Once upon a time, we walked into our local record store, flipped through crates, and stared deeply at wondrous artworks. Twelve inches, seven inches, 45s and 33s. Glistening black vinyl wrapped in cardboard that turned packaging into art. The process of browsing and shopping for music became a passionate experience. (Scrolling through iTunes for a song that you heard on a television commercial a moment earlier doesn’t get your blood rushing in the same way.) Then mega-retailers came and killed off the mom-and-pop record shops. Those chain stores eventually fell victim to mp3s and buying music became limited to just a few online outlets.
Amid all the doom and gloom, a grassroots revival of the local record store has taken place. From big cities to little towns, some of these small businesses are doing their best sales numbers ever. Many believe the catalyst for the movement has been Record Store Day, the annual event held on the third Saturday of April. (This year’s event takes place on April 20. Yes, 4/20 for all you stoners out there.) Part community pep rally, part marketing ploy, Record Store Day seeks to get people out to their local stores to celebrate all things vinyl. For some, it’s about the retro cool of records. For others, it’s vinyl’s warm audio qualities. And for many it comes down to having a physical product to hold in their hands.
Blame It On Chris Brown
Record Store Day (RSD) is the brainchild of Chris Brown — no not that one — of Bull Moose Records in Portland, Maine. He started the event in 2007, and since then it has grown to include over a thousand participants in more than 20 countries. New York City alone will host more than 30 events in 2013. RSD is now a go-to date for special-edition releases and high-profile in-store performances.
And while places like Los Angeles’s Amoeba Records may be able to pull off a Paul McCartney visit, the day is mostly about folks getting together to share in their love of vinyl. Because for all the ease of a $0.99 download, no online retailer has ever patiently listened as you badly hummed the tune of a song whose title you couldn’t remember. Who else but a Record Store Guy could reveal the hidden message when Pink Floyd's “Empty Space” track from The Wall is played in reverse? The Internet is never going to step in and advise you that greatest hits albums are for housewives and little girls.
Sales of records accounted for nearly 20% of total music sales in 2012, the highest since 1991 when SoundScan started tracking the numbers. Rich Warwick has been involved with music production, distribution and sales for over a decade and notes that even the few surviving record pressing plants are surprised that A) they still exist and B) that business is on the rise. To put it in perspective, a typical press can produce 1-2,000 records in a day, while a CD duplicator can create 20,000 discs in the same amount of time. According to Warwick, it becomes an issue of quality over quantity. Classic reissues and new indie rock releases have been leading the surge in vinyl. “Everybody wants to do vinyl and over all it's been great for the industry,” Warwick says. “The big sellers tend to feature collectible artwork and sell as deluxe box sets.”
But record consumers aren’t all old-fogeys going on and on about what records were like “back in my day.” Sixteen-year-old Anna is from suburban New Jersey and regularly travels more than 30 minutes to her favorite record store, Double Decker in Allentown, PA. "When you're 16, there aren't a lot of cool events you're welcome at. [Record Store Day] is one I can get excited about," she says. Anna’s friends are curious about her approach to music and notes that turntables have become popular holiday gifts with kids her age recently. The reason, she says, is that even though her generation has been raised on digital music, the physical experience of holding the music and getting into the artwork still means something.
Only time can tell if vinyl sales will be limited to a niche market or if the numbers will continue to rise. The issues around vinyl (higher price points, limited production facilities, and storage and shipping challenges) aren’t going anywhere. Regardless, it’s still worth poking your head into your local record store on April 20. It’s guaranteed to be a more interesting time than browsing iTunes in your bedroom.