Record Store Day returns to the nation's music retailers tomorrow, so if you're the sort of person who only buys a handful of LPs or CDs a year -- assuming you still buy physical music product at all -- you may want to hold off until sometime next week. In just six short years, this unofficial holiday of sorts has achieved a significance among the music-loving public somewhere between Christmas and Flag Day, probably much closer to the former. As a cultural phenomenon, it's definitely reached critical mass.
This year Warner Bros. Records sent out an email to the media, saying (in part), "we feel that's it's our civic duty to remind you of what Warner Bros. Records has literally in-store for you." (Ouch.) That would be the raison d'etre of Record Store Day, the carefully curated limited-edition releases parceled out a few at a time to the approximately 1,000 participating retailers, which most commonly take on the form of deluxe 180-gram vinyl prizes like a 5-LP LCD Soundsystem Live at Madison Square Garden set or a blue-colored pressing of Jay Z and Linkin Park's 2004 Collision Course collaboration. But it could also be a My Chemical Romance "coffin" T-Shirt, for the fortunate few lucky enough to score one.
Some of these RSD runs can number in the thousands, while others may be as rare as 100 or even 50 pieces strong. Tasked with ordering all these items and logging them into his system are people like Cactus Music general manager Quinn Bishop, who estimates the number of RSD-exclusive releases will reach an astounding 450 (or thereabouts) this year. Bishop says the event has been growing "exponentially," to the point where stores like his are especially noticing how thin the RSD stock is beginning to be spread.
"We were an early adopter and a strong supporter of the event from the get-go, when not many people were supporting it," he says. "Now there's so many stores that embrace it that it actually makes it more difficult for us to grow. Everybody participates, everybody orders stuff, and it's harder for us to get what we order...but we still get a mountain of stuff."
The RSD campaign came along at a time when it looked like there was no ceiling to digital-music sales but physical retailers -- especially of the independent small-business variety -- were on shaky ground. Interestingly, Rocks Off happened to talk to Bishop one morning last week when he was going over first-quarter 2014 sales figures; he noted that both digital and physical sales were both down some 20 percent, which he attributes to the rise of streaming services like Pandora and Spotify. (Encouragingly, he said that Cactus had bucked both trends and posted an increase.)
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The other threat to music retailers came from the so-called "big box" model of superstores that sell everything from truck tires to turnips, but that has lessened somewhat in recent years as those stores have drastically eliminated shelf space devoted to music. It's just as well to someone like Bishop, who notes that CD sales still number in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually and says he's noticed more and more customers looking to buy their music somewhere that actually appreciates it.
"The thing that would always bug me about Target or Best Buy or those kind of places is the white noise when you're in there," he reckons. "You're hearing where they're selling the TVs, and there's overhead music, and there's feature films blaring from one TV, there's gaming stuff from the gaming station, and it's just not conducive to a [record-buying] experience."
By comparison, "you come in our store and yesterday we were playing Miles Davis, and Fat Tony was playing an En Vogue record," he adds. "You know, that's cool."
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The other big factor driving interest in Record Store Day is of course the artists themselves, many of whom are only too happy to license a limited-edition release, play a surprise in-store date, donate some precious swag, or otherwise endorse the event. Besides early adopters like the Flaming Lips and Bruce Springsteen, the list of RSD 2014 participating artists has swollen to include Green Day, Motorhead, Dolly Parton, Mastodon, Regina Spektor, Foals, Atmosphere, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Public Enemy, whose front man Chuck D is this year's official RSD ambassador.
And while some of those artists' participation in the event may be limited to signing off on their record company's RSD plans for them (or more to the point, their product), others are taking a much more active role. One is none other than hands down the biggest band in the world right now, One Direction, who recently announced they would release a RSD-exclusive picture disc of their Midnight Memories album (and even dressed as a garish '80s glam-metal band for the cover). A move like that may raise some people's eyebrows and make still others scoff, but Bishop says that kind of publicity is literally priceless.
"I think it's really cool that One Direction has something new, because their fan base are preteens and teens, predominantly," he says. "This is a band that has never released one piece of vinyl anywhere in the world, and they have 20 million Twitter followers. So to get a band reach out to 20 million Twitter followers and say, 'Go to a record store on April 19' -- there is nothing but good that can come of that."
One more thing Record Store Day's higher profile means is that Bishop and the rest of the Cactus staff are in for a very long day tomorrow. But he says the sales bounce the store will see this weekend -- Record Store Day has also grown so big that Cactus is also opening Easter Sunday to give customers another day to pick through all the RSD goodies -- could well leave the store sitting pretty for the lean weeks it could encounter this summer. (It's the same principle behind the infamous Black Friday, which has recently become a secondary Record Store Day itself.)
"Record Store Day in particular just [comes] at a great time, because it's in April," Bishop says. "It's around tax time, when things for a lot of retailers are a little slower. You've paid off your big bills from Christmas. So it gives you loft to go into the summer with hopefully some money in the coffers. It really does help out."
And the phenomenon is hardly limited to Cactus. According to recordstoreday.com, Houston and its surrounding suburbs have no less than 16 stores participating in RSD this year. That number might surprise a lot of readers, but not Bishop.
"We work with the Greater Houston Tourism Bureau," he notes, "and we have a lot of international and out-of-state customers who come to shop at our store that tell me, 'You know, there's just no place to shop in my town. There's no place to buy CDs or records.'
"They're big Amazon customers because they can't find anything locally, and then you come to Houston and there's six or seven great, cool record stores," Bishop adds. "That's an awesome thing, and I don't know that people understand how out of step that trend is with the rest of the country."
PARTICIPATING HOUSTON-AREA RECORD STORE DAY RETAILERS
- Cactus Music
- Heights Vinyl
- Music Depot (Greenspoint Mall)
- Serious Sounds Inc. (6364 MLK Blvd.)
- Sig's Lagoon
- Sound Exchange
- Sound Revolution (1312 FM 1960 W.)
- Sound Revolution II (21153 Tomball Pkwy.)
- Soundwaves (Montrose)
- Soundwaves (Crosstimbers)
- Vinal Edge
- Sweet Spot Audio and Records (Webster)
- Music Town (Klein)
- Evolution (Baytown)
- Evolution (Deer Park)
- Black Dog Records (Bellaire)
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