Record Store Day is Probably a Bad Thing

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Collecting and listening to music is an important part of my life. The resurgence of the vinyl record has reinvigorated my love of the intentional experience of listening to music, as opposed to the endless stream of computerized recommendations (through streaming services do have their own extraordinary value). As absurd as it may sound, I find myself actually spending money on music and self-identifying as a “vinyl record guy.”

So if a group of record store owners came together and organized a yearly event to promote the hobby that I so thoroughly enjoy, I would probably be really enthusiastic about it. I should be excited about Record Store Day, but then I give some thought to the actual experience. I would need to get up early and fight my way through a crowd of humans just for a chance to score that ultra-tempting, ultra-exclusive, ultra-limited colored vinyl release… only to find that it’s already sold out. I’d rather not.

I think there is something more sinister at work in the Record Store Day business model, and it warrants being discussed. But first, we have to understand the unique nature of the vinyl record economy.

The vinyl record market as a whole thrives because of a very unique relationship between its retail and secondary markets. Instead of being adversarial, it would appear that the markets rely on one another. The artificial scarcity of the retail product creates value in the secondary market. The secondary market, in turn, drives sales in the retail space as a result of something that I would refer to as reverse commoditization (don’t bother googling this; I made the term up).

Reverse commoditization—if you’ll pardon my oversimplification—takes place when value is added to music via the physical medium by which it is delivered. Hence, vinyl records have the potential to increase in value, while compact discs and MP3s will inevitably race toward the lowest possible price point. So when you decide to purchase the new Toro Y Moi album on vinyl instead of CD or digital, you’re investing in music rather than purchasing (what the market considers to be) an undifferentiated consumable item.

The potential drawback of this phenomenon is that a fan may not be able to purchase an album because it is too rare to be affordable. However, because of the fact that an album can be purchased much more cheaply on CD or acquired for free elsewhere, it behooves artists and record labels to continue pressing and releasing vinyl. This seems like a relationship that values the consumer and keeps revenue flowing without completely disincentivizing the hardcore collector’s search for early or rare pressings of a specific album.

So what does this have to do with Record Store Day?

As I mentioned before, in spite of whatever good intentions the independent record store owners had when they conceptualized Record Store Day, it seems to have have become something more sinister. The focus of the event is placed on the exclusive releases, giving record labels a chance to wield reverse-commoditization against the consumer. Rather than being a celebration of great music and vinyl culture, Record Store Day is a celebration of market competition and needless exclusivity. This is not acceptable.

One shining example of the antagonistic attitude toward music fans is the extremely limited release of Brand New’s beloved album Deja Entendu for Record Store Day 2015. I’m not a huge fan of this band, but Deja is one of my girlfriend’s favorite albums. We went to 2 or 3 different record stores, and none of them ever had the album. Within a few hours, copies of the album started popping up on ebay for 10 times their retail price. Most of the fans of who wanted the album (my girlfriend included) were deprived of the opportunity to purchase an album that they care about so that someone else could turn a profit.

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I don’t understand how this is a sound business decision. How is Triple Crown Records, or any other label, served by extreme artificial scarcity? Perhaps they want to create a excitement surrounding the album in preparation for a wider release later on, but if that’s the case they’re sending a clear message they care more about profits than cultivating a loving fanbase.

Maybe I’m right, but so what?

I know that this article is hanging out the land of vanity and complaint, but I wouldn’t be writing any of this if I didn’t think it would be possible to make Record Store Day a more wonderful experience for everyone. I love collecting records, and I’m saddened by how hostile artists and labels come across with the business practices of Record Store Day.

I have a few ideas about how Record Store Day could be the celebration that it was meant to be. Instead of focusing on releasing exclusive items only for elite members of collecting community, Record Store Day should be organized around great music. Local shops could use sales, live performances, and new (not exclusive) releases to encourage members of their community to come in and celebrate the hobby. Instead of tailoring the event only to the regulars who already dig the bins, shops could welcome new fans by curating packages of must-have starter records and entry-level audio equipment. Shops should move away from the aggressively competitive attitude encouraged by Record Store Day, encouraging both new and old fans to engage in the community.

Record Store Day can be fun and not frustrating, but that celebration must begin by respecting the fans and community. Here’s to a more friendly, more loving Record Store Day 2016.

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