Rough Trade Moves to Midtown




June 2021 kicked off with a string of full-fledged summer days, and New York was teeming with barbeques, picnics, parties, and happy hours. The city’s resurgence from the pandemic was palpable. Music blared from bars and echoed from portable speakers sitting on grassy lawns or strapped to passing bikes. All these melodies collided to form the dizzying cacophony of a city in motion.

Inherent in that motion are constant changes to the city’s landscape. On June 1, 2021, the formidable Brooklyn record store and venue Rough Trade opened at a surprising new location: midtown Manhattan’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

Rough Trade began in 1976 as a record store in West London. It was inspired by San Francisco’s independent, community-oriented City Lights Bookstore and translated that ethos to London’s growing punk and DIY scenes. This spawned an independent label, Rough Trade Records, which signed bands like the Smiths and the Strokes. Between its scrappy West London beginnings and the 2013 opening of its New York City location, Rough Trade went on to open stores across San Francisco, Tokyo, and Paris, all of which eventually closed due to rising music sales online.

Rough Trade’s former New York outpost was a 10,000 square foot former warehouse on a quiet block of North 9th Street, near the Williamsburg waterfront. In addition to housing many aisles of records, a snug listening room, a coffee counter, and even ping pong tables, its adjacent concert venue played host to hundreds of major artists and rising indie stars alike. Upon its opening, it became the largest record store in New York City.

The Williamsburg store closed its doors in March 2020 as pandemic restrictions descended upon New York City. In January 2021, its owners announced that the store and venue would not reopen. It would move to a new, yet-to-be-announced location.

Explaining COVID-19’s impact on the store’s future, Rough Trade co-owner Stephen Godfroy said in the January press release, “Sales are diverting online, along with the power and reach of online communities, all of which gives us inspiration to become more and not less accessible, to creatively reassess the junction between online and offline interaction.”

With their cultivated social media presence and online store, Rough Trade is shifting its focus away from on-the-ground music scenes and towards the virtual realm. The pandemic has led to many valuable innovations in the accessibility of “live” music—fans can gain unprecedented access to intimate, at-home performances by their favorite artists via livestreams. Throughout the lockdowns, Rough Trade has been using Instagram’s TV feature to share a series of free-to-view performance recordings called Rough Trade Transmissions. Virtual programming is scheduled to continue through the summer.

Given the easing of pandemic restrictions, Rough Trade will continue to host artist signing events and put on live shows, though their former programming partner, Bowery Presents, has been replaced by Rockefeller Center. Concerts will take place 65 floors high in the iconic Rainbow Room and outdoors at Rockefeller Plaza.

Nestled between NBC Studios and Magnolia Bakery, the new Rough Trade location is only a distant relative of its Williamsburg predecessor. The interior is compact and colorful, and a collage of beloved album covers coats the floors, featuring everyone from Bedouine to Buzzcocks to the Beach Boys, all years and genres stacked on top of each other.

As I entered the store, it became clear that Rough Trade is trying to merge disparate worlds within the tight space of its new Manhattan location. According to a press release, the store’s Vestaboard smart messaging displays are “marrying the romance of analogue with the intelligence of technology.” Similarly, a collaboration with knitwear brand HADES is described as having “found the sweet spot between fashion-forward elegance and wearing your favorite band tee.” The store sells a pink sweater emblazoned with The Cure’s logo for $310. It hangs on the wall next to a black X-Ray Spex scarf and Rough Trade x Deadwood exclusive leather jackets and tote bags.

In the same press release that announced the store’s plans to move, Godfroy champions Rough Trade as “a place to meet other curious minds that helps establish a life-affirming sense of belonging, community and friendship.”

Godfroy is right: music creates community, and the physical spaces built around it have facilitated and fostered those connections throughout time. Most independent performance spaces have struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic, and Rough Trade’s sacrifice of square footage and an in-house venue feels reflective of this. Many other New York City venues have come together to form the New York Independent Venue Association, in affiliation with the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). Left largely without adequate government aid, these popular New York City music spaces—venues like Le Poisson Rouge, Blue Note, House of Yes, Baby’s All Right, and hundreds more—are fighting to survive.

Communities built around music—including London’s punk subculture that remains integral to Rough Trade’s branding today—were built outside of the mainstream, both as a deliberate rejection of its values and by necessity. If the only independent music spaces that thrive in this time do so by partnering with a commercial complex named for the United States’s first-ever billionaire, that seems indicative of a dangerous trajectory for the future of New York City’s arts communities.

In Rough Trade’s punk-inspired leather jackets, in the existence of a designer menswear boutique that also sells vinyl records where iconic club CBGB used to be, and even in Williamsburg’s clinging to an industrial aesthetic despite the luxury condos that now compose its horizon, we see images of pioneering arts scenes sold back to us with hefty price tags attached. The commodification of this image comes at the expense of the real thing. Conscious intervention to save independent arts spaces—and to keep them independent and accessible to the city’s inhabitants—is necessary to continue New York’s artistic legacy.

Maybe Rough Trade’s move to a smaller location signals a shifting relationship between music and physical space in New York City. Or maybe the international record store chain isn’t that interested in New York’s local music scenes at all. Rough Trade has long grown out of its DIY roots, and while the Williamsburg location may have attempted a facade of authenticity, perhaps Rockefeller Center is a more accurate expression of its current missions: expanding the market for vinyl records and bringing technological innovation to analog media.

But despite the store’s shifting values, what I keep hearing from those around me as the city reopens is that our digital lives have left us longing for physical community spaces. We want spaces to wander around and get lost in, spaces where we feel at home among others. To no fault of Rough Trade’s knowledgeable staff and compelling curation, this sense of shared space feels lost in translation between the two locations.

On my last real night out before the pandemic lockdown began, some friends and I visited Rough Trade in Williamsburg. It was the end of February 2020. The days were cold and tight and the impending lockdown was a hazy anxiety lingering in our peripheral vision. We had planned to go to a film screening that ended up being sold out, leaving us with time to kill before the night’s party. It was getting late, I didn’t want to spend money on drinks or food, and I recalled that Rough Trade was open till 10 pm.

We wandered into the dark, cavernous interior and ventured off into separate aisles. I found myself facing a large support beam with headphones attached at eye level. I put them over my ears and pressed a play button on the beam. I listened to Weyes Blood’s Rough Trade Session, acoustic recordings of several tracks from her 2019 album Titanic Rising. The baroque music felt delicate and liquid as if it existed within the same underwater world that decorates the album’s cover. It filled the air around me as I stood in the middle of the room. Before long, I felt submerged too, distant from everything, invisible to the friends I had come with. I let the minutes drip away.

Maybe that’s why I can’t stop missing the converted Brooklyn warehouse, even though the new store is beautiful, clean, and concise. For months after that February night, I interacted with most of my community through a tiny window on my laptop screen. The memory of that large room came to feel surreal. I craved it every day: a brief respite from the world’s noise, a boundless space to fill with music.