EEven in the era of social distancing, Record Store Day has survived the pandemic. After the 2020 edition was canceled – it was scheduled for what became the middle of the UK’s first lockdown – organizers staged separate “outings” later that year, and again in 2021. You may have seen eager shoppers lining up outside record stores of all sizes across the country, wearing face masks as well as the usual thick coats and scarves to brave the chill of pre-opening hours; maybe you saw a mandatory feature on the return of “vinyl” as the David Bowie and Prince estates put together another never-before-seen artifact.
This year, on April 23, it’s back to business as usual as record stores around the world celebrate the 15th annual Record Store Day (RSD) with the help of Taylor Swift, its most famous ambassador. to date (which releases a seven-inch disc to mark the event). But what was once a shot in the arm for physical retail is now an albatross around the neck of the establishment it claims to help.
I run an independent record store that predates RSD and the Internet. In the early 2000s, when physical record stores were decimated thanks to the rise of illegal downloads, RSD pumped millions of pounds from the coffers and undoubtedly opened up a new generation to the world of physical music. RSD is a remarkable event and its early years should be remembered as the revolution they were.
But 15 years is a long time in technology and retail. Peer-to-peer file sharing has moved ahead of the digital download and streaming model. Brave music blogs have become multimedia digital outlets. Even the most original physical record stores are now reaching global audiences via the Internet. Record Store Day, meanwhile, hasn’t adapted to the modern realities of selling physical music.
Critics have long derided the event’s penchant for novelty records and lack of demanding curation. This year, RSD has 411 new releases, a fact that should leave players in the physical music industry in turmoil. Because of Brexit and the pandemic, we just can’t make enough records. There is an international shortage of the various components needed to make vinyl, as well as a backlog exacerbated by last year’s very pop release schedule.
The problem does not go away. While vinyl would typically take 12 weeks to produce, we’re now looking at nine months for a short 12-inch vinyl run. (Don’t even mention the shortage of colored vinyl, RSD’s lifeblood.) The opening of new pressing plants in Middlesbrough and Gothenburg give cause for optimism, but even their extra capacity pales in comparison to demand. .
And yet, those 411 records – including, yes, four Bowie releases and a Prince – will be ready and waiting for sale on April 23. When I got a glimpse of the scale of what was in production, I suggested on social media that the best thing for the whole recording community would have been to take a year off. Inevitably, many people responded, “If you don’t like it, don’t participate.” But that is perhaps RSD’s greatest modern fallacy. Even stores that are pulling out completely are suffering in the long run due to ongoing stock delays and shortages that are exacerbated by the RSD production schedule. The logistics of the celebration now affect every month of the year, disregarding carefully planned campaigns.
We have online customer pre-orders that were placed 12 months ago for albums that have been delayed so frequently that it seems pointless to set a new hypothetical release date. The administrative ramifications are extremely consuming for shops and the economic impact for independent artists and labels is devastating. Store visits – crucial for first week promotion and sales – have been canceled and rescheduled; artists are missing out on the chart positions they should expect; entire summer tour schedules are being scrapped because there is such uncertainty as to when physical product will materialize.
The job of the record store in its simplest terms is to sell records. We’re part of a long-established music ecosystem and now, largely due to RSD, we’re increasingly hampered in doing our homework. Will there be stores to celebrate when shelves are threadbare and retail prices continue to skyrocket?
I hope that RSD will be able to reconfigure itself as a true friend of record stores. The event should be postponed until these catastrophic production blockages are eased and organizers should consult with store owners on how best to help them celebrate this unique culture in the future. Ironically, the other 364 days of the record store calendar now play second fiddle to RSD.