By Dave Thompson
Say what you like about Record Store Day (seriously, go ahead. We’ll wait), there is no doubting that it has utterly revolutionized the way we collect records in the 21st century.
For 11 years now, and twice a year latterly, Record Store Day is the one (two) day(s) on the calendar when even the most impoverished musical emporium can guarantee a full house. The one occasion upon which people who might never have set foot in the shop for six months will be back, with their wants list in one hand, their wallet in the other, and elbows that they might have spent the last week sharpening to a fine “get out of my way” point.
And all they wanna do is spend, spend, spend.
It’s so easy to criticize, isn’t it. “Ah, it’s just an excuse for the major labels to rip us off,” is a common complaint. “Too much product” is another. Or even, “the little labels have all been squeezed out.”
All of which are points that are worth considering. The problem is, they miss the biggest point of all. Record Store Day was designed to breathe life back into the mom ’n’ pop bricks’n’mortar stores that, back in 2008, were literally an endangered species.
Compact discs, mp3s, piracy, streaming, rapacious landlords and a host of net-powered vampire squids were gathered on every corner, all with just one aim in mind. “See that store? Shut it.”
They seemed to be succeeding, too.
And then Record Store Day came riding in, and all it took was a few dozen slices of brightly colored vinyl, a bunch of 45s by bands you’ve never heard of, and a box set of a label that died before the dinosaurs.
Or, to put it another way, row upon row of major artist archive releases, all limited editions and produced in quantities that will never satisfy all the people who might want one. And if that strikes you as somehow wrong, I’ll swap you my copy of Fanfarlo’s 2010 “You’re The One” RSD single (current value, about $5) for your copy of Paul McCartney’s “Sweet Thrash” 12-inch from 2015 (current value - $1,000+). Go on, you know you’re tempted.
With hindsight, the idea was genius in its simplicity. By persuading labels and artists to create limited edition releases that would only be available on the day, it would also persuade fans and collectors to arrive early and spend big.
In fact, it’s a misnomer that RSD was ever all about the indy labels. They’ve always maintained a presence in the listings. But even at the start, with just 10 releases in the maiden 2008 schedule, REM, Stephen Malkmus and Vampire Weekend were scarcely hapless obscurities. The following year, fellow non-struggling non-bottom-feeders Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Slayer and the Stooges were all on display.
So what if the major labels treat RSD like several Christmases rolled into one? It just means more exposure (and cash) for the shops that sell their wares, and more muscle for the hobby we’re supposed to be supporting. It’s no coincidence whatsoever that the vinyl “boom” of the last few years coincides almost precisely with the rise of Record Store Day.
Plus, it would be a bitter soul indeed who does not feel at least a soupcon of excitement when the latest list is published, and six months of “what’s coming next time” speculation are finally laid to rest.
This year sees (deep breath) exclusive RSD releases for a hitherto unreleased David Bowie live album (Parlophone), a dawn-of-the-seventies EP by Demon Fuzz (Music on Vinyl), a 12-inch pairing Eno with My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields (Opal), an alternate version of Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night (Warners), a double album of classic, vintage Hawkwind (Parlophone), a Hendrix 45 (Columbia), an analog repress of Pink Floyd’s first album in mono (Legacy), a triple Lou Reed live set (Sire), the long-awaited reissue of the Sundays’ debut album (Fugitive), Tangerine Dream’s age-old Zeit (Varese Sarabande) and a new pressing of the Jeff Beck Group’s Truth (Friday Music).
And that’s just (some of) the ones I’m after.
Of course, there are caveats, from both the store owner’s point of view and the consumer’s. For starters, Record Store Day exclusives cannot be returned if they don’t sell. Neither can stores pick and choose between the offered releases. They receive what they are sent, which is why a lot of people spend almost as long online that evening as they did on line outside the store that morning, looking for the records that didn’t arrive. (Or were sent in such minute quantities that they’d already been snapped up.)
And then there are the so-called “flippers,” those folk who buy up potential rarities with the intention of turning a profit within minutes on e-Bay, for whom Record Store Day is an absolute bonanza. This time last year, stores on the east coast had barely opened and copies of Bowie’s reissued 1971 promo box set were already listed at double (or more) their retail price, and that’s just one example.
But the positives do outweigh the negatives. Otherwise, nobody would bother. Indeed, even the rights and wrongs of flipping are balanced by the knowledge that, for everyone who picked up an extra copy of Type O Negative’s None More Negative box set in 2011 (current value, $500), there’s plenty more lumbered with multiples of, say, Peter Doherty and James Johnston’s 2016 12-inch “The Whole World” (current value - less than they paid for it).
As for that Bowie box, which reached such spectacular heights in the hours immediately after RSD, it can now be picked up for around two-thirds of its original retail.
Indeed, no matter how limited an edition may seem, participating retailers always seem to be stuck with a handful of several long after the event. Meaning, even a deliberately designed “collectors item” is only really worth creating if the collectors are out there. Which, in many cases, they are not. RSD remains a cash cow. But it has a lot of udders, and some of them are dry.
When the stars align, however, and both retailer and customer are satisfied, the event can only be celebrated. Look back over the last decade-plus of releases, at the items that you personally picked up — whether on the day, or via the secondary market of your choice — and ask yourself where else you might have found (another deep breath):
Pristine reissues of the Rolling Stones’s three U.K. EPs. A collection of vintage Frank Zappa 45s. A vinyl debut for the Velvet Underground’s Scepter Studios acetate album. A box set of Ed Banger singles. The soundtrack to Ciao Manhattan. Mono debuts by the Idle Race, July and the United States of America. A liquid-filled Jack White 45. A pink vinyl pressing of Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play.” Ryan Adams’ Prisoner on cassette. An EP featuring the Dead, Dr John and the Dixie Cups all performing “Iko Iko.” Mother Love Bone’s cover of “Hold Your Head Up.”
Multitudinous releases by the Flaming Lips, Phish and the Dave Matthews Band continue to prove as inexplicably popular as ever. The ghosts of fads gone by, from '90s grunge and Britpop to blink-and-you’ll-miss-them '60s dance crazes have all made appearances.
There’s a pressing of the Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love” which only 1,000 people can own, and a 12-inch remix of Wings’ “1985.” Not every release is to everyone’s taste, and you do have to wonder precisely how many people actually need four LPs worth of REM Unplugged, when turning off the record player seems a far more palatable alternative.
But maybe that is Record Store Day’s ultimate purpose, the chance for the major labels to indulge in their own heavenly version of dumpster diving, in search of those treasures that would never, ever, have seen the business end of a conventional release, because the accountants would never permit it.
Bang them out as limited editions, though, ostensibly available for one day only, at a slightly (or otherwise) higher price than normal retail could ever withstand; round up a captive audience whose only reason for being is to flash some cash… now that makes sense for everyone, manufacturer, retailer and customer alike.
That is why we set the alarm early that morning, forsaking breakfast and outstanding bills, to stand in a line whatever the weather, and shuffle through a store that has never been this crowded.
That is why we should celebrate Record Store Day.
Every other concern is irrelevant.