Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Record Store Day: The Pros & Cons

So, there goes another Record Store Day.

Having spent the lion's share of my working life in various capacities within the music industry, including many years in independent retail, I will naturally applaud any initiative to place a spotlight on these institutions - if only for one day a year. But that it is needed at all breaks my heart.

Without going into all of the well documented reasons why it is happening, I still find it extraordinary - surreal, even - that the days are with us when bricks-and-mortar music retailers are disappearing from the planet faster than you can say "play that funky music, white boy." As someone for whom record stores have been second homes for over thirty-five years, it is nothing short of a cultural tragedy to me. It feels like one of my limbs is being slowly amputated, which kind of hurts a bit. Okay, a lot.

But whatever I might think, the disappearance of music stores continues apace, and that's just the way it is. And while Record Store Day may ultimately only delay the inevitable, it is at least a brave attempt to unite the independent music retailers of the world for a few hours, and remind the general populace that whatever they might have read or heard, while the quaint old concept may be on death's door, it is still breathing and putting up a fight. So to this end, Record Store Day is important and fantastic. If the publicity surrounding it brings more people out to doff their cap to the store(s) in their communities, throwing a few dollars their way, then it has to be worthwhile. As it stands, however, I believe it is greatly flawed.

What I sorely object to about the whole thing is the annual slew of limited edition releases issued for Record Store Day. They are of course intended to attract custom. Don't get me wrong, I think it's great that there is product released specifically to tie in with what should be considered a celebration of record stores, but the fact that pretty much all of it is limited in number to the degree of pointlessness really sticks in my craw. Yes, these items will ensure that, at least in some towns, line-ups will form at the record store doors at dawn, guaranteeing increased sales for that store - being partly the point - but, I'm talking to you, record labels - what about the fans?

I've been a huge fan of R.E.M. for twenty-eight years and pretty damned keen on the work of Nick Cave for over two decades. I've spent an unreasonable amount of cash down the years in pursuit of the musical pleasures these acts afford me, and an equally ridiculous amount of time nerdily obsessing over them. While it has been impossible to get my hands on every release or associated object of desire, I have remained loyal, buying every title as it was released.

Both acts were subject to Record Store Day releases, but when I read about them it was not excitement or anticipation I felt for the imminent snaffling of new goodies, but sheer frustration. When there are just a few hundred copies globally available, really, why bother? I know I will never see copies of these instantly rare items...at least unless I am prepared to shell out a ton of money to those non-fans at the record store doors at dawn, the bastards present not to celebrate the role of the record store in their community, but out for the sole purpose of making a buck. Lo and behold, looking at Ebay.ca today there are copies of R.E.M.'s Three vinyl box set selling for up to $125 and Nick Cave's band Grinderman's Evil 12"/CD pack for around $50. Those prices will certainly increase, as will the quantity of them on sale. Supply and demand, dear readers...

The thing is, working in our local indie store as I do, I witness firsthand how ridiculous this whole scenario is from our side of the counter. When presented with the list of scores of Record Store Day 2010 titles by our suppliers last year, we ordered a whole mess of them - probably fifty-plus titles in accordance with our demographic. I think we received eight or nine maximum for the day itself. Preposterously, a few more dribbled in during the weeks following the day, and even then all of them were the less attractive titles on offer. No sign of any of the hot stuff. This year, also, we received just a handful, and were unable to inform customers in advance of what we would get, if anything at all, having no idea what the hell would show up. What sort of scenario is that? Record Store Day 2011 ended up being just another Saturday for us. I don't believe this has much to do with the Canadian distribution system, more that there are simply way too few to go round, so - just as it has always been in this business - what there is available will go to the most "important" accounts.

Way to go to "celebrate" record stores. Way to go to look after the fans. Record labels, consider the word "demand," then the word "supply," okay? Work with the founders of Record Store Day towards a solution that will please everyone, as it can only serve to prolong the life of the record store, you see? While the day itself is ever more crucial, the whole concept of the limited edition releases sucks. It must be drastically rethought, so everyone can get a piece of the pie if they want it, thereby genuinely enjoying their local record store and consequently feeling likely to support it in the future. It is not rocket science. All this current set up does is breed resentment, and it's a certainty that all such a negative emotion is going to achieve is help drive another nail in the record store's coffin.        

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