
Elvis Presley - a greatest hits album where he’s wearing a gold suit
How about the best upcoming bands in Coventry?
I couldn’t possibly say! That said, I do enjoy Nim Chimpsky, I’ve seen them a few times. I always like a band that’s slightly on the edge of something… Completely endearing and good fun.
Your favourite moments of running Just Dropped In so far…?
I’ve loved the live bands, but I just love people coming in and seeing different people. It’s lovely to be in the store and see people who haven’t seen other people for a long time - that’s amazing because all of a sudden there’s hugs in the shop and people will go over to Twisted Barrel for a beer to catch up. That’s kinda the whole idea really. It’s nice making recommendations and people coming back to say they loved it. I’m glad people are finding music. I love it when people come in and recommend stuff to me, too. It’s really important having a rapport with customers - it makes things personal and different.
Do you have a pearl of advice to anyone looking at opening their own independent shop?
I was really lucky with this because there was lots of stuff I didn’t know. I found a unit that was pretty affordable and I asked a few people about Fargo and more importantly the business - I just started talking to people who ran record shops. I asked if they could help me and everybody said yeah, of course, what do you wanna know? My advice would be to just ask people, ask the questions. Most people will help you. That was invaluable for me, it gave me more confidence and I was less likely to make mistakes. The containers at Fargo are a perfect way to experiment and find out in a business is right for you. it’s the future of retail to have small units with short leases you can afford to take risks with.
Top 3 things to do in Cov
Go to Fargo Village - Twisted Barrel and Print Manufactory, the whole Fargo thing
Go see a live band in Coventry - you don’t need to go to Birmingham you know!
The new Cathedral is a lovely building
Top 3 things to watch
I’ve been watching films with my daughter whilst in lockdown - we’ve liked:
Lady Bird [Greta Gerwig, 2017]
Hunt for the Wilderpeople [Taika Waititi, 2016]
Fantastic Mr. Fox which has the bonus of Jarvis Cocker in it! [Wes Anderson, 2009]
Top 3 things to read
I mostly read music stuff on Twitter, I’m dyslexic so I read bits and chunks of stuff. Music magazines and articles. I de-cluttered all of my books a while ago, sometimes I read the odd music book.
Top 3 radio shows/podcasts
I listen to 6 Music quite a bit - Marc Riley, and Tom Ravenscroft - I trust him to take me down a good path. I listen to the Adam Buxton podcast which is a bit strange and funny.
Top 3 things you like at Print Manufactory!
It’s such a cool place. The atmosphere is interesting - people are always working on stuff, I want to have a look! You can’t go wrong with plants, prints, you know? Nice things. They’ve done a great job there.