Record Store Day began as a beautiful idea, an event designed to seduce a very specific population into doing something it already wanted to do: buy records in locally owned record shops. The enticements were real, but also a little bit self-aware—a handful of special releases by indie bands and indie labels, local in-store performances, meet-and-greets, and loads of freebie giveaways. As important as the commerce was, the key ingredient was the shared space of the record store, which was suddenly threatened by technology and circumstance. Record Store Day (which this year falls on Saturday, April 18) was a reminder to people who cared that if they actually cared, they'd better start caring for real.
And people did. When it began in 2008, the event was limited to the 40 or so stores that were part of CIMS (the Coalition of Independent Music Stores—there are 50 now, along with 25 that are part of AIMS, the Alliance of Independent Media Stores). It was more along the lines of a house or tailgate party than a festival of any kind. In the Alabama vernacular of cofounder/then-president Don Van Cleave, CIMS were good people, who knew how to be smart and creative while still minding the store.
And guess what: It worked. They were winning. Not the big war—there was no big war left to fight. Napster, Soulseek, and their file-sharing descendants had scorched the earth. Big chains were dead or dying. It was left to the forces of independently owned record retailers to assert their sustainable existence again, and it turned out that the people who cared were on board—especially when given a cool inducement to leave their laptops at home for a few hours. And then it kept working. As the popularity of Record Store Day swelled, so did the number of RSD-only exclusive releases. In 2008, there were 10. In 2009, there were 85. And then something else happened, the same thing that happened to college radio in the '80s, indie labels in the '90s, and SXSW over the past decade. Major labels got wise to the possibility that these Record Store Day freaks had figured out a scheme for moving tons of product. So, over the next year or two, they followed the protocol that has served them so well in the past: (1) Crash party. (2) Flood market. (3) Poison well. (4) Leave behind a big mess for someone else to clean up. Repeat.
Last year, the list of Record Store Day exclusive releases climbed to more than 700. The 2015 total will come down a bit to 592. That's a lot of records. Are some of them good? A ton of them look incredibly good: Amanaz's Africa, Swans' debut 12-inch EP, J Dilla's "Fuck the Police" (on a police-badge-shaped picture 7-inch), and Koes Barat are just a few high on my radar. But even the most passive, "I like all kinds of music" listener can't deny that a list of 600 new records released in one day is going to involve a fair amount of shit.
To be clear: Record Store Day is still a beautiful idea, executed nobly by smart, committed people. The handsome profits help keep record stores afloat, giving music fans and collectors a place to talk shop and geek out after throngs have moved on. But many stores, like Portland's Green Noise Records, are simply choosing not to participate at all. Smaller independent labels find themselves pushed to the back of the line at the pressing plants for months at a time during the buildup to the big day, then relegated to the back of the rack just like in the old days—behind the Johnny Winter and Lee Ann Womack reissues, obscured by Jethro Tull Live at Carnegie Hall 1970 and the John Oates 7-inch. Many of them are sidestepping Saturday's festivities, prepping their releases for Tuesday, the traditional music-release day. Sonic Cathedral and Howling Owl are releasing a 7-inch split by sending out one each day to different record stores to instill the notion that "every day is Record Store Day." The financial bubble of Record Store Day seems close to bursting, and there's no more damning evidence than the sheer number of RSD-exclusive releases gathering dust in the jam-packed shelves year after year.
It's just good business sense that leads independent shops that might otherwise de-emphasize mainstream releases to stock the big-name titles on the busiest sales and release day of the year. As long as a record store sells at least 66 percent of what they brought in, they're not losing money. But 66 percent isn't always in reach, leaving a healthy portion of what doesn't sell to sit there until it sells on the floor or online, if ever.
I was an employee at Sonic Boom Records for the first few RSDs. They were days of celebrating independent vinyl and the independent stores that specialized in selling it to the discerning listener. Once major labels got heavily involved, RSD started to feel like it was targeting the more general customer with gimmicky, deluxe-packaged, substandard scrapings of the catalog barrel—the kind of records you can easily find for a dollar in any used bin—disguised as collectible vinyl ephemera for purists. But one tricky thing about stocking vinyl, as opposed to CDs: It's nonreturnable to distributors.
Two formats that seem to fare worse than others: "limited" vinyl 7-inch box sets containing material from otherwise-easy-to-find LPs and 10-inch singles. The Beatles singles (red) box set has been sitting on the shelf since Record Store Day 2009, 25 times more expensive than the $2 double LP in the used Beatles LP section. Then there's T. Rex's Electric Warrior from 2012 and Pink Floyd's The Wall from 2011—both albums chopped down into box sets of 7-inch singles. Would 30 years of teenage stoners have had so many killer epiphanies if they were too comfortably numb to walk to the turntable 26 times before they got to the end?
Outkast's first single, "Player's Ball," was reissued as a green vinyl 10-inch on Black Friday Record Store Day 2014 in a gold-stamp-numbered limited edition. Three stores I visited still had them for sale. Same goes for Bruno Mars's The Grenade Sessions 10-inch (RSD 2010). Beach Boys' Surfin' Safari on vinyl from 2012? It's all yours. And these are the ones that would've seemed like safe bets. Safer than the Those Darlins/Diarrhea Planet LIVE at Pickathon split 10-inch, due this year, anyway. It's never easy to predict which ones people will buy, which will become relics.
The downward trend from last year is encouraging. Because I love record stores and believe Record Store Day is very good for business, I'm hoping the mania will continue to subside into a more carefully selected list of offerings, in keeping with the original spirit of the event. They don't all have to be for devout collectors or opportunistic eBay flippers. But no matter what we keep hearing about the vinyl resurgence, the threat to these stores is still very real. The one thing you can't say—as anyone who has ever worked at, or even been to a record store before knows—is that there's plenty of room for all.