Rule #1 among the indie record-label folks I know: don’t talk about Record Store Day at social gatherings. The annual event — this Saturday (April 18) marks its eighth year — has been known to inspire bouts of industry anxiety starting in January and lasting ‘til nearly May.
The fact that factions of the biz are questioning a holiday meant to bolster the primary brick-and-mortar institution of music culture is proof that it is damn near impossible for an industry in upheaval to execute solutions that will satisfy everyone. What is in theory a straightforward, hugely positive event to sell records has become, well… it’s complicated and depends on who you ask. So we asked a few people on both sides of the debate. As it turns out, some of the downfalls of Record Store Day are less apparent to music fans than others, which may help to illuminate some of the recent backlash.
It can delay artists’s vinyl releases for months.
Owen Pallett, who’s signed to one of the “major” indie labels (Domino), summed up this problem in a Facebook post last April, just after RSD: “The album release date for In Conflict has been pushed back to May 27. This is due to a backup at the pressing plant; Record Store Day was a tall order this year. We will be selling CD and vinyl copies of the album at all May tour dates, prior to the ‘street date.’”
“RSD is great for stores, but with the influx of releases coming from major labels (both RSD and otherwise), the plants get so clogged up that just getting our regular releases delivered on time can be a struggle — and those take precedence for us,” says Hannah Silk Champagne, a project manager at Brooklyn indie label Captured Tracks, which opted out of RSD exclusives this year.
No, we can’t just open more vinyl pressing plants to combat that problem.
Record presses cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build from scratch, according to Jay Millar, the director of marketing for Nashville’s United Record Pressing, the busiest vinyl press plant in the world. Even for a plant like United — which typically runs 24 hours a day, six days a week — that kind of investment is not feasible. Presses must be salvaged and rebuilt — a slow process that can’t necessarily keep up with vinyl’s resurgence (9.2. million vinyl records sold in 2014, a 52 percent increase from 2013). Even without the push of Record Store Day, America’s 20 or so pressing plants are full up.
Record Store Day is a celebration of independent record stores, but not specifically a celebration of independent music.
Though its official mission is to “celebrate and spread the word about the unique culture” of independent record stores, it would be hard to argue that Record Store Day was borne of a wholly independent spirit. After all, Metallica played one of the holiday’s inaugural events in 2008, and other past ambassadors have included some of rock’s biggest mainstream stars (Ozzy Osbourne, Jack White, Dave Grohl).
In recent years, the most common criticism of Record Store Day has been how many major labels participate. Some, like official RSD sponsor Warner Bros., put together exclusive Record Store Day releases for vast portions of their diverse rosters. These efforts are not relegated to the bands that one would associate with The Dude Who Goes To The Record Store Every Weekend stereotype, or “the vinyl resurgence.” Built to Spill may get an exclusive release, but so do Hot 100 stars Echosmith. This aspect accounts for much of the miscommunication over what Record Store Day should represent and who its target audience is, but according to RSD’s founders, the holiday has never tried to hide the fact that major labels play an important role.
“Record Store Day is, at its heart, about independently owned record stores and the roles they play in their communities,” RSD co-founder Carrie Colliton tells Flavorwire. “Of course indie labels and indie musicians are an important part of what they do, and they go hand in hand and the success of one is the success of the other. But the majority of stores sell indie label and major label releases side by side, every day of the year. A day to celebrate what a record store does should include both indies and majors.”
“It’s also not true that majors are ‘jumping on the bandwagon,’” Colliton continues. “Record Store Day started in 2008 and the first label to create special pieces for the stores was a major label. And they have been very good partners for Record Store Day, as have indie labels in increasing numbers. And we’ll continue to welcome both to be part of it going forward. It should also be noted that this year the US list of official releases is more than 50 percent made up of titles on independent labels.”
She adds: “No store is ever required to bring in any title. If they cater to a specific type of label or music, they’re free to do that on Record Store Day as well.”
Not every release submitted to Record Store Day makes the cut, but there are still plenty of questionable releases that do.
Father/Daughter Records, a two-person label distributed by Redeye (which works with Barsuk, Kill Rock Stars, and many other indie labels), had one of its Record Store Day exclusive compilations rejected from inclusion in the holiday this year. Last year, the label’s clever, conceptual Faux Real compilation — which features real bands like Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis covering songs by fictional bands from TV and movies — was released as part of Record Store Day, in a pressing of about 500 records.
This year, the label planned a second edition of Faux Real featuring Swearin’s Allison Crutchfield, Chumped, Quarterbacks, and more, specifically for Record Store Day. In December, the label found out that Faux Real II had been rejected by the event because it wasn’t “compelling enough,” Father/Daughter co-owner Jessi Frick tells Flavorwire. Faux Real II was finally accepted by Record Store Day after several interventions by Father/Daughter’s distributors, but at that point, the label was “so turned off by the whole thing we decided to sell direct to consumers.”
“I had no idea records even got rejected, so you could say I was pretty bummed to hear that after we had already gotten all of the bands to record their covers in the summer and had the vinyl in production,” Frick says. “For a true indie label, which is operated off my day job income, it is a huge hit to take.”
“The US takes each [RSD release submission] on a case-by-case basis, and we have a committee of organizers and store owners who go over them when they’re submitted,” Colliton explains of the selection process. “We list very small runs in our regional/small run section of the list because we do want to encourage regional artists/labels and stores who want to release their own titles to be part of Record Store Day.”
“RSD should be used for releasing something special and exciting, or niche enough that it brings that core audience out to get the limited run, not an excuse to release a color version of a widely available recent record,” Silk Champagne adds, citing seven-inch demos, “alternate takes” and B-sides, movie soundtracks, picture discs, and Bruce Springsteen reissues as examples of unnecessary RSD releases. “It’s starting to feel less like a day for vinyl enthusiasts and music lovers to come out and get something really special and unique, and more like a day for labels to dump releases that don’t really make sense anywhere else on the schedule and call them ‘limited.'”
Rob Sevier of Chicago archival label The Numero Group summed up this problem back in 2011 with a strong takeaway: “The economy of Record Store Day is, ‘What can we shit into the form of a record and shove into the hands of the wanton masses?'”
Not all Record Store Day releases are true exclusives.
Not every RSD release is an oddity, and some of them aren’t even true exclusives. Some records — most often reissues — launch as Record Store Day releases, but are repressed and distributed more widely in the months following the holiday. A list of those releases for RSD 2015 is here.
Some record stores have also opted out because the process can be frustrating.
Stores pay thousands of dollars upfront to stock RSD releases. Even then, they’re not sure which releases they’re getting, even though they request specific ones. Even if customers show up early on Record Store Day and wait in line for hours, there’s little guarantee they’ll get the release they’re looking for — even if the shop has ordered it.
Peter Guylas, owner of Cleveland’s small gem of a vintage vinyl shop Blue Arrow, recently chronicled his 2014 Record Store Day fiasco, which resulted in him not receiving his largest order of RSD releases from one of his distributors. He had ordered and had repeatedly been promised that what he had requested would be delivered, up until Record Store Day itself.
Some Record Store Day exclusives sell for thousands on eBay, and those profits go to the sellers — not the artists, labels, or the indie stores.
Look no further than this list of the most ridiculously expensive RSD flips on eBay from last year’s festivities.
Despite its flaws, critics concede that Record Store Day is a worthwhile initiative.
“There’s always going to be some growing pains when you’re dealing with a successful business,” Frick adds, suggesting limiting the number of records per label as one small solution. “I think the spirit is a little misguided at the moment, but that’s not to say that RSD isn’t a good thing, because it’s truly a great thing. It gets people into brick-and-mortar stores, helping stores stay in business, which in turn help labels and musicians stay in business.”