"Before we got involved, it was dead," Michael Kurtz says. "We reinvented the vinyl industry." Record Store Day, of which he is co-founder and manager, breathed new life into the business, he says.
The annual event that takes place on the third Saturday of April pays tribute to what was, until recently, considered an endangered species: the independent record store. It began in 2007 with Eric Levin, Kurtz, Carrie Colliton, Amy Dorfman, Don Van Cleave and Brian Poehner, just after the fall of behemoth Tower Records. Although by the time it filed for bankruptcy in 2006, Tower had sold more CDs than vinyl, it was still a scary time for the music industry. After all, the chain that had brought music to the masses had just disintegrated. Kurtz approached Metallica with the idea of putting an event together to save vinyl, and the legendary metal band were happy to help out. They officially kicked off the first Record Store Day on April 19, 2008, with a performance at Rasputin Music in Mountain View.
Since then, labels have put out limited-edition releases each April. The media are mostly on vinyl and distributed via independent music retailers across the world. Performers including Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen and Adele have given fans exclusive content to seek out on this special day. This year's offerings include some interesting rarities, such as a 7-inch of Feist covering Mastodon split with Mastodon covering Feist, as well as a Flaming Lips collaboration with Bon Iver.
Kurtz posits the group saved the vinyl industry because the rare collectibles released on Record Store Day and parties around the event have given vinyl a higher profile, making it a product consumers covet. Thus, on Record Store Day, people are buying vinyl anywhere from a pop-up shop at Coachella to, more recently, places in Japan and China. Top-tier acts perform in neighborhood record stores; in 2011, the Foo Fighters performed at Fingerprints in Long Beach.
To some, the claim that Record Store Day saved the dying vinyl industry is a bold statement. "That's crap," says Bill Evans, owner of Black Hole Records in Fullerton. "For one thing, vinyl was always around—it never went out [of style]. Our country fell into the CD trap of the '90s, [but] people in Europe always bought vinyl. Over here, people finally figured it out."
Instead, Evans credits the resurgence of vinyl to the CD industry. "CD people got greedy," he says. "They charged too much and the bands didn't get anything. They screwed everybody."
After the rise of Napster and the file-sharing craze of the early 2000s, compact disc sales took a fall, just as their petroleum predecessor did. "That cut a crack in the armor," Evans says. "They were like, 'We gotta get on the downloading thing,' but they took too long. They kept making expensive CDs and dragging their feet. So vinyl came back [when CDs died]."
In general, however, vinyl sales are on the rise—and have been for some time. On the first Record Store Day, Nielsen SoundScan's music-sales statistics showed just a 0.4 percent increase in record-store album sales compared to the previous week. These numbers rose steadily in recent years; last year, vinyl sales increased 36.3 percent, with 3.9 million units sold versus 2010's 2.8 million—a Nielsen SoundScan sales record. It's tough to attribute this rise to any one factor, though Record Store Day certainly gives people reason to head to a local shop.
This year, there will be 600 artists participating in releases, appearances and performances at independent shops. There will be approximately 200 exclusive releases, ranging from huge (the Black Keys, Paul McCartney, David Bowie) to hip (Nobunny, Beach House, St. Vincent). Fingerprints will host M. Ward, Al Jardine (of the Beach Boys) and more at an in-store performance. In past years, artists have done signings at Coachella pop-up shops.
"The first year wasn't a joke, but it's nothing compared to these past two to three years," says Drak, owner of Vinyl Solution in Huntington Beach. He says sales mirror that of the Christmas rush. "It's great for us, for the starving record-industry people. [Business] comes through 20 to 30 times better."
Drak says Vinyl Solution doesn't do much different on that day, despite the influx in sales. "Every fucking day of my life is Record Store Day," he says. "We're going to treat everyone the same way we do every day. I wish everyone would support independent companies every day, not just on some Internet holiday."
Both Drak and Evans expressed frustration with the way limited releases are distributed. Most record stores don't know how many of the special titles they're going to get from the batches they order until a day or two before. "I don't like telling my customers that," Drak says. "Any other day, I'll call and they'll say yes or no. On Record Store Day, they can't tell me."
But smaller record stores such as Black Hole will only get a fraction of the records they request, Evans says. "Whatever Amoeba deems they don't want, I might get or a record store that kisses ass might. If Amoeba spends $1,000 per week and I spend $200, who do you think is going to get all the stuff?"
Drak expressed a similar sentiment. "Fingerprints will drown me, and I will get pushed to the side," he says.
"The problem is they have to get engaged and push for what they want," Record Store Day co-founder Kurtz says. "Establish a relationship with a [distributor], maintaining a relationship year-round, not just on [Record Store Day]."
Evans has a problem with that solution. "So I'd have to buy from 30 different distributors year-round to make sure I get the four singles I want on Record Store Day? That doesn't even make sense," he says. "I have such a niche audience; I only sell alternative or punk rock, and most of these labels only have two artists I'd carry anyway. So they want me to buy a bunch of records I wouldn't even sell anyway? That's stupid."
Black Hole doesn't see much of a rise in sales on Record Store Day. "I still have singles from last year no one bought," Evans says. "It isn't even worth the $2 or $5 markup on most of these releases."
Kurtz recommends making the customer excited. "It's about getting involved," he says. "What artists do you have lined up? Do you have a party? A lot of stores are just thinking, 'How can I get the releases?' You have to think about how you make your customers special. It's like the Beatles song says: 'The love you take is equal to the love you make.'"
He said it takes some stores awhile to understand Record Store Day is an altruistic venture. "We make no money," he says. "They have to get over bitterness of the past."
Eventually, that day comes. "I've heard all the complaints and usually the record stores come around eventually and say, 'Thank you for doing this," Kurtz says. "It really helps my business.'"
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That day came for Drak, despite his frustrations. "Thank God for all of the good stuff about Record Store Day," he says. "The only thing bad is that someone has to remind you there is a Record Store Day. I woke up since junior high and knew not to eat at McDonald's. It's 98 percent good, 2 percent bad."
The future of vinyl is with the kids who are going to buy them, says Evans. "They'll steal their uncle's Clash album and buy a turntable," he says. "They're going to buy a vinyl and a bottle of wine and have a date. They're the kids who are going to save it, not Record Store Day."
This article appeared in print as "Did Record Store Day Save Vinyl? The annual event wants to promote indies, but some smaller shops feel left out next to little-big stores such as Amoeba."