November 23, 2011

Why I Secretly Dread Record Store Day

Let me qualify my rant below by saying I have worked at independent record stores on and off since 1988 and am currently working part time at one now. I have spent over 15 years in independent music distribution, run a small record label, and have been a recording artist since the early '90s. More importantly I am a rabid music fan who lives and breathes music even when I am not working in the industry or doing my radio show.

In short I am looking at and have experienced Record Store Day from all possible angles. I know exactly the kind of long and hard work it takes from behind the scenes to make RSD happen and have seen first hand the many perks it offers bands, labels, distributors, stores, and ultimately music fans. I get it. I appreciate Record Store Day on many levels (not to mention that a thriving music industry keeps a person like me employed full time - although not presently - HIRE ME PLEASE!) but I actually secretly dread RSD and here is why.

From the outside this now twice a year event (April and November) celebrates physical products and the good old fashion record store. The press RSD gathers brings plenty of attention to struggling record shops, labels, and bands world wide. The more people talk about the event and hype the records available on RSD, the more it drives people into the store and creates sales for all involved. YAY! Right? Well, in theory that all sounds super swell but what music fans don't know is how many headaches there are on the back end of this event.

First of all if a label / band wants to press a record or make some sort of special product for Record Store Day they need money to fund whatever this limited one time pressing is. If something is limited this means so is the amount of money a label and band makes from whatever it is they create for the occasion. Yes, for most labels and bands (and distributors for that matter) they look at RSD releases more as marketing tools for a band rather than something they will actually profit from but either way, it still takes money to make this limited item and limiting your profit is a risky venture, especially if the artist or release turns out to be a less than loved item among fans.

Remember that fans AKA record store customers only have so much money to spend on RSD so if there are 20 releases they want, they can't necessarily afford to by them all. If a release doesn't have top notch distribution (IE any and all record stores can find and buy your release with ease) or doesn't have high demand from fans, a label just spent a couple grand for no good reason. Unless it is a quality release by a truly popular band with a label that has strong distribution, creating a RSD release can be a gamble. It is nearly impossible to determine the success or popularity of any given RSD release in advance (before the actual pressing takes place) so this forces a label to typically press a small number of records. While collector's love things that are limited because it ultimately may drive up the worth of their purchase, the very limited nature of many of these records makes it a living hell - truly an absolute nightmare for a store to try and track down no less purchase because every other store in the country is fighting over a mere 500 to a few thousand copies of one release.

There are a TON of record stores across America ( I wish I had the exact number but over 700 for sure) and then some of those businesses have multiple locations (like Newbury or Amoeba), so the total number of store fighting over a small number of copies is staggering. More established larger stores tend to get more copies than newer /smaller stores (and are also better connected to labels, bands, and distros) so while fans nation wide are reading about these wonderful rare records coming out for Record Store Day, they don't understand how slim the chances are that their local store will be lucky enough to get any of them no less multiple copies of one release. The next time you are tempted to curse out your local store for not having some super limited record on Record Store Day, know that it isn't because they forgot, suck, don't is because it isn't just limited to fans, it is limited to the stores too. (I am talking to you guy who called me from your cell phone as you waited in line for our store to open and watched me through the glass arrange the RSD titles on the table and then freaked out at me because we only had one copy of the record you wanted.)

There is yet another nuisance attached to RSD; holy hell it is expensive! Few record store customers realize how expensive it is for a store to buy all these limited, non returnable items for their customers to hopefully buy. (Again larger shops have credit with distributors but smaller record stores have to pay for records on the spot.) The brand new record you pay for at a record shop isn't typically marked up some tremendous amount. (nothing compared to most retail products) Stores make next to nothing on new releases so they are forking out thousands of dollars for this product (some bigger stores $10,000 or more!!!!) and the profit margin they make from these sales is minimal. The only real way a store makes a tremendous profit from RSD is if customers buy other items in the store that carry a much higher mark up that day (shirts, posters, used records, toys...and so on), or if they become repeat customers for years to come (not just 2x a year for limited RSD titles).

In this economy, trying to buy boatloads of hot new releases is really pricey and risky for any shop. And then to add insult to injury, just because the store wants to order let's say a total of 200 records for Record Store Day, some stores are shorted as much as 80% of what they actually want. Think about it; the demand for these records are out there but to keep RSD titles cool and collectible, labels limit the number pressed to such a small number that many stores don't get certain releases at all. That not only removes profit from their pocket but pisses off their customers who didn't get the record they wanted. Record Store Day creates a lot buzz but it equally creates a lot of disappointment when fans / customers don't get what they want. You would think if people are clammering to buy a physical product, labels and bands would want to press enough product to make all of their fans and stores who support them happy but this isn't how RSD works in reality at all.

The frustrations don't just end there. What is the end result beyond short shipped stores and pissed off customers who couldn't find what they really wanted on record store day? Ebay. The trumped up concept of rare records creates a brief collector's frenzy on Ebay that goes against the while posi concept of what Record Store Day is really supposed to be about. Even more ironic is the fact that in three months most of the "rare" Record Store Day releases drop in value. In fact many regular record store customers who shop in record stores every week or a few times a month and understand that most indie records have a limited pressing and find RSD to be an insult to a music fans like them. In our world, Record Store Day is every day and now two times a year this event brings out many of the amateur music buyers who have no idea that most record pressings are fairly limited in nature. Regular customers know that quality limited records come out every single week - not just for RSD. I repeat -


RSD seems to appeal to flash in the pan type customers who are buying into a fad (or trying to make a quick buck on Ebay) rather than acting as a true music fan who will be a regular customer to that record store or support whatever band or record label in the years to come. This twice a year spike in business is great (a one time customer is better than no customer at all) but are the people supporting RSD in fact fair weather friends? Will we see the bulk of those customers again before the next RSD?

From personal experience I can't tell you how many people come in on Record Store Day and buy a big pile of records and then tell me that they don't even own a turntable. Ugh. That isn't what we are trying to achieve with RSD - is it?

Yes, Record Store Day is a highly profitable day for stores. Yes it brings in positive press about an industry going through massive changes and hard times. I am all for anything that reminds people that music still exists in a physical form for those who care to own it. I get it, I really do. I love a rare record as much as the next person but I also wanted to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. I wanted to think about why my stomach hurts when I see something like a tweet from NPR about 10 reasons to brave the crowds and head to your local record store on Black Friday.

I am that local record shop and I don't look forward to disappointing anyone - regular customer or not. I love the joyful exchange of selling a fan a piece of music they can't wait to get their hands on (or wrap their ears around) but I truly DREAD the moment when we can't deliver that gift of art.

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