Trying to save Head in Belfast: why did a successful record shop have to close?

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Last year for Record Store Day, I wrote a blog post about the records shops I grew up with in Northern Ireland, and how they helped me gain a sense of identity through my teens and into my twenties. None of them that I mentioned exist now, but recently there was a glimmer of hope for Belfast's record buying public with the emergence of two new shops - Dragon records, which is small and independently run from a first floor space above a tattooists - and Head, which is much larger and part of a small chain of shops, and until today it was leasing a large space in the lucrative Victoria Square shopping centre.

However, this is not simply another story about the slow death of the high street music retailer. Instead it's a tale about how a large shop filled a gap in Belfast's cultural community and became a commercial success in the process. Unlike most record stores in the current climate, Head had traded very well over Christmas and the management are on record as saying that it beat its performance targets.

For those of you who don't know Belfast, I should explain that Victoria Square is a very upmarket shopping centre right in the centre of the city. It cost £400m to build and opened in March 2008. It has the largest House of Fraser in the UK and has approximately 17 million visitors a year, a figure which places it in the top 10 shopping centres in the country. Even if you don't go there to shop, its distinctive glass dome offers the highest public views across the city.
On a visit back home last year, I was delighted to find that there was a brand new - and very large - record shop trading there. I wandered in and expected to find the usual bland mix of CD and DVDs that is so common in the remaining high street music retailers. Instead I found the widest range of specialist music and DVDs I have seen outside London in a long time. I spent over an hour there, talking to the staff and buying so many hard-to-find CDs that I needed a basket.

That was January 2011 and Head had only been open for a month. The shop quickly established itself as a place to find almost any release, and, unusually for a chain store, it became a focal point for the local music scene. It stocked local releases whilst only paying the VAT, thereby passing the profit straight back to the artist, and it was happy to publicise small gigs and music and film club nights across the city. They arranged in-store performances and signing sessions from both local acts and visiting bands of the stature of Bombay Bicycle Club and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club; though the real scoop was getting Josh T Pearson to play a song from inside that glass dome!
Although they were only in their first year of trading they won a Best Record Store in Ireland award, and were recognised by Mojo magazine as their record store of the month.

So what went wrong? Well, it reads like a case of the big company squeezing the little company out of its space, as Head's lease had come to an end and a large clothing company had made a better offer. The management had put in offers for other spaces in the city centre, including one that was only a third of its current size, but all of them were rejected. It seems crazy in the current climate with units sitting empty, but these landlords were expecting the store to commit to a five year lease with full rent and rates and service charges, which is all but impossible for a CD retailer. Belfast is now without a specialist music shop, and not through any lack of demand.

In fact the passion to save Head was so strong that it led one customer, Tracey Gibson, to set up a Facebook page dedicated to that cause. Like many of its customers, Tracey was impressed with Head's hugely varied stock and its knowledgeable and helpful staff, and with around 1500 joining that Facebook page in less than a week, it is obvious that she is not alone.

It seems Head had reached that point where it was more than just a shop. The staff had been recruited for their musical knowledge and a lot of them felt at home there. When you have a job like that, not only are you fortunate, but you just don't want it to end. It's sad fact that in Northern Ireland they could struggle to find something similar. Good luck to them, because in one year of trading they helped to change the cultural life of the city, and they can all be proud of their achievements.

words by Jonathan Greer
pics taken on the last day of trading by Tom McShane


  1. Super piece J. The suits in charge of the rents and rates in these places are ruining things. It's the same here with places closing down because of high rents and impossible demands on small businesses. I hope Head finds a new trading post soon. Good luck to them.

  2. Head was a major boost to the local music scene through stocking local product. Good Vibes, Dragon Records and more recently Magpie Records still carry on the fight but Head will be sadly missed. The people who worked there knew their stuff and it was quite obvious they loved what they were doing.Good luck to them all and hopefully Head will be back soon in Belfast and hopefully with the same staff who were a credit to Head.

  3. Still looking for a new home so please keep sharing this artical and the Save 'Head' page :-)
    Also thanks Johnaton this is a great piece and a big help
    Tracey Gibson (DiscMistress Tracey FB)

  4. happily there is some news of Head re-opening in new premises in Belfast, around July 14th. check their Facebook page