By now you’ve heard the story. Brick-and-mortar record stores were a hardy but dwindling fleet, battered by the rising tides of cassette tapes one decade, compact discs the next, and finally the crushing waves of online piracy and the free and paid streaming services that followed. Until one day, when an enterprising group of record store enthusiasts took a cue from the beloved tradition of Free Comic Book Day and dreamed up Record Store Day, a holiday for the appreciation of physically packaged music and the communal spaces that house it. Thus was vinyl reborn to generations of music geeks new and old.
Carrie Colliton, one of the founders of Record Store Day, has heard the story plenty of times. And she says it’s a little off base.
“Independent stores were doing great [in 2007], but the only media story you ever saw, and really the pop culture perception, was that record stores were gone, and isn’t that sad.” A quick glance at nearly decade-old headlines confirms this. “Tower Crumbles in the Download Era”, read The Guardian; “For Tower Records, the End of Disc”, proclaimed The Washington Post; and The Villager, a Greenwich Village-based magazine, quipped that “Video Killed the Radio Star; iPod Killed Tower Records”.
“All of it is going”, Paul Farhi wrote in the post. “Not just Tower, but the record store culture that Tower embodied. Anything that can be squeezed down to ones and zeros and moved around at the speed of electrons doesn’t have to be stacked in plastic cases, shoved into bins and splayed over aisles under fluorescent lights anymore. All of it’s going online.”
Isn’t it sad? Colliton doesn’t think so.
It’s not so much that Record Store Day saved record stores. It gave a wide community of enthusiasts something to organize around.
“Tower Records didn’t really close because nobody wanted to shop there; there were internal issues. And that’s the case with every store that closes. Obviously digital media and streaming and the ease of all that doesn’t help”, she notes. And sure enough, the inflated CD prices of the time didn’t help either. But smaller players, according to Colliton, had years ago found their niche among their respective neighborhood communities of diehard music lovers — a group that hasn’t been shrunk down by the digital age, but rather given the power to grow. When Tower Records closed, these local stores had been around for roughly 20 years, on average, according to Colliton — though in the past five years the average age has gone down, as that storied “vinyl resurgence” has led to several new shops opening up.
So it’s not so much that Record Store Day saved record stores. More accurately, it gave a wide community of enthusiasts something to organize around, which in turn strengthened it. Sounds unexpectedly political, almost overly union-like for an annual gathering of music geeks — but then, consider that each annual Record Store Day features an ambassador. (This year’s was Dave Grohl.) And when you get down to it, Record Store Day is just good for indie music stores’ bottom line, and in turn for the recording artists, as physical records and concert tickets are still the two best ways to directly support them.
“Obviously the listenership for those streaming services has increased in the last eight years — and so has the sale of vinyl.”
There’s still plenty of overblown romance about vinyl. (Paul Fahri, once more: “Clicking a mouse cannot replace the singular ritual act of pawing through those big bins [of records] to find… well, you never knew what.”) Ultimately, though, the geeky-enthusiast-meets-community-activist angle is a lot more palatable than the overblown rhetoric surrounding a certain hi-fi streaming service. And it’s true that record stores provide a social space that music forums and Spotify playlists simply can’t replicate. “Technology is fantastic”, Colliton grants. “I’m talking to you on a cell phone that’s kind of a computer. I have a computer in front of me. I have an iPad at my fingertips. I was listening to music just before I picked up the phone. It’s all over, and it’s fantastic — but at some point, we’re human. We want to talk to another person, or we want to have some physical manifestation of, I don’t know, creativity, whether that’s a record or a book or going out surfing.” Speaking to Variety during this year’s Record Store Day, Dave Grohl called it “tech fatigue”.
Colliton continues: “I can sit here and work away, and I would listen to maybe 45 songs in the course of my day. I could probably tell you, maybe on a good day, what 10 or 15 of them were. But if you’re listening to a record, you’re kind of more physically attached to it. It becomes a sort of ritual… [You have a] much strong memory a couple of days later than whatever you were listening to that was streaming while you were doing something else.” If an LP is a conversation with a listener, streaming music is overhearing snippets of someone else’s. In a sense, then, Colliton’s words resonate with those of Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk: “Tech companies [think] artists as products. We are not products.”
Still, Colliton doesn’t think tech is killing music, or the music industry, or record stores. Rather, she sees a symbiotic relationship between all of the above: “Obviously the listenership for those streaming services has increased in the last eight years — and so has the sale of vinyl, so they’re not canceling each other out. [Pandora and Spotify] are a fantastic way to introduce yourself to new artists or older artists… and then you can go out and buy that record. Are there people who never listen to Pandora and always shop at record stores? Sure. Are there people who do the opposite? Of course. But I would say the majority of record store customers probably do both.” As Marc Hogan notes on Pitchfork, internet radio is to paid music what terrestrial radio itself was to vinyl records. Ultimately, or perhaps ideally, the goal will be to get internet radio to function similarly to the radio in this regard, leading casual listeners’ feet through the door to fandom — literally, in the case of Record Store Day.
Such is also the job of in-store appearances. “I spent one hour of my day on Saturday at a record store helping 300 teenagers, mostly girls”, Colliton said, “going through a line and meeting their favorite band — a band called All Time Low. They have the number one album in the country.” As much as a record is a conversation with an artist, so is… a conversation with an artist. In-store appearances and events thrown by musicians make that much-noted sense of community all the more palpable. And of course they’ve made the holiday a household name.
“Two or three years into it they made a joke about us on Saturday Night Live. We didn’t know it was coming. Alright, [we thought], we’ve made it. …Jack White is our ambassador and he made a killer video. Okay, we’ve made it. Dave Grohl is our ambassador and he played in a record store, a tiny record store, near his hometown — down the street from his grandmother’s house. Okay, we’ve made it. Prince threw a party in Minneapolis for record store clerks over the weekend. Okay, we’ve made it.” It all seems to indicate that Record Store Day is here to stay, and so are the stores that celebrate it. But then again, they always were.