Music Features

RSD2013 - Is it fit for purpose?

I must emphasise that I don’t want to write an anti-Record Store Day piece. I love the idea of revitalising record stores, and I dread to think of them ever disappearing from our city centres. But, I was sorely disappointed with my day last year. The queue was big and it was great to see and chat with so many music fans gathered in one place, but I spent three and a half hours waiting, watching the queue progressing not only when people got in and out of the store, but almost as often when people in front of me left the queue – many simply dropped out having become thoroughly fed up, some left when they saw the earlier birds leaving the shop with the last remaining copies of their choice purchases, even after a couple of hours of queuing. And I remember spending a lot of my time in that queue thinking about just how different RSD could be.

RSD exists not so much for music lovers as for lovers of records. This is ok, and the first ought to entail the second, but I have countless friends who love music and haven’t bought physical music in years. And this is what RSD ostensibly works towards – getting more people out to their local record shops and buying physical music. At the moment, though, there’s no way I would recommend RSD to one of these friends.

It’s a shame that we now have Spotify ads telling us that their piddling royalty fees are the same as supporting artists, and it’s a shame that buying records at shops is increasingly seen as a duty (almost like “doing your bit” for the dying music industry). RSD is pure commodity fetishism (now that we have instant access to the art contained on the records), but a strange and inaccessible form of fetishism exclusive to those who romanticise the outdated technology of vinyl. It’s hard to see outsiders getting into this, and I feel like it’d do RSD a lot of favours to expand into more formats (at the very least, they could include more CD releases). For example, I’ve bought albums from Polyvinyl Records as download codes included with other types of merch – my copy of Always by Xiu Xiu is a t-shirt, and while this may irk purists, I reckon it’s a positive direction for the physical format.

Yet RSD sticks cloyingly to vinyl, a steadily growing nostalgic phenomenon that is likely to alienate most kids who’ve grown up with the internet at their fingertips. I love vinyl and I enjoy music the most when I’m listening to it on vinyl, but I admit that it’s an inaccessible medium. At the moment, it’s really expensive, and turntable equipment is potentially a considerable investment.

But perhaps the main problem is the releases themselves. As it stands, most RSD releases are limited-edition runs of music by famous, established musicians, and are often fancy reissues. In weirdly insular record collector circles, they’re very lucrative items, the kind that will someday end up being auctioned off for astronomical amounts of money. It’s hardly surprising that the earliest RSD queuers (4am was last year’s record for my local shop) tend to be the people who ruin it by posting everything they lay their hands on to eBay for extortionate profits before the afternoon is over.

But I won’t waste my time complaining about how these people are spoiling the fun. It’s an inevitable fact of RSD as it stands, and they’re well within their rights to do that, unfortunately. Instead, my humble suggestion is that RSD stops centring itself around limited edition releases altogether.

It seems to me like these exclusive, expensive collectors’ items only make record stores seem austere, insular, and ultimately obsolete. It pains me to say this because I love record stores and I love records. I understand why some fans want something special as a piece of memorabilia. But it’s frustrating that the “true fans” will have to either turn up at 4am, or shell out way above the RRP on eBay, to prove their fandom. That’s not what music fandom should ever be about. And herein lies RSD’s central contradiction: it seeks to include more people in record store culture, yet it does that by producing exclusive releases – inclusion by means of exclusion. If demand meets or exceeds supply, well, perhaps the record itself won’t be as “special”, but it doesn’t change how good the music is.

Last year, Domino Records/Ribbon Music’s Smugglers Way release seemed like a step in the right direction: five multi-coloured flexidisc singles featuring unreleased tracks from Dirty Projectors, Cass McCombs, John Maus, Real Estate, and Villagers, plus a 24-page zine featuring art and creative writing from several Domino/Ribbon artists. This seemed to me like the sort of thing they could make quite a lot of and sell quite cheaply; after all, flexidiscs started off as an inexpensive way to provide free gifts in magazines. But Smugglers Way was simply far too expensive – they still haven’t sold out, and copies online are currently retailing at £16.

Generally, RSD has a tendency to keep their RRPs a secret until the big day, hiding the fact of escalating vinyl prices as much as possible. I have no idea why vinyl is so expensive, especially as it’s started to come back in a big way, but I find it very disappointing that £7 for a 7” single seems to be the norm for RSD releases – it’s even more expensive than usual to buy music on RSD. The added effect of this is that nobody discovers new music through it. Perhaps, for instance, Nicolas Jaar’s 12” single of Grizzly Bear/Brian Eno remixes might reach some interesting audience crossover points, but if I’m right in guessing it’ll cost upwards of £10, the 600 people who get their hands on one aren’t exactly going to be casual punters.

The best thing I bought last year was a charity compilation LP of Nottingham bands on white vinyl, for the Framework homeless charity. It featured some great tracks from bands I knew (We Show Up On Radar, Spaceships Are Cool) and new stuff I hadn’t heard before (Starr & Roosevelt and Souvaris were two highlights), and at only £10 for a good cause, it just seemed like exactly the type of thing RSD should be aiming towards – especially because I actually heard some new music through it.

So in my opinion, it’s RSD’s emphasis upon exclusivity that is the root of its problems – the queues, the prices, the eBay dickheads, and perhaps most counter-intuitively of all, the fact that it doesn’t introduce people to new music. If you’re a physical music naysayer looking to change your ways, I’d probably recommend heading down to your local record store day on any day other than Record Store Day – it feels to me like the day which is supposed to help revitalise physical formats just serves as an example of how much of a waste of time and money they can be.