A few years ago, the notion of an international Record Store Day might’ve felt more like a funeral than a celebration of the impact independent stores have had on music. As distribution (and later sales) of recorded music shifted into the Internet arena, Tower Records and hundreds of other music retailers nationwide went belly up.
But when the second annual Record Store Day arrives Saturday, artists and labels will be out in force: More than 1,000 stores worldwide - including 25 in Chicago and its suburbs - are expected to participate. They will offer in-store events or performances by dozens of artists, and more than 100 unique pieces of product, including rare singles and albums by everyone from Tom Waits to My Morning Jacket.
Record Store Day set to spin on Saturday
Though the number of independent “mom ‘n’ pop” record stores has shrunk drastically in recent years, from more than 7,000 at the outset of the ‘90s to fewer than 2,000 today, those that remain are hanging tough, and some are thriving despite a sluggish economy. A resurgence in interest in vinyl records (with sales climbing 89 percent last year to 1.8 million) has helped these independent operators stay in business, and so has a renewed interest in artwork and physical artifacts.
“The reality is we were over-retailed,” says Michael Kurtz, president of Record Store Day and the marketing company Music Monitor Network. “We had about four times as many stores as the market could bear. Combine that with the mass merchants online, and a lot of people who are not committed to this are gone. But there are new ones still coming, and it’s because there is still a need that humans have to hold and own things. ... That is never going away, and we’re going to super-serve those customers.”
Customers will be served well Saturday when stores are expected to carry custom-made products that include “Records Toreism,” a handmade, limited-edition compilation LP from Chicago-based Thrill Jockey Records that houses exclusive tracks by five bands (Mountains, Tortoise, Double Dagger, White Hills, Trans Am) and a fanzine with contributions from more than a dozen artists, retailers and journalists.
Another Chicago label, Numero Group, is joining forces with nine other independents to produce an equally lavish Record Store Day compilation, “This LP Crashes Hard Drives,” that will include music and memorabilia in a gatefold/sleeve package.
“Last year’s Record Store Day was a testing of the waters, but it seems more unified this year,” says Rick Wojcik, owner of Dusty Groove America, a bastion of underground soul, jazz and world music in Wicker Park. Numero Group’s owners and staff will spin records at the store Saturday while offering discounted merchandise. The number of in-store events has nearly tripled over last year’s Record Store Day to 600, and the number of participating stores has nearly doubled, including hundreds in Japan and Europe.
For decades, independent record stores served not only as outlets for recorded music, but as hubs for a community of like-minded individuals. In Chicago, the emergence of the independently owned Wax Trax Records in the 1970s galvanized the local underground scene. The store became a conduit for punk and new-wave imports from Europe, and a Who’s Who of local musicians worked behind the counter. The store soon spawned a successful record label and the genre of industrial disco.
The scenario was the same in countless cities nationwide. Indie stores were part of a network of fanzines, college radio stations and independent record labels crucial to the development of numerous artists in the ‘80s and ‘90s, from Prince and the Replacements to Nirvana and De La Soul. Future bands bonded, fans congregated, and records were talked about, played and savored in mom ‘n’ pop stores. “I cut my teeth in indie record stores,” the multimillion-selling artist Moby once told the Chicago Tribune. “It was where I found out about Roxy Music, Joy Division, Mission of Burma - all the music I love. It inspired me to want to try to make music as good as that.”
The rise of digital file-sharing and the emergence of digital stores such as iTunes cut into record-store business; sales of compact discs, the foundation of retail since the mid-‘80s, plummeted 50 percent since 2000.
But in recent years, the most efficiently run indie stores have found their footing in the digital age with vinyl and deep underground catalog bringing in a new, younger audience.
“We have people coming into the store buying vinyl that don’t even have turntables yet,” says Dave Crain, proprietor of the vinyl-only Dave’s Records in Chicago. “It’s great to see kids excited about something. I think there is a communal aspect, a physical aspect of going into a store in a digital age that really has an appeal.”
That attitude is amplified by Rich Bengloff, president of the American Association of Independent Music. “The indie store is part of the culture of a community,” he says. “No one goes into a Best Buy to be part of the community’s culture.
They go there to buy a commodity.”
Not that indie stores don’t mind selling commodities too. Wojcik says his Dusty Groove store was having its best year since its 1996 inception in 2008 until the fourth-quarter recession hit, but has since bounced back.
“This is a pretty damn big country, and (independent record retailers) have the tiniest slice of that audience, but that audience will always be rabid about music,” he says. “With good music and good packaging at an affordable price, the customers will always be there. It’s a faith-based game. If you tell customers the market is dying, you will create that prediction. But with Record Store Day, it’s people who like indie stores coming together with us and saying, ‘We’re still dedicated.’ It’s not a swan song at all for us. There is still an audience that wants us.”