Analog in a Digital World: Record Store Day 2014
For a self-diagnosed music obsessive like myself, there is never a bad time to hit the local record stores to spend some time browsing the crates for some new tunes. In an attempt to make sure that there will always be record stores around for us, in 2007 a group of independent record store owners started Record Store Day. And Record Store Day is what I’d like to talk about today, because while overall I support the idea of such an event, I also feel that there are some drawbacks as well.
Back in 2007, physical record stores were a dying breed. A combination of things, from the invasion of the Big Box stores like Walmart, Target, and Best Buy, to the birth of digital downloading, ganged up on the lowly independent music store, and by the late 2000s’, the very idea of a record store was fading away. The sad thing about this? As someone who loves music, as someone who spent over 15 years in a job that involved selling music to shoppers, someone who can’t go half an hour without some kind of music playing….. I played a part in the downward death spiral of the local independent record store.
In 1997, I got a job with a regional merchandising company; we were responsible for merchandising the music and movie departments at a large midwestern retail chain. I spent my days amongst thousands of CDs. They arrived every day by the pallet-load. It wasn’t unusual to receive 50 boxes of CDs a day, in each store. Big-selling titles would be restocked in quantities numbering in the 100s, and even then we had trouble keeping them in stock. In other words, it was a good time to be in the music selling business. That is, if you were a big box store. The 90’s were boom years for these massive retailers, who would set up shop on the edge of town, stock more product than smaller local stores could possibly manage to handle, and then sell it for much less than the Mom and Pop stores. This Walmartization of retailing put a lot of small shops, entire downtown retail centers, completely out of business. The music business wasn’t spared. The money I used to spend at the local record store was soon being spent at Best Buy, which had a massive music department and sold their CDs for much less money. A buck is a buck, I thought. Me shopping there rather than at the local shop wouldn’t have any impact on them, I thought. They’ll be fine. Except, they weren’t.
The new millenium saw a new foe enter the marketplace, or rather, destroy that marketplace entirely. The internet. Napster. As download speeds increased, it became possible to download entire albums worth of music to our computers in minutes. Often, for free. The introduction of Apple’s iPod and iTunes store made digital downloading legal, and even made a bit of money for the music labels, but it wasn’t helping the local shops. And, as millions of music lovers like myself stopped shopping locally and started buying music at the Walmarts of the world, and online through iTunes or Amazon in order to save a buck, the shops withered and died. Through all of this, I chose to ignore the fact that my job of selling CDs through the large store chains was directly responsible for hurting the independent record stores’ bottom line. I also chose to ignore the fact that digital downloading was doing the same thing to my business: It was killing it.
As file sharing and downloading skyrocketed, with their low low costs (often free) and super convenience of being able to carry an entire library’s worth of music in your pocket, CD sales, even at the big box stores, suffered. The thousands of CDs we were bringing into stores each week dwindled to hundreds. Dozens of boxes of products turned into a couple small boxes a week. Floor space for our music departments shrank every quarter. The number of hours we scheduled our merchandising reps shrank right along with the falling sales numbers. By late 2010, the plug was pulled on our company’s contract, and I was out of the music business. Which, as it relates to Record Store Day, turned out to be a good day.
As the writing on the wall for my own jobs’ future became more and more clear, a funny thing happened. One day I wandered into a local record store, the same store I had driven by for years, too busy to stop and too focused and devoted to music sales at my big box stores to bother stopping. And almost instantly, I fell back in love with the record store. And with vinyl records in general. Almost instantly, that rush of being confronted with thousands of vinyl records, the look and feel of them, the SMELL of them, came back to me. Just like that, the compact disc format was dead to me. What was pushed down our throats as a “better” alternative to vinyl records, what I had spent years and years and thousands of dollars on, went away. Overnight, my CD collection went back into the closet, and those old vinyl records from my youth, that I had stubbornly refused to part ways with, came out. I’ve never regretted hanging onto my vinyl, but especially not in the last few years.
It may be a sensation that only people of my generation and older can relate to, but there’s something about a record store. It’s the same thing that keeps me buying books printed on paper rather than e-books. It’s the allure of the physical product, and of the magical places called record stores and book stores that collect them in one place, that will never be replicated online or in a soulless, big box retail store. Record Store Day was invented precisely to get people who have been drawn away from them, people like me, drawn back in to rediscover the charm, the allure, of the physical product. The number of younger people in attendance suggests it’s not just a trend for the old folks.
Now, I’m no Luddite. I have hard drives full of hundreds of gigabytes of music files. I’m listening to music streaming on Spotify as I type this. And I don’t consider it to be a double standard. As our lives are more and more consumed by digital electronics, I feel there is room, there NEEDS to be room, for the analog experience. And listening to vinyl records falls directly into that category. I’ll get into my thoughts on Digital vs. Analog more in a later piece, but for now I’ll say that I believe they complement each other quite nicely. In a nutshell, streaming is perfect for discovery and background listening. Buying vinyl is for the music I truly love. Now let me digress back to Record Store Day.
What started out as a celebration of the local, independent music store in 2007 has turned into a holiday celebrated in thousands of record stores worldwide on the third Saturday of April each year. It’s a day for music lovers, store owners, musicians and record labels to come together to celebrate music, and the independent stores that sell it. Every year, record labels big and small release limited edition albums and singles that are only available at independent stores that are participating in Record Store Day. (You can check out this years’ list HERE.) The day has evolved into a day filled with long lines and packed stores, as shoppers vie for these limited edition releases. Stores turn the day into a party by having live bands, DJs, serving beer, pizza, barbeque, contests, and giveaways. For many stores, it’s their largest sales day of the year. Record Store Day has been so successful that a second RSD has been added, and is held on the traditional biggest shopping day of the year, Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.
Record Store Day, and the coinciding rebirth of the vinyl record that it has helped usher in, has breathed new life into independent music retailers. Many shops are still closing, but for the first time in a long time, recent years have seen a crop of new stores opening up around the country. What once looked like a bleak future for brick and mortar record stores now doesn’t look quite so bleak. But there’s only one way record stores are going to stick around, and that’s if you and I continue to support them.
What do I worry about? A couple of things. Record Store Day has turned into a huge event, with lots of cool music being released just for the day, and it gets a lot of customers into the stores, many for the first time ever. That’s great. But there are downsides: First, the limited edition music that the labels put out for RSD is in very small quantities. Much of it sells out almost immediately; stores have been accused of holding back titles and selling them at huge markups on ebay afterwards. Ebay gouging has turned into a huge problem for RSD as “collectors” snatch up these limited quantity titles not for the love of the music, but for the huge profits they can realize by selling them to the real music lovers online. Luckily, the vinyl community tends to look down on this practice, and tries to keep it in check by calling out individuals and record stores that are guilty of it.
Secondly, I feel that there’s a level of hipster-cool to Record Store Day, and to vinyl in general, that is unsustainable. The last couple of years have seen an explosion in the growth of vinyl collecting, which RSD is taking advantage of to some extent. It’s great that so many younger people are exploring vinyl, often as a backlash against the expendable world of digital music. But I fear that there’s a ‘Vinyl Bubble’ that will eventually burst, and all of this growth in record stores, and vinyl, and Record Store Day, will go away. The hipsters latch on to whatever the latest trend is, whether it’s craft brewing, or local food, or bicycling, or vinyl, and those areas grow exponentially until the market is saturated. Take breweries, for example. Every month seems to see a new brewery opening up in our medium-sized midwest town. It’s great, but at some point there will be too many breweries, and the hip crowd will turn to some other new thing, and most of these breweries won’t survive.
This is my fear for the Vinyl Bubble: that when it bursts, it’s going to take record stores with it. Most of the growth in independent record stores recently is attributable entirely to interest in vinyl: the CD is dead, even in these small shops. They still sell them, but the floor space they devote to the CD is dwindling as vinyl reasserts itself as the king of physical media. I hope I’m wrong. I’m hoping that people discover the joy of listening to music on vinyl, and the attention it forces you to pay to it, and that that appeal never dies.
Vinyl listening is active listening: it’s not for background music. That’s why I love it, and that’s why I think it complements digital streaming so nicely. When I’m working, or entertaining, reading, or whatever, I stream music. This includes online radio. A well-curated music experience from a great radio station or playlist goes a long way. But there are times, and I shoot for at least once a day, when I turn off the computer, put on a vinyl record, and LISTEN. Everybody talks about how much better vinyl sounds than digital, and I agree with that for the most part, but even more important than sound quality is the experience of listening to vinyl. It’s all about the music. And with a vinyl album, that music is physical. You hold it in your hands. You can SEE the music in the grooves. It’s visceral. And I love it. And it’s that some real, visceral experience that I love about record stores. Browsing an online store for music will never be the same as flipping through the bins at a record store. I like to hit a store with no particular title in mind; I just like to start browsing, and see where it takes me. The albums, the artwork, the music playing in the store, what the other shoppers and the clerks are talking about, these all lend themselves to new discovery.
Now that I’ve rediscovered the joy of record stores, I wish more people would visit them, and more often than just once a year. And that’s my last beef with Record Store Day: it’s too focused on one or two days out of the year. While many RSD shoppers return throughout the year, I know that many don’t. I like to think of Record Store Day being whatever day I happen to stop by. While the stores are jammed on RSD, I walk into stores way too often throughout the rest of the year when I’m the only one there. And that’s not cool. If you love music… if you love to hear it, hold it, SMELL it (the smell of old records has got to be one of the all-time great smells), talk about it, support it…. you gotta shop at a record store. Like too many things in life, we won’t realize how much we love these places until they close up shop. For all the online music listening I do, I’d hate for that to be the only option in town. I’m trying to do my part: I’ve vowed to NEVER walk out of a record store without buying something. I went for too long without them, but now I’m working to make sure these cultural meccas don’t die away. Record Store Day 2014 is Saturday, April 19. Check HERE for a participating store near you. Go there on the 19th. And then never stop going back. Viva Vinyl.