Last month, British music labels Howling Owl Records and Sonic Cathedral put up a controversial blog post proclaiming that “Record Store Day Is Dying.” They uploaded their “Unofficial Official Statement” to the subtly titled recordstoredayisdying.com.
Record Store Day, for the uninformed, is exactly what it sounds like: One day a year, buyers and sellers of vinyl records (you know, those Frisbee-sized music discs your grandparents told you about) come together to celebrate their shared obsession with the anachronistic audio technology in a frenzy of exclusive vinyl releases and markdown sales that enthusiasts line up early in the morning to partake of. The event’s been around since 2007, but while it’s “a beautiful concept,” as the dissenting labels wrote in their manifesto, Record Store Day to them has become “just another event in the annual music-industry circus . . . co-opted by major labels and used as another marketing stepping stone.” They certainly aren’t the only ones who have offered similarly worded grumblings.
So—is Record Store Day actually bullshit?
I mean, this wouldn’t be the first time that envious second-raters excused their own failures by complaining that their competitors have sold out. But on the other hand, it’s also easy to dismiss artistic integrity as mere whining. So which is it?
To dig into the merits of these accusations, I called local labels and record stores and asked for their take.
“I think that’s classic indie physics,” says Jon Rooney of Abandoned Love Records, a modest Seattle label. “We want to keep [Record Store Day] small, but it needs to get bigger at the same time.” Rooney acknowledges that major labels get a big cut of the Record Store Day pie. “But [that] doesn’t change the fact that Everyday Music is going to have a bunch of bands playing in the shop at the same time, which is the more important touch point for small labels and small bands,” he says.
This isn’t just an issue with stores, though. The real complaint from labels like Sonic Cathedral is that major labels like Rhino are hogging the vinyl production line. See, only a handful of plants in the U.S. can actually produce new vinyl records (VICE puts the number at 20). But while vinyl sales have sunk to a quivering shadow of their former, circa-1980 selves, the past decade has seen an itty-bitty renaissance. Using Nielsen numbers, The Wall Street Journal reports an eightfold increase since 2005, from one million records sold per year to nearly eight million.
The problem: It’s a lot easier to make new records than to make new record-making machines. The recent surge in demand for vinyl has not been matched by a corresponding industrial capacity for supply, because who knows when or if the vinyl bubble is going to pop? Consequently, record-pressing plants are chronically overwhelmed with orders.
“The last year and a half, it’s pretty much been nonstop,” says Stephen Sheldon, president of Rainbo Records, a pressing plant outside L.A. “The demand has outgrown the supply at the moment. You’re dealing with old technology and you’re dealing with old presses.” Ditto at United Record Pressing, according to director of marketing Jay Millar: “We’ve been running at max capacity for probably over a year.”
With this year-round bottleneck, it’s easy to understand how some labels could see Record Store Day as the equivalent of adding a flipped fish delivery truck to an already constipated traffic jam. “As far as the small labels,” says Josh Hansen, manager at Everyday Music on Capitol Hill, “definitely Record Store Day is the worst time of year for them, because they can’t get their stuff pressed—they can’t get it released.”
“The major labels, they just see it as a way to capitalize on a bunch of people being in the store at the same time,” says Josh Wright of Seattle label Light in the Attic. He’s not just irked that the bigger fish are making money, it’s that they’re doing it by pumping out the same tofu-flavored noise that haunts Starbucks and elevators around the globe every other day of the year. Really, we’re going to jam up scarce record-plant space with another reissue of Bob Marley’s Legend?
“We used to be able to get a record done in four to six weeks,” says Wright. “Now it takes 10 to 20 weeks.”
OK, sure—the recent surge of interest in black plastic pancakes has literally jammed the presses, creating months-long backlogs. But isn’t that just business?
“It’s kind of like Christmas for us, except it’s bigger than Christmas,” says Hansen of Everyday Music. “People start lining up at, like, six o’clock in the morning. Last year it stretched all the way . . . [to] the corner.”
And the cash from that line of customers? It flows downstream. “[Record Store Day] definitely gives us more money,” Hansen says, “so we can spend more money on ordering that smaller stuff that would maybe get passed by if we didn’t have Record Store Day.”
“If you know that you want to put something out around Record Store Day,” says Samuel Melancon of Debacle Records, a local label focused on experimental music, “maybe not go through the biggest manufacturers that all the major labels are going to be going through.” Or just, you know, plan ahead: Keep track of how long the wait time for vinyl production is, Melancon says, and make sure your order is in early enough. “It’s like this inability to change” on the part of small labels, he says. “Like, ‘I want this place to be open for me, and I don’t want anybody else to use them.’
“Of course it’s stupid that everyone’s going and buying a U2 album for the 50th time,” Melancon adds. “But those people aren’t your constituents anyway, and I know for sure it’s a pretty nice day for record stores.”
And it’s not as though Record Store Day is a zero-sum game, he says. The people who buy a Paul McCartney re-release and the people clamoring for a copy of your 300-copy vinyl run of local synth droner Garek Jon Druss’ Music for the Celestial Din are two very distinct groups.
“It’s like those customers were never going to be your customers in the first place,” he says. “Record Store Day is mostly for the guy who wants the Pinkerton white vinyl version because they love Pinkerton. They don’t love records.”
This year’s Record Store Day is just around the corner. Saturday, April 18 will see 25 Seattle shops participating in the vinyl cacophony. But beyond music, this year’s event will hear another kind of noise: talk about music. “Conversation is something that’s very valuable,” says Emily Pothast, co-founder of local label Translinguistic Other. “Knowing that you have people in your community that just listen to records all day long” creates a kind of cultural expertise that makes deep appreciation of music possible.
And maybe that’s where Record Store Day’s real worth lies: not in the records but in the music geeks who, while chasing that new Swahili album, catch one another in a recursive dance of cultural obsession. “Just a place to have conversation and community,” says Pothast, “that’s the most valuable function of a record store.” E