When Record Store Day got started in 2008 as a celebration of the culture of independent music retail, it certainly had its fair share of naysayers. “The world has moved on,” they decreed! “Why fetishize the past when you could be embracing the digital future”? At the time, new LP sales in the previous year hovered at a little under a million units. Big box stores and online retail had been causing many beloved local shops to close their doors.
It’s hard to really gauge how much RSD is a direct factor, but by 2013, annual LP sales were up over 600%, topping six million units annually. And that’s a Soundscan figure, so it doesn’t include retailers that don’t report to Soundscan or many DIY mailorder operations. While this certainly hasn’t been enough to offset the decline of CD sales, the repopularization of the vinyl format has been extremely helpful in keeping many indie retailers afloat.
That alone is cause for some serious celebration (and we’ll be in line Saturday morning hoping to score that REM Unplugged 4XLP) but it’s also worth asking what we can learn from this success. Here’s a few ideas:
Different kinds of music listeners want different things.
Bruce Duff of Knitting Factory Entertainment explains it this way: “I think there’s a generation of fans that grew up in the download age that want more out of the music and artists they love than a line item in a menu stored in a cloud or a hard drive. With a record, you get more involved. You’re reading the credits, looking at the photos, enjoying the graphics, plus you have to physically play the record. You have to take care of it and maintain the equipment it’s played on. It’s more proactive. And you become a collector of sorts. For these reasons too, it’s not for everybody.”
While vinyl may never again be the format of choice for a majority of consumers, a minority of music fans can still have serious economic impact. And while vinyl collectors are sometimes accused of being stuck in the past, it could be argued that they’re instead sensibly preparing for an uncertain future. We don’t know what digital services will exist 10 years from now, what catalog will be available, and what privacy intrusions we might be expected to endure for the use of these services. But purchasing an LP means that you’ve got access to that music whenever you want in the years to come, no matter what’s happening in the stock market.
Ubiquity isn’t everything.
Today, we frequently hear that the best thing any musician can do is eliminate as many barriers as possible to their music, and have it present in as many places as possible, aiming for maximum saturation. RSD focuses in part on high-value exclusive limited editions – in other words, value that in part comes from scarcity. That’s not an approach that makes sense for every artist, and it’s not without its problems (it’s not much fun when records end up with ridiculous prices on eBay, where profits don’t even make it back to the creators). But for artists and labels, it’s another tool in the toolbox.
Binary thinking can obscure understanding.
It’s very trendy these days to frame technological and business developments in terms of “disruptive competition”: an established business model exists and then something new comes along and disrupts or supplants it. Sometimes this really is the case. But in a marketplace as complicated and varied as music, the dynamics are usually much more complicated than a simple linear progression. Access vs ownership, analog vs. digital, brick & mortar retail vs. online sales, crowdfunding vs. record label funding; all of these binaries are oversimplifications. Consumers and artists don’t ultimately have to choose one over the other.
Duff, for example recently reissued the cult-favorite, vinyl-only Fun at the Funeral LP by his band Jesters of Destiny, but you can get it on iTunes too. New LPs now frequently come with MP3s, allowing consumers to get the benefits of both formats. Independent record shops are getting more and more comfortable with e-commerce, providing personalized customer service that you can’t get from Amazon. As we’re fond of saying, there isn’t an “old model” and a “new model”. There are many models.
“Social” isn’t just about the Internet.
All the best algorithims and impressively curated playlists still aren’t a match for the knowledge and expertise of a real live human. The best indie record shops are staffed by music lovers who can dig deep to expose music buyers to great records that might not have big promotional muscle behind them. And they’re able to provide a platform for what’s going on your local music community in a way that digital services simply haven’t attempted.
Thats why amid all the celebration of commerce, it’s worth remembering that Record Store Day is about more than a business model. At its best, it’s about preserving the unique cultural character of diverse communities. And that’s a goal that’s worth working toward every day of the year.