Broken Record: Why Record Store Day Is Not Working

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It’s really, really hard to hate on something that was initially set up to support the mom and pop record stores that are quickly going the way of the dinosaur, and does so by promoting many independent artists and bands willing to lend their music to the cause. Saving Country Music has been a tireless supporter of Record Store Day for years, putting together Field Guides for people to help find the cool, unique releases in the country music realm and beyond.

But the simple fact is that Record Store Day is failing in many respects, and truth be told, has been doing so for a number of years. As with so many things in the independent music world, Record Store Day started with an excellent, virtuous, and brilliant idea that was so good, it sparked an international event transpiring on an annual basis. But like so many of these great, independent ideas, it was quickly co-opted by corporations, and big independent labels to simply be a vehicle for the same type of vile capitalism that initially brought so many independent record stores to their knees. Record Store Day has taken the same road as South by Southwest—the annual live music event in Austin, TX every spring. It started out with the sincere purpose of bolstering the cause of independent music, and now is a bloated, behemoth event co-opted by big celebrity names and corporate sponsors, and is so big that it can’t define its own borders or control its own scope.

Of course it is not all bad; not by a long shot. Record Store Day still means huge business for many of the independent stores that are a part of the event, and there are many happy consumers that found their sought-after Record Store Day gem and have a sense of fulfillment for supporting their favorite local music proprietor, and a cool band. But as we are finding out, as Record Store Day gets bigger, many of the stores and small labels that need the most help are getting locked out, while the day has become big business for big labels, and one of the single most significant events feeding the music glut that keeps worthy artists reveling in obscurity just as much as major labels that are driven solely by commercial interest.

Independent Labels Getting Locked Out

Vinyl is amidst a huge resurgence in interest and demand right now even beyond Record Store Day, and this is placing a massive burden on the manufacturers of records. Since there are so few manufacturers and so many records to make, someone is going to get squeezed, and right now that someone is small independent labels. Major labels, and bigger independent labels have the power of volume. They can demand priority from manufacturers because they are requesting bigger orders. The result has been many small labels not being able to participate in Record Store Day 2014, especially in the UK where order snafus have made emotions boil over.

“Fuck Record Store Day and all you self-righteous wankers who think it benefits anyone ‘independent’,” Tweeted out UK-based label Modern Love in the run up to RSD 2014. “Fuck you to all the pressing plants out there who have made major labels their priority”¦looking forward to seeing that bubble burst in a couple of years.”

And they weren’t the only ones angry over Record Store Day this year. Tri Angle Records responded to Modern Love, saying, “Three of our upcoming releases had to be rescheduled after dates had already been set because of this. It’s total bullshit.,” meaning records that aren’t even part of Record Store Day are being delayed because of major label demand for RSD output. So not only is Record Store Day putting some small labels at a disadvantage on the day itself, but it’s also messing with their business outside of the RSD event.

The issue was spelled out in detail by a record distributor called Kudos in a blog posted on March 14th.

Right now, we have 20+ manufacturing jobs in production, all of which have come to a grinding halt while the pressing plants make hay by pressing up umpteen thousand Oasis LP re-issues, Abba 7”s and REM Box sets. We have even had one vinyl plant refuse any order of less than 500 units until after Record Store Day.

So, for the next six weeks, we are effectively locked out of the vinyl business.

Kudos have always been a strong supporter of Record Store Day. We have participated since its inception and have enjoyed some notable successes. However, it now feels like it has been appropriated by major labels and larger indies to the extent that smaller labels who push vinyl sales for the other 364 days of the year are effectively penalised.

This isn’t at all a criticism of the organisers or of the concept….But for us, at least, it’s at a considerable cost.

Though much of the talk around Record Store Day’s manufacturing problems in 2014 have focused on the UK, it is a problem in the United States and other countries as well. “There are too few record pressing plants, and too many orders,” says Jason Galaz, the owner of a small, Tennessee-based record label called Muddy Roots Records. “Many of the factories are pressing the bigger orders first, and pushing us little guys to the back. I’ve had a pre-order situation where they kept pushing my order back and it took five months.”

Galaz was luckily able to get his Record Store Day releases to record stores for the event, but only because he was willing to pay a premium. “It took a lot of work, and a lot of rushing. But we were able to do it. But we had to order them from another country and have them flown in, because no one here could get it done in time. And that added to our production costs quite a bit. Basically we did the whole Record Store Day run as a promotion. We didn’t make any money at it.”

Part of the problem is with so many Record Store Day titles, and such wide, popular participation, some vinyl titles designated for sale on the day are not being decided upon until right before the stock needs to be made. Big labels use their buying power to cut in line and ram out production of prioritized titles.

Spencer Hickman, who is the UK coordinator of Record Store Day told The Quietus, “If you’ve got small labels who support record stores all year round saying, ‘We don’t like it,’ that’s a bad situation very bad. Those are the guys that will go, ‘Fuck you, we’ll just sell our releases exclusively online.’ Then stores are really in trouble.”

Smaller Record Stores Getting Locked Out

The very independent record stores that Record Store Day was set up to help support are in many cases getting squeezed by larger independent record stores and regional chains when it comes to receiving inventory of the day’s most sought after releases, if they have the funds to purchase the inventory in the first place. The bigger stores are also able to promote their events better, hire bands to play, or parallel the day with other promotional giveaways, enticing customers away from the stores that need help the most. Other stores are too small or too new to get the attention of Record Store Day and either can’t participate at all, or do so in an unofficial capacity, while other record stores outright boycott the event, like many independent labels are doing.

Dan Curland, the owner of the 25-year-old record store The Mystic Disc told The Day on Saturday, “Originally, Record Store Day was a good idea a sort of us-against-them statement by indie stores against corporate chains like Target. But that’s changed. I can no longer service my customers.”

Curland says he’s getting squeezed by the bigger stores. “For example, R.E.M. released 1,000 copies of ‘Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions,’ and there are 250 participating stores in Record Store Day. Theoretically, each store should be able to get four copies of the REM release if they want four.” But Mystic Disc was only given one. “If you go to eBay, there are already copies of the R.E.M. going for $300 well over what we would charge. Someone’s going to the chains, who have multiple copies, buying them and flipping them. They’re not fans. Meanwhile, I have longtime regulars who are huge R.E.M. fans and I can’t get them a copy.”

Good Music and Vortex Records in Canada posted a lengthy explanation of why they were not participating in Record Store Day 2014, highlighting how a bigger Canadian record chain called Sunrise Records were advertising how they had “exclusives” on certain RSD releases. “I heard about these ads when Vortex customers came in on Record Store Day and were surprised and upset to see that we were carrying the items they’d just bought at Sunrise. Surprised because they’d been duped by the ads and upset because our prices were drastically cheaper.” Even more alarming, when the Canadian organizers were reached out to in an attempt to resolve the issue, it was found out the person being communicated with at Record Store Day was actually a Sunrise Records employee. The conflict-of-interest eventually led to other hindrances in the record store’s participation in the day, until like numerous stores, they decided not to participate at all.

Releases Going Straight to Dealers & Resellers

As highlighted above by record store owner Dan Curland, Record Store Day has been overrun by dealers looking to snag up short run titles that are desirable by collectors, many times reselling them on eBay or to other record stores later, and in some instances getting their hands on stock days before Record Store Day has even commenced. The business has become so lucrative around some Record Store Day releases that certain record stores have been accused of holding stock back to then sell on eBay later, or to sell to dealers at double the price behind the counter. Dealers line up in front of record stores hours, sometimes days before the event, and vacuum up all worthy titles as the first person in the door, resulting in the financial squeezing of the true music fans looking for RSD deals.

Just how big is the business of Record Store Day reselling? As illustrated in Spin’s 2013 RSD Highest Earning eBay Flips, RSD titles have gone for as much as $5,700. And as FactMag reports, dozens of exclusive Record Store Day titles appeared on eBay days before the event this year.

Too Many Releases & Poor Quality

The amount of releases for Record Store Day has quadrupled over the last four years, and the volume is overwhelming for both the consumer and the small record stores who simply don’t have the space to stock all of the special releases or the money to purchase them.

The quality of the releases has become a massive issue as well. Record Store Day has become an annual dump for labels and artists looking to get loose of material deemed not worthy enough for a regular release, resulting in a glut of unlistenable material being foisted on the masses under the guise of being collectible or rare. The working theory is that you can release anything on Record Store Day, and fans won’t hold either the artists or labels to account, as long as it is on vinyl.

As Rob Sevier, the co-founder of Chicago-based archival record label The Numero Group and one of Record Store Day’s most vocal opponents said to Philadelphia Weekly back in 2011, ““We’re not upset with major labels for being major labels. What I’m not crazy about are the literally hundreds of pieces of shit being shoved into the marketplace on this day; products, for the most part, that no human needs to own, ever. The economy of Record Store Day is, ‘What can we shit into the form of a record and shove into the hands of the wanton masses?’”

Live albums, demos, reissues, various pieces of orphaned audio, and music generally left on the cutting house floor in the recording process is being made into Record Store Day stock, leaving the worthy titles released on the day buried under the glutted muck. Many releases are being manufactured for shock value or irony, exemplified when one small record label decided to release classical piano music from porn star Ron Jeremy as part of Record Store Day 2014. As quizzical as the release was, hours after record stores opened their doors, over a dozen of the 7″ records were up on eBay, with one reseller asking $99.00 for the release. Without any regulation on the quality of the releases, Record Store Day risks becoming a mockery of the music making process.

Unofficial Events, Unofficial Releases, & Boycotts

Record Store Day was originally organized in 2007 by Eric Levin, Michael Kurtz, Carrie Colliton, Amy Dorfman, Don Van Cleave and Brian Poehner at a record store owner’s meeting in Baltimore. Almost immediately after the event began to find traction, boycotts have been called for, and rival events have popped up looking to undermine the effectiveness of the day, or sponge off of it without having to jump through the official Record Store Day hoops. With so many labels and stores flying the Record Store Day flag unofficially, it erodes the ability for the umbrella organization to control its fate. And if Record Store Day wants to try and control the number of releases, the quality of the releases, the influence of major labels on the event, or the ability for smaller record stores to have a fair stake, likely such regulations would only result in more defections from the parent organization. Record Store Day has already lost the ability to govern itself, and the problem only promises to get worse.

Meanwhile there are lingering questions about the effectiveness of the entire idea—how maybe the focus should be on supporting independent record stores throughout the year, not just on one day. There are also questions of why the day has to focus on vinyl, and if the industry is setting itself up to burst in a potential upcoming vinyl bubble that some have surmised is sitting out on the horizon.

Since Record Store Day has become too big to control itself, it will take bold leadership, and a commitment from all sectors of the independent music community to make sure it remains a force for good. Major labels and major vinyl manufacturers need to take into account the spirit of the day, and make sure they are inclusive to all entities that want to be involved. Larger record stores and distributors need to understand if they monopolize their communities, they are going against the groove of what Record Store Day stands for. And owners of content need to think about quality first, not quantity, and understand that their releases will be responsible for setting how Record Store Day is viewed by the public in the future.