The staff at Sound Fix seems a bit perplexed by the crush of customers, spilling into the back corner of the north Brooklyn music boutique on what might otherwise be a slow weeknight. “We’re not the band”, offers up a store clerk, half-jokingly, at the faces staring expectantly over the counter. Curiously, when Scott Hutchison and Gordon Skene of Scottish band Frightened Rabbit arrive, the crowd keeps a respectful distance, despite the band’s notorious approachability and rapport with their fans. With time to kill, the band meanders a bit, until pressed by anxious handlers aware of the need for a quick getaway for the band’s gig at Webster Hall, a few hours later. In an instant, Scott and Gordon pick up and go, and an artificial barrier between performer and audience melts away. Scott, the primary songwriter and leading figure in the band, jeers several absentee bandmates who never made it out of their hotel room, and then cheered by the crowd’s enthusiasm, encourage requests, declaring, “This is your moment.”
The crowd, most holding tickets to the band’s sold out show, respond in kind with a cacophony of requests. Scott hears something that he construes as questioning his manhood. Scott teases the fan, then riffs on his own manhood, leading Scott to declare that if he were in fact to give up on women forever, he would settle on the dapper lead from Mad Men. Launching into the band’s well-known tune, “Keep Yourself Warm”, Scott’s mood switches from giddiness to feigned horror. “You know we’re going to play this song as the headliner, and if I go up there thinking about the guy from Mad Men, I won’t be able to keep it together and the show will be a disaster.” The crowd roars appreciatively, feeling that they’ve been let in on a little pre-show secret. After nearly an hour with their fans, the band’s reps finally succeed in whisking them away.
In the midst of a prevailing mood of doom and gloom for the music industry, the spirit of independent artists, along with their counterpart, the independent record record store, continue to offer a beacon of hope in the midst of a prolonged recession. The End of Days for the independent record store would seemingly occur with the emergence of national record chains such as Tower Records and the ubiquity of music at brick and mortar book stores like Barnes & Noble, while digital downloads foretold the decline of CDs, and the complete evisceration of vinyl.
Yet, in the most puzzling development for industry observers, it has been the national record store chains and brick and mortar stores that face obsolescence, while independent record stores have not only weathered the recession, but have prospered, demonstrating a resilience in line with the DIY spirit that has allowed independent artists to thrive despite conditions that have resulted in major hits to the top line major labels and entertainment conglomerates, the cancellation of numerous tours, and ongoing consolidation as labels pare artist development budgets.
Record Store Day: A Celebration of the Independent Record Store
The independent spirit is best exemplified by Record Store Day, a day where artists and retailers find common ground with music fans through a special day of new releases, promotions, and in-store performances, occurring simultaneously worldwide. The fourth annual Record Store Day, set for this Saturday, April 16th, the brainchild of a collection of independent music retailers, fosters an appreciation for a more nostalgic time, when the record store was the focal point of interaction and served as a primary channel, before iTunes, hype blogs, and satellite radio for discovering new music. Record Store Day occurs at a fortuitous time in the music calendar when artists typically are ready to introduce new material and prepare for the summer festival season.
Michael Kurtz, Executive Director of the Music Monitor Network, a coalition of independent music stores, and one of the co-founders of Record Store Day, credits the success of the day to the tireless efforts of local record stores, who “don’t want to feel beholden to anyone and want to cut their own path”, along with the enthusiasm of artists who were critical in both promoting, and creating special product for the event. The enthusiasm of artists in giving back by participating in Music Store Day is a shared appreciation by artists, fans, and retailers alike, and is a reflection of the inner music store geek within every musician. One can imagine a teenaged Michael Stipe striking up a quick friendship with Peter Buck, at a campus record store in Athens, Georgia, communing over their shared love for Patti Smith and Television.
Last year, Record Store Day, reached new heights in terms of participation by retailers, quadrupling to over 1,600 stores, with stores nationwide generated their largest day of sales since 1991, and the biggest day of sales for vinyl in history, according to data released by Neilson Soundscan. Record Store Day continues to grow both in scope and ambition. What started out as perhaps more out of a spirit of defiance demonstration has evolved into a widespread celebratory mood, embraced by a diverse range of artists, both emerging and established, who recall a more innocent time when the Saturday morning visit to the record store was a voyage of discovery.
If Record Store Day 2011 is anything like last year’s event, it should be a blast. In a scene replicated across the country, the environment was part Easter-egg hunt, garage sale, and open mike night. A festive mood prevails at Generation Records in New York, as a steady flow of shoppers laden with vinyl and swag clogged the sidewalks. While commerce flourished upstairs, with exclusive new releases flying off the shelves against the backdrop of the constant din of the cash register teletype, the loose vibe of the basement, a cross between the Cavern Club and That 70’s Show rec room, was fueled by a free flow of beer. Local heroes Cymbals Eat Guitars take time off from breakout festival appearance to kick things off around noon. Despite a seemingly makeshift setup with musicians in the corner by the rotting budget vinyl, and fans squeezed between racks, the latest the latest round in the battle royale between cymbalist Matt Miller and guitarist Joseph D’Agostino, resonates well, a testament to Generation’s prudent investment in a PA built into the basement.
Rusty, Generation’s buyer, attests to the go with the flow nature of the day. “Andrew WK strolls in to store and very nonchalantly says, ‘Hey, I’m Andrew, I’m here to spin some records.’” Andrew WK poses for camera phone shots, while showcasing diverse tastes ranging from Johnny Lydon’s screed against the evils of EMI, to the riot-grrl intensity of the Runaways, an elegiac Gary Numan number and a sunny ditty by the B52s. The excitement continues as world beat collective Budos Band keeps the capacity crowd bopping into the evening.
The mood at Other Music, near Washington Square, is more reverent, more geek than chic. Customers race against time, as the list of available Record Store Day releases is continuously redacted. Celebrity DJs such as Avey Tare of Animal Collective and Scott from the National establish an ambient shopping mood. A shopper observes David Fricke of Rolling Stone shopping, circles his prey, and then exasperated at not quite being able to place him, sputters “I know you’re famous, I’ve seen you on TV.” The store closes and then reopens for in-store performances by local heroes the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and the Drums. Kip Berman, the lead singer of Pains, summarizes the artist/fan bond of the day by sharing one of his first memories of the city as a kid: taking the train with his dad and shopping at the store, only to be playing the store ten years later.
At Reckless Records in Chicago, an independent store located in the heart of Wicker Park, steps from the fictitious location of John Cusack’s store in High Fidelity, fans line up around the block, but are extremely sympathetic to the crowds, cool to the prospect of a very rare in-store performance by trumpeter Phil Cohran, one of the original members from Sun Ra Arkestra, who lingers around to sell his own merchandise.
What has made Record Store Day special is the degree of collaboration between artists and retailers, much initiated by the artists themselves. The industry, quickly recognizing the value that a new generation of fans (and older fans who are rediscovering the vinyl of their youth) have in collectables, now views Record Store Day as an opportunity to build upon the momentum of the resurgence of interest in vinyl. The National Association of Record Manufacturers (NARM) was an early supporter.
The industry upped the ante significantly, with $1.5 million of wholesale products made especially for Record Store Day worldwide, compared with a scant $15,000 in 2009. Popular special collector edition releases ran the gamut from Rolling Stones release of a 7-inch with an unreleased track from Exile on Main Street, to the Beastie Boys, to breakout artists such as the Dum Dum Girls and Beach House. The range of goodies included a John Lennon bag and Devo domes. The major labels made a wide range of artists available for in-store performances, and threw their marketing and street team muscle behind the day on an unprecedented level. EMI took a PT Barnum approach with its “High School Battle of the Bands” contest, awarding the winner equipment, the services of producer Jack Ponti, and placement on a Record Store Day release. Labels got behind the day with celebrated in-store performances including Smashing Pumpkins at Amoeba Records in Hollywood, and a performance by Drive by Truckers at Harvest Records in Asheville, NC which was streamed live. One of the biggest supporters was WEA, which had over 70 commercial releases, tied in with marketing campaigns, and had 82 artists participate through in-store appearance or at the Zia Coachella tent. The results have justified the industry’s investment. While record store day produced a steady increase of sales by 135.4% compared to 2009, vinyl sales increased by a whopping 370%.
Despite topping all expectations, can Record Store Day serve as more than a rallying point for independent record stores? Is there a future for independent record stores, once deemed obsolescent by digital downloads, as part of a critical series of strategies reconnecting fans to artists? Opinions within the industry are mixed.