Record Store Day: Bubble Or Boom

New_York_City_Record_Store_by_C_Money

Last Record Store Day, 22% of releases came from Universal, Sony and Warner — despite the fact that it’s the smaller labels who push vinyl sales for the other 364 days of the year.

It’s a hub; a community epicentre for the city’s music scene, the natural habitat for those of us who would rather walk around with headphones on than listen to the real world — a sacred place of discovery and immersion where like minded people can meet.

The record shop (or store, if you’re a Yank or only buy records one day a year) has had to evolve to keep up with the ages, while many of them have fallen by the wayside. Between 2005 and 2008, the number of independent record shops in the UK had more than halved, from 734 to 305. Record Store Day was created as a desperately-needed move to protect those still on the map, but has it been a resounding success? And if so, for whom?

In the first year alone, vinyl sales doubled, last year reaching a million in the UK for the first time since 1996. This signified a real triumph for the cause, now the biggest day of the year for independent record shops and, for many, more profitable than the entire week before Christmas. There’s no doubt that it’s helped raise awareness of the importance of buying music, encouraging people to spend their money on the physical product once more.

This is all great news, but this quick expansion is typical of a ‘bubble’… and bubbles have a tendency to burst. Not such good news, especially as there’s worrying evidence that this metaphor could indeed hold true for Record Store Day and what it has become. The main trouble is that, as vinyl has become popular again, the current infrastructure has struggled to keep up with demand. The vast quantity of special releases has meant regular pressings getting delayed, with those that do make it out on time often being put to the back of the shelves, or not being stocked at all.

This year, Bristol favourites Howling Owl Records have teamed up with London’s Sonic Cathedral in venting their frustration, presenting a release entitled ‘Record Store Day is Dying’. The key question that sticks out for me is “what the hell has this day got to do with us?” — and that is a worry. Has Record Store Day become irrelevant for small independent labels, instead simply continuing to feed the top rung of the food chain?

Distribution company Kudos published a blog last year, explaining that pressing plants were prioritising RSD-specific releases which “effectively locked [them] out of the vinyl business”, and this appears to be the story across the board. Last Record Store Day, 22% of releases came from Universal, Sony and Warner — despite the fact that it’s the smaller labels who push vinyl sales for the other 364 days of the year.

Interestingly though, Spencer Hickman, the UK co-ordinator of Record Store Day, is trying to take all this feedback on board and work out the best way for it to operate. He is, however, struggling with the backhanded way in which the music industry communicates, stating “The first thing I heard about the open letter that Kudos wrote is when I saw it reported in the press, and I know the guys there. That’s madness. I need that feedback because it’s the only way we can figure out how to solve the problems.” It’s promising that they are at least starting to recognise the issues at hand.

All this aside, I am, as always, very excited about Record Store Day. I’m not one to study the special releases list too extensively in advance, because you never know what you’ll actually be able to afford, or what’ll be in your local shop. Besides, it’s much more fun rooting through records in their physical form than clicking through a list online, especially when we in Bristol have Rise, Idle Hands, Plastic Wax, Wanted Records, Opus 13, Fopp & Head all here to explore. There are a few items that stick out for me this year though, including material from Hinds, Animal Collective, Luke Abbott, John Martyn and Todd Terje, but I know that whatever I take home, will be something special. My best purchase was probably the Gold Panda ‘Marriage’ single and remixes a few years back, but last year I in fact ended up buying an Os Mutantes album that wasn’t even part of Record Store Day — I just loved the album cover, was vaguely aware of their sound and it was cheap! Looking back, perhaps doing so was in itself more akin to the special role that record shops play in bringing new music to our hands and ears.

I’ll be spending the day in Rise, as they definitely seem to understand the spirit of the event and I personally can’t wait to see what tricks they pull out of the bag this time around. ‘Cover Bombing’ which entails 70+ artists embellishing their favourite record sleeves and exhibiting them around the shop, is lined-up this year, with (mostly) as-yet unannounced bands and DJs in tow. Last year they had some amazing live performances, and I was lucky enough to catch sets from Big Deal, George Ezra and Woman’s Hour in the space of a few hours. This was also the first time I caught Bristol’s Goan Dogs live, with their horn fanfare reaching out into the sunshine and grabbing the attention of bewildered passers-by.

Since last year a lot has happened for Chiverin, and this time around we’re going to be putting out our very own release! Phoenix Mundy (aka Patchwork Guilt) has painted a beautiful piece of artwork that we’re printing up to accompany a downloadable compilation, featuring songs from all seven of the acts we’re working with in Bristol. No, we weren’t able to get any vinyl pressed in time either. It’s fine though, because the material is still going to be great. Two of our artists, RHAIN and Ema Sierra, will even be performing at Rise on the day.

Despite the structural changes needed to give Record Store Day the longevity it deserves, it’s an undeniable force for good in the world that I’m grateful to be part of, as a label manager, writer, but most of all — music-lover.

Record Store Day 2015 will be on the April 18th.