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Phonica Celebrates A Decade Of Dance Music

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In these days of digital domination, keeping a vinyl-focused record shop open for over a decade is something worth celebrating. Phonica Records, of Soho in London, celebrated 10 years at the heart of the capital’s dance music scene last September and have just released a triple pack compilation of exclusive tracks and record label highlights.

Back in 2003 Simon Rigg was running Koobla Records on Berwick Street, not far from where Phonica now sits, but was having trouble with the owner of the premises. So when The Vinyl Factory – home to FACT Magazine, a vinyl pressing plant, distribution warehouse and events spaces – approached him to start up a record shop as the group’s front of house operation, he took his five staff – including now international DJ Heidi (Vanden Amstel) and The Oscillation’s Tom Relleen – to the Poland Street site.

“It was a car show room beforehand, I was peering through the window thinking ‘what can we do with this?’, so we designed and built everything from scratch,” he recalled. “It was hard at first because we didn’t advertise, back then there were no mailing lists to tell everyone we’d moved, it was all word of mouth, so for years afterwards people would come in not realising who we were.”

Given its backers passion for vinyl, the initial focus was on that format, but even with the introduction of CDs after a few years, wax still makes up 80% of what the shop sells. “Vinyl sales aren’t booming like some news pieces would have you believe, but they’re holding their own and we’ve got a very loyal following,” Rigg points out. “We still don’t sell MP3s, we’re not ruling it out, that might happen in a few year’s time, but it’s a lot of work to do revamping the website to sell something which the shop will only make tiny amounts of money on.”

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The recently revamped website acts as a showcase for Simon and his staff’s selections, which attract everyone from fledgling bedroom DJs to the biggest touring artists. “If we did do it I think it would be more filtered and curated by the staff, but where selling MP3s is all about volume, selling records is more about us picking things we like, putting them on the front page and presenting them to people as what we stand behind. And that goes even more so for in the shop, where we can say ‘oh, you like that, why not try this one’, it’s a communication and an interaction between the members of staff and the customer; as well as between the customers themselves.”

A specialisation on electronic music is what Rigg credits the shop’s longevity to, in a period where other Soho-based music shops institutions have closed down. “I think all the shops that are left now have been strong over the last 10 years, they all have their particular niche, everyone’s fallen into their places. We do certain stuff that maybe Rough Trade or Soul Jazz doesn’t do, while they’re stronger in other fields than we are,” he opined.

Much like those other record shops bucking the closure trend, Phonica has become renowned for its often spontaneous guest sets on the premises, ranging from the likes of Egyptian Lover playing live on Record Store Day to Four Tet turning the place into a sweaty dancefloor for three hours. “The shop doesn’t make any money from them, in fact often we lost money, but they are the most fun,” said Rigg.

“Record Store Day is always a highlight as well, because you get all these people who wouldn’t normally coming into the shop buying records and discovering how much fun it is, people are really enthusiastic on that one day. I wish it carried on a bit longer, hopefully some of them get the bug and come back again, but the fact that you go home with some physical music is important. It’s not just like downloading an MP3, which no one gets excited about.”

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By 2008 the logical progression seemed to be moving into actually starting a label of their own, spurred on by a desire to release the productions of staff members like Hector and Anthea. “This compilation is the product of the last few years of the label really,” explained Rigg. “The first two are all exclusive tracks that we specially commissioned, so that’s DJs, artists and producers who shop in here regularly, and then the third CD is the best of the Phonica label over the last five years, with special remixes and records that have maybe not been available digitally before.”

The exclusive cuts come from a list of DJs and producers that reads like a who’s who of quality dance music during the last decade – Henrik Schwarz, Joe Claussell, Trevor Jackson, In Flagranti, Roman Flugel, I:Cube, Legowelt, Joakim, Psychemagik, Mr G – a true testament to the respect with which Phonica is held in these circles. The third disc acts as a good example of Rigg’s skill as hit picker, with Phonica-signed tracks from Midland, Sad City and North Lake, plus a Four Tet remix and Paul Woolford’s Special Request reworked by Kassem Mosse.

As for the next 10 years, Rigg has drafted in some assistance on the administration side to help step up the label’s production. “We’re also thinking about doing a label of vinyl represses of previous classics that are due reissue, rather than them being £100 on Discogs. It’s not really a money making activity, but we just want to get things back out there,” he stated. “Other than that, it’s just a matter of keeping our events up to the standard we’ve set over the last few years.” The album release party at Fire last Saturday threatened to overshadow the 10th birthday held last October at Fabric, but after that debauchery Rigg mentioned that things might scale back a bit this year, with some smaller parties at Dalston’s Dance Tunnel planned. 

Photos: Sarah Ginn

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