MusicZone Interview: “We’ve weathered the storm. We’re more like a club now”

MusicZone offers free shipping in Ireland when you buy three or more records.

“What I love is a seventeen year old coming in after they’ve gotten their first record player and I say, “Have you ever heard of King Crimson?” That’s one of the small joys of this job.” I’m down in Douglas Shopping Centre, the unlikely home of one of Cork’s, if not Ireland’s, best record stores, MusicZone talking to Ray O’Brien. Ray opened MusicZone in 2001, it was in Carrigaline back then, pretty much on the same day the first iPod was launched. As we get lost in chat for nearly an hour surrounded by records and with Elbow flowing elegantly out of the shop’s speakers, Ray wears his inspiration and aspirations right on his sleeve. “One of our core ambitions and duties is to support the local stuff. We’ve turned people onto stuff. If we believe in something we’ll shout from the rooftops about it. Take Jack O’Rourke. We sold his records at his Everyman gig for him. About 250 in total. We tracked them here and he got to number 5 in Ireland on the back of it.”

Like many of us of a certain age, Ray’s love of music began at a young age in a very old traditional manner. “I remember randomly taping stuff on Fanning at night. The first tape I bought out of my own money was when I was 11 in 1985. We were in Blackpool for a family holiday and spent some time watching LiveAid. I think Springsteen played in Philadelphia simultaneously. I went to a record store the next day and bought Born in the USA.” Then over time, his love of music became solidified by a common ritual. “On a Friday night my mum and her friends would be playing cards in the next room. I’d put on the headphones and get a bar of chocolate and a Coke and read the lyrics while I listened.”

After launching the shop in 2001, things went quite well for a number of years. After all, the late 90’s and early 00’s were the best in history in terms of physical music sales. Bubblegum pop, nu metal, rap, and pop punk ruled the day. But, unsurprisingly, by the end of the decade business had hit a real nadir. “It was torture around 2010, 2011, and 2012. The unit I was in was near a Super Valu. But a Dunnes opened in a new location, and overnight the shopping centre lost 25% of its business. The other hit was the iPod. We were selling blank CDs more than anything else. People thought we were crazy. In 2009 it was the recession. In Ireland around 2005 there was 200 record shops. By 2012 there was 37. We survived by our fingernails. I remember thinking I should throw my hat at it and get a job in a factory. I would have hated it.”

Ray in MusicZone.

Luckily for Cork, Ray somehow persevered through adversity that would have broken many others and MusicZone was rescued by the most unlikely, at the time, of sources. “The vinyl revival saved us. For Record Store Day in April 2012 I got in around 30 vinyl and sold them all in about 6 weeks. After that I put a box of records in the corner. Then by Christmas I had a metre of a wall with records. That was Christmas 2012. Then The Next Day by Bowie came out and I got in ten. I sold all ten over the weekend. I wouldn’t be talking to you without the vinyl revival. It came just at the right time.”

Adaptability and the ability to roll with the punches is key to survival according to Ray. “We’ve changed so much. Now, it’s the muso head. Our core is the lads who are in weekly buying records. We’ve nearly 3000 LPs in stock now. We’ve weathered the shit storm and we’re okay. We’re trying to get a traction online. There’s not record shops in every big town in Ireland. There’s hardly a record shop in Kerry.”

A family run outfit, the store has a sense of community and camaradarie that is impossible to manufacture. “Cormac (Ray’s son) has been in the shop since he was ten. He was a great help with the website and technology. He grew up here. Bobby’s here five years. I know his dad. We’re from the same neighbourhood. We feel we’re more like a club now. We’re friendly. We have good craic. We’re fair. We’re honest.” I suggest that the range of records in the shop is one thing that is unique about the shop. From Magnetic Fields box sets to Alcopop! Records curated RSD compilations. “That (Magnetic Fields box set) sold actually, “Ray offers. “There was a guy who came in who couldn’t find it anywhere.”

As our hour together draws to a close, one thing has become abundantly clear throughout. It’s not just that Ray loves music or that he wants to share that music with others. There’s more to it than that. “I’d love to see bands doing better. Irish bands having a bit of a mini economy. Just enough for four lads in a band to make a living. I’d do anything to try and help people get there.” And that’s that. Community is key. And that’s what MusicZone is above all else. A community.

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