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The Quietus Essay

Is Record Store Day In Crisis? A Quietus Investigation
Phil Hebblethwaite , April 17th, 2014 04:59

Record Store Day 2014 is the biggest yet, with hundreds of exclusive new releases and reissues in shops this weekend. But as vinyl pressing plants struggle to keep up with demand, is the event's success in danger of harming independent labels - and even RSD itself? Phil Hebblethwaite investigates

Has Record Store Day become too big? That's been the criticism in the run-up to 2014's event, which takes place this Saturday, and immediately that sounds like a contradiction in terms. It is now a huge global event – for the labels that release exclusive material, for the bands that record that material and play in-store shows, and for the press, as well as the shops – and in the excitement and chaos of what actually happens on the day, it's easy to forget its original purpose.

There were 734 independent record shops across the UK in 2005; by the end of 2008 that number had dwindled to 305. Bringing Record Store Day to Britain in 2008 after it was conceived in the US a year before was designed to give those shops that remained a significant jump start and, in that respect, it's been a towering success. According to Spencer Hickman, UK co-ordinator of Record Store Day and former manager of Rough Trade East, it's now the biggest day of the year for independent record shops – more profitable, in fact, than the entire week before Christmas. You can't exactly measure whether Record Store Day has a tangible effect on the other 364 days of the year, but you could guess that it probably doesn't do any harm.

Or maybe it does. As it's grown, Record Store Day has increasingly become the subject of criticism. One of the first to lash out was Rob Sevier of The Numero Group, a Chicago-based archival label. Regarding Record Store Day in the US, he said in 2011: "Cashing-in is what the record business is. We're not upset with major labels for being major labels. What I'm not crazy about are the literally hundreds of pieces of shit being shoved into the marketplace on this day; products, for the most part, that no human needs to own, ever. 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?'"

In the UK in 2011, there were 277 exclusive Record Store Day releases. This year there are 643, forcing a whole new set of issues. Whether anyone needs these releases is a moot point (and entirely at the discretion of the record buyer); the problem in the run up to 2014's event is that the scale of Record Store Day has started to cause considerable collateral damage across the across the entire independent music sector – particularly for smaller labels, regardless of whether they're involved in the day or not.

Suspicions that Record Store Day 2014 was causing havoc behind the scenes were confirmed when on March 14 distribution company Kudos published a blog detailing their frustrations. "Kudos' physical release schedule will be pretty quiet for the next few weeks," it began. "This isn't a seasonal issue… The cause of this new release drought might surprise you: Record Store Day." They went on to explain that pressing plants were prioritising releases specific to Record Store Day, often on major labels, leaving them "effectively locked out of the vinyl business". They mentioned that they have always been supporters of the day, the organisers and concept, but drastic changes need to be made in the future, because, they said, "It feels like it has been appropriated by major labels and larger indies to the extent that smaller labels who push vinyl sales for the other 364 days of the year are effectively penalised."

Two weeks later, Manchester-based independent label Modern Love cracked and blasted out a series of explosive tweets: "Fuck Record Store Day and all you self-righteous wankers who think it benefits anyone 'independent'," followed by, "Fuck you to all the pressing plants out there who have made major labels their priority," and "…looking forward to seeing that bubble burst in a couple of years."

Other labels quickly ploughed in. "Major labels have taken it over, that's why we never do RSD releases," tweeted back R&S. Tri Angle said: "Three of our upcoming releases had to be rescheduled after dates had already been set because of this. It's total bullshit."

These are very real concerns. Not having records in shops at an advertised date not only looks unprofessional, it messes with a label's cash-flow and press/radio campaign. Small labels that the Quietus have spoken to have confirmed the above problems (albeit without concrete proof that it's major labels specifically that have been causing log-jams at pressing plants, all of which, it's worth noting, are located outside the UK) and suggested the problems run deeper than simply not getting stock back on time. Even if they could get their releases to their distributor on schedule, there's no guarantee they'd actually be shelved in shops: there are space concerns as a potential 643 exclusive records land in stores in large numbers on a single day, but also stock doesn't end up in shops on a sale-or-return basis – it's bought in. Despite the boost of the day itself, record shops simply don't have the budget to purchase every regular release from labels a month before, or after, Record Store Day.

It gets worse. As the number of exclusive Record Store Day releases increases each year, some independent labels – in silence or vocally – have begun to boycott the day. They're worried that their records will be invisible in the avalanche of releases and they've lost faith in Record Store Day's ethos. They're pissed off, Hickman knows it, and he's concerned: "If you've got small labels who support record stores all year round saying, 'We don't like it,' that's a bad situation – very bad. Those are the guys that will go, 'Fuck you, we'll just sell our releases exclusively online.' Then stores are really in trouble."

Hickman not only runs Record Store Day in the UK, he also has his own label, Death Waltz Recording Company. As such, he's in a unique position to understand the concerns from both sides. "Without my Record Store Day head on – as me running a small label – it's a nightmare," he says. "I am fully aware of the issues and this year it has seemed a lot more difficult. It puts a huge strain on the industry and it probably puts that strain on the part of the industry that has the least amount of money."

Equally alarmingly, even Hickman is worried that the day has lost sense of its purpose and spiralled out of control. "I loved Record Store Day because it was about celebrating the culture that I grew up in and around," he says. "I know people have said this about the last couple of years but, for me, this year feels like the first time it's been entirely driven by capitalism. I say that on behalf of myself. It now feel like it's not celebrating the culture of the record store and why they're so good; it's about the releases."

Can anything be done? Yes, says Hickman, but start to think of changes and you quickly get into "really tricky, thorny territory". He points out that it's not just Record Store Day that's putting pressure on pressing plants: "The vinyl boom in general is impacting massively on factories, because new plants aren't springing up. No one makes the machinery anymore." Also, the process of submitting a release for Record Store Day is not lawless. Hickman runs Record Store Day with the Entertainment Retailers Association and there's a clear submission process. They work alongside labels, offer pointers and aim to keep the releases at 400 maximum. "But what do you do if you have 700 records submitted that fall within their guidelines?" asks Hickman. "You've got 700 releases. There's nothing you can do about that, except do the best you can for the day."

One solution would be for Record Store Day to regulate the releases more closely. Hickman: "Does Record Store Day have to say, 'Your release can't be part of the day?' How can you legislate on that? Should we have a committee to decide what gets released, and who would be on that committee? Also, independent record shops are by nature independent – they all sell different things. One store might sell 500 copies of a Bob Dylan record; another might not even order it or want it. It's impossible to make a rule for them all."

What about having two Record Store Days, one for indies and one for the majors, as some people have suggested online? "I don't think that would work," Hickman says. "So many small labels down the line are funded by majors. How do you separate them? Then the majors' day would get way more press than the indie day, and so on. You can't do it."

And, besides, regarding the majors' involvement in Record Store Day, Hickman takes a far more optimistic approach. "Among the first people to support Record Store Day were Warner Brothers and they have consistently produced some of the best and most interesting releases on the schedule – split coloured 7"s of Green Day and The Lemonheads covering The Misfits; things like that. Yes, some majors release rubbish, but others absolutely understand what it's about because they've got people working for them that still buy records. Their releases will get bought. Releases by majors who haven't thought it through will get left on the shelf, especially unnecessary reissues. That's where things can get watered down."

In Hickman's view, for the first time this year, "the good releases are overshadowed by the average ones", but that's only his opinion. "The stuff I listen to at home most people fucking hate," he says, "so who am I to tell people what to buy?" And therein lies what he considers to be the best solution for Record Store Day in the future: allow it to regulate itself. "I really think that because there are so many releases, next year changes will occur naturally," he says. "After Saturday, there's going to be a ton of stuff left unsold. Shops that I have spoken to can't cope with processing the amount of stock and sometimes they just don't know what to order. Even if they know their clientele super well, it's still confusing. It's a minefield this year and I really think it should self-regulate."

Each year, participating shops file a report after the day, giving the organisers feedback and suggesting changes. Distributors and labels should do that too, Hickman says, even if they're not involved in Record Store Day. "The first thing I heard about the open letter that Kudos wrote is when I saw it reported in the press, and I know the guys there. That's madness. I need that feedback because it's the only way we can figure out how to solve the problems. We have a post-Record Store Day meeting in L.A. every year in May. I have to compile a report for that meeting mentioning issues that we're having in the UK and I will ask what we can do about them. I really don't want to see anyone's business being hurt and I perfectly understand that indie labels are the rock of indie stores."

Hickman is under immense pressure and, aside from last year when Record Store Day worked with a sponsor, he hasn't been paid a penny for the enormous amount of work he puts into the day each year. That needs to change, although he's not asking for remuneration. A part of him thinks Record Store Day should "do a Glastonbury" and take a year off, reassess and get organised properly for 2016, but, he adds, "I'll get shot for suggesting for that." Why? "Because, despite everything, I know that thousands of people are going to have a great day on Saturday, and so will I. This year, there's good and bad, but you can't forget that music fans, bands and the industry still do very well out of Record Store Day. The amount of press we do is incredible and you can't underestimate that – BBC One news, Channel 4 news, newspapers, online… All of that stuff benefits the entire industry. However, I don't sit there with my head in my hands and think there aren't any problems; I know there are and my worry is that Record Store Day could explode in a mess. More than anyone, I really don't want that to happen."