Who Really Wins on Record Store Day?

As major labels seek to game the system, a battle over perception overwhelms independents and pressing plants

The fire and spirit of independent music and DIY culture was forged on the culture of the major label feeder system — music that was made with an alternative audience in mind (before the idea was co-opted for-profit by major labels).

Yet there is little value in being an independent — Nero fiddling as the ruins of the major labels burn. The battle is not about the music anymore, but about perception. If you haven’t been paying attention to the free-for-all din of pop stars invading network television and pseudo-awards branded by millennial cable channels, major labels are dying. Loudly.

(I don’t mean to pick on Jeremy Bible or his distro, Experimedia. In fact, I’m a fan — otherwise this would not have shown up in my Twitter feed.)

All that stands is a turned over Necropolis where major labels have to troll their extensive back catalogues to find beneficial and sustainable profit. The days of a roster full of plucky talent propped up by a handful of pop megastars earning big bucks has faded. Artists are finding more freedom outside the system, and those who still cling tightly to the major label bosom will soon outgrow their usefulness until their canon becomes the fuel for another fire sale.

The arms race on music has long been won by independent labels and bands. The control wrestled away from major labels has led to a revolution aided by emerging technology. Yet there are still wars waging over old tech: the record.

When file sharing ran rampant, the bands and labels that benefited in the old system fought back, but their gains were temporary. As major labels began to abandon the old media, independents started to take back the archaic in the form of CD-Rs, vinyl and cassette tapes.

In the aftermath, record stores — both commercial chains and independent mom and pops — suffered. Online distributors found new audiences and exposure, reigniting the DIY fires. Major labels stuck to their corner of youth commerce, and independent labels found strength in using new tech to sell old tech.

And then Record Store Day came…

(Labels Howling Owl and Sonic Cathedral color the consequences of Record Store Day on their enterprise)

The first Record Store Day occurred in 2008. It was a quiet affair — ten special releases, a mix of major and independent bands compiling lesser known material on vinyl. Metallica were the unofficial ambassadors of the day, embracing the crowds who had turned to once-dormant formats as they waged war on their preferred format nearly a decade earlier.

Seven iterations later, it turns out major labels are surviving on the very formats they could not wait to toss in the 1980s. Yet Record Store Day was a success for everything independent — so long as they were a part of the event. Record stores often fund a years’ worth of operational costs thanks to the sales generated on Record Store Day. Eager collectors and adventurous fans stumble upon new favorites in their Black Friday-like frenzies to buy whatever is available in their store and on their budget.

However, Record Store Day not only presented a vinyl arms races on already strapped (and few) record pressing plants, it spoke to the very real problem of perception versus reality.

Kim Bayley, a representative for the Entertainment Retailers Association, recently responded to the accusations levied by Sonic Cathedral and Howling Owl:

The demand on the few record pressing plants still in existence has become the latest battleground between what’s left of major labels and the independent survivalists. The rising demand for more titles and bigger crowds has led to Record Store Day fatigue in pressing plants. In fact, plants are likely already fat on 2016 Record Store Day releases, even if the acknowledged 10 percent decline in product this year from 2014 continues as some odd form of quality control.

But this is a battle beyond independent versus major; the term “independent” itself is under attack. Experimedia is just one of many distros “certain” music fans frequent (Forced Exposure, Mimaroglu, Norman, and Boomkat are some of the more popular ones). Howling Owl and Sonic Cathedral represent hundreds of small or underground labels that are fighting for a slice of an increasingly segmented market share. They do not operate under the same budget as major labels, nor do they possess the media liaisons and marketing influence of the Entertainment Retailers Association.

And that’s where the real battles in this drummed up debacle are being waged. The issue is about resource scarcity, but it’s just a weapon in the perception war. Though Bayley and the Entertainment Retailers Association can rightfully claim that three out of every four Record Store Day releases are in fact by independent labels, the word “independent” itself has evolved in the nearly five decades since the dominance of major labels.

The distributors and labels that fancy themselves as truly independent, are found championing limited releases from labels that are not independent in the same vein of Sub Pop, Merge and Matador.

Those are success stories in a landscape of small labels that press 50, 100, 500 copies because it’s all they can afford or all the audience share they have managed to win thus far. They are independent labels, but in the greater scheme of things, they are far removed from what the term “independent” has come to represent.

Yet Howling Owl and Sonic Cathedral don’t speak for all these sub-independent labels that believe they are left out in the cold. North Carolina based Three Lobed is issuing a limited run of an upcoming collaboration between Neil Hagerty (Royal Trux, The Howling Hex) and James Toth (Wooden Wand). Badman Recording Company is issuing music from Mark Kozelek. Burger Records will have a few offerings as well.

Chuck D of Public Enemy in support of Record Store Day in 2014

Kim Bayley’s statement, however prodding and mean-spirited (going so far as to insinuate the Howling Owl/Sonic Cathedral statement was a publicity stunt, even if it was), did key in on the one truth we all accept as participants or protesters of Record Store Day: It’s a day to benefit independent record stores.

And much like major labels, record store chains have crumbled in the post-Napster music business, while plucky independent shops have begun to find and nurture niche markets locally as well as globally. Many record stores involved in the one-day frenzy will tell you that RSD often covers the costs of the staff in the sales and traffic they generate throughout the day. And if you’re too naive or stubborn to believe that non-RSD albums are not being purchased throughout the day, you are choosing to be blind to the real success story of the event, however flawed.

What Sonic Cathedral, Howling Owl, Kim Bayley, Experimedia and others miss is the toxicity they spread by battling over a day that, for most music fans, is a fun way to interact with their community and music-loving neighbors. Many stores host all-day events that are not so much about moving merchandise and limited records so much as celebrations of local musicians and scenes that may not have this audience the other 364 days of the year.

Yes, there needs to be lip service paid to what constitutes an underground label vs an independent label vs a major label, but it’s unfair to punish successful independent labels for their success. It’s unfair to music fans to be a petulant, angry small label that will not participate because “we can’t compete.” RSD is not a competition. The lack of pressing plants should not devolve into a competition.

For all the concern over the means in which major labels continue to try to game the system in their favor, bickering over semantics is not going to do independent labels and record stores any favors.

If the lack of pressing plants are the problem, let’s take back some of that old-fashioned do-it-yourself attitude and eliminate one of the hurdles that seems to make some labels feel they cannot successfully navigate RSD (or Cassette Store Day, Black Friday, et al). It is hard work, and considering the instant gratification culture we have wrought, it will take time to make a positive change.

Rather than being the snot-nosed label throwing lighter fluid on the already burning rubble, how about grabbing an extinguisher and salvaging what can be used. Boycott the major label releases. Diminish the return from record flippers on the collector’s market by not paying exorbitant prices. Be proactive in creating the change you want to see happen around vinyl pressing, vinyl sales and RSD. If it’s to truly be a celebration of all things independent in music, it’s time to stop putting definitions around what and who is independent.

This is not the battle to wage during RSD. The event should be taken to task for its real faults (creating a mob mentality about supply versus demand, cashing in on round after round of reissues, not doing its due diligence to help independent record stores during the rest of the year, not making it easier for small labels to get involved), not made up culture wars that feed into our already divided “us vs them” world.

Now if you’ll excuse me, a nice man in red just sold me a fiddle and told me to get in line at 6 a.m. to play it.

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Follow Justin Spicer on Twitter: @justinbspicer
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