Record Store Day – An Ambivalent Ramble Pt.3

So, like many of the intermediaries in the music industry, I think I’ve established that my feelings about record shops can be a little mixed.  The question of record shops is, of course, a little silly.  It’s like asking whether or not we should try and preserve music festivals, with the obvious answer being: ‘well yeah, but not the shit ones’.

Part 1: Record Shops – The Bad News
Part 2: Record Shops – The Good News
Part 3: Record Store Day

But, wondering about the future of record shops aside, I wouldn’t have even thought to question Record Store Day itself, had it not been for a couple of interesting posts querying it recently.  Friends of mine Knox Road wrote a piece recently being critical of the distribution methods used and, more interestingly from my perspective, the sudden inflation of exclusivity culture.

This was followed by a swift rebuttal on We Listen For You, which included an interesting comment from Matt Picasso, who writes You Ain’t No Picasso, one of the oldest and most respected music blogs around and who seems to universally acknowledged as a lovely guy by all who know him.  Not that being nice makes him right of course, but while generally I sway toward the argument he and WLFY were making, I also have some sympathy for the arguments offered in the Knox Road post.

Record Store Day this year has been absolutely beset with anyone and everyone throwing together all sorts of limited run releases.  The idea, I suppose, is to generate scarcity and drive people down to record shops in their hundreds to snap up these precious things.  Things which, as one Twitter wag said, we usually wouldn’t pay more than a fiver for on the other 364 days of the year.

This kind of artificial scarcity kind of irritates me, frankly.  Song, by Toad Records make short runs of things, not because we are trying to generate false demand, but because we are genuinely nervous of over-stretching ourselves financially, so this sort of contrived stuff kind of gets on my nerves.  Also, ever since the CD bubble burst in the early 2000s, the music industry has been hysterically grasping after one imaginary cash cow after another.  For a while it was live revenues, and now I am sort of worried it might be collectors, vinyl and special editions.

The problem with this is that prices get driven up, everyone gets a bit carried away and then everything calms down shortly afterwards, and we go back to trying to find the next saviour.  The people who suffer are the fans, who get over-charged (hello LiveNation) and the bands, who in this case get bad material released or good material wasted on limited run novelties.

Now, as a music fan, I love collectable editions and will always pay for them but I don’t like this kind of rarity being so contrived.  It just bugs me.  And also, as the Knox Road article also points out it is also, most notably in the bigger markets, in danger of creating a eBay profiteering gold rush.  This benefits no-one except a shower of cynical wankers.

This kind of artificial scarcity does, in my opinion, and to contradict Matt Picasso, punish fans.  It effectively turns us all into scrabbling retards, like those idiots who queue outside Harrods for the Winter sales.  The plodding, workaday determined music fans are the people who have kept bands, shops and labels afloat while everyone else buggered off to illegal download sites and I think they deserved to be treated with a bit more respect, honestly.

Having said all that, though, I still think Record Store Day is a really good thing.  I’d like to see these silly special editions dialled back a bit, but I’ve been encouraging artists to be looser and less precious about recordings for a while now, so I am aware of being a bit hypocritical on that topic.

But Record Store Day should get people back into music shops, and I really hope that will end up reinforcing a few things.

Firstly, the social nature of music. Albeit this is usually in the style of ‘slyly eyeing up someone else’s purchases and judging them harshly’, but there’s something nice about the awkward glances and occasionally brilliant conversations you can get into in a record shop.  It’s like seeing the same person at three consecutive half-empty gigs – you know that you two have something pretty fundamentally in common which it is abundantly clear no-one else understands.

Secondly, the physical nature of music. Committed music fans have slowly made it clear that even the all you can eat nature of downloading, legal or otherwise, isn’t really enough for someone who really cares about this stuff.  People surround themselves with useless shit all the time – non-functional trinkets, books they will never re-read – and music fans like to surround themselves with physical artifacts.  The act of shopping for records is a part of that – an active extension of the fact that we like mementoes and collections of things which tell us and others who we are.

And thirdly, that at the independent level, we should be all on the same team. I don’t lament the loss of a lot of labels, promoters, shops or even bands who thought they’d get into music to get rich and/or famous.  The arts, for all some talented people do make money, are generally best suited to be toiled in by the talented and exploited by the cynical, and it’s pretty rare that the two types overlap.  But at the grass-roots, DIY level we should really all be in this for one reason only: we don’t really know how not to be.

Something like Record Store Day, for all its flaws, brings bands, shops, labels, fans and promoters together in a shared enterprise which should hopefully remind a few of us to look beyond our own narrow, personal issues, which is easy enough to do when the work is this overwhelming, and remember that we really are all part of the same basic project and one person’s problems affect us all.