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Is Record Store Day Losing its Indie Label Lustre?

When Record Store Day kicked off in 2008 it seemed like a great excuse for a party with a cause. Throwing an international event to draw music lovers into stores, promote local artists and chuck much needed funds the way of the struggling record sales industry has obvious benefits: many musos see the survival of their local record store as vital to the lifeblood of the scene.

Aidan Cuffe –  owner and editor of GoldenPlec.com – sums up the sentiment nicely: “There’s something romantic about the physical entity. Old formats like vinyl dazzle, and Record Store Day is a chance to fall in love with them again. Downloading music can be like that stage of a relationship where you’ve stopped having date nights and take each other for granted. Record Store Day rekindles a romance.” For some, undoubtedly, the third Saturday in April is greeted like nothing less than a music nerds Christmas. This year, however, there’s an undercurrent of cynicism creeping into the experience.

There’s no doubt Record Store Day has become a big deal for both shops and labels. Having started with just ten different special releases in 2008, 2014’s edition will see more than 600, and is widely touted as one of the biggest days in music’s commercial calendar. Warner Music’s Danielle Graham describes the day as having “more business than any other. It encourages people to shop for physical releases, and draws in some people who haven’t been in a record store in years.” Linda Coogan Byrne – head of music-oriented PR agency Good Seed PR – highlights the live performances, such as Metallica’s San Francisco show in the event’s early years. She also states “it’s a great day for shopping, and for sales. It’s essence is more to relaunch and celebrate classics and rare stock editions, and you can always find some hidden gems from bands you might not otherwise have the chance to find.”

That’s not to say those involved with the sales and promotion side don’t see issues. Graham highlights high prices, arguing “30-40 Euros for a single disc EP is a bit extortionate at times”, while Coogan Byrne admits to having “personally worked with bands who have jumped on the bandwagon”, but points to the question of consumer knowledge when it comes to identifying such cash ins. While it’s not for us to judge what’s appropriate, releases like a One Direction vinyl single, a 10” glow in the dark release of the Ghostbusters theme tune and the bizarre Paramore release designed to look like a broken record (but play like a new one) seem somewhat at odds with the original ‘indie’ ethos. One Direction aside, that’s hardly a crime against music, but releases like this do have consequences for the smaller labels that might not be immediately obvious to the casual observer.

Peter Jones – both the guitarist in legendary Dublin punk act Paranoid Visions and owner of indie label F.O.A.D. Records – takes up the case for the prosecution: “In its infancy Record Store Day was of great benefit to the small indie record stores and labels. Its success has meant that the big labels, artists and stores have jumped on a bandwagon to use the day as a launch for material that is made by major label artists. That inevitably drives the traffic to the large multiples who were the very threat to the indie retailers that record store day was intended to challenge in the first place. On a related point, as a result of the major labels pushing special edition LP’s and 7″ singles, it becomes impossible to get record pressing production space for minnows like us to in the months leading up to record store day.” London based indie Kudos Distribution make a similar case in their recent Record Store Day blog, here.

Printing isn’t the only issue, either: the 600-release schedule of 2014’s RSD also has a diluting effect. Jones continues: “DIY labels cannot hope to compete with universal records in terms of availability, shelf space and promotion. A few years ago the idea was to press a minimal number of DIY vinyl and sell it in one day. Now it’s more of a launch pad.” It’s certainly true that a glance at the quantities being produced for special releases suggests a few aren’t actually all that special. Katy Perry is producing 5,000 12” picture discs. Cut Copy’s 10” single ‘In These Arms of Love’ will stretch to 2,000 copies and Disclosure’s ‘Apollo’ 2,500. Bruce Springsteen’s ‘American Beauty’ EP will reach a whopping 7,500.  We’d respectfully suggest that outside of the ‘limited, special edition’ buzz that so often ends in an eBay touting rush, most of the aforementioned would struggle to sell at close that volume for an everyday vinyl release.

The plus side is that record stores are clearly benefitting, and admittedly that was the original aim of the event. With indie labels having to block three months from their calendar as new vinyl ‘launches impossible’ and certain acts clearly seeing a marketing opportunity more than a genuine chance to support their local stores, though, things aren’t quite the big ‘scene win’ they once were.

For my home town of Dublin, Record Store Day this year has the edge of a funeral march, rather than a party. Sure, we have some major performances from local stars Lisa Hannigan, Jape, Little Matador and David Kitt to look forward to alongside our shopping spree. But HMV have chosen the day to reopen their flagship city centre store, and somewhat cynically offered live music and a 40% discount on vinyl to draw in punters: they might be adding to the party, but they’re certainly not adding to much-needed indie profits. Across the city, a tiny and much-loved rustic stalwart in knowledgable back-room store Elastic Witch – run by Girls Names’ drummer Gib Cassidy – has chosen Record Store Day to shut its doors for the final time. Local labels – who once took the day so seriously they knocked up ‘five copy only’ and ‘unique cover on every one’ records – are conspicuous by their collective absence.

We’ll still get a celebration, but a different kind of celebration to the one that sold RSD to us so convincingly in the first place. We’ll head for the city, enjoy some free live music and stuff our bags with those ‘one time only’ offerings from acts close to our hearts. It’s just hard not to feel Record Store Day gives to the scene with one hand, and takes right back with the other.

- James Hendicott

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