Rock City – City of Melbourne Record Stores In The Pandemic

By Jeff Jenkins.

Record Store Day is this Saturday and if you live in Melbourne you have plenty of choice. Jeff Jenkins looked at how some of the inner city stores have been faring over the past six months.

The Rocksteady Crew

“There’s nothing as glamorous to me as a record store,” Sir Paul McCartney believes.

And the great American movie maker Cameron Crowe said, “The record store was a place of escape. It was a library and a clubhouse.”

That’s the vibe I get whenever I walk into Pat Monaghan’s Rocksteady Records in Melbourne. It’s warm and welcoming and Pat is always up for a chat.

Rocksteady Records

I first interviewed Pat in 2016 when he opened Rocksteady (after working for many years at the nearby Basement Discs). My first question was simple: Opening a record store in the era of downloads and streaming … are you nuts?

“No, definitely not nuts,” Pat replied, laughing. “Passionate about music and Australian music in particular? Without a doubt.” 

Pat has been on a vinyl trip since he bought his first record – the soundtrack to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for $4.99 in Port Hedland when he was seven. His first job in record retail was at Perth’s much-loved Dada Records, which opened in 1971. “It’s still there and still inspiring,” Pat says.

Pat loves interacting with customers. He’s had many memorable encounters over the years, including this unforgettable phone conversation.

Customer: “I heard a song on the radio the other day, have you got it?”

Pat: “Ah, who was it by?”

Customer: “Frank Zappa, mate.”

Pat: “What was the song called?” 

Customer: “Don’t know, mate. That’s why I’m phoning you.”

Pat: “Do you remember any of the lyrics? The chorus maybe?”

Customer: “Nah, it’s an instrumental – plenty of guitar, though.”

Pat: “Um, did you catch the name of the album?” 

Customer: “Look mate, you’re supposed to be the f*cking expert – stop wasting my time!” 

And the customer hung up.

Pat didn’t hang up when Rhythms contacted him. In fact, he was happy to talk about his favourite records of the year, and what the industry could do to help local artists.

What’s been the biggest challenge that COVID-19 has presented for your store?

Records being sensory and tactile (perhaps sensual) objects, it has obviously been kinda difficult to convey those sensations when people cannot browse the racks.

Thinking about your record store, what do you miss most about the pre-pandemic days?
Passionate conversations with friends – they are more than customers – about what is out or looming on the horizon. And in-store performances by local musicians.

Has it been hard to “pivot” to online sales?
Not hard exactly, more a healthy challenge to convey the passion, humour and enthusiasm.

What has been the most unusual customer request during the pandemic?
In Stage 3, a guy knocked on the door and asked if it was OK to eat in the store. I said it was, and then watched him sit down at the listening station to eat his sandwich before returning to his iso office.

What have been your three biggest sellers this year?

Nat Vazer’s Is This Offensive And Loud?, Jess Cornelius’ Distance, Khruangbin’s Mordechai.

What has been your favourite album so far this year?
Can’t separate Nat Vazer and Jess Cornelius – evocative and intelligent songs full of drama and mystery. Beguilingly performed and beautifully recorded.

Have you been surprised by the vinyl resurgence?
No … it never went away. Dance, hip-hop and underground music kept the flame burning.

Does the CD have a future?

Sure. CDs are great for artists to sell at gigs etc. I would always personally prefer vinyl.

What can the government do to help record stores?

Well, helping local artists/musicians would ultimately benefit record stores – it doesn’t have to be the government. For example, if some of the heavy-hitting industry figures chose to invest in/fund/underwrite pressing plants, studios etc, so it was cheaper for local artists to record and to then manufacture and distribute vinyl. That would be of enormous assistance. That, rather than issuing fundraising albums etc.

How can Rhythms readers support your store?

Purchase physical releases from current local artists. Take a chance on an artist or on a genre you might not be familiar with.

Do you have any planned activities/events, online or otherwise?

Some online streaming gigs on the Rocksteady Records Instagram page. During Stages 3 & 4, Nat Vazer (solo and with band), BATTS, Rob Muinos, Sweet Whirl and Poppongene have all performed streaming in-store gigs.

Finally, what is the future of the record store?
I’m optimistic. As long as local radio, local independent record companies, magazines, venues and artists exist, record stores will have a valuable role to play. We’re all part of a creative eco-system. If you think otherwise, you’re deluded.

The Basement Tapes

Basement Discs

It’s 12.45pm on Friday. Time for city workers to scurry down the steps of Basement Discs in the Block Arcade for the record store’s legendary lunchtime in-store gig.

But today the city is deserted.

Melbourne is in lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

If a record store opens and no one is around to hear the music, does it make a sound?

“If you ever get lonely,” Penny Lane suggested in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, “just go to the record store and visit your friends.”

Sadly, that’s not an option right now for Melbourne music fans. But fortunately, music continues to provide comfort, as record stores adapt to a changing world.

Rhythms spoke to three of the major record stores in the City of Melbourne.

Times are tough. But they are surviving.

For 26 years, Basement Discs has been a mecca for Melbourne music lovers. But this year has been the store’s hardest – both financially and personally.

When we ask co-owner Rod Jacobs what impact COVID-19 has had on the business, he replies, “Devastating, really. It has been such a struggle to stay alive and if it wasn’t for the incredibly hard work – above and beyond – by Suzanne and the devotion and thoughtfulness of our dear, loyal customers, things might have been very different.”

Co-owner Suzanne Bennett explains that she has been running the business this year as Rod has been battling leukemia.

As Suzanne tells Rhythms, they are hanging on and hanging in there.

What’s been the biggest challenge that COVID-19 has presented for your store? 
Being a very hands-on “analogue” business, relying mainly on face-to-face, in-store relationships with our customers, it’s been quite a challenge to almost completely change to online/email and phone order. 

In this current scenario, the state of the record industry, in regard to their seeming lack of faith or courage re ordering, has been a real worry, especially with import supply chains being so badly affected by the lack of flights into the country. And for the flights that are coming in, the freight is veryexpensive. In ordinary times, we would not have relied on local release dates and always imported new release items ourselves. But, of course, as one small store, we can’t afford premium freight rates. But one would have thought record companies could at least stick to their scheduled release dates and plot freight movement accordingly?

Consequently, the timely supply of new releases and stock levels is very poor, with record companies bringing in very limited quantities and going out of stock of titles almost as soon as they are “officially released”. Pretty much every major overseas new release during the pandemic has been very poorly serviced stock-wise, particularly it would seem in regard to the sort of releases that would/could do really well for stores such as ours (that is, Dylan, Lucinda, Ron Sexsmith, Steve Earle … I could go on and on). And even the issues regarding The Teskey Brothers’ Live at the Forum vinyl were so frustratingly disappointing – we had to pre-order, then didn’t get what we wanted anyway, in either the limited edition or the standard version. So, it would appear something is going very wrong in regard to stock we can access and actually sell. At a time when more people than ever are turning (or returning) to the joy, comfort and inspiration that music provides and, in particular, in a physical format – whether that be CD or vinyl – it just makes for an even more frustrating scenario all round!

Thinking about your record store, what do you miss most about the pre-pandemic days? 
Being open to the general public. Being able to converse, face-to-face, with like-minded music lovers and being able to share in the amazing in-store performances by incredibly talented local and overseas musicians. Record stores historically have been such a social and personalised environment and cultural hub. You miss the interaction, the shared discovery of new artists and new albums, the laughs and the banter and everyone’s news, views and opinions!

Has it been hard to “pivot” to online sales? 
Yes. To be honest, we were well aware that our online store was in major need of an overhaul/update and we talked about it back in January, but as it received so little uptake prior to these last six months, we just couldn’t justify the spend to upgrade/rejig/revamp. Over the years I had tried regularly to particularly encourage country and interstate customers to use the website but, more often than not, the response was, “Oh no, we prefer to shop in person and come in and have our annual browse.” (I would think, “Great, if you only shop with us once a year, we might not be here for your next annual visit!” But I didn’t say that of course.) Anyway, we were seriously extremely worried and concerned as to how our customers would react/take up online shopping with us. But thank God … while it doesn’t compare to actually being open and being able to make suggestions in person, it has been something rather than nothing.

What have been your three biggest sellers this year?  
Well, probably no surprise to Rhythms readers: Dylan, Neil Young and Lucinda … probably in equal amounts!

What has been your favourite album so far this year?

Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways. His Bobness’ best since Time Out of Mind. With special mention to Icecream Hands’ No Weapon But Love. What’s not to love about Charles Jenkins and co? A very welcome return.

Have you been surprised by the vinyl resurgence?
Well, many would say that vinyl never went away. And I think/hope there is a growing backlash against music being only delivered or consumed via your phone or internet … come on, it just ain’t the same! And obviously there are a lot of record collections being passed on to interested sons and daughters and, in turn, they are usually keen to collect their own music experiences. We, who grew up with vinyl (and cassettes) and radio being our only way of accessing and discovering fantastic new music, know only too well how incredibly important loving and building a record collection actually is – it’s truly a soundtrack (and a lasting one) to our lives and sets us off on all kinds of avenues of musical and artistic discovery. Loving and collecting the physical release of a much-loved artist, or one newly discovered, is sublime and everlasting and provides a far more tactile and real connection with the artist and their vision. Plus you actually get to know who plays on the album, who wrote the songs, who produced, who designed the artwork, etc. A network of talent to be savoured!

Does the CD have a future?
Definitely. There is still a whole generation who love to buy CDs. And for many of the same reasons that people are now loving vinyl! We still sell more CDs than vinyl, but often have people ordering both formats for different purposes or locations where they listen to their music. CD is still far superior in sound quality to any kind of download that I know of, and while vinyl is absolutely beautiful, I – and many folk I know – don’t necessarily always want to play vinyl with the necessary interaction and loving care involved (that is, cleaning prior to playing, turning over after 15-25 minutes, cleaning again … or maybe that’s just me?!). 

What can the government do to help record stores?   
I’m not sure to be honest. My particular experience has been that as a partnership with no current employees (we haven’t been able to afford any full-time employees for more than 12 months), we have – like so many in the arts-associated industries – simply “fallen through the cracks”. Only eligible for one lot of JobKeeper payments between us, and not eligible for any of the small business relief grants that have been on offer as we have no employees. So, it’s a personal gripe, but I just wish that something/anything could be available to people – and I know there are many – such as us. I know many businesses have done okay through this – even opening new stores with assistance. And good on them. But it hurts to have been established for 26 years – paying taxes, employing people when I was able to – and yet not able to get any assistance when it is so greatly needed.

How can Rhythms readers support your store? 
Give us a call, email, or shop online. But, most importantly, stay in touch with us. Keep listening to and sharing with friends the joy that recorded music brings to our lives. And remember, if you’re mad about music, you should speak to a specialist. Please try to throw your support and dollars towards Aussie independent record retailers. We are all passionate about all kinds of music and what we do, but we couldn’t do any of it without you. And if you want your favourite bricks and mortar store – the touchstone of music promotion in our community – to survive, shop local, not via overseas-based online stores … please!

Do you have any planned activities/events, online or otherwise?  
Who can plan activities/events at this point, really? And I am not a big fan of online shows. Every musician I have spoken to has found them less than satisfying and the energy that a physical audience provides to an artist’s performance is incalculable. Just as we didn’t get involved in any of the rolling “kerbside RSDs” this year. We’ll wait until it is safe to re-open and just rebuild face-to-face relationships as quickly as we are allowed to do so, in a responsible and controlled way. Maybe put on some mini concerts when things are more certain/safe and comfortable. In the meantime, we put out a weekly newsletter, which many people are telling us they enjoy as a way of staying connected in a more personal way than Facebook or Insta posts. So, we’ll keep focusing on whatever way we can to stay in touch with our lovely, loyal, supportive customers and friends who love music as much as we do. Long may we all run, despite the pandemic!

Finally, what is the future of the record store? 
Most bricks and mortar retailers will be severely challenged over the coming year/s … and it obviously won’t be just record stores. So, if we as a collective actually want our lives and retail landscapes to be as diverse and as interesting as they were pre-COVID, we need to do our darndest to support them. And that’s all kinds of retail. Heaven forbid if we go down the track of online only. Landlords and shoppers need to actively support indie businesses that want to offer a supremely individual shopping experience and real and tangible and tactile options. Record stores will survive with that support and if they continue to do what they do well. The bottom line is people still prefer good service, good advice and enjoyable conversation with experienced like-minded people. And post COVID-19 – if we ever get there – this will be even more greatly needed and appreciated.  

And while we must remember that many businesses (record companies included) would far prefer the convenience and reduced expense of operating online only or, in the case of music, digital delivery only, we can fight back and support businesses if we actually continue to insist on choice and support the businesses that are bringing that to you – often at great personal expense to themselves but with the passion that record store owners have always possessed!

Deep In The Heartland

“Record stores are small businesses with big hearts,” says Hoodoo Gurus singer Dave Faulkner. “People that can show you the best music – they know what you’re looking for.”

Melbourne music lovers might not be able to physically visit their favourite record store right now, but they’re still relying on record stores to help them cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

As the movie director Wim Wenders said, “My advice is don’t spend your money on therapy. Spend it in a record store.”

North Melbourne’s Heartland Records, a delightfully diverse store, is run by Paul Cook, a man who simply loves vinyl. His most prized possession? An original pressing of Nirvana’s first 7” single, ‘Love Buzz’.

Dominated by vinyl, with a funky retro vibe, stepping into Heartland reminds of that encounter in High Fidelity when the customer asks Rob, “Do you have soul?”. And Rob replies, “That all depends.” 

Paul has soul.

Heartland has been in business more than 26 years. And Paul is confident that the store will survive this latest setback. “People can always find the money for a passion,” he says, “however dire their finances are.”

Paul also talks about the difficulties of dealing with the “second wave”, the ’80s band that continues to surprise him, and how he’s working harder than ever.

What impact has COVID-19 had on your business?

We closed on March 24, not really knowing what would happen, as it was all a bit sudden. I remember barricading the back of the shop in case we couldn’t come back for months. Fortunately, it wasn’t as bad as that. I managed to get so many things done in the first lockdown that it was almost a good thing, but then we opened and had to close again after two weeks. From then, it’s been mentally harder to be positive.

What’s been the biggest challenge that COVID-19 has presented for your store?

Strangely enough, it’s actually more work being closed than being open. People have more time on their hands, so there are more enquiries. Online and phone orders all have to be packed and shipped then tracked. Lots of emails, and no staff. I nailed it in the first period, but now can’t keep up.

Thinking about your record store, what do you miss most about the pre-pandemic days?

I like the social aspect, even though people think I’m a miserable sod! Although we have a website, I much prefer to sell out of the store; it feels really strange without it. I also very much enjoyed going to pubs and gigs.

Has it been hard to “pivot” to online sales?

Not really; we have been doing it for a long time, but not the volume we are doing now. As long as you have the materials and are organised, it’s fine, though not my favourite way to spend my time.

What has been the most unusual customer request during the pandemic?

A good one is, “I’m outside the 5km limit, can you drop them off to me?”

What have been your three biggest sellers this year?

New releases are tough these days, with so many physical and online stores all selling the same stuff, so we probably do better with back catalogue in terms of quantity. Black Sabbath – Paranoid, Neil Young – Harvest Moon, and Patti Smith – Horses. They are all frequent sellers.

What’s been your favourite album so far this year?

Made of Rain by The Psychedelic Furs is up there for sure. They have always been a favourite of mine and, after more than two decades, to come out with an album this strong is a testament to their class. Plus it’s on purple vinyl!

Have you been surprised by the vinyl resurgence?

I wasn’t surprised it got popular again as it’s the way to hear music. I was more surprised by just how popular it has become again.

Does the CD have a future?

Drink coasters?

What can the government do to help record stores?

For a country that isn’t big on manufacturing vinyl and bailed straight away for the goose that laid the CD egg, it’s hard to be competitive here. High freight costs, then GST on both the stock and freight, leaves small margins for profit and no room for error. The mark up on music is around 30 per cent, so along with books, it’s a tough gig. Not sure how this can be improved by a government without naming names and calling for a level playing field in terms of prices etc.

How can Rhythms readers support your store?

I guess through purchases, for financial support. Or any comments on how we can improve are welcome – positive or negative.

Do you have any planned activities/events, online or otherwise?

RSD has been split over three months to avoid crowds during the pandemic, so we will have releases and deals on September 26 and October 24 for Record Store Day 2&3.

Finally, what is the future of the record store?

I think positive for the foreseeable future. There is plenty of interest and people can always find the money for a passion, however dire their finances are. Record or rent? I doubt there are many songs with “I paid the rent today” as a lyric, but plenty saying I didn’t.


Record Stores in the City of Melbourne


24 Block Place, Melbourne

Phone: (03) 9654-1110



420/422 Victoria Street, North Melbourne

Phone: (03) 9329-9636



381 Flinders Lane, Melbourne (enter via Tavistock Place)

Phone: 0402 027 137



Level 1 (Upstairs), Mitchell House

358 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne


Phone: 1800 760 070


Shop 2, Campbell Arcade

Degraves Street, Melbourne

Phone: (03) 9663-6310


176 Bellair Street, Kensington

Phone: 9376-5441