This article was originally published in The Sting on September 18, 2020.
A plaque outside of the Soundgarden record store in Fell’s Point reads:
“On September 22 of 2007 record store owners from all over the USA gathered here in Fell’s Point to create Record Store Day. It is now the world’s largest music event.”
I’m here to say that meeting was a mistake.
The original idea was innocent enough: create a day where struggling, independent record stores can raise their profile. It was supposed to be similar to Free Comic Book Day, which had helped independent comic book stores raise their profile in the years prior.
On Free Comic Book Day, comic book publishers and stores flood the market with special issues of comic books made specifically for that day. Essentially the books are worthless, simply because there’s so many produced. It’s easy for damn near everyone that goes to a comic book store on Free Comic Book Day to get one of the special issues. The idea is the stores can get people to come out for free stuff, and they will purchase something while they’re there. Stores don’t need to pay to get the free releases in stock.
Record Store Day takes a different approach. Instead of flooding the market with cheap, one-off releases, labels release limited-edition singles and LP’s in small quantities. Sometimes, for an extra fee, some record stores will have artist appearances.
This approach hurts both the fans and the stores.
In normal times, record-store goers on Record Store Day are forced to wait in line for a chance to get one of the small numbers (sometimes as few as five) of a record that on any other day wouldn’t garner much attention. More often than not, the music isn’t new. I seem to recall a few years ago Led Zeppelin released a 7” with alternate mixes of “Rock and Roll” and “Friends,” songs that at that point were more than 40 years old. That 7” cost more than $15 (and yes, I bought it, not because I wanted to participate in RSD, but because I love Led Zeppelin that much).
The day alienates myriad faithful record store goers because, other than the bogus releases, there’s nothing special about the day. The folks that collect vinyl religiously usually don’t care about those releases, they care about stuff they’ve never heard before and discovering new music. Those people dig through bins and bins of records in their local stores, plus antique stores and thrift stores. They spend hours trying to find new music. The people who are interested in Record Store Day releases generally aren’t as invested in the music as much as real collectors and music fans. It’s not the case 100% of the time, but in my experience, that’s what I’ve found.
Perhaps I could put up with that if it actually helped the stores out, but sadly it doesn’t.
In my research,I can’t find a specific figure for how much it costs for a record store to participate in Record Store Day, though I’ve heard figures from local owners between $3,000 and $5,000 to participate and get the best releases shipped to the store while others gave the vague answer of “a lot of money.” Certain releases sell out quickly, but any unsold stock cannot be returned to the labels, which means the stores are stuck with it. When Record Store Day is over, it’s difficult to sell those releases without discounting them heavily. For all the money spent to get the releases in, much of it ends up wasted.
It can also be difficult for small record stores to get their foot in the door. In the years since its inception, Record Store Day has been hijacked by large labels, and small businesses that do not have much disposable income will find it particularly difficult to get involved.
A record store owner from the UK wrote in 2016, “The whole operation is so far removed from the manner in which record shops operate, survive and thrive that it is damaging our reputation. Queues of collectors standing outside stores at some god awful time in the morning so that they can be stripped of cash for overpriced bilge is not exactly promoting the best of what a record shop has to offer (namely affordable and good stock which punters can get their hands on).”
My old record store, Record and Tape Traders, couldn’t participate in Record Store Day since they had a corporate backing, even though they still maintained autonomy. Record and Tape Traders had been bought in the mid-2000’s to avoid closure. They were the only store in the entire company that sold primarily physical media, and were also the only store that sold used vinyl. Every year, folks would go in and complain that they had none of the Record Store Day releases. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t celebrate the meaning of Record Store Day.
On Record Store Day, RTT would take advantage of the increased foot traffic and set up a sidewalk sale, in addition to discounting used vinyl and CD’s where they could. Oftentimes, they made more money than they did any other given Saturday, and they didn’t put out any additional funds to do so.
The regulars at any store are the ones who keep it going. Special days with overpriced releases won’t save the record industry, and it would be anyone’s deepest folly to think that’s the case.
If you want to save record stores, shop with them regularly instead of the one or two days a year where it’s considered hip.
Tony Sheaffer is managing editor for The Sting and writes Friday Groove, a weekly music column.