If you haven’t encountered the use of the term ‘vinyl revival’ over the past couple of years then the chances are you’ve not been paying attention or you’re more interested in downloading Rihanna mp3s on your smartphone. With vinyl record sales up to 1.5 per cent of the UK’s total in 2015 (up from 0.1 per cent in 2007), it hardly seems noteworthy, but it’s still an upwards trend in what is still a relatively unpredictable and volatile industry. Given that RECORD STORE DAY – the annual celebration of independently owned stores held on the third Saturday of April – began in 2007, it’s often credited for a huge part in this so-called vinyl revival. With an increasing list of one-off, re-packaged and limited edition releases flooding participating stores across the world – from both independent and major labels – it’s become the sweet spot in the calendar for revelling in that curiously retro vinyl culture.
Illustration by Becky Currie
So, all good, right? Well… maybe not. Despite the fact that the majority of the participating stores are packed out each year, it’s not a win-win situation for everyone. There have been dissenting voices in the past couple of years about the organisation of the day and the number of releases on the ‘official’ list, both valid points.
We asked two independents who’ve engaged with Record Store Day in various forms to put forward their various opinions on its merits: here’s what they said.
A Manchester institution, Piccadilly Records (on Oldham Street in Manchester’s trendy Northern Quarter) is one of the biggest independent music retailers in the country. They’re also one of the most popular, regularly gaining recognition in the press as one of the friendliest and well-stocked record stores in the country. The management team of Laura Kennedy and Darryl Mottershead have been in charge for almost 20 years, and have been an official affiliated part of Record Store Day since its inception in 2007.
Record Store Day.
Three words that fill us with both dread and excitement at this time of year.
Dread: the amount of preparation work, whether we’ll be able to get enough of the records we want, whether they’ll turn up on time.
Excitement: planning the day’s events, wondering what time people will start queuing, wondering how big the queue will be when we arrive in the morning, loving the general buzz of the day.
We’ve been involved with RSD since it started in the UK in 2008 and we’ve seen it grow from being just a handful of shops and labels in the first year (including Warner Music and Universal, for all those who moan about it being hijacked by the ‘major labels’ in recent years) to the huge event it is now. As soon as the new year starts, so do the internet rumours, and customers start trading snippets of info and trying to prise details from us before the release list is launched in March.
For us, last year was the best yet. We had people queuing from midday on the Friday and, by Saturday morning, the queue was almost right around the block. And, despite the cold (at least it didn’t rain this time), they were all in high spirits when we opened the doors, having renewed past acquaintances and made new music-mad friends. As with previous years, we had DJs on throughout the day and the atmosphere in the shop was fantastic. We had coffee courtesy of Tim Peaks Diner and you could screen-print your own RSD15 poster. In previous years we’ve had all sorts going on in-store, from rock ‘n’ roll cupcakes to a stall selling old records turned into pieces of art. We’ve got something fun lined up for this year too, but we can’t reveal it just yet.
It seemed that there were much fewer ‘Discoggers’ last year too, looking to cash in. Let’s face it, there must be easier ways of making a few quid than spending your Friday night queuing on a cold (and most likely wet) street in one of the less glamorous areas of central Manchester.
I know some indie shops and labels have a negative view of the day, and it’s not by any means perfect, but you’re never going to please everyone. By definition, we’re all independent and all have very different views and ways of working, and it seems most of the shops that have embraced the day have created their own unique take on what Record Store Day should be. And, to be honest, I don’t think that the current ‘revival’ in vinyl (or vinyls if you’re under 30) would have happened without the media attention RSD has had over the last few years; and, who knows, half the shops that are still around might not be here now without its influence. It’s undoubtedly got people coming back to record buying and renewing their love for record shops, as well as bringing a whole new generation of music lovers into the fold too.
The self-professed “label that celebrates itself”, Sonic Cathedral has been releasing choice cuts of shoegaze, drone and psych since it sprang from founder Nathaniel Cramp’s London club nights. The independent label has racked up some impressive release since starting in 2004, numbering School Of Seven Bells, Sonic Boom and Gulp among them.
A year ago my label, Sonic Cathedral, along with Bristol agent provocateurs Howling Owl, frustrated at the endless delays to our releases as they crawled through the creaking pressing plants of the Czech Republic, decided to make a light-hearted protest against the event we thought was responsible for all of this in its quest to become the New Year’s Eve of record shopping. But, 12 months on, everyone is gearing up to buy an Alan Partridge picture disc on Record Store Day.
Our protest – to sell one copy of a 7” single, featuring Spectres and Lorelle Meets The Obsolete doing unmentionable things to each other’s songs, every day for a year – wasn’t really thought through; we didn’t even realise that 2016 was a leap year to begin with. It certainly wasn’t sensible: we had both previously been involved in official and unofficial RSD releases and surely anything that promoted our favoured format of vinyl to the outside world was potentially beneficial? Also, it may well have alienated us from some of our favourite places in the world: record shops. Who the hell were we to deny them a nice payday every April?
But, thankfully, the reaction was largely favourable. It turned out that it wasn’t just us who thought this way about RSD and, after spending the last year visiting a number of record shops all over the UK – from garden sheds in Cambridgeshire to long-established shops in Newcastle and start-ups in Kent – it was apparent they also agreed with our basic point that RSD is a great idea, but that the organisers really need to take on board people’s criticisms and concerns. After all, who actually needs every Bruce Springsteen album on vinyl. Again. All on one day.
And therein lies the problem with RSD, and indeed the whole over-priced, 180g concept of the vinyl revival: it’s last-gasp capitalism at its worst. After selling their souls for that all-important chunk of Spotify equity, the major labels are simply clawing back whatever quick profits they can from any physical sales. They’re so shameless that, weeks after they professed their undying love for independent record shops by fattening them up with firm sale represses, they’re filling the racks of that bastion of indie retail, Tesco, with the very same Pink Floyd platters. Never forget: they’re the same companies who tried to kill the format in the first place, but now they’re muscling everyone out of the way for one last ride on the vinyl merry-go-round. This attitude was plain to see in a blog that appeared on the Universal Music website last April; it launched a scathing personal attack on yours truly, and the unnamed Universal drone who wrote it was unable to contain their disgust for this David who was daring to scratch their hugely profitable vinyl Goliath. And how dare I be so nasty to their poor, double-barrelled sales manager who was just trying to sell Mumford & Sons records to indie stores because they wanted to “plough something back in”?
Much as I despise Mumford & Sons with every fibre of my being, this isn’t about musical snobbery; it’s making a point about how the little guys are being squeezed out by the big boys while simply trying to do the very thing we’ve always done. So, when Kim Bayley, boss of RSD organisers the Entertainment Retailers’ Association, described our protest as “objectionable” and dismissed it as a publicity stunt, it was clear which side she was on. She also went on to take full credit for the vinyl revival, the growth in independent record shops and engaging a whole new generation of music fans, instead of taking on board our valid criticisms, which were echoed and added to by so many. If she did, perhaps we could have a RSD that actually works and encourages and includes everyone, not just the majors.
We have heard that things have changed for the better this year, so maybe some of our complaints didn’t fall on deaf ERAs. Apparently, the release list has been vetted by a panel, and four out of five releases are on independent labels, so at least it might not be so easy for Sony to carpet-bomb the nation’s record shops with reissues. Then again, we did receive a passive-aggressive phone call from them saying how they didn’t want us to be put on the spot in a negative way, and warning us how powerful ERA’s PR can be. Still, that Alan Partridge picture disc, eh?