The Path to Record Store Day: Part 1

More articles by Jack B. Stephens

Record Store Day began in 2008 and is an annual event held on a Saturday in April. In many ways, it can be considered as occurring twice a year though since another day known as “Black Friday” happens in November. This date coincides with the name given to the day after Thanksgiving when retail stores kick off their holiday sales. Both events celebrate independently owned record stores throughout the United States as well as in other countries around the world. This year the celebration is scheduled for November 23rd with some stores making it a two-day event with a continuation on November 24th. We will explore what led to this event, how it has changed since its inception and what vinyl record collectors think about it in its current form.

To begin a conversation about Record Store Day, you really have to go back to the days when the king for most cities and towns in the United States was the independent record store owned by locals. This was several years before the decline of vinyl. The big chain record stores such as Peaches, Tower Records and the like began to move in on the local record stores and eventually put the majority out of business. Many did remain though and are still in business today. The chain stores were able to carry more stock at often lower prices than what the independent record stores were able to supply. A prime example of this can be found in the city I live in.

We had several independent record stores including one named Carousel Records which was owned by a woman that I had previously worked within the Sears record department. Sadly enough, that could have been my store since our record distributor at Sears and as well as other record stores I had worked at talked to me about opening it. Financial reasons, as well as my young age, led to that not happening. However, my coworker at Sears did open it with his help. The store was a huge success for several years until a chain store named Tracks moved in right next door in the same strip mall. Tracks evolved from Record Bar which was a smaller store often located in malls. Tracks was the name given to the big box often stand-alone record stores of the chain which was later sold to Blockbuster. The store was quite glitzy with flashing lights and the like. It was much larger than Carousel Records and quickly put the smaller, rather plain store out of business. This is indicative of what was happening to the independent locally owned record stores across the nation.

Photo by Marc Femenia/TT/EPA/REX/Shutterstock (8815907b)
Customers sift through albums in a record store during the international ‘Record Store Day’ in Stockholm, Sweden, 22 April 2017. This years marks the 10th anniversary of the Record Store Day.
Record Store Day, Stockholm, Sweden – 22 Apr 2017

The big box record stores after several years of doing very well would soon face their fates as would vinyl itself. With the release of the Compact Disc, the music industry positioned vinyl records in a situation that seemed bent upon their destruction. The CD was thrust upon consumers by the music industry in force regardless of whether they wanted them or not. According to them, this was the new way people would listen to music. Advertisements gave impressions that the CD was basically indestructible with a much better listening experience than had ever been possible. Vinyl quickly began to disappear from the record stores and consumers had to buy the equipment to play them. At that time, some small independent record stores began to open that were selling previously used vinyl records as well as other formats, even some CDs.

There was one in my town named Record Survival. Many of the independent record stores that survived the heavy hand of the big box chain record stores also began to follow this practice. The fact was that many people still wanted to buy and collect vinyl regardless of the direction the music labels and industry were pushing the consumers towards. This desire even continued into the digital age when home computers were becoming more widespread. Some consumers began to simply go to online music services, such as Napster, and download the free songs they wanted. The music industry, as well as the artists, didn’t like this practice since they began losing money with people getting their music for free.

Photo by Igor Miske on Unsplash

This led to other companies such as Apple creating legitimate sites such as iTunes where users could go and pay for whatever songs they wanted. With buying these MP3s online, consumers were still provided a quick and convenient way to purchase their favorite songs although the sound quality of these compressed music files has always been inferior. Free sites did still exist such as BearShare and LimeWire so the music industry was still losing money by people getting their music for free. Despite several lawsuits against these free internet companies and the people who bought them, the practice continued and still continues today. Once a site was forcefully closed down another one would simply open. Torrents also began to surface where users could download whatever they wanted for free including the whole discography of an artist or band. The same practice of shutting them down began, but another torrent site would simply replace the closed one. Streaming services also surfaced on the internet beginning mainly with radio stations but spreading to free and paid versions of services such as Spotify.

Today, all of these ways of getting music through the internet still exist and in fact are the way the largest majority of people now buy or get their music. The online presence of music took a huge bite out of the big box record stores and for the most part, all have closed. However, the desire of many to still have a physical object to own and listen to never completely died. This was particularly true of vinyl although some people did want other formats such as cassettes, 8 Track Tapes, and even CDs. Local independent stores were actually helped to survive because of this, although many collectors resorted to going to places such as flea markets, thrift stores and the like to find prized possessions. These were the dark days of the vinyl LP and the vinyl single when many were simply throwing them out or selling them for practically nothing.

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Nobody, including the music industry, ever expected a vinyl resurgence. Many, if not most, pressing plants were put out of commission. It became extremely rare for any artists or bands to release anything on vinyl. There were some vinyl records still being pressed particularly the 12-inch single for use by club DJs. There were also some devoted record collectors who never gave up on vinyl and continued to find it wherever they could. Audiophiles simply considered the sound of a vinyl record of much higher quality. That thought still exists and I personally agree with it. However, the thought that the vinyl record was dead continued through these dark days. Record collectors could get most anything they wanted for an extremely cheap price. Turntables had basically disappeared from the retail stores and if someone wanted one, they typically would purchase used ones. The younger people of this time began to not even know what a vinyl record or a turntable was. In fact, a good example of this comes from my own experience. My two nieces were visiting my parents’ house where I had my 45s and LPs stored in their basement. My parents had them down there for some reason and showed them a 45rpm record. They had no idea what they were seeing. They exclaimed that they had never seen a CD that big and wanted to know how it would play. Not too many years later, the music industry saw a surprising and very unexpected growth in the number of vinyl sales. These numbers continued to grow as younger people began to discover their parents, older siblings and other relatives’ collections of stored away vinyl records. Older people also began to rediscover the rich warmth of the sound quality of something that they thought they had long forgotten about. Of course, true vinyl collectors never had given up on it.

The vinyl resurgence had begun and with each passing year, it grows more. The few pressing plants still in production began to get swamped with orders for vinyl as some artists began wanting to release records once again. Many pressing plants were basically drug from the trash heap and put back in production to keep up with the demand. Today, it has once again become common for an artist or band to release a vinyl version of their latest albums although they are much more expensive than they used to be.

However, Record Store Day did not begin the vinyl resurgence. Instead, the vinyl resurgence led to the still existing local independent record stores as well as some big box stores to create the event. As noted, the renewed interest in vinyl began with people who still wanted to own and collect it. They were not satisfied with the CD or digital downloads. So, they would go to yard sales, garage sales, thrift stores, flea markets and anywhere they may find a crate of records to go through. This was their passion. Record Store Day began as a combination of the growing interest in vinyl combined with independent record stores seeking increased business. The idea came from a brainstorming session that occurred in Baltimore, Maryland among record store owners from three organizations. These included the Alliance of Independent Media Stores, the Coalition of Independent Music Stores and the Department of Record Stores. The day was founded in 2007 and the inaugural event happened in Mountain View, California at Rasputin Music. Metallica actually started off the event. The day was a way for the stores to feed off the renewed an existing interest in vinyl. It was important that they became a part of it. Record Store Day, as well as the Black Friday event, have both been very successful ventures. They have been considered the best thing that has ever happened to record stores as well as credited with being behind the continuing vinyl resurgence.

Record Store Day includes several new releases of previously recorded albums and singles along with some new titles. These new releases are typically packaged differently from the original releases and are sometimes recorded on colored vinyl or even picture discs. Many do include previously recorded, but unreleased, material. Several artists release these special issues, especially for the day. Many independent local record stores participate in the event mainly as a way to increase traffic and sales. The releases are usually quite expensive with not all stores carrying everything that is put out. The record stores typically order those items that they think will sell best for their particular clientele. So, if you live in a city or town with more than one local store, it is possible that each store may carry different releases. This leads to many collectors visiting all of the stores in their area which is a plus for all. However, many Record Store Day releases are only carried in a particular area so it is almost impossible for collectors to find everything that they see as being released. Most stores also use the day to celebrate with other activities such as performances by local artists, DJs spinning records and the like.

You can always expect to wait in an often very long line so many collectors arrive early to make sure they get the special Record Store Day releases before they are all gone. Participants include all ages at several levels of involvement in collecting. This includes lifelong collectors of vinyl as well as newer ones who are just beginning the hobby and the enjoyment derived from it. This diverse group along with often varied reasons for releases from the music industry as well as what the stores decide to carry has led to a rather distinct continuum of collectors with two distinct groups at each end of the spectrum. All is not perfect in Record Store Day land as some collectors have become dissatisfied with what they feel the record companies and even the store’s true intents really are and that is making a profit.

Record Store Day customers typically show an intersection of the types of people who collect vinyl. Some people do not participate and these are often those who have collected records for of their lives even during the period of time when vinyl was declared dead. For others, they will stand in line for hours to try and get some of the special releases. This represents a range from those that absolutely love the day and all it has to offer all the way down to those that actually hate everything about it as well as everyone in-between. As far as the people that really find no use for it at all, they include those that want the original recordings and balk at reissues of any kind especially those produced for this day. They would much rather dig through crates of old albums and singles to discover their prizes. They do not want to stand in long lines for overpriced reissues of albums and they have no interest in colored vinyl, picture discs, limited releases and the like. They want the originals or nothing. Many feel that Record Store Day began as a great event, but has since drifted away from its original intentions. For the ones who do like the reissues and other specials, they often see people from places like eBay grabbing up the special releases only to try and sell them for much more money. These scalpers buy up the stock while leaving nothing for the true music collectors.

For the smaller record companies and anyone without a recognized name, it can mean that they don’t get any records pressed for the special event. For those that truly love and look forward to the event, they are not necessarily concerned about reissues, many like the colored vinyl, the special and limited releases and the fight to grab one. Many simply enjoy the social aspect of meeting new people interested in record collecting and the other events the stores typically have during the day. It is also true that many of today’s independent record stores do sometimes have hidden areas of the store that contain material that is not displayed within the store. For example, a local record store where I live has a huge basement underneath the store where there are literally thousands and thousands of albums and singles. This section is only open and accessible a few times a year. This includes both Record Store Day, Black Friday Day and the store’s anniversary of opening. This would appeal to any cratedigger and the prices for these are very cheap. So, it is often good to be aware of what could be hiding in that particular store.

Although Record Store Day and its counterpart Black Friday Day have both pros and cons as well as many opinions concerning them, my personal opinion is that they are worth attending. It doesn’t matter whether you are going to pick up the new special and often expensive new releases or not. Both are days when vinyl record collectors can unite, celebrate record collecting, show support for the independent record stores and possibly meet others who share their passion for their cherished hobby. They are also both days which contribute to the continuing resurgence of the vinyl record. With the special events that the record stores often provide, collectors may discover new local bands and artists or be entertained by the DJs spinning vinyl records. With some stores opening up special sections of the stores that are not always accessible, there is often an opportunity to go crate digging through often thousands of vinyl records that are never displayed within the stores. I do agree though that for the true lover and collector of vinyl, Record Store Day is every day.

Jack Stephens will be attending Record Store Day and writing on his visits for the next part of this series!

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