Column – Counter Culture… Behind the scenes of Record Store Day

This article originally appeared on

Ahead of Saturday’s Record Store Day, Q charts the annual event’s origins, it’s aims and looks at what’s going on in an independent record shop near you this year.

You know the bit at the end of High Fidelity? Well, without spoiling the plot, a bunch of record shop employees finally manage to extract themselves from a self-imposed, snobbish rut of inaction, get of their backsides and achieve something.

Of course that’s fine in a novel (or film, if you prefer) but the idea people who spend their life obsessing about vinyl actually doing something for themselves in real life, well… Actually It seems Nick Horby sold them short, because when record shop people did get together to do something and start Record Store Day, they made a global impact that’s caused the music industry and more sit-up and listen.

“It came out of a bunch of us record store owners getting together and drinking coffee one morning and saying, Can we do something?” explains Michael Kurtz, president of US record store body the Music Monitor Network, of the origins of the first Record Store Day held in America in 2007. “We’d seen Free Comic Book Day where they were getting major publishers to put out special editions and we said, What if we went to bands and say we want to celebrate too. It was very shaky early on, we didn’t know if anyone would care – in fact my wife told me no one would! – but it ended up with everyone caring.”

Although the day has since become a focal point for highlighing the financial threat to record shops, the first Record Store Day was in fact not a cry for help. “We were motivated by all the negative press that was coming out about record stores at the time,” says Kurtz. “Tower Records had just closed but independently owned record stores we were doing fine and we were having a great time, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the papers so we did something to get our story out. We thought we’d try to throw a party with artists, put out some special releases and it turned out all these artists loved record stores and they got involved.”

In fact the initial success of Record Store Day – now an annual event held across the globe in April each year, that sees independent record shops exclusively selling special, limited edition releases created by labels and artists especially for the day – was in part down to a band that has previously been accused of not understanding real music fans, Metallica.

“The first one was big but only because Metallica adopted it and put it on their website. They had over a million fans looking at it and that’s what exploded it.” says the Music Monitor Network president, who now helps to manage exclusive stock for the US event. “Then Paul McCartney sent us an email saying he supported what we were doing. It was different artists who’d heard about reaching out to us and saying they wanted to put out a record. It just snowballed.”

Someone else who noticed was Spencer Hickman, boss of Rough Trade East in London. After making contact with the US organisers he resolved to stage the a mirror event in the UK, joining the party in 2008.

“It’s crazy, I just thought it was a fun idea to do and now it’s become the biggest day of the year for independent music stores,” he says. Indeed this Saturday represents the biggest yet, with the amount of limited edition stock created for the day rising from around 300 items last year, to 480 for 2012. Corresponding the spectrum of what is available is vast, going from limited edition seven-inches, through picture discs, albums, boxsets and even a fanzine full of flexidiscs which Domino Records have curated. Meanwhile the musicians involved now straddles acts who are yet to release an album to The Beatles, while jazz and classical recordings have joined the indie and dance releases this year.

“Record shops used to be an important part of the community, they were where everyone would hang out to talk about music and bands. They were focal points for the local music community in every town,” suggests Paul Quirk, chairman of the Entertainment Retailers Association – who help coordinate the event – of why Record Store Day has resonated so much with shoppers, artists and labels alike. “There are people within the record companies who love and on Record Store Day they’re now getting to do the job they wanted to do in the first place before they got side-tracked into checking the bottom line or all the other horrible stuff that goes on.”

That love – and resulting limited-ness – might mean an early start this Saturday for those after a particular item, though Hickman insists the shops are aware people don’t want to queue for too long and will do their best to help and entertain customers.

“There was one guy who was hammered who was queuing up outside Rough Trade at two in the morning one year, he left a club and couldn’t be bothered to go home, but it’s worth coming at any time, we’ve got bands on all day and so many stores have events this year,” he explains. “That’s the beauty of the day, the limited editions are great, but it’s about stuff happening the shops, it’s that fun element. I know most of us are quite nerdy but we’re quite social. There’s a lot on this year and that’s what I’m most proud of. It’s a hassle putting bands on during the busiest day of the year but stores have embraced it.”

And if you’re after something particular, while online auctions might seem tempting, you could end-up paying over the odds – not to mention it’s against the spirit of the day.

“The eBay thing [people selling the releases to the highest bidder after the day] fucks me off to be honest,” declares the Rough Trade East boss. “I’d say to your readers, by all means jump on in and overpay, but seven days after the event the stores will be selling items at face value and shops do talk and swap stock. It doesn’t hurt to ring round a couple of stores. A lot of stores will publish a list of what they’re stocking in the week running up to the 21st – there’s no London bias, the stock is available everywhere, each shop orders what it wants – so you need to contact your local store. People walking out happy is how we indies survive!”

With the changing economic climate since 2007, as mentioned Record Store Day – in the UK at least – is now as much about helping independent shops to survive as it a celebration of them, but Hickman and his colleagues are keener than ever to make sure Britain‘s record shops do not just end-up being about one Saturday each April.

“This year we’re trying to figure out how we capitalise on it, because the record shop is not just there for Record Store Day it’s for the whole year! We really need to make the most of the success this year,” Hickman admits. “But the beauty of it is we have people who first found us on Record Store Day who have become regular customers. That’s what the day is all about, rediscovering the joys of physical shopping. If you can convert even a few people it’s worth it.”
Paul Stokes @Stokesie

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