Record Store Day

The Cost in the Grooves

by Andrew Gilstrap

14 April 2011

For a few hours each year, music geeks converge on indie record stores in hopes of scoring vinyl Holy Grails -- and then scurry back to their computers to watch auction prices soar on the items they didn’t get.

“April is the cruelest month…”
    —T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

High Holy Day for indie record stores is 16 April 2011. That marks the 4th annual Record Store Day, when legions of music geeks drop whatever they’re doing and descend upon the racks in search of limited edition vinyl and CD goodies.

For those not in the know, Record Store Day acts as a celebration of the indie record store.  Sitting in the cold shadow of websites like Amazon or big-box retailers like Best Buy (and their new release prices that are often cheaper than the wholesale prices indie stores pay to stock them), mom and pop stores are having a rough go of it these days.  So for Record Store Day, an impressive list of artists and labels release a flood of limited edition releases to draw buyers into the stores. 

By most accounts, it’s been a huge success.  My local stores report record-breaking, money-making days like they haven’t seen since recorded music began its downward sales spiral.  Like many locations, some of my area stores will also host concerts to keep the vibe going.

You have to wonder, though, just how much outreach is really happening here.  Sure, you might have the curious onlooker wandering in, but by and large, Record Store Day is for the vinyl fiends.  For a few hours each year, we tear ourselves away from lurking over eBay auctions for old white label promos or sealed copies of records from our youth, pile into record stores in hopes of getting our Holy Grail releases for that year, and then scurry back to our keyboards to pay exorbitant auction prices on the items we didn’t get.

The argument can certainly be made that Record Store Day raises the profile of stores within the music-buying community, and that in the process of researching the Record Store Day lists and locations, vinyl hounds will discover stores that they didn’t know about before.  That’s always a good thing, but you also can’t help but wonder if Record Store Day does little more than place a temporary band-aid over a much larger problem.

If I sound overly curmudgeonly, I don’t mean to.  My problem isn’t with Record Store Day, but more with the philosophy that it, perhaps unconsciously, buys into: that the vinyl boom is a niche market, and only for those with a fair amount of disposable income.  The vinyl resurgence has been a bit of a life preserver for many small stores, giving them a chance to weather the storms of their larger competition.  There have been reports of big retailers beginning to shy away from their practice of using CDs as loss leaders for appliance or TV purchases, and apart from online specialty retailers, there weren’t many other places you could find vinyl.

When vinyl first started making its resurgence, vinyl releases of new titles were pretty scarce, but they were often pretty cheap.  What’s more, music geeks could come into a record store and walk out with a stack of used albums for a steal.  As time went on, and vinyl became more popular, the used vinyl became a little more expensive. Supply and demand ensured that, once the stacks of unsold Zeppelin albums were whittled down, that prices would go up. 

But a funny thing happened with the new vinyl.  It started getting fancier and more expensive, coming out on virgin 180-gram vinyl and such.  Colored vinyl and etched vinyl began to show up again, and before you knew it, the vast majority of vinyl was priced right out of the casual fan’s league.  Some of this was due to the sudden rush of vinyl orders to the few remaining pressing plants, who weren’t ready for the sudden uptick in business.  Some of it was due to the very real costs that come from small print runs that don’t benefit from economy of scale, and some of it was pure greed.  Greed seems especially likely in the case of some major labels that eventually jumped on the gravy train by re-releasing classic albums on heavy vinyl with no sign of remastering, repackaging, or any other sign of upgrade, but with $24.99 list prices.

At best, some of the high prices represented a cash grab.  At worst, I think it betrayed the industry’s attitude towards the vinyl revival as a fluke, and a fleeting one at that.  Sure, vinyl sales represent a fraction of CD sales, but it seems like a failing industry would have looked at the vinyl resurgence, looked at the way it was bringing young listeners back into the stores, and seen an opportunity to be nurtured.  Maybe I’m wrong, but it doesn’t seem like any effort to ease younger listeners away from the MP3 revolution and into a sustained culture of record buying. 

As I say this, however, I look at the shelves and it seems like the situation’s actually gotten better lately, especially with the smaller indie labels.  Many releases seem to have returned to bearing prices close to the CD price, which is as it should be.  Some artists even go the extra mile to provide a little added value: Josh Ritter’s vinyl releases have included acoustic versions of the record on CD.  Still, is there any reason why R.E.M.’s Collapse into Now should cost around $25 on vinyl, especially when it doesn’t contain a CD like their previous album?  Lucinda Williams’s new Blessed LP is also in the upper $20s.  I feel kind of bad picking on that one, though.  The album stretches over three records, so the price-per-disc isn’t bad at all. 

However, the whole thing seems like the kind of decision that comes from someone doing a demographic study of Williams’s core audience, seeing some healthy incomes, and deciding that it’s not necessary to give fans a vinyl option that’s not twice the price of the CD.  Still, at least it’s not in the league of Bruce Springsteen’s 3-LP release of The Promise, which boasted a list price of $53.99 (which, despite that price, appears to be sold out at some retailers).

Traditionally, Record Store Day has taken that notion of scarcity and run with it.  Last year, one of the prettiest fetish objects was a 4-LP Joy Division box set, lovingly assembled and containing 180-gram (of course) copies of the band’s albums. If you could find it, it could be yours for the low, low price of $269.98. 

As of this writing, prices haven’t been released for any 2011 releases (heck, even the quantities of some announced titles seem to be shifting), but we can imagine that some sticker shock will accompany the Big Star set (2,000 copies, Test Pressing Edition, “complete with replicas of the original tape box, tracking and lead sheets, mastering card and pretty white blank label”) or the Flaming Lips box set (6,500 numbered copies, containing the band’s first five Warner Brothers albums).

My tastes, this year at least (although if I see that luscious Big Star record…), are a little more modest.  I’m interested in the Horrible Crowes release, which appears to be some sort of Gaslight Anthem side project.  Crowded House, a group which this column has fawned over very recently, is releasing a very reasonably priced 3CD chronicle of their most recent North American tour.  I’m even interested in the surprising existence of a Kate Bush release, although I don’t know why. 

I have Hounds of Love on CD, Japanese import CD, regular vinyl, and marbled vinyl. I’ll be first in line if they ever release a deluxe edition.  Why would I even need a 4-track 10” release (1,000 copies, reported price of $14.99) that contains songs I already have?  Well, I guess “need” is the wrong word to be using here.  It’s more accurate to say that I’m just the sort of OCD completist Kate Bush uberfan that fits right into Record Store Day’s sights. 

Some of the releases on my list I can take or leave, but in the case of the Crowded House and Kate Bush titles, I’m considering training my four-year-old to weave through the Record Store Day competition, slicing the hamstrings or Achilles tendons of anyone who even looks like a fan of swelling, quirky pop music. (Obviously, I’m kidding.)

My list will grow as more news is released, and there’s a good chance I’ll walk out without the titles at the top of my list.  Still, this year’s list is approaching 300 titles, so I’ll certainly find something.  Maybe the Mastodon/ZZ Top split 7” of “Just Got Paid”, or the Franz Ferdinand covers EP, or the Guided by Voices tribute, or the Decemberists live disc, or the Mumford & Sons/Laura Marling EP, or any number of delights I don’t even know exist yet.

Some have complained that the sheer number of releases this year is overwhelming, that there’s no way a store could afford to stock everything (if they could even get it). Honestly, I don’t know of any store (other than, say, a giant like Amoeba) that would want everything.  The plus side of the larger release list is that Record Store is becoming more eclectic than ever.  It’s certainly not just for the indie snobs, anymore.

Still, Record Store Day stands in stark contrast to an event like Free Comic Book Day, on which publishers provide local comics retailers with free titles to distribute to kids, in the hopes of igniting a love of comics that will pay dividends for years to come.  It remains to be seen whether Record Store Day can succeed in altering the long-term fortunes of record stores, or in creating a new culture of appreciation for the record store, as opposed to just creating an annual cash transfusion for stores. 

For now, as much as I enjoy it, it still feels like an insular event.  Maybe years down the line, if the locally-owned record store adapts and survives, Record Store Day can become a true celebration of perseverance.  For now, though, I guess I’ll stand in line with everyone else, jockey for whatever I can get off of my list, and hope that my local stores survive long enough to make it to Record Store Day 2012.

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