Sounding Board

In Defense Of Record Store Day

If you’re not doing anything else the evening of Friday, April 20, look in front of your closest independent record store. Go behind the store if there’s an alley. If you see people with tents, empty pizza boxes, and a BlueTooth speaker, you know you’re in the right place. Record Store Day hits thousands of US retailers the following day, Saturday, April 21. To vinyl enthusiasts and record collectors, being among the first patrons through the doors is like getting tickets to the Super Bowl — and probably more expensive.

Eleven years after its debut, Record Store Day has become an essential event for an endangered retail species. This year, RSD will bring more than 400 vinyl releases — ranging from 7″ singles to box sets (plus five CDs and a couple of cassettes) — from both major and independent labels. There are indications the 2018 edition will be more successful than recent predecessors. “I’m kind of blown away by the list [of releases] this year,” says Doyle Davis, co-owner of Grimey’s New And Pre-Loved Music in Nashville. For the first time, a complete list of Record Store Day releases was made available in advance. “I’m hearing the same from customers. People seem excited. I didn’t feel that the last few years.”

Among the most anticipated — and priciest — titles is Legacy Recordings’ five-LP 50th-anniversary edition of Johnny Cash’s Live From Folsom Prison. The package includes both January 13, 1968 concerts — for the first time on vinyl — and a 12″ single with previously unreleased recordings of a rehearsal from the night before the concert. Only 2,500 units will be available. Another hot-ticket item is the two-track Led Zeppelin 7″ single, which will feature the “Sunset Sound Mix” of “Rock And Roll” and the “Olympic Studios Mix” of “Friends,” both of which are previously unreleased.

With all the hullabaloo about Saturday, along with the triumphant return of the vinyl LP over the last decade, you might be surprised to learn vinyl sales account for just six percent of recorded-music revenue in the United States. Spotify, Pandora, SiriusXM, Apple, and Amazon are the giants of the record business. But the clamor exists in part because Record Store Day helped save many music retailers. Consumers’ desire for digital music hit brick-and-mortar retail in the early- and mid-’00s. Tower Records, a 46-year-old icon that transformed music retail into a music lover’s paradise, filed for bankruptcy twice before going out of business in 2006. Many other national and regional chains, as well as mom-and-pop record stores, had shuttered in the young century.

“It was a huge shot in the arm the first number of years about spreading the awareness of vinyl’s comeback, and creating a new generation,” says Grimey’s Davis.

“For true record stores, Record Store Day is essential,” insists Michael Kurtz, one of the event’s co-founders. “They wouldn’t be in business for the most part [without it].”

Vinyl has also found a savior in Record Store Day. Vinyl sales were virtually non-existent in the mid-’00s outside of hip-hop and dance music. Sales were so low that the few record-pressing plants in business couldn’t keep up with demand once sales started to rebound. So supply could catch up with demand, pressing machines were unearthed and put into production around the country. “We haven’t seen a dip in sales since Record Store Day” began in 2007, says Jarrett Hankinson of Zia Record Exchange, an eight-store chain in Arizona and Nevada.

So if Record Store Day is so successful, why does it have detractors? Some independent labels have blasted the event’s organizers for catering to the whims of major labels and rejecting indie releases. Furthermore, prices are indeed high — although album prices, in general, are getting ridiculous ($28.98 for a 180-gram vinyl single LP?). Additionally, many people don’t like to see Record Store Day titles on eBay after they stood in line yet walked away empty handed. But the most contentious aspects of Record Store Day could be the quantity of reissued titles. One might think the record industry has been stripped down to just online streaming and vinyl releases of decades-old albums. Meanwhile, some Record Store Day reissues aren’t exclusive and are made widely available only afterward.

Run down the list of Record Store Day releases and you’ll spot dozens of reissues. Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits. Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On (on the occasion of its 45th anniversary). Grant Green’s Slick! Live At Oil Can Harry’s. Wilco’s Live At The Troubadour 11/12/96. The Cure’s Mixed Up. Legacy Recordings, Sony Music’s imprint for its historical recordings, has 29 Record Store Day releases. It’s not just the major labels putting out old records. This year, Beggars Banquet is reissuing Buffalo Tom’s 1993 album, Big Red Letter Day.

The notion that reissues might be taking the place of independent releases has rubbed some people the wrong way. Michael Kurtz, a Record Store Day co-founder, sees things differently. The event started with just one independent label, Beggars Group, and its success gave other small labels the confidence to press a few thousand records as exclusives. “Now, easily 65 to 70 percent of releases are indie labels,” says Kurtz. Rather than punish indies, Record Store Day might have helped small labels by demanding higher quality to capture consumers’ limited bandwidth (and wallet).

Kill Rock Stars President Portia Sabin says the competition between labels has pushed Kill Rock Stars to release “only the best stuff” from its catalog. In 2015, Kill Rock Stars put out a reissue of the Decemberists’ Picaresque on red vinyl with a 16-page booklet and set of postcards. “It was one of the most beautiful packages we’ve ever done,” she says. Even so, Sabin understands that people might worry a major label reissue could take the place of a more thoughtful package from an indie. “The idea that instead of taking that, they’ll take the three millionth pressing of [Fleetwood Mac’s] Rumours,” says Sabin, stopping mid-sentence. “I’m not trying to diss anybody involved with Rumours.”

To be fair, reissues tend to be a title’s introduction or reappearance on vinyl. Springsteen’s Greatest Hits and Buffalo Tom’s Big Red Letter Day haven’t been available on vinyl in years. The same goes for this year’s releases by Lil Uzi Vert, Wilco, the Cure, and many others. But there’s still room for confusion. Many reissues are merely released first at Record Store Day before being sold through normal channels. Of the 424 releases currently on the event’s website, 132 are what’s called “Record Store Day Firsts,” not be confused with one-off exclusives.

The challenge is making sure the buyers understand what they’re buying. A Record Store Day First release is acceptable “as long as you’re clear with the marketing,” says Mike Sniper, founder of Omnian Music Group. Captured Tracks, one of Sniper’s labels, is releasing a collection of unreleased recordings by Mac DeMarco titled Old Dog Demos. Sister label Sinderlyn is giving Record Store Day an exclusive on the Sleigh Bells seven-song LP Kid Kruschev. Sinderlyn has marketed the 1,000-unit pressing on clear vinyl as the album’s first and only vinyl pressing. “You don’t want to create buyer’s remorse. Trying to get people to wait in line and have it released a few weeks later, you’re asking for people to be remorseful.”

Record labels often use Record Store Day as a slingshot for albums being brought back to the market. A reissue needs to get awareness in a market dominated by new releases, explains John Jackson, Senior VP, A&R at Legacy Recordings/Sony Music Entertainment. One common marketing tactic is to create an event around an anniversary reissue. “It’s a much easier way to start that conversation” with consumers, says Jackson. Creating a unique version for Record Store Day also helps build momentum. For Springsteen’s Greatest Hits, Legacy has created 5,000 numbered, red-vinyl versions. Once sold out, Legacy will start pressing standard black vinyl albums. Likewise, Legacy’s four-LP reissue of The Allman Brothers’ Live At The Atlanta Pop Festival, July 3 & 5, 1970 is limited to 3,000 numbered units for Record Store Day and will later be given a standard release.

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For all the complaints, and in spite of shortages that will undoubtedly leave some fans empty handed, Record Store Day has become a phenomenal event. About 1,400 vinyl-selling retailers in the United States — and thousands more in other countries — gather once a year to celebrate record stores, vinyl culture, and the love of collecting music. They host local band performances, sell locally made microbrews, and partner with local charities. Collectively, these events are the antithesis of digital music services, outreaches to an actual community rather than a global audience. Grimey’s makes Record Store Day a highly anticipated, all-day event. This year the store will have eight bands in its parking lot. The first buyers — they’ll camp overnight and use a port-o-john supplied by the store — will start shopping at 10 AM. People will mill about tables full of cheap CDs and LPs. Local beer and two food trucks will be on hand. The live music goes from noon to 8 PM. Zia Records has gone a step further by incorporating charitable giving since the first their Record Store Day. This year, Zia will donate to Boys & Girls Club the money it receives from raffles and sales of a T-shirt sourced from a local design contest. “Zia has been able to put together some really big contributions,” says Zia’s Hankinson. “It’s something we’re is really proud of.”