Independent spirit

The cult record shop Rough Trade's influence continues in the age of the download

Alongside greasy spoons and the grimy back rooms of local pubs, independent record shops occupy a position at the heart of British popular culture. With their shelves of esoteric wares and knowingly cool assistants, they provide a link to civilisation for provincial boys and girls and a meeting point for urban bohemians.

Rough Trade, the renowned indy record shop which celebrates its 30th anniversary this month, was the place where this image was born. It not only spawned dozens of imitators - including, eventually, some of the major corporate chains - it also played a pivotal role in the development of the do-it-yourself musical culture now known as "indie".

Rough Trade's original Notting Hill shop was opened in 1976 by rock and reggae enthusiast Geoff Travis, who returned from a trip to America with suitcases full of cult records. Established first as a workers' collective, it soon became the focal point for a diverse community of misfit musicians, fanzine writers and visionaries who populated the squats and bedsits around the then run-down area of Notting Hill. People would visit the shop to chat, or post top-ten lists of their favourite records on the noticeboards.

"I'm left with the abiding memory of it as a fairly chaotic place," remembers Green Gartside, whose band Scritti Politti were signed to the Rough Trade record label. "If you visit the offices today, you'll see a large number of people packed into an obscenely small space, knee-deep in records, T-shirts, junk or food. It's a mess and that's exactly how the shop was back in 1977."

Rough Trade's heyday was the politically charged explosion of musical ideas that followed punk in the late Seventies and early Eighties. It was a time of cultural cross-pollination: radical politics rubbed shoulders with reggae, rock and avant-garde art. The eponymous record label was launched in 1978, and went on to become perhaps better known than the shop. It launched the careers of The Smiths, The Strokes, Belle & Sebastian and The Libertines.

Gartside, whose Marxist-influenced band eventually found fame in the US, says that Rough Trade was "alive with ideas. Most of the bands you met there seemed to be generally bright, articulate, lefty and slightly mad. There were interesting conversations to be had, there were interesting people around - you just had the sense that these were intelligent people interested in developing other ways of doing business and making music."

The open-spirited atmosphere of the record shop was reflected in its business practices. It established a nationwide distribution network to help small labels and bands sell their records, and pursued an innovative musical policy - in addition to employing expert staff, it would stock almost any record people brought in.

The anniversary of Rough Trade will be marked by a book, Rough Trade: labels unlimited, while a compilation CD, The Record Shop: 30 years of Rough Trade shops, showcases the ex- tent to which it has informed the past three decades of mainstream pop: we hear some of the first examples of the yelping vocals and jerky melodies that characterise many of today's guitar bands. Hip-hop and afrobeat sit alongside the more traditional rock fare, demonstrating Rough Trade's willingness to explore less familiar musical territory. A second branch of the shop, specialising in electronica, opened in Covent Garden in 1988.

Listeners are also given a glimpse into the minds of musicians who have chosen some of the tracks. Former Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker shows a taste for the musically perverse with Stock, Hausen and Walkman's warped drum loops and sound effects ("Belly Up"), while Björk chooses her sometime collaborators Matmos, who mix avant-garde noise with playful electronica. More recent selections reflect the current passion for roots music that has unearthed the unique, beguiling talent of 1960s blues singer Karen Dalton and there is a nod to past musical glories with electronica act Schneider TM's cover of The Smiths' "There is a Light that Never Goes Out" ("The Light 3000").

What this aural history won't tell you, however, is how the shop and others like it have struggled in recent years, feeling the pinch as music fans increasingly choose to buy their music online or at the growing number of chain stores and supermarkets who sell CDs. In this sense, the anniversary feels as much like the closing of a historical chapter as it does a celebration.

One of the shop's directors, Pete Donne, is optimistic about plans to launch a download service later this year. "We want to replicate the excitement associated with the early days of Rough Trade and give people the opportunity to hear music they can't get anywhere else. Rough Trade has a unique ability to recommend new music to people. We're not just an aggregator of music like iTunes, and we're not marketing-led like Virgin or HMV."

The legacy of Rough Trade is already in evidence on the internet, with networks of bloggers replicating the shop's emphasis on diversity and participation. Online discussion groups, such as I Love Music, allow people to share their enthusiasms. Websites such as last.fm learn from your listening habits, recommend new music and put you in touch with like-minded fans. Thanks to the continuation of this independent spirit, it's never been easier for musicians to make themselves heard, or for fans to discover new music.

"The Record Shop: 30 years of Rough Trade shops" (V2 Records, £13.99) and "Rough Trade: labels unlimited" by Rob Young (Black Dog, £19.95) are both out this month