The 8th iteration of the annual global celebration of the community ethos of independent record stores was held last Saturday. Vinyl sales are exploding worldwide – growing 223 per cent between 2013 and 2014. Charts for vinyl album and single sales have just been launched in the UK as sales are already reported to be up 70 per cent this year.
Over 520 exclusive releases hit the shelves of the world’s independent record stores this Record Store Day – a huge growth from its 2008 launch catalogue of 10 releases. On the face of things, all looks rosy.
Yet murmurs of discontent are bubbling. Last year saw a number of labels and stores begin to speak out. Even in 2013, Bill Daly of Crooked Beat Records in Washington DC told the Washington Post: “A lot of people wonder, ‘When is Record Store Day going to put a store out of business?’”
That quote is totally at odds with the annual event’s stated ambitions. The criticism isn’t just from store owners – labels, bands and distributors are getting in on the act too. So what’s going wrong?
One problem stems from the basic infrastructure of the vinyl industry. The industry’s decline led to mass closures of pressing plants throughout the world, and the format’s sudden resurgence has left manufacturers struggling to keep up with demand, a problem that exclusive Record Store Day releases exacerbate.
This is a nightmare for labels who try to put out releases as normal in the run-up to the day. Last year, the likes of Kudos Records and TriAngle Records voiced their frustrations at seeing production on their releases grind to a halt.
This year UK labels Howling Owl and Sonic Cathedral teamed up to release a limited edition 7” – but not for Record Store Day. “We can’t compete so we won’t compete,” they said in a blunt statement entitled “Why Record Store Day is dying”.
While stores may benefit from getting customers in the door on the day itself, the pitfall behind the limited edition releases is that distributors do not offer them to independent shops on a “sale or return” basis – meaning that if they don’t sell, the shop is stuck with them.
That’s if they can even get any exclusive releases in – Cleveland store Blue Arrow have announced that they will not participate this year after their under-pressure distributor failed to ship their Record Store Day orders last year.
While production and distribution bottlenecks are frustrating for all, the real issue is the perception that they disproportionately affect smaller independent record stores. This has led to a new conversation – does Record Store Day think that some independents are better than others?
While their official website makes it clear that they don’t deal with “online retailers or corporate behemoths,” their sponsors include Sony, Universal and Warner.
A common thread in small labels’ complaints is their perception that releases from major labels take precedence at pressing plants.
Manchester label Modern Love tweeted last year: “If yr a record label and you can’t get anything pressed up for months console yourself with the thought that at least the world will have 5000 copies x Katy Perry Prism Picture Disc”.
Smaller stores, such as Blue Arrow, also feel that distributors prioritise orders from larger independent stores, such as Amoeba Records in the US, Rough Trade in the UK and Tower here in Dublin.
The question of independence has been asked locally lately as for the past two years HMV – owned by Hilco and therefore exempt from Record Store Day – have held a “Record Fest” on the same day. The event features bands playing in HMV stores nationwide as well as 40% discount on vinyl and was described by Tower Records last year as “cynical”.
That wasn’t the end of it, as The Record Spot – a small independent store on Fade Street – waded into the debate, saying:
“Imagine it was International Coffee Shop Day. I view choosing to support HMV & Tower on April 19th as the equivalent of… celebrating the day by purchasing a cup of coffee in Burger King because of a 40% coffee sale or getting a cappuccino in O’Briens, because it’s ‘Irish.’”
So is Record Store Day dying?
Despite all the difficulties associated with it, once the day comes around it can feel like a real celebration. Instore performances draw big crowds and serve as a perfect promotion for the community spirit behind record stores.
It’s important to remember though that a record store is not just for April. Dublin is blessed with a collection of great independent stores who do so much to support the Irish music scene, and they deserve our support all year round.
Stephen Keegan, Deputy Arts Editor, @macaodhagainS