Record Store Day, or Vinyl Record Day?

April 17, 2010
By | 11 Comments

Amidst all the record industry’s doom and gloom over digital piracy and declining CD sales, there has been one largely overlooked area of the market that’s actually been experiencing tremendous growth in recent years, and that’s vinyl. That’s right: phonograph records, that analog sound recording format that has been declared dead more times than film criticism. The reality is that vinyl – the primary commercial music medium for most of the 20th century – never went away, even though it left the mainstream in the early 1990s, replaced by digital media (first CDs, then MP3s). It has remained a staple of the rock music underground, as well as the preferred format of most serious record collectors and audiophiles. The Internet-fueled “digital music era,” however, has sparked a new wave of interest in this old medium, some even predicting that vinyl will eventually replace CDs as the physical music media of choice.

According to Nielsen SoundScan, sales of vinyl albums in the U.S. increased by 33% in 2009, to approximately 2.5 million copies. The major labels have started pressing vinyl again for the first time in roughly a decade. It is estimated that half of all new albums are being released with a vinyl counterpart. Still, digital music dominates sales and vinyl remains a niche item: digital track and album purchases, which were also up in 2009, account for nearly 80% of total music sales, while vinyl represents less than 1%. In other words, no one is suggesting that vinyl is about to replace digital music, only the CD. But the record industry – by which I mean not only the record labels but also retailers, distributors, manufacturing plants, et al. – very much needs physical objects to sell, hence its renewed commitment to vinyl.

Enter Record Store Day, which is taking place today, April 17th, at indie record shops across the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and other countries. An annual “holiday,” now in its third year, RSD claims as its mission the “celebration of the unique culture surrounding over 1,400 independently owned record stores worldwide.” By all means this is an industry event, organized by the Music Monitor Network, a coalition of music retailers, labels, and distributors, and the Alliance of Independent Media Stores and the Coalition of Independent Music Stores. It is also sponsored by the music trade association NARM, consumer electronics manufacturer Crosley Radio, and the nation’s largest music distributors (RED, Fontana, EMI, WEA, Universal – all of which are attached to the four major labels: Sony, Universal, Warner, EMI). There are plenty of independent record labels throwing their weight behind RSD, too, ranging from big names like Sub Pop and Matador to smaller ones such as Jagjaguwar and No Idea. But it’s particularly interesting (to me, anyway) that the majors are so closely involved in an event that is designed to celebrate independent retailers and which, based on the artists participating in RSD live events and those issuing special RSD releases, centers almost exclusively around what would be broadly termed “indie rock” music and culture.

Indeed, the bait used to actually lure customers into shops on Record Store Day, apart from discounts in some venues, are in-store performances and exclusive releases. For instance, this year Smashing Pumpkins, Yo La Tengo, and No Age are among those artists performing in stores, while musicians including The Rolling Stones, Beastie Boys, Bruce Springsteen, Devo, Sonic Youth, and Pavement are offering special limited edition releases. The way these artists and record companies have rallied around RSD, though, seems to indicate that this phenomenon is less about record stores than it is about saving records, period. And not just any records, either, but vinyl records.

The “unique culture” that Record Store Day claims to be commemorating is, quite specifically, vinyl culture. The aforementioned exclusive Record Store Day releases – some 170 in total – are, with a few exceptions, all vinyl. Indeed, a trip this morning to some local participating record shops in Madison, WI, confirmed that a majority of the customers, at least in the opening hours, were dedicated record collectors quickly dropping in and out to pick up the limited edition vinyl pressings. Surely, the record stores are profiting from the increased traffic (at last year’s RSD, indie retail sales grew 21% from the prior year), but most of those sales would appear to be coming from already dedicated consumers  (read: record collectors) who are just looking to get their hands on exclusive releases (read: catnip for record collectors).

That is, stores are milking their base – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Record stores need to sell records – physical products – to stay in business, and record collectors, particularly those in the rock/indie/punk/whatever-you-want-to-call-it underground, buy lots of records and they mostly buy vinyl. This is hardly news to the mom-and-pop record shops, as it has been their primary market all along, nor is it news to the indie labels or artists. But the major record companies seem to finally be realizing the value of this niche audience, too. Indeed, the major labels (and their distributor subsidiaries, which handle loads of smaller indie labels) need more than anyone else for physical records to survive. And increasingly that means supporting vinyl culture: the vinyl format itself, as well as the independent shops that sell it and the small but committed audience that buys it. Record Store Day might just as well be called Vinyl Record Day.


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11 Responses to “ Record Store Day, or Vinyl Record Day? ”

  1. Christopher Cwynar on April 17, 2010 at 4:29 PM

    Very interesting piece, Andrew. Your discussion effectively illustrates the manner in which the authenticity discourses that have long elevated the vinyl record as the most legitimate recorded music commodity are now manifesting themselves in consumption practices in conjunction with the separation of recorded music from lesser commodities in the digital era. CDs never had much of a cachet and they are now giving way to computers and MP3 players that offer tremendous storage capacity and portability with a bit of a sacrifice in sound quality. As you ably demonstrate, the reaction to this has been a resurgence of interest in vinyl. The thick and warm analog sound, the large surface area for album art, and the rich cultural history surrounding record collecting make the record the ultimate antidote to a conception of recorded music as dematerialized files that live in our various machines.

    The vinyl resurgence seems to speak in part to a nostalgia for rock’s 60s and 70s golden age – this, along with the emergence of the ‘yacht rock’ phenomenon, suggests that the passing of the genre culture may have been overstated – and partly to the social utility or value of pop music. For all of the advantages of digital music, it cannot fully facilitate the demonstration of objectified cultural capital since the objects here are not the recorded commodities, but the storage and playback devices. One’s iPhone may contain all sorts of obscure content pertaining to a particular popular music subgenre, but this cannot easily be displayed. We still need material commodities that can objectify cultural capital so that it can be prominently displayed in bedrooms, living rooms, and offices. When we display our commodities in these spaces, we can enjoy certain benefits from the manner in which they inform others about our tastes and competences. I could easily download that Fleet Foxes recording to my computer at no direct cost, but this is not as valuable (taking a broad definition of that term) to me as it would be to be able to buy the record and prominently display my sensibilities to myself and those who might enter my space. For rare and classic recordings, the issue is even more heavily weighted in terms of the vinyl in terms of the telegraphing of authenticity, investment, and cultural competence.

    At the end of the day, vinyl allows the discerning consumer to have it all. One can easily download the digital files for playback on the move (or even rip the record) while the record provides superior sound quality and a material display object on the homefront. Despite what the majors may say, this feels like a pretty good time to be a fan of recorded music.

    • Andrew Bottomley on April 18, 2010 at 12:10 PM

      You raise some terrific points, Chris, especially with regards to the cultural capital and authenticity of vinyl. I wouldn’t pin it all on 1960s/70s nostalgia, though, nor would I say that consumers are buying vinyl today as simply a status object for display. For one, there are plenty of folks out there (the commenter below, Eric, among them) who remain faithful to vinyl for its audio quality. But what I was hinting at in my original post, when I alluded to vinyl’s never having gone away during the ’90s and ’00s, is that vinyl has remained a central part of numerous music subcultures. Jonah mentions turntablism below, and indeed the vinyl record was crucial to the DJ movement in hip-hop and techno/electronic music circles during the ’90s. It was also elevated to a new level of pop culture iconography through those scenes.

      However, I think the current vinyl trend is most closely associated with the indie/punk rock subculture (which is an incredibly broad category, and in my mind envelops movements as diverse as “freak folk” and noise). Vinyl has remained an integral part of that subculture, and its authenticity is constructed less from retro-nostalgia than from ideology – vinyl is anti-digital, anti-mainstream. In the past decade or so, though, the indie/punk subculture has grown in size and prominence, largely as the result of the Internet. As the music has grown in popularity, so have the cultural practices, in particular a dedication to vinyl. Which is why I disagree with all this discourse (common in the popular press) about “vinyl is back.” Where did it go? Absolutely nowhere! What we’re seeing has been going on in the indie/punk subculture for decades, only now it’s happening on a much larger, more visible scale. And though I don’t deny that there is an element of the status object to vinyl, I think for many consumers in this indie/punk scene, owning vinyl is a sociocultural and political statement as well – it is a statement of one’s allegiance to the subculture’s anti-mainstream values.

      • Eric on April 18, 2010 at 12:21 PM

        I actually got into vinyl through DJing electronic music in the 90s. Now most DJs use software to DJ off of a laptop. Some DJs still use CDJs, which are CD players that have a control that you can manipulate as if you were spinning a vinyl record.

        Vinyl started to fade from the electronic dance music scene in the early 00’s when computers started to become powerful enough to provide and process dual sound outputs. Now a vinyl record store is rare, and DJs who primarily play vinyl are often referred to as doing “a vinyl fetishist set.”

        As far as status symbols and being a “popular” thing to do, in past years I would go to a flea market and have people practically begging me to take their old records off their hands. Now it’s all gone very quickly and people are charging higher prices for their used records.

        The funny thing is most of the people I know who now have turntables with their stereos who didn’t a few years ago usually have USB turntables that will record the record directly to a computer. I guess they are hedging their bets.

      • Jonah on April 18, 2010 at 3:15 PM

        “I think for many consumers in this indie/punk scene, owning vinyl is a sociocultural and political statement as well – it is a statement of one’s allegiance to the subculture’s anti-mainstream values.”

        Maybe for “many,” but I don’t think this is a dominant theme in the current vinyl revival. Robert Christgau’s term “semi-popular” is useful here, since it doesn’t carry the political overtones that “subcultural” has picked up. The current vinyl revival seems to me to be a “semi-popular” phenomenon; I think that most of it has very little to do with “anti-mainstream values.” There are a number of themes that come up in the pro-vinyl discourse–display, “warmer” sound quality, appeal of the physical object–and some of them involve asserting a slight or contingent difference from a prevalent practice or value (after all, as Chris and I have noted, most young vinyl-purchasers are still rocking their MP3s most of the time). But translating that to “anti-mainstream values” strikes me as grandiose. Of course, maybe if you interviewed the people who are buying vinyl, that sort of grandiosity is what you’d get. But I suspect not in most cases.

        Also — I was a college-radio DJ in the 1990s (worst way to begin a paragraph _ever_!) at a time when “indie rock” was the bread-and-butter of such stations. As I recall, vinyl as a medium for new releases was not big, except for electronic music/dance, hip hop, and some very outré noise and experimental rock (where I think the affinity for vinyl probably does have some “oppositional” valence). And of course older albums were often sought, or only available, on vinyl.

        The majority of the DJs and hangers-on who listened to indie rock purchased it on CD. The major exception is 7″s, which retained considerable cachet, especially in the indie-pop world. The vast majority of new _album_ releases were sent to us on CD. I know that Matador, Drag City, etc. were still pressing vinyl at that point, but from my experience very, very few people –or fewer folks of college age — were buying indie rock in that format.

        It’s hard to translate these observations into generalizations. I think we’re roughly the same age, Andrew, so maybe your experience simply contrasts with mine. We probably need more numbers. But at least judging by the outsized presence of vinyl in record stores these days, there does seem to have been a difference of scale significant enough to approach a difference in kind. Or maybe that’s just relative to the CD…

  2. Jonah on April 17, 2010 at 5:04 PM

    Great piece. One thing I wonder about the so-called “vinyl revival” is to what extent has it attracted younger (early-mid 20s?) fans inclined to indie/etc. music. Has market research been done on the ages of vinyl consumers? Some of my students seem vaguely attracted to the idea of buying vinyl records, and a few of them even buy one on occasion. But — for them it seems more of a fashion accessory than the kind of deep-seated fetishism that would make this niche market sustainable over the long term. Maybe one idea of RSD is to try to foster (in addition to feed) this fetishism, but I think the battle is lost–to all but a few young folks, record stores probably seem decidedly “old-guy.”

    In “Jackie Brown,” which we watched in class a few weeks ago, there’s a scene where Robert Forster goes into a brightly-lit mall record store to pick out a Delfonics cassette. Tarantino has loud rap music blaring throughout the scene, which contrasts with the film’s otherwise nostalgic soundtrack and makes Forster seem like a fish out of water. But now the whole scene feels weirdly anachronistic–record stores like that don’t exist anymore, and if they did, you’d be more likely to find Robert Forster in there than the young folks swarming around him in the scene.

    Madison might not be the best way to judge all this, though. Maybe it’s because the record stores around here have an ossified feel, maybe it’s because we don’t have the requisite critical mass of hipsters, but I see way more young people in stores in Chicago than I do here.

    • Andrew Bottomley on April 21, 2010 at 11:44 AM

      Jonah, I don’t know any demographic sales data that would indicate who specifically is buying new vinyl records today; I’ve only seen the total SoundScan sales figures (and frankly, those are under-representative because many of the indie shops that sell vinyl don’t report to SoundScan – but that’s an entirely other discussion). And if anyone out there knows of any such market research, please chime in!

      But while you have a point that a large segment of the vinyl-buying market are “old guys” (like Forster’s Max Cherry character, or you and me at this point!) who are still clinging to a technology that they grew up with, I think there is a fairly large youth audience too (late teens and early ’20s). I work in the music industry, and I encounter college-age kids all the time who are deeply engaged with vinyl, much beyond the level of conspicuous consumption or purchasing just a record or two per year. Maybe there aren’t too many of them here in Madison, but they’re out there. I’m hesitant to draw conclusions too broadly from just anecdotal evidence, but I can say with some certainty that “kids” are buying vinyl. They may be a relatively small group, but hey, vinyl remains a niche product.

      If anything, the record stores (and labels, et al) already have the 30+ crowd on the hook. Sure, they’re probably hoping to draw some older folks that they lost along the way back into the vinyl fold. But more likely, I think something like Record Store Day exists to try and build up among younger audiences the attention for vinyl (and recorded music more broadly), as well as the romanticism and nostalgia for it. The record industry is trying to plant the seed of this fetishism in the next generation because, as you point out, it’s going to need the youth of today in order to sustain recorded music for the long term.

  3. Jonah on April 17, 2010 at 5:16 PM

    I posted my comment roughly at the same time as Christopher’s. He wrote: “One’s iPhone may contain all sorts of obscure content pertaining to a particular popular music subgenre, but this cannot easily be displayed. We still need material commodities that can objectify cultural capital so that it can be prominently displayed in bedrooms, living rooms, and offices.”

    The now-standard industry practice of selling a vinyl album and offering a free download with it seems to testify to this. The album (or more precisely its jacket) is for the purpose of display, while the MP3s are more likely to be listened to.

    It seems to me that this latest vinyl revival differs from the 1990s one associated with the rise of turntablism, in that somehow its cultural impact is lesser while the terms of its discourse are more mainstream. Your mention of “yacht rack” aside, it doesn’t seem to track as closely with the subcultural reappropriation and reevaluation of specific genres. That said, it’s interesting to consider some of the byways of this broader phenomenon — for example, the “new ethnomusicology” of Sublime Frequences, “True Vine,” or “Victrola Favorites” compilations, which try to convey the materiality of the old vinyl and shellac they collect via reproductions of deteriorating jackets or the retention of all the pops and crackles of the “original” 78s and 45s. The particular kind of connoisseurship or curatorial approach this implies is far from the “academic” approach taken by many earlier compilations, and seems–if not influenced, then at least broadly consonant with the terms of the new vinyl revival. Though maybe I’m just giving in to the human inclination to pattern recognition….

  4. eric on April 18, 2010 at 7:55 AM

    I am a big fan of vinyl. I have thousands of records and only a couple dozen CDs. I haven’t bought a CD since maybe 95.

    First of all I want to say that I think that MP3 sacrifices more than “a bit” of sound quality as one commenter above says. MP3 quality is attrocious. The only time I can stand to listen to it is as background noise – at the gym, when working on my computer, etc. If I’m actually actively listening to music I can hardly bear to listen to an MP3. FLAC is a different story, but they take up a lot of storage space.

    The vast majority of my records are older. I have a few new releases, but not many. I love the warm, full, analog sound. But with any new release the music has likely been digitally recorded, edited, mastered… The end result can only be as good as the worst step in the process. As recently as the 90s musicians were recording to tape. Now everything is done with computers. How can people claim that new vinyl still has the full analog sound when its digital music just pressed onto an analog media?

  5. Josh Shepperd on April 18, 2010 at 1:40 PM

    aww man, I can’t believe I missed record store day!

  6. Andrew Bottomley on April 21, 2010 at 11:04 AM

    I’m curious if anyone else caught the SNL Weekend Update segment on Record Store Day? What’d you think? Seems they caught on too that this is primarily an event to “celebrate vinyl records” (even if their concluding remark about the disappearance of record stores is a bit dismissive, albeit too true).

  7. Paul Jacobs on May 7, 2010 at 2:05 AM

    I recently pitted an old reel to reel player against a record player using 40+ year old material. The reel to reel sounded slightly better, but the tape broke mid way through. I imagine the vinyl will sound about the same in another 40 years. Records win out against all mediums. The 8-track tape was equalized in a very pleasing way, but the inferior foam that was placed behind the audio tape deteriorated after about 15 years and makes the tapes unplayable. Roughly 20% of my 8-track tape collection consists of tapes that utilized the far superior felt assembly, much like the type used on cassette tapes. Speaking of cassettes, they were destined to be tromped on and lost regardless of their purchasers affection. I was once shunned by my spouse for losing the cases to her tapes. That’s when I realized how much more I devalued those things which mattered to me more than her. And that statement made about as much sense as our marriage.
    Long live vinyl. It sounds better.It looks better, feels better, spins at the right looking speed, the covers change with the season and show age in a far more interesting way than a clear plastic scratched up case. I could go on, but I assure you my record collection will outlast me by a few centuries.