If you’re a music fan, it’s difficult to ignore the reversal of fortune for the humble vinyl record. Beloved by hipsters, lauded by audiophiles and increasingly embraced by a new generation of listeners, even supermarket giants are behind a format once thought extinct. Now down a tiny, but busy, passageway off Brighton’s Ship Street the diverse and plentiful vinyl offerings of the Bella Union record label are being stocked in all their glory. “It’s to give Brighton another choice and just introduce people to some cool music,” says label boss Simon Raymonde. “There’s some stuff we put out that does fall through the cracks.” After living in Hove for about four years, his wife Abbey walked past the empty shop and realised its potential. Perhaps this opening was on a whim, but both confess to loving record shops, even spending their first few dates looking through racks of vinyl in Montreal. “I thought why don’t we just make it Bella Union only? That’s never been done before.”
Raymonde has always worked with music in some capacity. His first job being at Beggars Banquet record shop, he found fame as the bassist for seminal indie outfit Cocteau Twins. They produced seven beautifully ethereal albums, offering a layered sound that swerved the norm and delighted critics. Influenced by the broodiness of post-punk, they used ambiguous ‘mouth-music’ and odd structures to create an otherworldly new form of alternative rock. On a purely commercial scale they were a cult prospect, but as a trio eager to be adventurous their work became hugely influential for scores of bands to follow.
Set up by Raymonde and band-mate Robin Guthrie, the pair created Bella Union to have complete creative freedom over what they released. “We’d left 4AD and moved to a major, which was obviously a mistake. I thought we’d set up our own label so we didn’t have to speak to stupid people!” Although their band dissolved soon after, Guthrie later leaving the label to concentrate on his own music, Bella Union has continued to grow in stature. Signing and nurturing artists from around the world, their success stories include Explosions In The Sky, Fionn Regan, Fleet Foxes, The Flaming Lips, MONEY, Josh T. Pearson and Dirty Three. “What I’ve noticed is when people come in here, they’ll look through and be like: ‘oh! I didn’t know they were on your label…’” One early signing was BRIT Award nominee John Grant, who initially joined with The Czars. After this band faded away and he’d taken some time to work through his personal issues, Grant triumphantly returned to Bella Union with the Queen of Denmark album. The night before we meet, Raymonde was attending Grant’s astounding show at the Royal Albert Hall. “I said to him afterwards: ‘you were singing with Kylie Minogue tonight, like what the fuck?!’ It wasn’t that long ago he was in hospital, really unwell. He wasn’t making music, just waiting tables in New York… Those are the stories which get you up in the morning.”
Decorated with iconic images of Bowie, Blondie and Dolly Parton, the Bella Union store is dominated by a retro style semi-circular rack filled with a diverse range of vinyl (with a few under-the-counter offerings in other formats). There’s even an American phone booth re-purposed as a listening station. Here’s a return to the old style of record shop, where reputation and interaction was everything. The objective is to present the label’s 20-year history on vinyl. Not an easy task when many titles were released in the late 90s, when the format had stopped being such an attractive prospect.
With vinyl releases increasing 206% in only five years, turntable sales are similarly soaring. Whilst the medium might not return to the popularity it enjoyed in the 70s, there are signs it has re-established. “One of the weird anomalies is that not everyone buying vinyl is actually listening to it. There are strange things happening which you couldn’t have predicted.” This shop is clearly aimed to be a destination of sorts, where record buying almost becomes a pilgrimage. Not only are the fans buying direct from the label, there’s a chance to buy the rare and unusual too. Amongst vinyl reissues of much-loved label classics, there’s a Father John Misty tea towel and even the promise of John Grant beard oil to come. It’s about the experience of music being more immersive than simply downloading some data. “This is what I’m invested in,” he gestures towards the piles of vinyl beside him. “It’s what I grew up with, so it means a lot…”
The Bella Union Vinyl Shop is at 13 Ship Street Gardens, Brighton & Hove, BN1 1AJ