Belfast Underground Records – Where every day is record store day
Interview with owner Gary Dillon
By Cara Gibney • Photography: Tremaine Gregg
To enter Belfast Underground Records, you walk into a record shop stacked neatly with vinyl, mostly electronic but also offering folk, country, pop and other genres. Don’t be fooled. The shop is only one element of what Underground has to offer. It also boasts a recording studio, a YouTube channel, and radio/TV shows of music played in the shop by a rota of 80+DJs.
“We want to make the shop more like a hub, that’s why we set it up like this,”
… owner Gary Dillon told me as Dub Side of the Moon played behind us, “… a hub for music lovers, DJs, for bands to meet and share their ideas, to give them a platform that they can promote their music. Having an actual city centre walk-in presence has turned Underground into a place where people will arrange to meet,” he went on to explain. “DJs who meet here are collaborating now. Recording artists are hearing other people playing on our radio station and they’re contacting each other to play together. Club promoters are involved and DJs are getting more work.”
Dillon has been in the business since he was eighteen. In the mid-90s he moved to Dublin to manage a record shop called Snafu (Belfast had one in Church Lane), then another in Lisburn, before eventually moving to Queen Street twenty years ago under the moniker of Mixmaster.
“Mixmaster was open for ten years or more and people who were coming in 15 years ago are still coming in today”
…he pointed out, “I still recognise faces from back then. They do a circuit of the record shops every week. They also do all the charity shops. People will bypass your lovely well organised shelf space and go straight for the dirtiest crate they can find in the back of everywhere, in the hope that they can find this gem that I’ve missed. We’ve nearly 25,000 records in this building, and if there’s one record with no price on it, they’ll find it.”
That beautifully ignored shelf space exists because of the ongoing cataloguing of records that takes place.
“The amount of time you spend, for very little return … it’s serious. It’s a labour of love.”
He was laughing as he explained, “The cataloguing is impossible to keep on top of. We have listening posts on the counter and people will lift maybe ten records at a time and go and listen to them. They’ll never ever, ever, ever put them back in the right place.”
99% of records in the shop are vinyl. I asked him for his thoughts on the vinyl vs MP3 debate, and expected a bit of dogma on the matter but it didn’t happen. “MP3s I don’t particularly like, vinyl has a much richer sound and depth. I use MP3s for convenience if I’m out and about. I don’t think it matters though. If you buy a good record and play it on a shit record player it’s not going to do it any justice at all, and a lot of the record players that are coming out now to feed the masses are terrible. Your music vinyl snobs will always claim that there’s never a sound like vinyl, but if your output isn’t good nothing is going to sound good. It’s not something I’ve been hung up on. I wouldn’t be shouting from the rooftops that vinyl is so much better sounding than everything else. I think there’s so much more to it than how it sounds.”
He talks about the whole element of owning a product made by an act that you love. “It’s an investment in that band that you have for life,” he explains. “It shows your appreciation of what they do and it helps them to keep going. It’s the same as paying £15 to go and watch them play. If you support and follow that act, you’ll have no problem investing in them because you’ll want them to be the best that they can be, and you want their next album to be better. You feel like you’re playing a small part in their success. It’s why so many small bands are releasing vinyl again, even if they only release 100 copies worldwide. It’s 100 big pieces of plastic around the world with their names on it.”
The Underground radio and TV is streamed, live and recorded, 24 hours a day. Their recording studio has been running successfully for years.
“Our recording engineer and partner in the recording studio, Graeme Laverty, has been doing this for twenty years. He’s a genius.”
“You need to get advice from somewhere,” he explained about what happens if you contact Underground about using the recording studio.
“I’ll be honest … I’m like a nicer version of Simon Cowell.”
If you contact him he asks for a link to something you’ve done. “You need to have a presence somewhere, even a rough demo that you can send me a link to. It doesn’t matter how studio polished anything is. If someone is a good singer, I’ll know they’re a good singer straight away. If someone is a good song writer, I’ll know immediately without having to hear it produced in a studio.”
And they have a plan that is already underway. With the recording studio they can produce music for new local talent. With the TV and radio station they can promote the music around the globe. With the shop they can sell the physical product. “As far as I know that is something that has never been done in Ireland, or anywhere else. And when we get that perfected I think it’s going to be a beautiful thing.”