Written by Daniel Dylan Wray
On April 21st tens of thousands of people will line streets all across Britain queuing to get into record shops. Some will have even been there overnight with camping chairs, flasks and blankets, desperate to get their hands on some of the special releases put out for this year’s Record Store Day. Whether it’s the Run the Jewels collectors box, the Blue Planet soundtrack, a Japanese picture disc of Madonna or rare David Bowie, people of all ages will hungrily await with open wallets. “It is one of the most intense things in an independent shop’s calendar,” says Joe Blanchard of Bear Tree Records in Sheffield. “But once you embrace the madness it's a fun day and gets a bunch of people to discover shops and hopefully become regulars. RSD has definitely helped gain exposure for our shop. The first year we did it a whole load of people discovered the shop for the first time.”
The sense of occasion that now comes with the annual day – now in its 12th year - extends beyond record sales too, as events in and around shops take place across the country. Drop by Friendly Records in Brighton and you’ll perhaps bump into Beak> and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow playing records; head up to Huddersfield and local brewery Magic Rock will be co-hosting a party with Vinyl Tap with DJ sets from the likes of Hookworms; and head to Rough Trade East and you’ll see a line-up better than many summer festivals, featuring Tim Burgess, Snapped Ankles, Little Simz, Hinds, Shopping, James Lavelle and many others.
Independent record shops are of course a fundamental part of British culture. They are as synonymous with many cities’ average high street as a pub, bakery, chemist or newsagents. They are ingrained into our history and through ups and downs have remained a visible face on the streets; streets where business, demand and fashions can often dictate a regular facelift.
Today, a look across the UK sees around 400 independent record shops, with a sharp rise in new openings taking place in recent years. However, the image of the traditional record shop is ever changing. Whilst some still stock nothing but floor-to-ceiling music, others have extended into other areas to incorporate instruments, or sell coffee, whilst places such as Southsea’s Pie & Vinyl, specialises in serving pie and mash alongside its music and Cardiff’s Pop ‘n’ Hops offers up craft beer with its vinyl.
Some may view this as crucial diversification, opening up alternative revenue streams with higher mark-ups so businesses aren’t purely reliant on one trade, whilst others may view it as an unnecessary gimmick whereby non-music stock is taking up precious shelf space that vinyl could be filling up. Although for decades, many record shops have always functioned as more than just a music shop. When Rough Trade opened in 1976, not only was it a magnet for music heads but also its quasi-hippy roots - stemming from founder Geoff Travis’ love of San Francisco and the City Lights Bookstore - meant it became a cultural and social hub. A place where people would come to read fanzines, drop-off their DIY 7”s in the hope the shop would stock them, leave adverts for wanted band members or just to hang out and listen to the chest-pumping reggae that pulsed from the shop speakers. At their best, record shops are not just points for cultural distribution in the form of records but they are creators of culture themselves. A place that is fundamental to the community they serve.
Record Store Day was set up in 2007 as a celebration of the history, legacy and future of independent record shops. The premise was a simple one: a dedicated day in the calendar in which a number of special and limited edition releases would be put out and distributed to participating shops across the UK. The only opportunity to buy such records was to go to these shops on the day. The result put a national focus on these shops, it guaranteed a good day of sales and added some genuinely charming and interesting music to the collections of fans. A win-win situation.
As the event went on and became more popular, it attracted more people and the appetite for such releases increased. People would queue for hours to get into the shops; cars would slow down in the street and ask people what on earth they were queuing for. The event created a fervour around record shops that hadn’t been seen in years. It brought in new, often younger, people to such places and even the queue itself could be something of a meet-up for music fans. Buying and listening to music is a predominately indoor activity, you buy records inside a shop and take them home and listen to them inside your house. RSD was almost like a music festival for buying records, it joined thousands of people together in the streets across the UK, all joined together by a unified love of music and vinyl.
The great success of RSD was igniting a conversation in people’s lives about why record shops were important to them and to culture and to music. It placed a focus on people that had been running such shops through periods of difficulty, and often disinterest. It was also crucial financially, with many shops having bumper days - often their highest trading day of the year.
As the years went on, RSD got bigger. Not only in terms of the amount of releases - there are over 500 this year - but also in the amount of records pressed, the amount of customers and the cost of some of the releases. Like all things that start off with true, good intentions, they are often seized upon by opportunists who see the ability to simply make money rather than contribute to the culture. Whilst RSD started off with a lot of independent labels releasing things in genuinely small limited edition quantities, soon the major labels joined in in a more prominent way. Limited edition no longer meant hundreds but perhaps thousands. RSD became a distribution platform for many major labels to simply pump out overpriced reissues, novelty records and generally fill independent shops with the type of stock that year round they wouldn’t normally have. Some have argued this shift, along with so many releases now clogging up pressing plants for smaller independent labels to be able to release their own records on schedule, has changed the tone of the day. Whilst the ethos and intention of RSD is still to promote and celebrate record shops, some of the people who have joined the party along the way may not necessarily share the same views.
But times have changed significantly even since RSD’s birth. Walk into a HMV around that period and chances are you’d find more mugs, t-shirts, key rings and gadgets in any given shop than you would have vinyl. Now, with the vinyl revival in full swing - in 2017 the UK sold 4.1million, a 25-year high - you’ll see plentiful racks of vinyl back in HMV; you can even buy records in Tesco and Sainsbury’s. What just over a decade ago was a sincere, wholesome and relatively niche celebration of independent record shops, has now essentially been commodified by those who see the revival as nothing other than a business opportunity.
This can result in the moving of money and support away from such independent shops that have been there for decades – often to bigger outlets or even to other shops that have opened in the wake of their success and are now competition. This means that whilst the vinyl revival might make one assume this is a boom period for independent shops, many are still struggling or treading water rather than flourishing. Simply because more and more people are willing to spend £40 on a Fleetwood Mac reissue, this doesn’t equate to successful, healthy and maintainable independent record shops. Which shows that, in many instances, the purpose, role and philosophy that RSD started with is still very much required today.
RSD has unquestionably done wonders for countless record shops across the country over the years but like all things that become a raging success, it brings in the question of sustainability. So whilst RSD remains, to some, divisive but life-saving and crucial to others, it asks the question of what can be done to make sure that the future of RSD and the prosperity of independent record shops walk happily into the future hand in hand?
The first and foremost answer of course is to use the shops on the other 364 days of the year. Only going to a record shop on RSD is a little like only going to see your football team play once they get to the cup final. These places are full of amazingly-curated, weird and wonderful music year-round. You may even find sales and discounts when it’s not RSD and get two or three records for the price you may for one on the day. Plus, that image of the brusque, snobby, condescending record shop worker is fast becoming a thing of the past (mostly), and most will welcome you and your custom with open arms.
Another crucial step is perhaps to ease off with the fetishisation of records as a product. The more limited edition, special edition, deluxe edition, coloured edition records that are being put out year-round often means those shops that have been unable to obtain such releases are seeing their plain black vinyl release of the same record sat unloved and unsold on the shelf as fans go elsewhere in search of sparkly things. No album on this planet is going to change your life anymore because the record has a swirl pattern on it or it glows in the dark. On RSD itself, perhaps a cap on major label pressings could be helpful to reduce backlogs at plants or a guaranteed higher ratio split between independent and major labels, so the stock that shops are having to buy in order to potentially stay in business is the sort of stock that may actually sell after the day itself has passed.
And, finally, as vinyl sales continue to go up and competition becomes fiercer, it poses the question of will this current boom period finally go bang? And if so, who will remain in the fallout to carry the shops through? They say a dog is for life and not just for Christmas and the same approach must be adopted to ensure a stable future for record shops.