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Is Record Store Day Hurting Independent Labels?

Written by Tom Williams on April 19, 2014

Today, 19th April, is Record Store Day 2014, part of an annual initiative which helps promote independent record stores through exclusive releases, promotions and performances.

Yet, in the run up to this year’s event, some criticism has been leveled at the involvement of major labels and major indie labels, due to their larger financial backing and the increasing amount of material they’re putting out each and every Record Store Day.

A special report by The Quietus has investigated the struggles faced by independent labels as Record Store Day grows more and more popular, which have even led some to boycott the initiative despite its expected profitability.

The investigation notes that, despite the dwindling numbers of independent record stores in major cities, Record Store Day remains the most profitable day of the year. According to Spencer Hickman, UK co-ordinator of Record Store Day and former manager of Rough Trade East, the day is more profitable, in fact, than the entire week before Christmas.

One of the main criticisms of the initiative is the way major labels are increasing their participation. Rob Sevier of The Numero Group, a Chicago-based archival label, told Philadelphia Weekly back in 2011:

“We’re not upset with major labels for being major labels. What I’m not crazy about are the literally hundreds of pieces of shit being shoved into the marketplace on this day; products, for the most part, that no human needs to own, ever. The economy of Record Store Day is, ‘What can we shit into the form of a record and shove into the hands of the wanton masses?'”

On 14th March 2014, distribution company Kudos published a blog post explaining their frustrations at the initiative. They explained that vinyl pressing plants were prioritising Record Store Day releases, and often those from major labels, explaining that, “It feels like [Record Store Day] has been appropriated by major labels and larger indies to the extent that smaller labels who push vinyl sales for the other 364 days of the year are effectively penalised.”

The Quietus notes that space and budget concerns are also hurting smaller record stores, positing that they might not have enough space to hold all the Record Store Day releases, and that some stock they purchase isn’t acquired on a “sale-or-return” basis – it’s simply bought from the labels and then resold to customers. So despite the short boost Record Store Day brings, some stores don’t have the funds to buy stock from labels.

Hickman, who not only runs Record Store Day in the UK but also has his own label, Death Waltz Recording Company, told The Quietus: “I am fully aware of the issues and this year it has seemed a lot more difficult. It puts a huge strain on the industry and it probably puts that strain on the part of the industry that has the least amount of money.”

Hickman is also worried that the day has lost sense of its purpose. “I loved Record Store Day because it was about celebrating the culture that I grew up in and around,” he said. “But, for me, this year feels like the first time it’s been entirely driven by capitalism. I say that on behalf of myself. It now feel like it’s not celebrating the culture of the record store and why they’re so good; it’s about the releases.”

So how can this situation be fixed? Hickman suggests that Record Store Day Organisers could regulate the releases more closely. “Should we have a committee to decide what gets released, and who would be on that committee?” he asks.

“Independent record shops are by nature independent – they all sell different things,” he continued. “One store might sell 500 copies of a Bob Dylan record; another might not even order it or want it. It’s impossible to make a rule for them all.”

Hickman also made clear that he’s not pessimistic about the involvement of major labels, praising Warner Brothers for producing “some of the best and most interesting releases on the schedule”, but stated that things “can get watered down” when major labels don’t think through what might get left on the shelves, especially “unnecessary reissues”.

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