Saturday, April 21, 2018

Happy Record Store Day, I Think

Another Record Store Day is upon us. Another chance to go out and buy records you don't really need, or want. And another chance to try and buy something that sounds really cool, only to find out that your favorite store only has one copy of it, and it's buried in a stack of vinyl being carried around by some shlub who doesn't appreciate it as much as you do.

Sounds pretty cynical, huh? Yes, it is.

I've felt both elated and jaded by Record Store Days in the past. There once was a time that the Attic, a record store in the nearby borough of Millvale, opened at midnight, and a line of people queued around the corner and down the street. Many of them looked to be in their 20s. I forget if it was that night or the next morning when I heard some of these same 20-something saying, "Excuse me," or "After you" when they bumped into me by a rack of RSD merch. Not something that you'll hear from your typical estate sale/garage sale record fanatic.

But I've also come home with records that weren't all that exciting when I got them out of the shrink wrap and put them on. "Why did I buy this?" I also thanked myself for not buying the $15 78 RPM edition of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." Somehow, I don't think my victrola would have been good for it.

Yet, Record Store Day lives on. And now that the Man is telling us that CDs are out, out, out, records are less of a novelty and more of a legit way to enjoy music again. Sure there are many of us believe that vinyl never went away and that every day can be Record Store Day. But rather than point my finger and say, "I'd told you," I am glad that other people understand.

This week, Pittsburgh City Paper ran an article in which CP writer Meg Fair and I collaborated on a piece about Record Store Day. I admittedly wrote long, knowing that some of it would be cut from the print issue. Consisting of block quotes from various people, it seemed like it was going to explore a few levels of the record industry, the pros and cons of vinyl and finally, offer a few perspectives from local shop owners about RSD. As so often happens, that was a bit much to cover in 900 words divided between two writers. Things got a little diluted.

For the benefit of those who are interested, the article can be found at this link. And here are some finer points that didn't make it into the piece. Along with two local record shop owners, they include guitarist Nels Cline. We spoke last fall to preview an upcoming performance in Pittsburgh. That day, he was waiting to get a test pressing of his new album by the Nels Clne 4. A casual talk about records turned into a 20-minute discussion about his experiences pressing vinyl and the frustrations with a format he loves. (Be sure to read his quote in the CP article.) Gotta Groove Records have pressed vinyl for a lot of local bands. When a test pressing for my my band the Love Letters sounded a little off-center, GG's Matt Earley was able to pinpoint the number of degrees by which it was off and fix it. That kind of perspective needs to be heard on this topic. Without further embellishment...


MATT EARLEY (Vice President of Sales & Marketing, Gotta Groove Records Inc., Cleveland, Ohio)
We listen to every test pressing and pass/fail it. And we give it a letter grade and keep notes on it internally. Because we do that, over 99% of the test pressings we ship, pass the first time from our customers. Most of the issues that we encounter on them, we’ve already fixed by the time they get to the customer’s hand. When we press the final production copies, we’re listening to every 26th copy off the press. We catch things that would go out to the marketplace if we didn’t take that approach. Really, that is probably one of the more defining things about us. Most plants have a single QA [quality assurance] person and sometimes that can mean a single QA person for 20 pressing machines. We have a QA person for every two pressing machines because we listen to that many records.

Candidly, Record Store Day has never been a huge part of our business. We do some Record Store day titles. I think this year we did around 15. Over the years, we’ve averaged about 15 to 25 Record Store Day titles. So it doesn’t really give us a huge spike. What does give us a huge spike at the beginning of the year is actually tour season. Most of what we do in are not reissues. Most of what we do are new artists,  touring artists. And a heck of a lot of records are sold on the road. So people start ordering records that they know are going to have tour support for, in December and January. Because unofficially, tour season starts in March with South By Southwest and continuing through the summer. We’ve always seen a natural spike at the beginning of the year, tied to tour season. In any given month we do anywhere from 100 to 200 new titles. When you factor in Record Store Day, and add about 15 titles, it’s not a huge part of the business

JEFF GALLAGHER (Juke Records, Pittsburgh)
The jury is still out whether this vinyl resurgence related to younger people is sustainable or not. I’m not sure. I think it goes either way 50/50. But one thing is that has really changed I think is that these folks rarely buy a record that they haven’t heard all the way through and know they want the vinyl record. When I was younger we took a lot of chances on records. Maybe you heard one song, maybe you heard someone talk about a record, maybe you liked the cover. You took a shot on it. We still have regular loyal customers who do that but most of the young people getting into this, they know that they’re going to like that record when they buy it. That’s very different.


You should ask me [how I feel about it] on April 22! We did have some conversations here about not doing it because it’s getting difficult to manage for a small shop like mine. It’s very risky because, when I buy this stuff, there’s no returning any of it. So you have to guess what’s right for our store in terms of the inventory that you bring in and the amount inventory.But we’re optimistic that we’re going to have a good day. We’re stocking a lot of the stuff that are smaller pressings in terms of the volume. It’s a touchy thing but we committed to it. We’re going big again and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that by 4:00 in the afternoon, we’ll have broken even.

FRED BOHN, JR. (The Attic, Millvale)
I think [RSD] is a great thing for independent record stores, especially for us. Every year you think it’s not going to get any bigger, but it gets bigger every year and there are more people into it. It gets a lot of people into the store. It’s probably the best form of advertising because you get a target audience of people who are looking to buy records. Record Store Day gives them a chance to see your store, maybe for the first time. Once they see what you have, they come back. It’s not a huge profit maker and I don’t know how many stores make a big profit on Record Store Day because everything is so expensive, But we do it to support our customers who support us year round, and also to get new customers. Last year we opened at 8 a.m., and the end of the line probably got into the store around noon. If you had told me this in 2000, I’d’ve told you that you were crazy! I don’t see 10-year-old people buying Nirvana records in 2018, and all of a sudden there it is.


There’s a lot of negative press on CDs at the moment too but that’s still a big market for us also. And the funny thing is, a lot of the people that sold all their vinyl at that time are coming back and rebuilding it again. People should think for themselves and not think what society needs them to do. If you don’t want them get rid of them. If you don’t think you’re going to use them there’s no need to have them hanging around. Records take up a lotta space.

NELS CLINE (Guitarist with Wilco, as well as numerous improvisation groups, including the Nels Cline 4, which just released a new album on Blue Note)
The whole audiophile thing is not my thing either. We used to listen to music on transistor radios and it sounded pretty magical. [Laughs] Put out your vinyl, just please make your compact discs because the improvised music community still makes underground compact discs and sells them at gigs. It’s the only thing they can afford to do. And, hey, at least the stuff’s going to be the right speed.

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