Record Store Day and the Ambivalent Branding of Independence
Is Record Store Day stronger than ever? Or is it irrelevant? Heading into the 8th annual celebration of “the unique culture” of independently-owned record stores this April 18th, the same evidence can be used for each side of the argument. For the former, there’s the official Record Store Day release list, which includes more than 430 brand new products, the vast majority pressed onto vinyl (there’s a handful of CDs), to be spread across more than 1,400 stores participating in the U.S. alone. That’s a lot of exclusive stuff in a lot of stores, and it’s all brought to you by Dave Grohl, alt-rock ambassador for music’s brick-and-mortar temples, whether legendary recording studios or community-oriented record stores. RSD was always high-profile—Metallica played the inaugural event at Rasputin’s in San Francisco—but it’s rapidly grown into a high-volume event, as well. The release of the day’s list of exclusive releases is a highly anticipated annual ritual, covered on various websites like Coachella and Bonnaroo lineup announcements.
Yet for the stores and labels that won’t be participating in this year’s event, the same data proves their case too: Record Store Day has gotten way too big, and the smaller players—the people who the holiday is supposed to serve—are getting left out. That’s the contention from Pete Gulyas, the owner of Cleveland store Blue Arrow, who was strung along by a distributor for weeks last year before being left without most of his order for the big day, leaving a line of customers disappointed. Gulyas suspects that, as in the past, the distributor gave preference to one of the “big independents” (like Amoeba Records), leaving the bulk of his 125 item-order out to dry. Gulyas’ open letter was diplomatic compared to the UK-based labels Sonic Cathedral and Howling Owl, who recently issued a press release bluntly announcing that “Record Store Day is Dying”. Amongst their rationales: the holiday has become “just another event in the annual music industry circus,” too focused on product over participants, and indie labels have a hard time getting their exclusives pressed in time for the big day in favor of corporate rock. “U2 have already shat their album into our iTunes,” they argue, “why should they constipate the world’s pressing plants with it too?”
As Record Store Day steadily expands each year, this paradox becomes more important to address: Does Record Store Day, which cites independence as a core mission, focus too much on celebrities and corporations at the expense of the little guys? Wherever one falls on the spectrum of Record Store Day’s relevance, both sides of the argument underscore the event’s core ironies. Record Store Day is founded on the overproduction of exclusives, and the creation of a massively hyped holiday to lift the fortunes of humble independent retailers, most of whom would love steady, regular business with the event’s annual one-day sales spike.
Here’s the rub, though: the righteous foundation and crass commercialism of Record Store Day don’t cancel each other out. Instead, because of how promotion and commerce work, they mutually reinforce each other. That’s how it has to happen for one of the most successful music brands of the record business’ chaotic post-mp3 moment. I know, I said “brand.” But wait! Despite the “Brands Saying Bae” micromoment making brand interactions with consumers a punchline, the concept of branding permeates the selling and buying of music down to its most elemental forms. Though many label owners might be loath to admit it, creating a recognizable brand is likely at the top of their priority list. Record label logos, roster development, website design, and album art are all part of branding—a way to link a bunch of recognizable symbols, artists, concepts, and vibes into a framework that makes consumers feel a sense of identification and develop loyalty.
Thinking of Record Store Day as a brand—as a logo and a logic binding together a yearly ritual of music consumption—is the only way to understand how concepts like “independence” and “community” can be served by good old-fashioned exploitative capitalism. As Sarah Banet-Weiser compellingly argues in her book Authentic™: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture, branding isn’t some evil that infiltrates “real” spaces somehow outside of capitalism, but a basic cultural force permeating every level of social life (anything filed under “indie” is always already a work of branding, too). Citizenship-through-consumption has been a fact of American life since FDR’s New Deal encouraged shoppers to spend their way out of the Great Depression. Fast-forward several decades and dial down the panic level, and a group of indie record retailers organized an annual consumer holiday based around driving music commerce back to local, independently owned stores that were being driven out of business by big-box retailers, online merchants, and streaming platforms. The logic: local, independent music consumption is an ethical good—sales taxes stay in local communities, which are further served by the presence of such cultural institutions—and on Record Store Day, shoppers can feel satisfied that they’re doing their part by buying exclusive records there– a one-day celebration of ethical spending that stands in for the other 364 days.
Inspired by Free Comic Book Day and various Local First Initiatives, the RSD founders worked with labels, artists, and distributors to create an annual collector’s market for exclusive vinyl records. The goal was in part to change the financial fortunes of indie stores, but more importantly (here comes the brand logic) to change the narratives surrounding their sad fortunes of late. Anyone paying attention over the past several years knows that when such shops make headlines, it’s in the form of a celebratory wake, whether for Manhattan institution Bleecker Bob’s or Louisville stalwart Ear X-tacy, just two of the more well-known shops to go extinct over the past few years. Then there’s the 2008 documentary I Need That Record! The Death (Or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store, which actually opens with a voiceover narration phrased in the past tense: “For some, the independent record store was just another place. But to many, it was more.” In a 2010 Weekend Update bit about the event, Seth Myers summed up the general consensus on indie stores: “This Saturday marks the third annual Record Store Day, during which hundreds of independent record stores around the country celebrate vinyl records,” Myers quipped. “So get down to your local record store and…what? What’s that? It’s a Jamba Juice now? Aw, I’m sorry, man.”
Record Store Day is designed to counter this narrative with one that “celebrate(s) and spreads the word about the unique culture” of indie stores. The event’s founders know from this—they’re all either owners of indie stores or veterans of the record business themselves. Yet the manner in which this revival happens—a one-day capitalist orgy of engineered exclusivity—says as much about the precarious nature of event-driven late capitalism as it does music independence. For a single Saturday each April, participating stores enjoy sales spikes representing 2-3 weeks of business, and participation in a promotional ritual that reaffirms their importance to their local community. That’s great, but only if they can make it to the big day. Record Store Day isn’t free, but requires store buyers to schedule a massive order in-between their regular weekly orders from distributors, which means setting aside up to five-figure sums to buy a crop of exclusive merchandise—for some store owners, enough to double their existing inventory—to please the customers, who line up around the block to buy stuff they’ve often specifically requested. On top of this, most stores have no idea that what they order is actually going to arrive—regional distributors are typically in charge of these decisions, and stores often don’t know until the night before which of their orders were delivered. Finally, unsold Record Store Day products are not only unreturnable, but unlike regular releases, start hemorrhaging value with each passing day, like Christmas decor in February. For retailers, participating in Record Store Day means assuming significant economic risk, often with the goal of breaking even. But if the idea is promoting “the unique culture” of their stores, then it’s a win-win, right?
There are other hidden contradictions. Effectively commoditizing the idea of independence means balancing the rhetoric of indie while dealing with the massive corporations necessary to deliver product at scale. On the official Record Store Day website, the organizers take pains to delineate what counts as an “independent” store:
A Record Store Day participating store is defined as a stand alone brick and mortar retailer whose main primary business focuses on a physical store location, whose product line consists of at least 50% music retail, whose company is not publicly traded and whose ownership is at least 70% located in the state of operation. (In other words, we’re dealing with real, live, physical, indie record stores—not online retailers or corporate behemoths).
That parenthetical is important, because if you scroll down on that same page, you’ll note the logos of the three corporate music behemoths—Warner, Universal, and Sony. In part, Sony’s Red Distribution, Universal Music Group Distribution, and Warner’s Alternative Distribution Alliance function as Record Store Day’s primary shippers. The event wouldn’t be nearly as large as it is without them. The three majors also use Record Store Day as an opportunity to do what corporate labels love to do with any new medium or event: reissue old product as “exclusives,” often at significant markups (this holds at major festivals, too: think of all the “reunion” shows staged at South by Southwest and the summer festivals). Again, the allowance of corporate behemoth shippers but not stores isn’t cause to rail against Record Store Day’s hypocrisy, but a way of highlighting the necessity of working with the big money players to turn ethical consumption into a global event—mixing politics and crude capitalism is how brands work. At the same time, however, it’s easy to understand the frustration felt by smaller players like Blue Arrow, Sonic Cathedral, Howling Owl and others. Record Store Day gains its emotional force from the put-upon little guys, but they often get sidelined in favor of the more powerful corporate interests driving the holiday’s commerce.
It’s exactly these smaller indie labels and local record shops that have kept vinyl records alive during the format’s incredibly fallow years of the 1990s and 2000s, allowing Record Store Day the platform to launch a holiday based around the format. After the record industry forced compact discs on retailers (and stopped accepting vinyl returns) to stop the industry’s low post-disco period of the late 1970s, vinyl became unsustainable, retreating to the underground and becoming the province of fetishists and subcultural partisans (garage rock bands adopted the 7”, club cultures favored the 12” single, beat junkies swept bins clean of LP-based sample fodder). Yet over the past several years as young and old fans alike have re-embraced the tangibility of the medium amidst a downloading and streaming landscape—a period during which the “vinyl resurgence” has fed a trendpiece economy—the corporate labels and their trendy retail partners have jumped back into the vinyl game, offering new releases on the format, most often at the same ridiculous markups charged for CDs through the 1990s.
Record Store Day is both the biggest single driver for, and beneficiary of the vinyl resurgence. The format’s comeback is part of an odd current landscape of music formats, in which the two growth markets are a post-WWII innovation and digital streaming platforms reliant on Big Data, smartphones, and wi-fi networks. Though it accounts for a paltry percentage of overall music profits, vinyl sales grew 223% between 2013 and 2014, and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down yet. We very well may be in the middle of a format bubble—boom-and-bust cycles have driven the record industry since the 1920s—that will leave future generations of Goodwill thrifters flipping through racks of unsold RSD exclusives. None of this eliminates what’s perhaps the most compelling lesson to learn from the vinyl resurgence, though. A significant number of RSD shoppers are young people with little knowledge of vinyl records—21-year-olds in 2015 were born at the peak of the CD-driven alt-rock boom in 1994, and even their parents grew up in the cassette and CD era. For a lot of these young music fans, vinyl records are as much “new media” as Songza or Spotify—a novel way of interacting with music that requires a bit of a learning curve.
But does Record Store Day do anything for the old-school vinyl fetishist? In the way that some people are crazy enough about cars that working on an engine in the garage is a unique, meditative pleasure, lots of music lovers are nuts about the process of digging through record store bins, unearthing a decades-old copy of something great (or perhaps merely interesting), taking it home, cleaning it up, playing it, and filing it away. Interfacing with music through vinyl sold at “brick-and-mortar” stores is completely unique from any other format. What Record Store Day wants to highlight more than anything is that vinyl records are key components of a corner-store model of indie music consumption—not the dusty crap dug out of Goodwill racks originally bought in the 1970s at Montgomery Ward, or the warped big-band stuff in grandparents’ basements. Through Record Store Day, the history of a petroleum-based industrial music format is retold as a community-driven “artisanal” process akin to regionally sourced slow-food, craft beer, and Etsy-style small-batch lifestyle products.
I’m one of those people who loves spending hours flipping through bins, but I have no interest in buying anything Record Store Day has to sell. This position has nothing to do with the myriad benefits—discursive and economic alike—that the holiday bestows upon indie retailers. Yes, it’s as much of a fetish as plopping down cash for a limited-edition 180 gram reissue, but I prefer my LPs to gain value over time, not through an artifically-created collector’s market. I’d much rather spend $30 on an 25-year-old original pressing with ringwear and a bit of surface noise than $40 on a clean, brand-new reissue of the same recording. I’m decidedly not Record Store Day’s ideal consumer, but at the same time, I am a record store’s ideal consumer. I’m the guy sitting cross-legged on the floor digging through the $1 bin that you have to walk around to get to the “G” section, who regularly drops $75-100 per visit.
But Record Store Day represents a microcosm of indie stores’ roles in their local communities, and I’m not made of stone. I’ve spent hours of Record Store Days past loitering in the aisles of my favorite record store—Bloomington, Ind.’s unbeatable Landlocked Music—chatting with employees and shoppers, listening to guest DJs and swigging from the free keg in the back of the store. My ambivalence toward Record Store Day merchandise is countered by my weird passion for, yes, “the unique culture” of record stores. This ambivalence is a refraction of Record Store Day’s own branding, which requires dealing with certain capitalistic devils: the overproduction of exclusives and the strategic bracketing of “independence.” One’s feelings for Record Store Day shouldn’t derive from its perceived authenticity or lack thereof, then, but through the more complicated calculus of Authenticity™. There’s no way around it, so how can a music fan, retailer, artist, or label negotiate the holiday’s twinned drives toward ethical consumption and capitalist exploitation? This question not only permeates all 21st century commercial landscapes, but it cuts right to the conflicted core of what it means to be a responsible consumer-citizen.