Of the people you would expect to be figureheads for North East economic regeneration, a record shop owner would not be high on the list. But Graham Thrower is no ordinary record shop owner, as Christopher Knox found out
A FORBIDDING blast of rock music can disorientate the unsuspecting visitor on entering the sleekly designed record store, cafe and gallery which is home to alt.vinyl just off Westgate Road in the centre of Newcastle.
But Graham Thrower is in his element as he flicks through the neatly ordered racks of vinyl long players, with the faces of as diverse and esoteric a gallery of musicians as you could find looking down from the album covers adorning the walls.
As the London-born City banker turned entrepreneur and North East economic champion adjourns to the relaxed cafe, run by a friend of his to give its patrons somewhere to bask in the Bohemian atmosphere, he explains his passion for music.
“I have been into music ever since I was a little kid growing up in London. I used to go to all the underground venues and got into the ska scene pretty early on and then punk and reggae,” he says.
“This then changed to more avant garde bands such as Cabaret Voltaire, which was pretty much the best band I had ever seen live.
“I’ve never really thought of my taste as eclectic or different, it has just naturally evolved over the years without me having to think about it. Music is so important to me and it’s discovering new music that still gets me really excited. It’s all very well buying a new album from an artist that you already love, but for me it’s all about discovering that new sound that keeps this industry so interesting.
“That’s why it annoys me when people say that there is not enough good music out there at the moment. The fact is that most of the good stuff isn’t in the mainstream.”
As well as running one of the region’s best record shops, Mr Thrower also sits on the board of regional development agency One North East and is chairman of North East-based music development agency Generator.
It may seem a strange combination of roles until you look back at his impressive CV. His career began in the cut and thrust of London’s corporate finance and investment banking sector, where he spent 15 years at companies including Lloyds Bank, Société Générale and most notably as managing director at Citigroup, where he played a leading role raising debt and equity for numerous global corporates including Vodafone, BT, Orange, Ericsson and Nokia.
Dealing primarily with telecom, media and technology companies in more than 30 countries, Thrower travelled extensively and shook hands with some of the world’s most powerful business men and women.
He says: “It was certainly an exciting time for me and I did enjoy working with some of the biggest companies as well as doing so much travelling, which also led me discover even more music.”
By 2002, with a successful career in the City under his belt, he decided to take a step back and use the knowledge he had gained to set up his own business, with his ambition to set up an independent record store at the top of his list.
“We knew we couldn’t set up in London, due to costs and also I had a young family so I fancied getting out too. We were looking for a place that had a real buzz to it and one that had a real underground scene going on,” he explains.
“We visited a number of places, such as Plymouth, Exeter Norwich, York and Lincoln, but Newcastle just stood out, both in terms of a growing and exciting music scene and for pure quality of life.
“Everyone is just so friendly here, which is really important when you have a family, and this is also the case among the city’s music industry as it is really supportive of any new business setting up.
“It really was the case of being won over by the city, which is the same reason I hear from many of the entrepreneurs I have spoken to that have relocated here.”
Most of alt.vinyl’s business is done through its website altvinyl.com, which sends some of its stock as far as Japan and America, with avid collectors prepared to pay big money for some of its rarer musical artifacts.
“Although most of the record buying public is turning to digital downloads, our customers still appreciate the time and effort that is put into making a good quality heavy vinyl record,” Thrower says.
“This includes everything from the artwork, the black and white photography and the actual sound it produces. When I’m out and about I will listen to my MP3 player, but when I’m at home there’s nothing better than kicking back with a drink and listening to vinyl.” However, as consumers demand more immediacy in their purchases and today’s cash-conscious shoppers look for cheaper ways to access music, does Thrower think that the art of vinyl pressing has a limited shelf life?
“It’s got to be having some kind of impact as people haven't got as much money to buy records as they used to have,” he says. “However, the type of customer we attract means that issues affecting the wider recession don’t affect us as much.
“They have always known that it’s usually more expensive to buy something like vinyl, but that has never stopped them in the past. If vinyl was to have died a death, it would have done so a long time ago. If anything it is becoming more popular as people look for an alternative to downloads. It will be CDs that die off as an industry before vinyl does.”
To ensure that as many people as possible get to hear alt.vinyl’s range of music, Thrower sells CDs as well as lavishly designed cassette tape box sets. And, although it may seem to purists that he is turning to the dark side , he is also looking to put the label’s entire catalogue online for download, both through his website and an external distributor.
He says: “The fact is that it’s not a commercial decision to offer downloads, it’s more about allowing everyone the chance to hear the music that we offer. It’s very doubtful that people in their droves are going to try to illegally download Japanese psychedelia for example, so we have more control over where our music is going than other businesses in the industry.”
Thrower has many plans for the alt.vinyl brand, such as the development of its record label, which has already put out 14 records since being launched in 2006, as well as working with the Workplace Gallery in Gateshead to increase its on-site art space.
That’s not to say that he has moved away from any involvement in the wider business community. Far from it. His unique perspective as a businessman who has climbed the City’s corporate ladder and is now running a small and quirky shop in Newcastle prompted him to apply for a role of non-executive director at One North East.
He has now become an important adviser at the regional development agency on issues such as the North East’s cultural landscape, event management and business regeneration and has now joined the board of the management team at Newcastle Science Company Ltd, which is behind the Newcastle Science City project. He said: “With all the experience I had gained in the financial markets, I realised I had a lot to offer and decided to apply for a position on the board at ONE once it came up.
“There have been so many advances here over recent years, particularly in the areas of bio-science, renewable energy, printable electronics, industrial nanotechnology, regenerative medicine. That’s why, despite the overwhelming sense of doom and gloom, I am really bullish about the prospects for the region.”
Last year saw him extend his extra-curricular activities by becoming chairman of Generator, the North East music development agency, which was established in 1991 with the aim of improving networking, training and facilities for musicians and grass roots music workers.
The voluntary organisation, which is funded from a number of sources such as Arts Council England, Newcastle City Council and the Northern Rock Foundation, runs a number of projects, including Soundscope, a mentoring scheme for young urban music artists and The Know How 2009, in which a group of industry insiders get together to dispense their pearls of wisdom at Northern Stage, Newcastle.
Mr Thrower says: “It’s fantastic to be able to be in a position where you can make a real difference to some of those wanting to make a go of it in the music industry.
“It has a reputation for being a tough market to crack and that’s why it’s so important that a strong support structure is put in place at a grass roots level.
“I think the most important thing is making people realise that there are lots of opportunities here in the region, and that they don’t have to go down to London to start up a successful venture, whether that be in music, bio-science or anything else.”