Even in the age of social distancing, Record Store Day survived during the pandemic. After the 2020 edition was cancelled – it was scheduled for what became the middle of the UK’s first lockdown – the organisers staged separate release “drops” later that year, and again in 2021. You may have seen eager shoppers queueing outside record shops of all sizes up and down the country, wearing face masks as well as the usual thick coats and scarves to brave the pre-opening hours chill; perhaps you saw an obligatory news puff piece about how “vinyl is back” as the David Bowie and Prince estates scraped together yet another previously unreleased artefact.
This year, on 23 April, it’s a return to business as usual as record stores around the world celebrate the 15th annual Record Store Day (RSD) with help from Taylor Swift, its starriest ambassador yet (who’s releasing a seven-inch to mark the event). But what was once a shot in the arm for physical retail is now an albatross around the neck of the establishment it purports to help.
I run an independent record shop that predates both RSD and the internet. In the early 2000s, when physical record shops were decimated thanks to the rise of illegal downloads, RSD pumped millions of pounds through tills and undoubtedly turned a new generation on to the world of physical music. RSD is a remarkable event and its early years should be remembered as the revolution they were.
But 15 years is a long time in technology and retail. Peer-to-peer filesharing pre-empted the digital download and the streaming model. Plucky music blogs evolved into multimedia digital outlets. Even the most idiosyncratic physical record shops now reach a global audience via the internet. Record Store Day, meanwhile, hasn’t adapted to the modern realities of selling physical music.
Critics have long derided the event’s penchant for novelty discs and lack of discerning curation. This year, RSD offers 411 new releases, a fact that should leave those in the physical music business seething. Thanks to Brexit and the pandemic, we simply can’t make enough records. There is an international shortage of the various components required in vinyl manufacture, as well as a backlog exacerbated by last year’s pop-heavy release schedule.
The issue is not going away. Whereas vinyl would typically take 12 weeks to produce, we’re now looking at nine months for a short run of 12-inch vinyl. (Don’t even mention the shortage on coloured vinyl, the lifeblood of RSD.) New pressing plants opening in Middlesbrough and Gothenburg are cause for optimism, but even their added capacity pales compared with demand.
And yet, these 411 records – among them, yep, four Bowie releases and one Prince – will be ready and awaiting sale on 23 April. When I first got a glimpse of the sheer scale of what was in production, I suggested on social media that the best thing for the whole record community would have been to take a year out. Inevitably, many people responded, “If you don’t like it, don’t take part.” But this is perhaps the greatest modern mistruth of RSD. Even shops that opt out altogether are suffering long term thanks to continued stock delays and shortages which are exacerbated by the RSD production schedule. The logistics of the celebration now affect every month of the year, riding roughshod over carefully planned campaigns.
We have online customer pre-orders that were placed 12 months ago for albums that have been delayed so frequently that it feels futile to set a new hypothetical release date. The administrative ramifications are hugely consuming for shops and the economic impact for independent artists and labels is devastating. Instore tours – crucial for promotion and first-week sales – have been cancelled and rescheduled; artists are missing out on the chart positions they should expect; entire summer touring schedules are being scrapped because there is such uncertainty about when the physical product will materialise.
The job of the record shop in its simplest terms is to sell records. We are part of a long established musical ecosystem and now, in no small part due to RSD, we are becoming ever more impeded in fulfilling our duties. Will there be shops to celebrate when the racks are threadbare and retail prices continue to rocket?
I hope RSD can reconfigure itself as a genuine friend to record shops. The event needs to be postponed until these catastrophic production logjams are alleviated and the organisers must consult with shop owners about the best way to help them celebrate this unique culture in the future. It’s ironic that the other 364 days in the record shop calendar now play second fiddle to RSD.