Does Record Store Day Screw Small Labels?
Every April, I find myself dealing with an inner-conflict over Record Store Day, and not just because my very British soul suffers a very significant injury every time I'm not allowed to refer to it as "Record Shop Day". Established in 2007, Record Store Day celebrates the role of the record shop in our cultural fabric as well as the artists and fans that make-up their surrounding communities. Not to mention it supports the act of acquiring music in exchange for actual money.
It has a multitude of positive aspects, the obvious ones being that a) it offers up some new and genuinely beloved material for music/vinyl-lovers to add to their collections and b) it introduces those who may not have considered buying a record before to an entirely different market of, what Stewart Lee likes to call "flat, round mp3's." However, as it becomes increasingly popular it also becomes increasingly problematic.
Naturally, the innate exclusivity of Record Store Day lends itself to exploitation. Ticket-touts of the record world unite to buy up the most limited and hankered-after releases in bulk to flip on eBay for unholy amounts. Last year a Boards of Canada 12" found its way onto eBay at a going rate of $5,700. Clearly, this should not be happening, but it's no use getting upset over. Situations like these are unavoidable because people are crap and we can't have nice things without a side of indecency, but there is one major issue with Record Store Day that I think we could legitimately do something about.
Earlier this month, Kudos Records - an independent physical and digital distro based in North London - issued an open letter to Record Store Day detailing their frustrations with the event. The full thing can be read here but the main point I want to talk about is this is this: "...It now 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."
As somebody who tends to favour the aforementioned smaller labels over the major ones, I think this is a point that needs to be seriously considered. Through my own involvement with DIY communities as well as talking to labels like Orchid Tapes, Double Double Whammy and Art For Blind, there is an overall feeling that Record Store Day has started to create problems for the very people it was originally set up to support, with the main issue being the sheer volume of material produced for the occasion.
In 2008, there were 10 special releases for Record Store Day. In 2009, it jumped to 85. This year, the list stands at over 700 strong. In an effort to produce these releases - many of which are represses of catalogue records - vinyl pressing plants have to push back releases by smaller labels, sometimes by as much as three months. "The original purpose was to "celebrate independently-owned record stores com[ing] together with artists to celebrate the art of music," says Richard of the Wolverhampton-based collective label, Wolf Town DIY. "Clearly these intentions were honorable, but it is so far removed from that at present. There is nothing independent about hundreds of major label represses. These labels genuinely do not want to improve your record collection or make you happy, they just want your wallets open".
"I think it's totally right that we celebrate record shops but it's sad that so much of the focus of Record Store Day is on major labels, past-it rock stars and unwanted reissues."
Similarly, Dany of Cork-based label Art For Blind says, "It is really important to us as a small label that these record shops exist and continue to do so. The negative is that when winter/spring comes around manufacturing times at pressing plants for labels like ours start to get significantly delayed as we get pushed to the back of queue behind represses of catalogue records. At the moment we can't afford to pay for a record that wont be back from the plant for 10 weeks as we need to get selling that record as close to the point where we pay for it as possible. I would say that if the situation doesn't change we would be likely to just avoid releasing any physical records around RSD in the future. Although that is easier said than done!"
Indeed, it seems pretty hard to justify a list of 700 records when it includes things like four different Aerosmith remasters (FOUR!!!), Ice T's Greatest Hits and a limited picture disc of Permission To Land when smaller labels with a multitude of new, amazing bands are literally sitting on material. Sure, the majority of these labels/bands also release their material as a free-download option, but without material turnover, there is no financial turnover, and that prevents the label from actually producing anything.
David West, co-founder of Exeter-based label Art Is Hard, chimes in: "I think it's totally right that we celebrate record shops but it's sad that so much of the focus of Record Store Day is on major labels, past-it rock stars and unwanted reissues. As a tiny independent label it's not the most inclusive event as you need a distributor to be involved and even then you're fighting with all the aforementioned pap for attention. Despite this, I've found some great stuff from independent labels in previous years and you'll still find me queuing up outside Drift Records in Totnes to try and nab a copy of the Fear of Men debut."
Art Is Hard released a special compilation for Cassette Store Day, which took place on September 9th last year. Titled Bleed In Gold, it was a veritable who's who of scrappy UK indie-pop, featuring The Black Tambourines, Joanna Gruesome, Playlounge and Best Friends. Admittedly, the concept of Cassette Store Day is a little flawed as a concept (remember all those cassette stores, you guys? Those were the days...), but at least it allowed the kind of labels and bands excluded from Record Store Day to celebrate their music in a fun, cheap and accessible way.
So that's what's up over here. But is the situation the same in the US? Absolutely. If you've been on the internet recently, you've probably heard of Boring Ecstasy - a forthcoming 12" compilation from Brooklyn-based label Orchid Tapes featuring the likes of Ricky Eat Acid, Julia Brown and Elvis Depressedly.
"...the impact it has on smaller labels could easily be avoided by cutting the release list down to a reasonable amount."
Well, Record Store Day means bad news for US-based fans looking to get that release on their turntable this month. Warren Hildebrand, who co-runs Orchid Tapes, said, "The order for the compilation record we were planning on releasing at the same time as our upcoming showcase on the 29th isn't really happening anymore because the pressing plans that's doing the physical copies is so backed up right now. Obviously there's no use in getting mad or upset over something like this, but it's the first time we've ever had to deal with something like that (this is only our second vinyl release) but it is still a minor annoyance that we won't have our record for the actual release showcase."
Likewise, Double Double Whammy - the label behind the new, playfully poetic indie-pop milestone that is Zentropy by Frankie Cosmos - are experiencing similar problems.
"I think it's a really great event for the stores themselves, but also presents challenges for small indie labels like DDW," says Dave Benton, who runs the label as well as makin' noise in LVL UP (aka the lo-fi Weezer of our time). "Right now, it's backing up pressing plants and causing all sorts of delays for us and a bunch of other small labels. That said, RSD is doing great things for the vinyl format, and it's bringing people into the stores who might not otherwise buy an LP."
It's pretty clear that Record Store Day has done and continues to do a good job of bringing a huge amount of attention to independent record shops, lord knows they need it, but the impact it has on smaller labels could easily be avoided by cutting the release list down to a reasonable amount. One could even argue that half these releases aren't even special anymore, there's so bloody many of them. Although, having said that, the artwork for the One Direction 7" continues to be a constant source of emotional turmoil for me. Is it brilliant? Is it fucking awful? On a scale of 1 to Sum 41 exactly just how awkward is it? The questions are endless. But basically this is what the industry has chosen to support over conclusively beautiful releases like Boring Ecstasy, which, either way you look at it, is gross.
"Each year, the day unites record shops, artists and fans around the world and that should be celebrated regardless."
Another issue for me is the apparent ease with which the represses are churned out. Record Store Day is in danger of taking away from the efforts of the small labels who spend a significant amount of time and effort personalising each of their releases in favour of pushing as many double-gatefold reissues as possible. It's like factory farming for music.
At this point, it might also be worth mentioning that we might all be a little more considerate of how these smaller labels are run in the first place. That is to say, by a handful or people (or often just one person) from their homes outside the hours of their big-boy jobs. It seems like an obvious point to make, but as these labels are getting more and more, well-deserved attention, I've seen them cop so much flac re: turnover time and almost all of it stems from a basic lack of understanding of how they operate. So, next time you complain that your order hasn't been dispatched immediately, take a moment to think about how much time it would take you to package and mail 500 orders single-handedly after your day job. There can also be issues with pressing delays (sup), misprinted packaging and other life-admin that sometimes isn't considered if you're just clicking a button and waiting for it to land on your lap. This isn't Amazon. Amazon doesn't care about you. It won't send you cool stickers and tea bags and reblog the selfie of you and your new haul. Y'all gotta chill out.
It would be sheer ignorance and pretention to say that Record Store Day is a bad cause simply because it doesn't support every single music community. Each year, the day unites record shops, artists and fans around the world and that should be celebrated regardless. What we should be mindful of, though, is forgetting the reasons it was established in the first place: to celebrate, not hinder, the creation and distribution of physical music. Do you really want to halt the production of smaller, hard-working labels for three months of the year just for the sake of reissues en-masse? Just think about it.
Correction: An earlier version of this story got the location of Kudos wrong. They're based in North London and not East London.
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You can find out more about Emma by heading here.
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