Virgin Records 1970-1971
While hanging out with his music loving mates with whom he had started his first business with - publishing Student Magazine - 20 year old Richard Branson is inspired to have a go at starting a record distribution service.
‘There was tremendous excitement about music: it was political; it was anarchic; it summed up the young generation’s dream of changing the world. And I also noticed that people would never dream of spending as much as 40 shillings on a meal wouldn’t hesitate to spend 40 shillings buying the latest Bob Dylan album.’ Richard Branson, Losing My Virginity
With his focus on giving cash-stricken students a better deal than they could currently get in the shops, Richard decides to provide discounted records via mail order. An initial advert in the last ever edition of Student magazine proves more than successful. However, the new business needs a name.
‘Slipped Disc was one of my favourite suggestions. We toyed with it for a while, until one of the girls leant forward: “I know” she said. “What about “Virgin”? We’re complete virgins at business.” Great – I decided on the spot. “It’s Virgin”’. Richard Branson, Losing My Virginity
Virgin Mail Order Records quickly takes off. But in January 1971, it’s almost as quickly ruined when a paralysing postal strike stops Richard in his tracks. The solution to carry on selling records and save Virgin? Open up a shop. A shop nothing like the dull and formal record shops currently on the high street.
‘We wanted the Virgin Record shop to be an enjoyable place to go, we wanted to relate to the customers and we wanted to be cheaper than the other shops.’ Richard Branson, Losing My Virginity
Picking the cheaper end of Oxford Street in London at the point where he counts the most people walking by, Richard finds a shoe shop at 24 Oxford Street with an apparently empty first floor. He strikes a cheeky deal with the shop owner. Richard bargains to pay no rent at all on the first floor space and says he’ll simply occupy it until someone else wants it. He promises that in the meantime he’ll attract loads more young customers to the owner’s shoe shop
‘Within 5 days we had built shelves, put piles of cushions on the floor, carried a couple of old sofas up the stairs and set up a till. The first Virgin Records shop ready for business. The day before opening we handed out hundreds of leaflets along Oxford Street offering cut price records. On the first day, Monday, a queue over a hundred yards long formed outside. I was on the till when the customers started coming through. The first customer bought a record by Tangerine Dream.’ Richard Branson, Losing My Virginity
Virgin Records’ reputation soon spreads and a loyal customer base develops. Probably helped by the laid back atmosphere where you’re encouraged to stay as long as you want. Lie back on a bean bag, drink some free coffee, slip on the headphones, read your free copy of Melody Maker or NME. Why bother with the big old fashioned chain stores?
Virgin Records’ first advertised campaign is full of less-than-subtle puns: ‘There are no dopes at Virgin Records. That’s because all our customers are cool. They know a swell joint when they see one.’ Rumours say that more than just music and coffee is on offer, but Richard refuses to just mellow out…
‘I knew very little about the record industry, but from what I saw at the record shop I could see that it had unlimited potential for growth and that the real potential for making money lay in the record companies.’ Richard Branson, Losing My Virginity
Bemused by the stuffy formality of overbooked recording studios in the city where bands have to adhere to strict timetables, Richard decides to offer a new approach.
‘I imagined that the best environment for making records would be a big comfortable house in the country where a band could come and stay for weeks at a time and record whenever they felt like it.’ Richard Branson, Losing My Virginity
Flicking through Country Life Magazine, Richard finds The Manor for sale – a beautiful 17th century Cotswold stone house in Shipton-On-Cherwell near Oxford. Impressing the bank with the Virgin Records shop sales figures, On 25 March 1971 Richard secures his first mortgage on The Manor. £20,000. He is still just 20 years old.