Once again, April is upon us. Spring is rolling toward us full throttle, birds are back in the trees, the grass is looking a bit greener, and for music junkies, Record Store Day is right around the corner. On this day, we celebrate the joys of the independent record store with a host of exclusive releases, in-store performances, and a variety of other activities all centered on your local record retailers. For the last few years, Record Store Day has brought excitement to my usually dreary winter months. As I scan the Record Store Day release list for the first time I can feel the anticipation growing. Typically the list is littered with all kinds of new, reissued, unique and certainly rare recordings available only at your local independent record store. This year, the list is even provided in checklist form in case you need to collect them all. Once I finish reading through the list my feelings are conflicted. I have a strong love/hate relationship with this holiday that seems to get stronger with each passing year. I love it for everything it could be and hate it for everything it encourages and enables in certain people. How could something conceived with the best intentions, something designed to be a positive for all parties involved, have evolved into such a complicated, often frustrating venture?
For those of us who count ourselves among the music obsessed, Record Store Day is a can’t miss holiday that ranks up there with Christmas, Easter and the other greats. At Mr. Suit Records, in Lancaster, PA, owner Mike Madrigale also equates Record Store Day to Christmas. On the fateful day in April, Mr. Suit sees steady business from open to close, akin to a busy day during the holiday shopping season. The planning at Madrigale’s store starts about six weeks to a month before the big day with the ordering process. Stores are provided with Record Store Day sale lists from labels and distributors and given an order deadline. The store compiles their order and sends it in nearly a month before Record Store Day. In the weeks that follow, more releases are added to the list, sometimes making the ordering process a bit confusing and scattered as additional small orders are tacked onto the original. Finally, the big day arrives and only then do the stores and customers find out how much of the order actually reached the store.
At Iko’s Music Trade in York, PA, this process is one of several reasons owner Paul Hamilton has steered clear of Record Store Day, “I signed up for this under protest,” he said. Over the years, Record Store Day hasn’t generated much interest at Iko’s, but this year Hamilton, motivated by his longtime sales rep, and encouraged by a release list loaded with items his customers would be interested in, decided to participate. “What I’m seeing on this list are things that I’ll have access to four or five weeks before everybody else does. The Pearl Jam vinyl, the Eric Clapton Unplugged, those things are going to be available in May, but I’ll get to have them on Record Store Day. If I don’t get them I don’t care because I’ll be able to get them in May. It also means that they won’t be going for outrageous money on eBay in April, except for the very stupid and that’s their own fault,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton began to question his decision to participate at all when he received the Record Store Day release list from his distributor that included only the list (retail) price, not the actual cost to the store. With only this list to order from Hamilton has no idea what his actual cost for Record Store Day releases will be. On top of that, the arrangements for ordering Record Store Day releases seem stacked against the retailer. Hamilton explained, “This is the deal that consumers don’t hear about Record Store Day. When I talked to my distributor they say ‘sign up, it’s the only way we can sell the stuff to you.’ Okay, so I sign up, and here’s the deal, I have to generate a purchase order and if that purchase order comes in I’m obligated to buy it, but if it comes in they’re not obligated to sell it to me. They will not guarantee I’m getting anything. And that’s the deal to a record store on Record Store Day.”
In an odd twist, just days after placing his order, Paul Hamilton’s distributor was bought by a competitor and unwittingly put the Iko’s order in jeopardy. Since his order was placed with the distributor that was absorbed, Hamilton reports that the reps for the newly merged company can’t even tell him if his order will even be honored.
Now in its third year of business, Mr. Suit participated in Record Store Day from the beginning. For Madrigale, the experience gets better every year. “It took me a little while to catch onto what was going on,” Madrigale said. “The first year, besides Sub Pop and one or two other direct deals with labels, I was getting stuff through the second or third main distributor, rather than the main place. I managed to get most of the stuff I asked for but there were a couple things I missed like that Gaslight Anthem 10” that came out, I ordered twenty and I didn’t get any. Stuff like that happens a lot less now.”
Mr. Suit sees new people find his store every year specifically because of Record Store Day. The new customers coupled with the regulars makes for one of the busiest days of the year. “You hope to do good that day because for the next three weeks you’re not going to see anybody because they spent all their money on Record Store Day,” said Madrigale. If the quality and number of releases continues, he see no reason for Record Store Day to wane in popularity, “There needs to still be the variety; ok you can still get the Foo Fighters record but you can also get the weirdo No Bunny thing, something on a much smaller label from a much smaller act. If it just becomes all reissues and major label stuff, that might lose a lot of people.”
As a music fan I should be shaking with joy for the fast approaching record holiday, but every year my anticipation seems to be matched by an equal sense of dread and disgust. Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept of supporting independent stores and new releases to support that end; however I have a growing distaste for one of the staples of Record Store Day, the limited edition.
Each year the Record Store Day release list is full of limited 7”s and LPs by all kinds of bands; seemingly everything has a limited number of copies or is pressed on some special colored vinyl. Well, what about the fans that just want the music and don’t need the colored vinyl, or have to work and can’t get to a record store on Record Store Day? At Iko’s, Paul Hamilton offers a sensible solution to the problem, “I understand the collectible thing and wanting to have that rarity, but there’s maybe even a larger faction of people that would like to have the music. So, if you have a limited Flaming Lips orange vinyl, pop-up jacket thing limited to 5,000 copies, why not make 5,000 more copies of a regular version that isn’t necessarily limited; you can repress it again. Just tell people this is the limited one, but if you just want the music, here you go.”
So what? The bands are doing something cool for the fans, doing something special to help promote Record Store Day, right? Yeah, okay, I’m behind that, but does it really make sense that a band as popular as The Flaming Lips will only make 5,000 copies of an LP? What about the other 50,000 fans that might buy that LP? What are they supposed to do?
I think you know the answer. Within hours of record stores opening on Record Store Day, eBay lights up with the newly released limited edition items, and 9 out of 10 of these items are for sale for at least double, usually triple or more of the original sale price. Sadly, these super limited and super popular Record Store Day items fly out of eBay stores at a record clip.
It’s frustrating as a consumer to go to a store on Record Store Day and find that what you really wanted isn’t there. At that point your only hope is eBay. Many people are coming out early on Record Store Day with only one purpose in mind, to gather up as many limited releases as possible and resell them on eBay. Once this reality sets in for the average music enthusiast it can make shopping on Record Store Day kind of useless. Why drive 30 minutes to an hour away if the store might not have the record you are hoping to buy? I’m sure most people in that situation would at least think about sticking with eBay. Even though the price will be higher at least you know someone will have it. Has this helped the independent record store? On the contrary; both Madrigale and Hamilton view internet retailers as more competition for their customers’ business than other brick and mortar retailers.
At Mr. Suit, Mike Madrigale brings up another participant in Record Store Day who probably has mixed feelings about the limited edition phenomenon, the bands who are releasing the limited records. “I’m sure a lot of the smaller bands are barely making rent and eating peanut butter sandwiches three meals a day, so it’s like what’s stopping us from just putting these records on eBay ourselves and making $100 ourselves,” Madrigale said, “and who would blame them.”
Over the last few years it seems the music industry has created its own stimulus package built around these manufactured collectibles. One of the major selling points of most records these days is that it’s limited, or has a certain color vinyl, a limited gatefold cover….there’s always something. What seems to be forgotten along the way is the music. I’ve overheard too many conversations in record stores about trying to get all eight different colors the record was pressed on, and what pressing was the red vinyl from, etc, etc. I’ll admit I have my collector dork moments as much as the next guy, but what bothers me is how little I hear about the music. Again, Madrigale makes a good point, “You can overdo everything where it’s like a super limited color of the same record, but what it comes down to is the record any good and in five years is anybody going to care.”
Does responsibility for this nonsense fall solely on the music industry? Definitely not. We the consumer play a major role in this relationship. What’s the answer from a consumer’s stand point? We as the record buying public need to stop paying insane prices for records. Look at what you’re buying and ask yourself if the 7” that this guy bought on Record Store Day yesterday really suddenly worth $50 to you. If it had been on sale in your local record store on Record Store Day for $50 would you still buy it? “I’d like to think there’s less suckers out there, but apparently there’s not,” Madrigale said. “[Limited Editions are] what killed comic books and baseball cards in the 90’s…even with them being limited, now, nobody gives a shit.”
It’s terrible to think that music has been reduced to a pure commodity, but I’m beginning to feel like that’s where things are headed. A lot of times, particularly on Record Store Day, I feel like records sell simply because they could be hard to get later and people want to say they have it, or want to try and make a quick buck on eBay. The culture of listening to music and buying music was turned on its head by the advent of downloading; now limited editions are changing the way we think about buying what remains of the physical music formats. Did we forget about the music? Is it possible Record Store Day is feeding the self destructive monster the record industry has become? Record Store Day isn’t solely to blame, but it could certainly be credited with an assist.