A number of independent record shop owners have told me of late that by surviving the really dark days when music retailers were closing left, right and centre, they’ve found circumstances have improved a little. For a start, once we’re down to the bare minimum, we need every record shop we can get and, secondly, with HMV seemingly now of the opinion that music is toxic, they’re the only places to get hold of anything even slightly obscure. I’m thrilled when I hear of shops extending their leases or expanding their business as it gives music fans the length and breadth of the country hope. As these centres of cultural relevance increasingly become museum exhibits for the media to visit once or twice a year for “is music retail dying?” style stories, the push continues to engage local communities. At the forefront of this is Record Store Day, an annual celebration of the humble indie store, peppered with exclusive releases and live performances. It is, fundamentally, a marvellous idea and last year was the point where it really took off here in the UK.
The 2010 event was catapulted into the spotlight with the news of a number of very limited 7” vinyl releases by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pet Shop Boys and Blur. Much was made of the fact that there were only 1000 copies to be distributed across the UK’s independent record shops and how rare they would instantly be. Sure enough, people who never really bothered to visit their local record shop were now interested in popping in. A good thing, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. Those who ambled in at 11am, having seen some news coverage and wanting to pick up a few interesting bits and bobs will have been left a little deflated. For all but the biggest shops, the really limited stock was gone within minutes, at most an hour. Plenty of other people who never visit the shop were out in force a little earlier too, queuing up to grab their copies of the truly limited titles before the frantic dash home to get them straight up on eBay. I wonder how many of these people have popped back in over the last ten months to purchase a few new releases or to dig through the vinyl racks. In the whole of the East Midlands, I’m fairly certain there were no more than 10-15 copies of Blur’s ‘Fool’s Day’. Partly this is down to there being less record shops than there used to be, but also due to relatively sizeable stores having one or two copies only.
The problem with all this is the resultant logic. If this day really is about promoting independent record shops then shouldn’t there be enough stock for people who actually want the records on that day? Those of us musos obsessive or even desperate enough to queue up early to ensure we got some of what we wanted for our own collection, are largely regular customers already. The rest of the queue we’ve tackled. If the special releases are meant to be the key aspect of why Record Store Day draws in customers and promotes the idea of visiting regularly, why is it so easy for new converts or long-lost customers returning to be left disappointed at the lack of the exciting items which lured them in in the first place? I understand the need to make the stock limited in order to draw people out on the day but does it need to be so limited that if you don’t get down there to queue by 8:30, all you’ll be getting is a Jonsi 7”? It’s clear there’s demand for this stuff, just look at eBay from about 10am on Saturday June 16th, and that they could afford to press a few more of the key titles. I can’t see a problem with a situation whereby a couple of items don’t sell out and are still in the racks until Sunday or even Monday, ready for somebody else to be chuffed at their find. Surely that would not only draw more people out across the whole of Record Store Day, safe in the knowledge they might actually get what they want, but also keep people visiting independent record shops in case the odd bits and bobs they didn’t get or couldn’t afford at the time are still in the racks? Isn’t the end result still that independent record shops get more customers?
Based on a rumour I heard last night about an intended vinyl release for an album which has already received the Just Played seal of approval, I suspect the really big releases are nowhere near announced yet and that the vaguely interesting initial list which emerged last week should not be used to judge this year’s event. However, it does highlight a worrying trend towards ‘bung anything on vinyl and call it limited’ from some quarters. If it’s becoming an event for labels to press up small numbers of releases on a format they haven’t previously been on so as to ensure rabid completists will purchase at an inflated price to avoid a gap in the collection, how is it bringing out from the woodwork people who don’t currently use their local independent store? People who still buy vinyl aren’t the ones who’ve abandoned music retail.
Then there’s the risk of alienating your regular customers. Speaking as somebody who can get more than a little carried away in these places and who has, in the last twelve months, bought records from something like thirty independent stores in Britain, I can’t deny that the thought of missing out on certain titles on vinyl if I choose the wrong shop or arrive at 6am rather than 5am to join the queue does concern me. If stock is to be so very limited again, is there scope for an invitation only first hour for regular customers or some way of rewarding loyalty? But then that runs the risks of flying against the whole notion of inviting in less frequent visitors. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’m writing this as a plea for things to run more smoothly than last year and with the record shops’ business for the other 364 days of the year as the priority. The eBay scalpers are doing it because it’s possible to do it and if you can stake out a shop for four hours then spend £20 only to make £250 by the end of the day then it’s not difficult to see why some people do. Add a few more copies and that eBay market will be reduced. Add a few more copies and people will be able to drop in and buy them after lunch, discovering how pleasant a record shop can be on a sunny April afternoon. Add a few more copies and it’s hard to see how anyone could grumble. Even me.
I adore the idea of Record Store Day and I’m pretty certain that all of the record shops and their staff treat it like the jamboree that it surely should be. This is not about criticising it for existing, nor writing it off as a concept. As a massive music fan who does everything he can to promote it and the places from which you can get it, I just want it to have the kind of impact it could. Nobody wants it to be a cynical machine which only serves to benefit a tiny minority of music fans and a small band of hardened eBayers. There have been whispers of more stock and it’s important that those who make those calls know just how much that would be appreciated.