We live in an era of changes, a time in which the status quo is given to altering in the blink of an eye. The last decade has seen massive upheaval in the music industry; the introduction of digital downloads ushering in a new ‘pick and choose’ attitude to music; an attitude which many fear may negate traditional album structures altogether, and in turn then negate the need for physical music sales.
Refreshing then, that 16th April 2011 has been designated as International Record Store Day (IRSD). Entering its fourth year, IRSD is aimed at bringing independent music retailers to the forefront, encouraging people to head to their local independent record shop instead of a chain behemoth or online superstore. The day is celebrated by in-store appearances, specially pressed singles and limited vinyl releases.
After starting out in the USA in 2008, with a performance by Metallica, IRSD has grown into an internationally-recognised event, with a huge list of artists contributing to the day. The 2011 list includes exclusive vinyl pressings from Devo and Foo Fighters, alongside exclusives from smaller bands such as Deerhoof and former Bido Lito! cover stars Clinic.
Given the nature of the day and the emphasis on independence, it’s interesting that IRSD is backed by all four major record labels: EMI, Warner, Universal and SonyBMG. It’s fair to say that the labels are not usually associated with altruism towards small retailers, or, in fact, being concerned with quality over profit. The partnership, however, would seem to be mutually beneficial. Major labels can supply access to their biggest artists who will draw more mainstream attention to the cause (R.E.M. and The Rolling Stones have limited pressings featured this year). In turn this allows the label and artist to be involved at a grassroots level, something which generally evades stadium rock outfits.
Independent record shops are woven into the fabric of society. Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity has provided the blueprint for a lasting image of the highly-strung enthusiast behind the counter, openly despairing of customers’ perceived lack of taste. Most people who have visited enough record stores can attest to having encountered this at least once. There’s also the highly romanticised version, with a hyper-friendly employee extolling the virtues of the latest releases, more than happy to play you a sample, with no obligation to buy. Extreme as these stereotypes may be, the truth of many record shops lies in the middle. Record stores wouldn’t work if the owners had no knowledge and no passion, and being surrounded by music all day is a sure-fire way to hone one’s taste to a fine point. But at the same time, it wouldn’t do their business any good to be unapproachable.
Liverpool will be getting into the spirit of IRSD, with Probe Records featured amongst the throng of British shops stocking special releases. No doubt Clinic’s limited edition release of Ladies Night – comprising covers of songs by Cilla Black, Audrey Hepburn, Man Parrish and The Seeds – will have huge esoteric appeal in this city. Through some of the releases and stockists involved, it’s easy to imagine that IRSD is the preserve of the rock and indie crowd. However, another of Liverpool’s most successful independents will be part of the festivities. 3Beat Records began by providing dance music for Liverpool and, nearly two decades later, the shop has gone from strength to strength, providing vinyl for some of the biggest names in the dance business including Paul Oakenfold and Timo Maas. DJ Jemmy, who runs the shop on Slater Street, is pleased to be involved in IRSD. “We’re spreading the word about being involved and trying to set up a couple of DJ sets in-store for the day. It’s great that a day like this exists, everything’s gone so digital these days it’s nice to still get acknowledged.” In terms of the digital trends sweeping music, the market place for physical music sales seems suddenly crowded, with independents battling the major chains for a slice of an ever-decreasing pie. Are independents well-equipped to survive in the current climate? “I think we’re better placed to survive due to the lower risk and more specialist product and service available. People still come here religiously; we still get music you can’t download, and I think a lot of people still enjoy buying and collecting music. I’m certainly one of them.”
There’s certainly a tangible difference in purchasing from an independent retailer: the knowledge that such places run on the enthusiasm and passion of the owners, many of whom you can meet and chat to; accompanied by the feeling that you’ve bought into an ethos. The IRSD events are a great way of getting people back into the habit of visiting their local independent, and the size of the event and the breadth of the special edition records being offered move it far and away from the realms of tokenism. The real test is to get people hooked on the feeling and to provide an alternative to the impersonal processes that blight the search for music in the new media.