Do you know what you’ll be doing next Saturday? I’ve a fairly good idea what I’ll be doing. Getting up at about 6 am, making and packing a bacon sandwich and a flask of tea, catching an early bus into town and queuing up outside a shop (and probably getting a good bit of knitting done!) for a good couple of hours, waiting to see what in the way of oddly-coloured, over-priced, strictly-limited-edition-until-the-next-repressing bits of plastic I can go home with. Yes, it’s upon us again: the day when fellow sound-addicts will be deciding which is more important, their good credit rating or a limited edition 78 RPM blue vinyl Beach Boys 10″. Record Store Day.
There’s a good chance that my kind and patient readers (both of you!) won’t understand the attraction of spending upwards of a tenner on a bright red, individually numbered, strictly-limited-to-750-units 7″ repressing of The Magnificent Seven by The Clash, when you can download the same content for about 70p from Amazon and not have to worry about storage space. That’s as maybe. But for one reason or another – nostalgia perhaps, or a post-Matrix paranoid revulsion of digital technology, a love of fine objects, a desire to display one’s superior taste when people come to visit – sales of vinyl records have increased in recent years. In 2010 almost three million vinyl units were sold in the USA, an increase of 40% on 2009, making vinyl the fastest-growing music distribution format. Although all of that statistical bumph is a bit meaningless really, as the noble LP fell from far loftier heights with the advent of CDs and then MP3s.
I’ve been about a bit in recent years. When I had to fill in a form with my previous addresses from the past five years, I went onto multiple additional sheets. So for quite a while, I was on a sustenance music diet of thin MP3 gruel – it simply wouldn’t have been practical to lug around luxuriously rich and nutritious LPs, or even just a bag or two of fresh and juicy CDs. I can confirm that one can survive on iTunes and YouTube alone; although for how long, and what the long-term health effects may be, are as yet undiscovered. Since I’ve been (marginally) more settled, I’ve indulged myself and done a fair bit of browsing (and inevitably purchasing) online. If anyone knows somewhere I can recycle used jiffy bags, please let me know.
Online shopping is cheap, isn’t it? I recently procured a copy of a late 1990s indie-rock album from eBay for 25p! Wow! Hardly worth the time it took the seller to list the item! I’ve also managed to get hold of a handful of new CDs from Amazon for a couple of quid each, and free P&P too. Amazing. Better even than charity shops. In fact, why bother leaving the house at all? The real world is so much clumsier, dirtier, and costlier than the online world. Plus there’s all that horrible weather. Yuck.
Of course, everyone’s heard the stories. Much of Amazon’s music sales, HMV’s online store, and various others (a favourite is Estocks on eBay) operate out of Guernsey, which means they avoid paying the 20% sales tax that mainland retailers incur. That’s one way in which prices are kept so low. Another is overheads, of course. Fewer staff to pay; no physical display space required; and the range of products supplied is so vast, the number of units shipped so enormous, that it doesn’t matter so much if stock brought in takes a little while to shift. No wonder shop-based retailers can’t compete and wind up going out of business.
It’s not just record shops that face this eventuality, of course. But they are at least doing something about it. Record Store Day is now in its fifth year. It began in San Francisco, and the first year saw artists such as Death Cab for Cutie and Vampire Weekend produce a handful of special edition records in order to promote trade across around 300 stores in the USA and a number of shops in the UK. In 2009, more than 80 records were released for the event, and the day has continued to grow ever since. My first Record Store Day experience was in 2010 when I was living in Manchester (the event finally made it to my part of Japan in 2011), and lackadaisically popped into Piccadilly Records early in the afternoon to find the store a victim of one of Moses’ plagues. Surely a swarm of locusts had descended and devoured everything. All I could get my hands on was a Peter Gabriel 7″ to give to a friend for his birthday (and a handful of freebies – badges, samplers and the like). It does not do to be laid back on Record Store Day. The atmosphere in the shop was fantastic, though. People were milling about, flipping through the racks of CDs and LPs, chatting about music, listening to guest DJs spinning some records. There were snacks, too – someone was selling cupcakes based on rock stars. In 2011 I was better prepared, and jollied down to Andy’s Records in Aberystwyth to join a queue which grew to about fifteen or twenty people by the time the cynical proprietor turned up to open shop. If the procurement of scarce special edition vinyl appeals to you, you can do a lot worse than Andy’s on Record Store Day. As we waited I chatted to some local teenagers intent on purchasing rare Joy Division and Mastodon records, a couple who had travelled over a hundred miles and camped locally in order to get a Radiohead 12″ without having to pay over a hundred pounds for it on eBay later in the day, and a professor of Geography from the university who wore an ancient tour T-shirt of The Who and was kind enough to buy me a coffee at MG’s as we discussed the relative merits of Syd Barrett and Wild Beasts. I was also laughed at for my pronunciation of Zed Zed Top (my mouth just won’t make the sound ‘zee’), and scolded by Andy for cheekily pilfering more than my permitted allocation of freebies. Hehehe.
This year, Record Store Day is bigger than ever (no marketing potential in the phrase ‘slightly smaller than last year!’). Over 400 products have been produced for this year’s event, mostly vinyl but a handful of CDs and tapes and undoubtedly something very strange from The Flaming Lips (a thirty-foot straw effigy of a song thrush that warbles passages from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, maybe, or a limited-to-100-units 7″ made from cloning Wayne Coyne and sending the clones millions of years into the past then burying them underground until their fossilised remains became oil which was then refined into vinyl for the records … that is how oil comes about, right?!). I’ve chosen where I’ll go this year and been in for a chat with the staff today (and for a cheeky glance at the list of records they expect to get in). I was probably there for about half an hour, and saw maybe four other customers in the shop. Next week, they expect fifty or so to be queuing by opening time. I’ll be near the front.
I love going to independent record shops, rifling through record sleeves and digging out something that looks interesting but I’ve never heard of, chatting to the staff about what it is and whether or not I’ll like it. Imagine a world in which Simon Cowell is all there is to music. Where every song is auto-tuned drivel piped tinnily through a supermarket sound-system. All the songs sound the same and all the singers are the same androgynous tweens with floppy hair and dead eyes. Terrifying. Record shops reassure me that we aren’t there yet.
If you want to find out if there’s a record shop near you that’s taking part in RSD2012, you can use this page (or this one if you’re in the UK). Even if you don’t want to buy anything, it’s still a grand spectacle – many shops put on bands or DJs and have other promotions. There’s a list of all the special UK releases here, but bear in mind that shops may only have one copy of each recording allocated to them. Oh, and hands off the St. Vincent 7″, that’s mine. Oh, and the Sigur Rós 7″. And the Frànçois & the Atlas Mountains and Slow Club split 7″. The Beach House 7″, Tegan and Sara LP, Andrew Bird 10″, Lanterns on the Lake 12″, Matthew Dear EP … actually, you’d better just stay clear, I’ve bagsied the lot.