The first incarnation of Elite Records … Jay Burgess at the far right
I love vinyl, always have, and I’ve always been a fan of record shops. In my teens and early 20’s I whiled away many happy hours in record shops digging through crates, listening to new tunes, and chatting with the guys behind the counter (see my discussion of record-buying memories here for more on that topic). Sadly, over time I have had less time and less disposable income to devote to record shopping, so to the extent that I still buy vinyl it is mostly online, and predominantly through Discogs.
One of my favorite record stores back in the day was Elite Records in Victoria, which I used to frequent for its excellent selection of new and back catalogue freeform hardcore, hard house, and hard trance, as well as for the laid-back vibe that was fostered by the two guys who ran the shop, Mike and Jay. Elite was open from 1996 to 2002, and was set up by Jason Burgess (aka Equinox) from Bromley, South-East London. As someone who spent many a pleasant afternoon at Elite (as well as a very healthy sum of money!), I thought it might be interesting to catch up with Jay about what it was like to run a specialist dance record store in the 90’s/00’s, back in the days when vinyl ruled the roost, way before digital downloads became the de facto standard for club dj’s. Happily, Jay has agreed to answer my questions, so read on for a fascinating insight into the ways of the old skool record shop:
(Obligatory internal marketing pitch! Check out some of Equinox’s tracks on my mixes Dreadnaut, Twist & Shake, and The One Last One, as well as on Tyssen’s Pendragon Tribute and Girdler Synthetic’s Frantic Classics … ok, you can carry on now)
Pearsall: To start with, when did Elite Records open, and where did the idea to open a record store come from?
Jay Burgess: I opened Elite Records in February 1996, a couple of years after I’d started casually running over the idea. I was a keen record buyer for many years, and, like many, I would do the rounds of various record shops in London and the South each week. I couldn’t walk past a record shop without going in – I’m sure others can relate to that!
Haha, I definitely can!
In essence, I thought having my own shop would be perfect.
Was there any significance to your opening in Pimlico/Victoria, or is that just where you found a space?
Absolutely. I had worked in Victoria for about six years managing a relative’s video rental business when a large chain store opened on the same street. While it wasn’t too damaging, it did make us question the long-term viability with such a rival close by and of course the changing media format at that time. It was decided that the video store was to close which then enabled me to take on the lease of the existing premises. It definitely made the transition more fluid in terms of having to search for the right premises. As much as it was an exciting prospect it was in equal measures a very real and daunting commitment at 21.
When I first went to Elite it was mostly oriented around hardcore, but as time went on you became much more focused on hard house/hard trance (especially after you moved to Vauxhall Bridge Road) – to what extent was that a business decision and to what extent was that a personal taste decision?
Sort of yes and no in terms of focus; the change was both business and personal.
From a business perspective there will always be peaks and troughs that have to be managed. Of course music moves in cycles with buyer popularity, which dictates stock level buying at certain periods for each genre. You can be as passionate as you possibly can be about a product but if there are no buyers then there is no business.
From the personal perspective, unless you’re passionate and believe in the product you are selling then I think people can see through that quite quickly and there are other jobs that can happily fill that role.
I’d like to think that I balanced decisions based on both. Making sure we were consistent with the genres we specialised in over the years, and customer service, rather than flitting between what was most popular and presenting it as our specialist product. The way I see things is you should never have all your eggs in one basket.
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The route from the first location on Warwick Way to the second location on Vauxhall Bridge Road
Initially when we opened on Warwick Way we primarily stocked Hardcore, Drum & Bass and Techno, and we definitely had a strong reputation with the Hardcore scene and a lot of our advertising was directed in that area. This is in the days of the silver chillout couch for those who may remember. Also, as a new business it was financially important to make the right decisions early on, which meant not carrying too wide a range of music and tying up cash flow with dead stock.
About a year later we had got to a stage where we were stocking more styles without the means to display them all, at least not without some shelving compromise – which I didn’t want.
To solve this without potentially alienating existing customers I did a complete shop refit with a new layout (the rave bunker, as we called it!) which, coupled with listening posts, really helped to establish us as a specialist shop for our customers.
We saw shifts in what was moving more units throughout the next few years and of course by the time of the move to larger premises at Vauxhall Bridge Road Hardcore releases were in slow decline for various reasons while other genres had escalated. So in essence it wasn’t relegated as such, at least not by us. For example, at Vauxhall Bridge Road we still had a dedicated self-service wall for Hardcore with over 300 releases, which was about 1/3 of the total titles on display in the store, so it definitely still had a strong store presence.
On the other hand, we did become more of a Hard House/Hard Trance shop, and the in-store labels Epidemix and Tonka Trax were a big part of building that association, and our personal tastes mirrored that.
What were the best and worst aspects of running a record store? Also, if you don’t mind, it would be great to hear a bit about how a specialist dance shop worked, i.e. where did you get the tunes from, how did you choose what to order and in what quantities, and what you did to actually sell the stock as it came through?
That’s a good question. I know people looking from the other side of the counter automatically think, I’d love to be in that environment spinning all day, what a job. I know I did. Would be perfect right?
Six days of that soon wears thin I can tell you! Now don’t get me wrong it’s actually a great place to be but, by the umpteenth time of hearing that new release just in and it’s only Wednesday you don’t really want to bag a copy yourself.
Jokes aside, there were not really many negatives in truth – just the usual shop-based niggles such as stock takes, quiet periods, awkward customers and, of course, the paperwork side. As for the plus points, well, you’ll understand further into the questions answered …
Day to day running we’d up the shutters, kettle on immediately, sort out jumbled records lying around the counter from the day before and scan the shelves in case we’d sold the play copy by mistake so label up new ones. Check stock levels and note what needed re-ordering, speak with the distros. Send off any mail order packages. Mike & I would moan about whose turn it was to hoover or to queue in the bank for change haha. Bag up dead flyers, lots of routine stuff.
Stocking the shop meant dealing with various distributors, as well as direct with labels and promoters. All the usual distros from the time: SRD, Intergroove, Amato, Tuned, Unique, Arabesque, AlphaMagic, Infectious, Mo’s Music Machine, etc – the list goes on and on! Over the years I dealt with so many that lots I’ve long since forgotten.
Unfortunately due to spiraling vinyl sales and other factors many, or even most, of these distributors are no longer trading, which, looking back, is a massive loss to the dance scene – more than people imagine!
These companies were based all over the country, most would fax release schedules for pre-orders etc, do telephone ordering, others would come round with the van, go through the stock and pick your order. We received the majority of releases on promo either direct from the labels or again as a limited quantity run from the distros to gauge units to order based on quality as well as, of course, the general hype surrounding the release. It was all relative to how many other strong releases were out at that point and understanding your peak and low selling periods throughout the year.
Also we made a conscious decision early on to carry back catalogue titles for labels. So for example, if someone wanted a Mohawk, Essential Platinum, Nukleuz, or whatever we’d pretty much have the entire catalogue available under the counter. We realised this was a real selling point for us and during the slow release periods of the year customers were picking up titles they’d perhaps missed first time around.
Having a good working relationship really was key here, especially having a sales person who would make sure if there were limited quantities of something that you got them and squeeze titles through before other shops received theirs. It wasn’t uncommon for some of them to pop in out of work to drop a box off and have a chat. In several instances with some key distros we’d built a solid rep with them to give us an s.o.r. (sale or return) account which allowed us to carry more stock with less risk.
We also dealt direct with a number of labels, some independent and others larger companies, same with promotions, tickets and merchandising. Also other shops that had in-house labels, we’d pick up promos and vice versa. There was quite a lot of business done that way and inevitably the profit margin was higher for both parties and was actually a nicer way of doing business from a personal level.
How did we sell it all? Really, it was very simple – we made sure our regulars were sorted out and let the customers take their time in going through the releases. We had a section of customers who we’d pre-bag records for automatically as they arrived in, ranging from working dj’s to the pirate radio and bedroom dj’s. We always made an effort to know what artists and labels people liked when they came in. I’d love to say it was more involved than that but it really wasn’t.
What do you reckon was the number one selling tune in Elite’s history?
I couldn’t say definitively but one that definitely springs to mind would be Shooting Star by Bang! on Next Generation. There are releases that sell well initially and then there are releases that sell well initially and continue to sell consistently over a long period. In this case a long period would be several years!
I always enjoyed coming in and checking out the latest tunes and then hanging about and chatting with you guys; unlike a lot of record shop people (particularly in the West End), Elite always had a friendly and pleasant vibe – was that a conscious business decision, or was it just a matter of you guys not being dicks?
That’s a really nice compliment! That was something we always hoped most people would feel after they visited us.
Moody record shops? Yes, we’ve all been there!
From experience I’d say we were aware that we did not want to be one of those shops, but it was never contrived. I’m sure I had my off days too but we genuinely wanted people to feel they could drop in to pick up some tracks, have a good old natter, maybe even over a brew, or just bag some flyers etc in a very relaxed way.
These guys were doing exactly what we enjoyed doing too, so because there was a camaraderie through shared interest it was quite natural. I think we had a good relationship with a lot of our customers and that was apparent when it got busy and there was a real vibe happening. People being on first-name terms, lots of banter going on and everyone chatting amongst themselves with the music kicking out of the speakers. Many times we’d be in the shop long after closing, we definitely had a good laugh at times and it’s a very social environment to be in.
To follow on from that, was your business concentrated around regulars who made it a point to come to you, or did you get a lot of passing trade?
The majority of our business came from people traveling specifically to visit the shop so definitely regulars. Obviously Londoners and surrounding areas but it’s amazing the distance people would travel, from all ends of the country and how dedicated they were. We had customers over in Japan, America, and throughout Europe who we did orders for and they would come over and spend a few days in the shop.
Have to make a particular mention about the Japanese as they were so enthusiastic about their music and always so friendly, even if they did make us pose for photos haha!
Being in Victoria we had passing trade and local buyers but, for the most part, those sales were for clothing, merchandising, mix tapes, compilations, tickets etc. Although, we did have a box of garage kept under the counter, which the locals did seem to like.
Also, what was the most random request you ever had from someone coming in the shop?
Random requests? Getting asked to turn the music down by some random passerby or if we sold chart music? Standard.
I remember one of our distro guys carrying copies of Sisqo’s Thong Song on the van one day and we were like wtf! Said did we want any? Well not really haha! You can imagine we’re stocking labels like Noom, Tinrib etc – who’s going to buy them? Anyway, just for the crack he says I’ll leave you 10 copies on s.o.r. Comes in next week and we’ve sold them all! Honestly, I still don’t know how …
The guys from Channel 4 asked to use the shop in a trailer for a programme they were running about fetishes. It featured a guy behind the decks pulling records off the shelves and licking the vinyl provocatively. That was quite a random morning with the shop filled with stylists and film crew.
What was the weirdest thing to ever happen in the shop?
Hmmm, we saw all kinds of things, from jugglers to a guy wanting to show us his cock ring …while he was wearing it.
One of the best was when a guy came running in one day, says, “Alright guys how’s things? Can I grab one of your plastic bags? Gotta shoot, see ya later!”
We were going through some orders on the phone so we didn’t really take much notice of him coming in as it was so quick, however a couple of minutes later the shop had police outside and people were like “He went in there”. The place was searched and we were confused thinking really no one’s been in … anyway, he’d only gone and robbed the bank!
I can safely say there was a day we both got freaked out a bit when a very loud and big burly intimidating Scottish guy walked in and closed the door behind him. Now it wasn’t the fact of his bellowing voice filling the shop or that he was ranting about being banned from Choci’s Chewns … nor was it that he was wearing women’s clothing suitable for a middle aged woman with all the trimmings … it was that he had full makeup on but the eyebrows were drawn on huge above his own and sported a skin head!!! It was like a visit from the grave by Leigh Bowery.
How important was the shop to your move into production and running a label?
It was an extension of what we were already doing and the environment really was a goldmine of information. It definitely made us excited to get started with a label.
Mike & I pooled the money together for our first pressing, got it cut at Whitfield Street studio, visited the pressing plant, got the stock to the shop and even had one of our regulars help us label them up, took out a couple of hundred for the shop and then off to the distributors.
Anything we did was all on our terms, no P&D’s – we wanted full control of our label. I’d have gone into production without the shop but we had contacts through the business, which made making certain decisions more focused. We had a studio in the basement so, for the first year and half of opening I was spending 7 days a week at the shop. It was a few hours each night in the evening after closing getting to grips with the equipment (damn you Akai!!!) and then we’d either spend all Sunday or do an allnighter from Saturday through to Sunday with the help of Colonel Sanders and lots of stuff to keep us awake. We definitely made a lot of sacrifices to be able to make the time to do that and put finance into studio equipment which we were aware of but it somehow didn’t phase us.
I’d say early on that the shop made production a big learning experience – we did pirate radio ads, jingles, recorded an R&B track for a guy, some work with an all girl pop group, hardcore, breakbeat, gabber, house & trance. All sorts of experimenting was being done in the studio.
Why did Elite shut up shop in the end, and do you miss it?
You know, it becomes a lifestyle and it ends up dominating your life to the extent that you have no spare time. I’d say it became apparent to me in the final 6 months that my heart was no longer in it as before and I honestly think it was starting to show. Business was good but you need to be passionate about it to make it work.
The lease was coming up which meant I would have to commit to a five year lease, which made me question my underlying feelings that much further – that perhaps it was time to bow out gracefully. Five years may not seem like a long time from the outside but we were based in an expensive part of London with all the outgoings that come with that, the premises were set over two floors and as a high street store you need a level of commitment to keep things running smoothly.
It did come as a total shock to everyone, especially because it wasn’t until the final week that I started telling regulars. There were two reasons for that: (A) It was really hard explaining the decision as some of the guys had been with us since we’d first opened. They were as much a part of the shop as we were, so it was really difficult and you could see people were genuinely upset. A week was definitely long enough for me in that respect! (B) I wanted to maintain the service and stock that the customers were used to from us right until closing day. Some of the distros may have got sketchy that we were closing and may have held off on some new titles as so many had been stung by shops disappearing. In actual fact they were all brilliant, looked after us as ever and we even went out for drinks with some of them.
I definitely have some fond memories looking back, we built it from scratch and had some good times there. The Saturday evening I locked up, some regulars who would come from Southend stayed in with us, which was actually a nice way to take the edge of it. When it was time to close up that night I did actually put my hands on the counter to take a breath and say “Wow, that’s really it” to my partner, as In My Mind by Y.O.M.C. played over the speakers, the last 12″ to be played in the shop.
In hindsight it was probably the best decision I could have made. Over the next couple of years the majority of specialist record shops in London closed due to a decline in vinyl sales. We’d had a solid run and seen many shops open and close shortly after within the years we were open. I feel a sense of pride in that we went out clean.
What are you up to now?
Still involved with music, probably always will be.
(Editorial note: go buy Tonka Trax releases from Toolbox)
Finally, for those people who have gotten into the scene in the post-vinyl era, what would you say they have missed out on in terms of the whole record store experience?
Record shops were a hub where music lovers could connect and they were a key part of what makes being a record buyer/collector special.
Things were very different then, as you know – people would dedicate a lot of time to the physical aspect of record shopping, doing the circuit so to speak. Traveling miles to visit their favourite specialist shops every week or checking out ones you’d not been to didn’t seem to be an issue for vinyl junkies – it was part of the experience.
Every shop was different so visiting a new one always had that air of mystique; what would you find when you got there? Everyone had their favourites – you’d get to know the staff, know when they got their deliveries and there would be perks of being a regular. Complete strangers would spark up a conversation, talk about what they’d been buying and suggesting to listen to such and such track.
Getting the best/most exclusive 12’s was at the forefront of any dj’s mind. It still is, sure, but things are now quite different for many reasons. Some titles were gone as quick as they arrived in, if you missed it you missed it! You had to make the effort and I think because of that, when you found that track you’d been desperate to get hold of it made it a special moment.
People were proud of their vinyl collections. Regardless of whether or not the record had a full colour sleeve or just a scribbled-on white label, records hold memories for people. When most people flick through their collections and pull a favourite out and put it on the turntable, when it starts it’s like a snapshot of that time. Visualising through association, whether it be the place they bought it or the friends and events that were significant to them at that point. That’s why so many people still hold onto their vinyl collections from early on, there’s a lot of sentimental value associated with records.
Even non record buyers would head to record shops. Some went purely to collect event and club flyers. Other ravers would go to pick up tape packs from events they’d been to or perhaps couldn’t attend, or buy merchandising and other stuff. You’d get people that would meet up there before they went out. Guys would come in to try to get tunes identified; either with tapes or by trying to hum the tune they wanted – which was very entertaining! So it’s quite a spectrum of the dance community that went to record shops.
For aspiring DJ’s these shops were massively important as a place to casually network: drop off a mixtape, perhaps get recommended via the shop to a promoter or happen to get chatting to one inadvertently. You might even bump into your favourite artist or DJ!
While downloads may be convenient, in equal parts they have made music buying a completely disposable, impersonal and hollow process. Especially compared to the vibe of standing with like-minded people in that environment as a record buyer – the new releases just arrived in getting slapped on the decks, and seconds later a slammin’ tune drops and everyone is trying to get a copy. It’s a rush!
So much has been removed from the experience that record shops contributed to.
To finish off, please share anything else you would like to about Elite!
You know, after all those years, we never did sell that copy of Falco Rock Me Amadeus!
I’d like to thank Mike, all the customers for their support and the various companies that we did business with over the years. All of them helped make the shop what it was. Last but not least yourself, Pearsall, for approaching me to give an insight into what it was like running a record store back in the day.