Record Store Day is thriving – but could it kill our independent shops?

What began as an event for indie labels and stores to flourish has been hijacked by major labels. Now, shops and customers suffer jacked-up prices, says Sonic Cathedral label boss, Nathaniel Cramp

Record Store Day at Rough Trade East in London. Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris/Frantzesco Kangaris for The Guardian

Last week, after people had had enough time to digest the 587 releases on this year’s Record Store Day list, my label, Sonic Cathedral, joined forces with Bristol agent provocateurs Howling Owl to issue a cryptic and poetic statement about a new joint release. It would feature Spectres and Lorelle Meets the Obsoletecovering each others’ songs – and we weren’t releasing it for RSD. Instead, we announced we were going to release one copy per day, every day, for the next year via It was a light-hearted way of making a point that every day should be record store day; the logistics – such as realising 2016 was a leap year – could come later.

The next day, I clarified the thinking behind the release with a post on the Sonic Cathedral website. I pointed out that this was not a protest against record shops, or the notion of RSD, but at what the latter has become – just another marketing opportunity for established bands such as Mumford and Sons and U2, and an excuse for major labels to dump a year’s worth of back catalogue reissues and A-ha picture discs on unsuspecting shops.

We got called “misguided, entitled wankers”, among other things, but the most ridiculous criticism was yesterday’s high-handed and patronising statement by Kim Bayley of RSD organisers the Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA), who completely missed the point, suggesting we had done all of this as a “publicity stunt” to promote a single, without realising that the single itself is the protest.

She said that it was “objectionable” how Sonic Cathedral and Howling Owl had “misrepresented one of the most beneficial new-music promotions of the past two decades”. This was before she went on to take full credit for the vinyl revival, the growth in independent record shops and engaging a whole new generation of music fans without actually addressing any of the issues we had raised.

We know that RSD is not a day for indie labels to make money – the piles of unsold singles from Sonic Cathedral’s 2011 release gathering dust in my son’s bedroom and the money lost on Howling Owl’s various unofficial protest pressings are testament to this. But it shouldn’t be focused on the product at all; RSD should be all about the shops and their roles in the communities they serve. The clue, as Kim Bayley so helpfully pointed out to us, is in the name.

To that end I emailed about 50 record shops around the UK to explain what we were doing with our release, and offered them free copies to sell at some point over the next year. The response surprised me. With one exception, all were on our side, and perhaps more worryingly for ERA, many expressed their frustration with, or downright hatred of, RSD.

Understandably so: RSD stock is offered by distributors on terms known as “firm sale”, which means that the shops can’t return it and have to pay up front, and they order high, in the hope that they will get the sought-after items, knowing their orders will probably be cut back. The dealer prices are also higher than normal – this year’s reissue of The White Stripes’ hardly essential Get Behind Me Satan (featuring former RSD ambassador Jack White) cost shops a ludicrous £25 per copy. As a result, it’s all too easy to go over budget.

“You can spend many thousands more than you’d like,” one shop owner told me. “Then your profit is tied up in the records that haven’t sold. A small shop could feasibly sell everything on the day and pay its rent for a year, but it could drive a shop out of business.”

Other stores said their regular customers felt alienated by the prices and the queues and now avoid RSD; some wished that any benefits could be spread across the whole year; others expressed a desire to opt out, but couldn’t afford to lose the sales; another said they had already opted out because they could no longer afford to buy stock in the first place.

The knock-on effect is just as dramatic: with shops’ budgets eaten up, they are much more reluctant to order releases in the run-up to, or immediately after, RSD.

Last year I made the mistake of releasing two albums the month before; this year Spectres’ debut album Dying (released in February) has sold out on vinyl, but we have to wait until the end of April for a repress, because pressing plants are constipated with, among other things, a “deluxe” vinyl version of the U2 album that Bono already shat into our iTunes last year.

Everyone wants to see record shops flourishing, but more than just once a year. If RSD works for some people, then that’s great (shameless, eBay-flipping scumbags aside), but the reaction to our small and good-natured protest suggests that the problems run a lot deeper than we even thought, and the response from the organisers didn’t do them any favours at all.

Record Store Day might not be dying just yet, but to simply dismiss any reasoned criticism of it as “misrepresentation”? Give us a break.

This article is from the Guardian website


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