For the independent record stores of the world, Christmas comes every year on the third Saturday in April. It's called Record Store Day, and since modestly beginning in 2007, this impromptu consumer holiday has grown into a worldwide celebration of music stores, rare releases, and vinyl. For struggling indies hemmed in by the popularity of online shopping on one hand and big-box retail on the other, Record Store Day provides an important influx of attention — and revenue. "It was our biggest day of the year last year," says Tony Green, a product manager at Amoeba Music, who estimates that Record Store Day brings the giant Haight Street retailer about two and a half times the business of a regular Saturday. "It's massive."
Last year, about 200 people lined up outside Amoeba before opening time, snaking through the McDonald's parking lot and up Stanyan Street. They were waiting for a thrill that only Record Store Day can offer: acquiring ultrarare new releases on the first (and often only) day they're sold. Since the beginning, the strategy of Record Store Day's organizers has been to elicit support for independent shops by getting labels to release music that only they can sell. Such releases usually come on vinyl, in small numbers, and aren't sold at places like Best Buy or Amazon. This year, the list of Record Store Day–only releases is hundreds of titles long, and includes both random scraps from the tables of marquee artists (the Rolling Stones will release a "Brown Sugar" 7-inch), and novelty releases from lesser-known artists (S.F. garage-rocker Ty Segall is releasing a disc of T-Rex covers).
Having started as a way to support independent stores and artists, Record Store Day has drawn the attention of bigger names in the music industry, some of which have reacted cynically, trying to capitalize on the phenomenon that it's become. "Some of the releases are really special," says Allan Horrocks, co-owner of Aquarius Records in the Mission. "Some of them it seems the labels are like, 'We have this release that we're definitely going to be putting out in April ..." Indeed, some of the artists releasing music this Saturday include AC/DC, the Beach Boys, and My Chemical Romance — not exactly names you would associate with the struggling underground.
The popularity of Record Store Day has also brought its share of speculators, people who acquire as many of the rare releases as possible and resell them later on sites like eBay for massively inflated prices. "In the past, I've been a little bit offput by the first hour, because it's the guys coming for the U2 and the whatever Record Store Day records," says Chris Veltri, owner of the small but highly respected shop Groove Merchant in the Lower Haight. "I'd start getting all these phone calls: 'You gonna have the exclusive Death Cab for Cutie 7-inch?'" But Veltri celebrates his own way: by stocking his shop of rare vinyl with even more rare vinyl than usual. "I put out new records every week, but for that particular day I try to stock some really choice records," he says. "It's a lot of fun."
Nearly all of the Record Store Day releases come exclusively on vinyl, and many are 7-inch singles, reflecting the resurging popularity of the format. It's a strange anachronism that in 2011, with digital music sales accelerating and physical sales declining, the release of a small number of pieces of grooved wax can still cause a frenzy among music fans. But they can — although some, like Aquarius' Horrocks, worry that the independent music world might be taking the vinyl fetish a little too far. "It'd be a mistake to think that, 'Oh, we'll just sell vinyl from now on, because people don't want CDs,'" he says. "Most things, when they come out on both formats, we sell way more CDs than vinyl."
Partly due to its popularity, Record Store Day — at least in San Francisco — has become more than just a day to go shopping. For several stores, it has expanded into a weekend-long celebration of music. Aquarius and Groove Merchant are putting out their own signature Record Store Day releases. Aquarius plans to have several food carts outside on Valencia Street to feed the hundreds of eager music fans expected to show up. At least one store is also planning to hold a live performance, although it has been scheduled for Sunday, since actual Record Store Day is so busy. Aquarius will host Phil Manley (of Trans Am, Jonas Reinhardt, and the Fucking Champs) and Earthless' Isaiah Mitchell, who are releasing a 1,000-copy Record Store Day LP, Norcal Values.
And so what began as a sort of gimmick to draw music fans out of their iTunes windows and back into physical retailers has grown, in just four years, into a party that takes place around the world — and helps keep independent stores alive. "On Record Store Day the last two years, they were probably the biggest in-store days in terms of sales that we've ever had," Horrocks says. "It's awesome."