Every April since 2008, independent record stores have celebrated their survival with Record Store Day, a super sale of exclusive vinyl recordings released especially for the event. This year, there are roughly 400 releases set to touch down— special reissues of classic LPs, unreleased live recordings, limited-edition rarities and other instant collectors items.
When the shops open their doors, it’s like an Easter egg hunt on the cobblestones of Pamplona. Customers squeeze their bodies, and their expectations, onto cramped sales floors, scouring the shelves for gems. The mood is up, the sales are brisk, but local shop owners say the rigmarole of Record Store Day is beginning to test the tensile strength of the very stores it was created to support.
Daly says a line will start taking shape outside of his shop in the tiny hours of Saturday morning, not long after the bartenders of Adams Morgan announce last call. Last April, he had more than 400 customers pass through on Record Store Day. This year, he’s expecting collectors from more than five hours away. He recruited 10 volunteers to help him and his two employees peddle nearly 8,000 pieces of vinyl he’s purchased for the event, doubling Crooked Beat’s inventory for a single day. The profits? He says they’ll be negligible.
“It brings people out, but it’s basically a wash. You’re buying for one day what you would buy over the course of one year,” Daly says. “A lot of people wonder, ‘When is Record Store Day going to put a store out of business?’ ”
It probably won’t put Crooked Beat out of business — but it could. When the roster of special Record Store Day releases begins trickling out each February, stores scramble to crunch their budgets and rush their wish lists off to distributors. Due to the frantic demand for a limited supply of recordings, as little as one-third of those requests might arrive in time for the big day.
And here’s the rub: Nearly every piece of vinyl is nonreturnable to those distributors. So if stores end up not getting the titles customers want, tough luck. If they get stuck with a surplus of records that nobody wants, too bad.
“Ordering is a real nightmare,” says Neal Becton, owner of Som Records on 14th Street NW. “You order all this stuff, and you don’t really know what you’re getting. But it’s a trade-off. It’s a great day.”
Especially for the growing bloc of record enthusiasts that has helped save vinyl from extinction in recent years. According to an annual report from Nielsen and Billboard, vinyl sales rose for the fifth consecutive year in 2012, up 19 percent from 2011 with 4.6 million units sold. Sixty-seven percent of these albums were scooped up at independent record stores.
Record Store Day organizers aren’t ready to take all of the credit for the format’s resurgence, but “it cannot be a coincidence that vinyl sales started climbing in 2008, when Record Store Day started,” says Carrie Colliton, co-founder of Record Store Day.
Launched by a coalition of independent businesses hoping to fight the suffocating forces of big-box stores and online retailers, the growth of Record Store Day has been as surprising as it has been quick. On Saturday, more than 800 stores are expected to participate, not including those overseas. More than a dozen area shops are listed on the official Record Store Day Web site — including Joe’s Record Paradise in Silver Spring, Memory Lane in District Heights and CD Cellar in Falls Church — many of them recognized as official participants for signing a pledge not to hawk exclusive Record Store Day releases for higher prices online.
And although most local store owners say that Record Store Day brings excessive headaches, it’s easily the busiest day of the year. But they’re also quick to point out that the labels are the ones with the most to gain.
Labels “can ship these out, and they know that they’re never coming back,” says Daly at Crooked Beat. “They can line their pockets. It’s a no-brainer for them.”
Joshua Harkavy, owner of Red Onion Records in Adams Morgan, agrees.“I feel like it’s Record Label Day,” he says. “The sheer number of things they release and the sheer silliness of those releases is too much. There are 400 records, and it can’t all be good stuff.”
Some area stores have flirted with the idea of backing out of Record Store Day, but the surge in foot traffic is just too good to turn down.
“I feel like we have to participate at this point,” says Daisy Lacy, co-owner of Smash! Records in Adams Morgan. “I can’t imagine this will go on forever, but until then . . . ”
Colliton reiterates that no record store is forced to participate and that the organization encourages store owners to be judicious when it comes to the stock they order. “We always tell stores, ‘If you don’t feel like your customer base is going to want this title, please don’t bring it in.’ ”
That sounds sensible, but it also clashes with the evangelical mission at the heart of Record Store Day. If the idea is to remind a Rolling Stones fan that vinyl not only still exists but that there’s a shop in your neighborhood where you can buy it, that shop needs to stock that Rolling Stones limited-edition seven-inch single to convert the newbies into regulars.
But local shop owners say that isn’t happening. In addition to “flippers” — those scoundrels who snap up the most-coveted records and run home to resell them for a profit on eBay — most Record Store Day visitors treat the day as an annual pilgrimage and won’t be back until next April.
“Sure, it’s a great day for record stores,” says Harkavy at Red Onion. “But there are 364 other days.”
Daly is working on a scheme that might remedy that. He’s hoping to initiate a card system that would allow customers who frequent his store throughout the year to jump to the front of his line on Record Store Day 2014.
But first he needs to track down those 60 AWOL boxes — and hopes that the records packed inside actually move. Because in the center of his sales floor, across from the new releases, next to the local bands, there’s a section of leftovers labeled “RECORD STORE DAY 2012,” and nobody is flipping through it.