Some Things to Consider on Record Store Day

As I begin to write the following, I’m listening to Alive!. Not the KISS album… this 1972 LP by the Chuck Mangione Quartet is, actually, a decidedly far cry from “Strutter”. Not something I necessarily would have picked up blind, this: Mangione, most known for his 1977 hit “Feels So Good”, generally plays a little too smooth for these ears, so I doubt I would have listened to it by my own volition. I heard it, and came to really like it, only because I had the excellent fortune of working at a used record store.

I worked at Encore Records in Ann Arbor, Michigan for five years. It wasn’t a perfect job, but it’s still the best I’ve had. All told, working at Encore was a dream come true: I’d wanted to work there for eight years before I managed to get in, and longed to work in a record store for years before that.

While I got into record collecting initially to impress the Nirvana-obsessed girls in my middle school, it wasn’t long before I’d gone far beyond their knowledge and obsession levels. No girls were impressed by this accrual of knowledge until much later (and even then..!), of course, but at least I had something to distract myself in the interim. Records and music became an essential part of my life from there on in.

Years before my working at Encore, I cut my teeth by going to a record store in Kalamazoo called Flipside Records. Flipside is where I first learned to love digging: they never had exactly what I came in for (I would go to the far inferior Music Express for that), but they always had something I wanted. Their not having whatever new “emo” record I wanted lead me to check out The Outsiders (the Dutch band, not the “Time Won’t Let Me” guys); their not having any good Ramones CDs put me in a position to buy something by The Weirdos. When they closed in 2001, I was practically in mourning.

The potential for discovery, free of the internet’s algorithms and “logical” aesthetic connections, remains the thing I treasure most about record stores. Digging has, in fact, long outstripped my interest in keeping: when I moved to Portland last fall, I surrendered most of my record collection with almost no regrets (I’ll admit that, lately, I very much miss having a copy of Alex Chilton’s Like Flies on Sherbert, one of the finest drunk-rock LPs to ever pass through my hands. MP3s, in this case, just aren’t the same). After this major purge, it came into stark contrast that record collecting, for me, wasn’t about having a lot of records, but learning about a lot of records. Possessing the records was an almost superfluous element of the hobby.

I understand that not everyone feels this way. However, it is primarily this feeling that fuels my extreme skepticism towards the growing phenomenon of Record Store Day.

Don’t get me wrong: anything that gets more people into record stores is at least somewhat of a good thing (they ARE an endangered species, after all). In the digital age, the face of the record store needed to grow and change, since its primary service has ceased to be relevant outside of a niche market. Record Store Day’s semi-official recognition, however dubious, helped raise the community profile of a lot of stores. A lot of my friends have also benefited in their careers as musicians, artists, and the like, thanks in part to Record Store Day. That’s all great news.

At what cost, though? Why, to appreciate record stores, must we create a manufactured collector market around “limited” vinyl reissues (often of records readily available used and/or in formats more sympathetic to the means of recording) and ephemeral gewgaws? In changing the reasons people come into record stores, are we really appreciating them for what they are?

I can say unequivocally that Record Store Day, as it currently stands, has absolutely nothing to do with anything I like about record stores. Aside from the aforementioned thrill of discovery, I frequent used record stores largely because they decrease the amount of unnecessary waste associated with enjoying recorded music. De-emphasizing new product in favor of pre-owned items, preventing perfectly good records from going into the trash heap, makes the hobby environmentally friendly, almost noble (almost).

Used record stores also put distance between you and “tastemaking” corporate overlords. This is not to say that one will never buy any major label “classics” at a used store (at this point, I’d guess that about 40% of my small LP collection originated from major or semi-major labels… 45s are another story for another time). It only means that there will be less opportunity to have these sounds shoved down your throat. At a good used store, any such records will likely be placed democratically within stacks that contain a wide variety of potential discoveries, many from outside the mainstream hegemony. Looking for Grand Funk Railroad? Maybe you’ll discover The Godz! Looking for Mariah Carey? You could accidentally stumble upon James Carr! Looking for Paul Winter records? Whoops, you just bought a Wolf Eyes LP instead!

It’s also worth noting that, on a dollars-and-cents level, used records are simply better for small businesses than the current flood of reissues which RSD does more than anybody to encourage. The markup on new records is usually 150-200%, at best (as I recall, it’s especially low for RSD releases, which are basically loss leaders… but don’t quote me on that). Used records rarely have a markup of less than 200%, and can reach as high as 1000% or more. I have never regretted selling a record to a used record store for less than its worth… the money the shop makes helps keep a venue for discovery afloat!

Here’s something: what if the larger organizations with a vested interest in Record Store Day, instead of “helping” record stores by flooding them with superfluous product (a Muppet Movie soundtrack reissue? Great record and all, but you can find it used almost anywhere) and creating an artificial collector frenzy, created a financial pool that record stores could pull from in times of desperate need? Why don’t they take out ad campaigns in major publications and websites, extolling the virtues of record stores, maybe focusing each ad on a different superlative store from around the world? Why not fund a project that essentially makes some of these stores into public institutions like libraries, cutting out the capitalist bullshit element entirely?

Why not do something, anything, that actually helps in a sustainable way?

The answer to this question is obvious: because the major RSD players are businessmen who don’t really give a rat’s ass about record stores, except as a venue for hawking their garbage, giving them license to produce and sell more. Anything positive that’s actually happened for good record stores is just trickle-down.

Record stores ARE essential in our culture. The good ones will remain so for years to come, because there are still countless worthwhile discoveries to be made within their walls. Please consider appreciating them, and (much more importantly) frequenting them, for just that.

 

PS: If you need a palate cleanser after this article, check out Jonathan Toubin’s take on RSD in Time Out NY. It expresses much the same sentiment, but in a way that is admittedly a lot more fun.

Dustin Krcatovich is a cartoonist, writer, designer, founder of FM DUST, and a collector of certain curios and ephemera (with a focus on 20th century "junk culture"). His writing and illustration work appears frequently in The Quietus, Tiny Mix Tapes, and Esquire's Culture Blog. He is also a former editor and contributor to Secret Zen Garden,Saagara's illustrated mindfulness/wellness blog for young people. He currently resides in Portland, OR.

3 Comments

  1. floppycrow

    20.04.14 at 2:14 am

    I’m diggin’ this tune! And I only came to it because I saw my comic in the header photo. You tricky bastid!

    • Dustin Krcatovich

      20.04.14 at 7:03 pm

      BWAHAHAHAHAHA! When you were the first person to “like” this post on Facebook, I suspected as much. Marketing tip #1: ALWAYS APPEAL TO THE EGO

  2. Sujit

    18.04.15 at 6:48 pm

    I pine for a world where the unsuspecting go into a record shop looking for a copy of Wolf Parade and come out with the complete Wolf Eyes discography.

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