[Record Peddler is an occasional column by Sam Lefebvre on life and music as viewed from behind the counter of an independent record store.]
Record Store Day is an internationally recognized, annual event in which record labels release special titles, often in limited quantities, that are only available in independent record stores on a particular day. The fifth annual Record Store Day took place last Saturday, on April 20, 2013. Record Store Day is intended to revitalize interest in local record shops, whose economic difficulties over the last decade are well-publicized and oft-lamented. Record Store Day urges fans to patronize these stores, at least for a day, if they wish to buy special titles from their favorite artists.
That's the idea, at least. The scene at 1-2-3-4 Go! Records when we opened at 8 a.m. to a deluge of zealous resellers (or "flippers" as we facetiously refer to the speculators buying and reselling titles for ridiculously inflated prices online) revealed a much uglier scene. The first flipper lined up at 4 a.m. The second was only minutes behind him. By the time we opened, a line had formed around the corner.
The doors opened, and our first customer zealously snagged particular titles from the wall. Among his selections was a boxed set of Dave Matthews Band live recordings. At that point in the morning, copies of the record were already fetching as much as $500 online. At the regular retail price of $79.99 we were obligated to sell it, making quite a sound investment for the speculator. The second flipper was keen on the potential gain as well, but we only had one copy, and the savvy businessman began offering the first flipper cash to hand over the DMB record. Meanwhile, the initial rush was like dozens of seals jockeying for position, rolling over and jostling one another, the peculiar slime a flipper exudes from his pores wafting about the early morning air.
We bought a new cash register for the event. Sleek, flawless, the register softly cooed "Fuck me. Fill me with capital and return me tomorrow." It was an orgy of consumer excess inside our brick and mortar establishment, and worse on the Internet. Another Grateful Dead release, another Phish record, more from Dave Matthews Band, the umpteenth reissue of a White Stripes album -- the most banal titles from artists whose innumerable releases already flood the marketplace were somehow the most sought-after. Flippers didn't veil their intentions whatsoever, either. Many of them grabbed an armful of titles and proceeded to research their potential cash gain with a smartphone before deciding what to invest in.
I listened to Otis Redding, resented my involvement in this travesty of fandom, and tempered my guilt with games. After several inquiries about whether we had any more Dave Matthews records, I began replying, "Yeah, it's over there and says Pussy Galore Groovy Hate Fuck on the cover." There are worthwhile releases on Record Store Day. It's not all opportunistic reissues of readily available material. Groovy Hate Fuck couples industrial clamor with primitive punk thumping for one of the most maladjusted records of the 1980s. Everyone should own a copy. Pulp released a 12" single of "After You," the legendary English group's only offering of new recordings in recent years. But, these records were pressed in relatively greater quantities and thus less "flippable," so many copies still languish on the shelf.
Record Store Day is by far the busiest day of the year for many independent record stores around the country, but the event's intention of bolstering these establishments' profiles and garnering attention from the community is largely lost in the hustle of record flipping. Plus, the practical breakdown of economic relations between the official Record Store Day organization, participating record labels, participating record shops, and online resellers places shops in the position of greatest risk. Record labels are guaranteed to sell out of a Record Store day title, even if the retail cost they pass along to stores makes 7-inch singles upwards of $10 and LPs many times that. Meanwhile, online resellers easily flip titles for many times the normal store markup. There were over 400 RSD titles this year, and in efforts to satisfy diverse consumer demographics, record stores attempt to stock as many as possible. If a certain title flops, it is non-returnable, meaning that the record label collects and the store absorbs the loss.
The Record Store Day organization markets the event very well. Its website is peppered with celebrity endorsements and idealized recollections of record store patronage, but the group doesn't go after those who exploit the event. Participating record stores sign pledges to "sell the commercial Record Store Day releases to their physical customers, on Record Store Day; not to gouge them, or hold product back to sell online," but a simple search of participating stores in the Bay Area yields contradictory results. For example, the Record Store Day site's search function brings up "stores" like Creative Music SF Online and Donnie's Records -- both retailers that sell music exclusively on the Internet. The official Record Store Day website proclaims "A Record Store Day participating store is defined as a standalone brick and mortar retailer whose main primary business focuses on a physical store location." Apparently, though, stores that have moved from brick and mortar to online-only, like Creative Music SF, and online stores that aren't even open on April 20, like Donnie's, can still participate.
Later in the day at 1-2-3-4 Go!, many earnest patrons spent money, hung out, ate from food trucks out front, and the event resembled what it's intended for: a reason to get citizens in local record shops. But the fact that record labels and resellers exploit the event at stores' expense, and the official Record Store Day organization ignores the flagrant opportunism, makes a mockery of its supposed mission.