FEATURE: POP RECS LTD. | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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“Sunderland’s taken it upon itself to bid for the 2021 UK City of Culture and I don’t see why Pop Recs shouldn’t be at the centre of that bid, as an organic self-driven community hub. This is what it’s about, surely. If we can do it, anyone else can; we’re essentially idiots.”

So says Dave Harper, Frankie & The Heartstrings’ drummer, record shop owner, licensee and, as we speak, master of Microsoft Paint. “I’ve been learning to do floor plans, sat here on Paint like a dickhead, wondering what the fuck I’m doing. Someone should write this book, it’s crazy.”

In July 2015 Pop Recs closed the doors of their Fawcett Street home. With the premises sold by the council, and financial issues dogging the group, the future was uncertain. “We were a bit gung-ho, but we had no choice; I’m proud of that fight we had and the ad hoc way we approached it because there was a character-filled element to it, but it wasn’t from choice.” Dave says, about the first two years of Pop Recs’ life. “Psychologically it can be damaging, we achieved great things but our family and personal lives were decimated, no one really knew what was going on behind the scenes to keep things going.” The band are nothing if not tenacious, and giving up simply wasn’t an option. “The job’s not finished. There’s still a need in the city, we shone a light on what were some very obvious problems.”

Pop Recs Ltd. had established itself, within a remarkably short period of time, as providing a haven for culture lovers in Sunderland. Offering a home for young writers’ groups and musicians’ workshops, supplying a gallery space and a social hub, their live gigs became legendary, with local bands rubbing shoulders with megastars like Edwyn Collins and James Bay (usually playing free entry gigs); Pop Recs became a place where everyone was welcome.

“We achieved a phenomenal amount in two years; all the groups are still going and they all grew. That’s because of the ethos of the place and the opportunities that were presented there. I never thought we’d achieve what we did.”

A testament to the work of a group of people who believe in their beleaguered city, Pop Recs became so much more than a record shop, and not just to the people of Sunderland. And so, when they needed help to rebuild and regroup, an entire community responded. Their Kickstarter target of £6,000 was smashed in under four hours, with an eventual total of over £14,000 reached. Even those aforementioned megastars came up trumps, offering exclusive merchandise up for auction to help raise more funds. “I don’t get emotional very easily, but honestly I could’ve cried, it was unbelievable, I thought it was a wind up.” Dave admits.

By the time you read this, the shop will be open on Stockton Road in Sunderland. With a capacity of around 80, it’s a smaller space but it’ll be no less packed with opportunity. “Classes, mental health drop ins, poetry and young writers groups…all the groups that started before will be back with us, but there’ll be a lot more this time.” Says Dave proudly. “We’ll have a better selection of records, it’ll be more comfortable, serve better coffee, and appeal to different minorities aside from 35 year old indie fans.”

The key to getting things right this time around is sustainability. “It’s completely pivotal. The place needs to be nicer, the coffee nicer…these are the nuts and bolts and what became the elements of Pop Recs. Everyone knows it’s a bad idea statistically speaking to run a record shop, but Pop Recs is four streams – the community side, the live music, the records and coffee: it’s the sum of its parts.”

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It’s clear that Dave, alongside the rest of the group, is defiantly passionate about a business that has become their life. “Thanks to the success of the Kickstarter we’re entrusted to run a sustainable business, which is a strangely pleasant burden to have.” But Pop Recs isn’t a ‘lifestyle’ business, they’re not doing this out of sheer bloody-mindedness; Pop Recs exists because, quite simply, it has to. Dave makes it clear that they’re not setting out to single-handedly solve Sunderland’s problems. “We’re not Sunderland centric; any city organisation that keeps to its own is a prejudice in itself. I know about Sunderland, I know the city and the people and its ways, it just happens to be an area that needs support.”

Returning to the topic of the 2021 City of Culture bid, Dave’s pragmatic about the plans in place, but speaks highly of those at the MAC Trust who have secured funding to restore the old Fire Station building into a live music hub. “The MAC Trust are a great organisation, I think people expect them to work miracles overnight which is impossible, but that lottery fund money is in the right hands. I’m the first person to be a cynical twat about anything like this, but the Fire Station is going to be very much a crown of Sunderland, if they get it right. Having a municipal venue that can be many things to lots of different people is not a million miles away from the Pop Recs ethos. If we get culture status, no one could possibly say that’s shit. It’s not about being a particularly cultured city – because we’re not a cultured city – it’s about accepting that and saying we can benefit from having this focus on the city.”

Having been approached by indie pop band The Lovely Eggs for advice on setting up something similar to Pop Recs in Lancaster, Dave’s aspirations for the future are ambitious. “I hope there’s more. I hope there’s other cities with Pop Recs. I mean, why not, if there’s a place that’s a little culturally starved? Given the nominal money we had to start it, it happened. It’s hard work, it’s knowing your area and having a want to make it happen. I don’t see why not. It works.”

He sums up in his own, inimitable way, “We can make this fucking work for everyone.”

Pop Recs Ltd. is located at 27 Stockton Road, Sunderland.

 

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