Record Store Day: The saving grace of music or just another cash-in?

By Nic Watmough

There are several hundred people queuing up quietly in the cold, at eight AM in the morning. It’s a Saturday. In Manchester. Some of these poor people have waited outdoors all through the night, since as early as eleven thirty the night before.

Over the course of April 21, these people and thousands more across the country and around the world slowly trudged forward in great long lines, to finally get inside.

Why? To spend hundreds and hundreds of pounds on small flat pieces of plastic.

This is the madness of Record Store Day, a global event in its fifth year which sees music lovers gather together to celebrate and support their local independent record shops. Huge events are put on in every city, with top name DJs performing for the patient punters, and live music all day long. Around 230 stores in the UK take part. Labels and artists release special edition limited records and boxsets, as well as repressings of classic albums that would be impossible to get hold of on any other day.

Indeed, many of the sought after musical prizes on RSD prove incredibly difficult to get hold of. This year, one of the most hotly anticipated special releases was a wacky split 7” featuring prog-metal titans Mastodon and chart-topping, iPod-advert folk songstress Feist, covering one another’s music. It is thought to have sold out within the first hour or so of UK stores opening.

And RSD2012 is all the more important this year, in the light of the terrible PIAS warehouse disaster last summer; the London riots resulted in the gutting of a warehouse that housed the stock for hundreds of independent UK labels and record stores. Millions of pounds in product was lost, and this year, the record buying public came out en masse to help the wounded industry back onto its feet.

I visited Piccadilly Records on Oldham Street in Manchester, to get my grubby little paws on some vinyl, and see what was going on. I spoke to Philippa Jarman from Piccadilly, who’d been preparing for weeks for the big day.

“Previous years have been absolutely mental, and this year is no different!” she said.

“I’ve already snapped up The ESG / Las Kellies, Shuggie Otis and Laura Marling 7″s, Daphni remix of Hot Chip, Four Tet remix of Tinariwen, new PIL 12″… There are too many good releases to mention!”

She told me how they’d been planning for weeks to put on a wide range of DJs and help with events around the city; in the shop, massive artists like Mr Scruff, B-Music and Tim Burgess from The Charlatans were soundtracking the day, while happy shoppers who flashed their purchase or a Piccadilly Records hand-stamp got free entry and cheap booze at the all-day music events at Soup Kitchen and Deaf Institute.

Obviously, RSD is an important event for the record stores as well as the buyers, with love and effort poured into it; but do they need it to survive?

“At the end of the day, there are enough people who still love going into an actual physical record shop to buy their music to keep us busy. Long may it continue!” Philippa says.

So after I’d queued for an hour (and I was lucky, several of the people I spoke to there said that they’d spent more than four hours waiting!) and picked out some goodies (sadly, I missed out on the “Feistodon” 7”, so maybe I wasn’t that lucky) I headed to The Soup Kitchen in the Northern Quarter to check out some of the free live music.

“Record Store Day basically facilitates Manchester’s best gig of the year. It’s an all-dayer, which gives it an amazing festival feel, with all your favourite local music makers under one roof!”

So says Sam Alder, head honcho for the much celebrated MCR Scenewipe, event organisers in the city, who also run one of the best live music review websites, and act as a burgeoning music film company. He was busy running between venues buying records, filming things, and helping the day run smoothly, as well as performing in several bands!

He said: “It’s always an event that supports the emerging bands in the city; last year’s line up was incredible, and this year Soup Kitchen and Piccadilly records have picked a fresh batch of talent including PINS, Die Hexen and Shinies as well as some of the more established guys like Young British Artists and Milk Maid.”

It was very strange, and very cool, being crammed into a tiny basement venue, bopping along to the smooth sound of PINS or the blunt indie-punk of Shinies, while everyone tried to juggle pints and record sleeves.

Die Hexen were a particular highlight, a solo female gothic electro act replete with tight fitting black leather and smoke machines; Young British Artists floated along on a wave of reverb-laden guitars and dream-pop beats; everything was awesome.

However, not everyone agrees that RSD is necessarily a good thing. Joe Sparrow, Manchester-based radio host and music blogger for ANewBandADay, believes that while independent record stores are a nice idea, they aren’t necessarily the only way forward.

“You don’t need a 12″ plastic disc and the accompanying artwork to listen to your new favourite song, as pleasurably tactile as those things may be. And when people no longer need something, they tend to suddenly become overwhelmed by ambivalence towards it.

“I want record shops to exist. I love them. But if they are no longer viable, then their useful lifespan has ended, and the ruthlessly pragmatic human race will just move on. No number of special one-off singles by thoughtful bands will change that,” he says.

I visited the recently opened V Revolution record store on Oldham Street, a brilliantly DIY-driven establishment, founded on punk-values and honest hard work. They had acoustic performances throughout the day from Manchester champions Ollie Gill, Claw The Thin Ice, and Well Wisher, as well as reduced prices and free vegan chocolate truffles.

V Revolution co-founder and owner Dom Moss is also, surprisingly, somewhat wary of RSD, despite owning a record store himself.

“People buying records is a good thing, and a fantastic way to support tiny, hard-working bands,” he says.

“Record store day as an ideal is admirable, but it is imperative that the spirit is not lost amongst cynical cash-ins and eBay flippers.”

Indeed, despite the reports of 50% sales increase on last year’s RSD, and some UK stores claiming a complete 100% increase, there are more shrewd opportunities for money to be made online, scalping freshly bought limited releases for ten, twenty, thirty times the price. That “Feistodon” 7” that I wanted, which was retailing at Piccadilly Records for around £8, is now going for nearly £40 on eBay.

The UK organiser for RSD, Spencer Hickman, says: “With vinyl sales again on the rise for the fifth year in a row, indie record stores and RSD are proving to be more relevant than ever for the discerning music buyer,” and I’d be hard-pressed not to agree with him.

We can’t allow the spirit of buying physical copies of music to be lost. There are people who still avidly support underground and independent music, such as Joe Sparrow, who question the validity of records. There are the internet floggers, who are actively serving to harm it.

And then there are people like you, and me, and the thousands of people who passed through stores like Piccadilly Records on Saturday April 21, who for whatever reason, decided that Record Store Day 2012 was as good a day as any to support music, as a concept, by going out and buying some.

Record Store Day for this year is over. Back to Record Store Life.

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