Record Store Day's Rising Tide Has No End in Sight

Record Store Day returns to the nation's music retailers tomorrow, so if you're the sort of person who only buys a handful of LPs or CDs a year -- assuming you still buy physical music product at all -- you may want to hold off until sometime next week. In just six short years, this unofficial holiday of sorts has achieved a significance among the music-loving public somewhere between Christmas and Flag Day, probably much closer to the former. As a cultural phenomenon, it's definitely reached critical mass.

This year Warner Bros. Records sent out an email to the media, saying (in part), "we feel that's it's our civic duty to remind you of what Warner Bros. Records has literally in-store for you." (Ouch.) That would be the raison d'etre of Record Store Day, the carefully curated limited-edition releases parceled out a few at a time to the approximately 1,000 participating retailers, which most commonly take on the form of deluxe 180-gram vinyl prizes like a 5-LP LCD Soundsystem Live at Madison Square Garden set or a blue-colored pressing of Jay Z and Linkin Park's 2004 Collision Course collaboration. But it could also be a My Chemical Romance "coffin" T-Shirt, for the fortunate few lucky enough to score one.

Photo by Jim Bricker
Cactus Music GM Quinn Bishop (left) and Will Van Horn of Robert Ellis' band at Ellis' Cactus in-store last month
Some of these RSD runs can number in the thousands, while others may be as rare as 100 or even 50 pieces strong. Tasked with ordering all these items and logging them into his system are people like Cactus Music general manager Quinn Bishop, who estimates the number of RSD-exclusive releases will reach an astounding 450 (or thereabouts) this year. Bishop says the event has been growing "exponentially," to the point where stores like his are especially noticing how thin the RSD stock is beginning to be spread.

REWIND: Houston's Top 10 Record Stores 2014

"We were an early adopter and a strong supporter of the event from the get-go, when not many people were supporting it," he says. "Now there's so many stores that embrace it that it actually makes it more difficult for us to grow. Everybody participates, everybody orders stuff, and it's harder for us to get what we order...but we still get a mountain of stuff."

Photo courtesy of Webster PR
A limited-edition 7-inch with two songs from Dolly Parton's new album Blue Smoke is one of Record Store Day 2014's high-profile exclusive releases.
The RSD campaign came along at a time when it looked like there was no ceiling to digital-music sales but physical retailers -- especially of the independent small-business variety -- were on shaky ground. Interestingly, Rocks Off happened to talk to Bishop one morning last week when he was going over first-quarter 2014 sales figures; he noted that both digital and physical sales were both down some 20 percent, which he attributes to the rise of streaming services like Pandora and Spotify. (Encouragingly, he said that Cactus had bucked both trends and posted an increase.)

The other threat to music retailers came from the so-called "big box" model of superstores that sell everything from truck tires to turnips, but that has lessened somewhat in recent years as those stores have drastically eliminated shelf space devoted to music. It's just as well to someone like Bishop, who notes that CD sales still number in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually and says he's noticed more and more customers looking to buy their music somewhere that actually appreciates it.

"The thing that would always bug me about Target or Best Buy or those kind of places is the white noise when you're in there," he reckons. "You're hearing where they're selling the TVs, and there's overhead music, and there's feature films blaring from one TV, there's gaming stuff from the gaming station, and it's just not conducive to a [record-buying] experience."

By comparison, "you come in our store and yesterday we were playing Miles Davis, and Fat Tony was playing an En Vogue record," he adds. "You know, that's cool."

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