Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Ugly Side of Record Store Day

By Evan Rytlewski
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Luke Lavin's shop, Bull's Eye Records, is among the independent music stores that won't be celebrating Record Store Day this year.

"I came to the decision to treat Record Store Day like Valentine's Day, as a made-up holiday that doesn't exist," Lavin says. "I may have some refreshments here and may have a small sale to say thanks to our customers, but since we celebrate records every day of the year here we don't need to do anything different."

It's a sentiment I've heard expressed by a few record store owners since Record Store Day launched last year, especially those who are frustrated with the economics behind the otherwise widely lauded annual event, for which bands release limited-edition, Record Store Day-only singles and LPs. These rare releases are valued by music fans but can be a headache for store owners, who have limited control over which of these releases they'll receive and actually risk taking a hit if they're unable to sell them.

"Really, I'm not sure that the best way to service music is to make it hard for fans to get it," Lavin says, "and I'm not sure that the best way to help record stores is to make them order these rare releases by small bands where if they don't 100% sell out the store loses money."

And that's the irony of Record Store Day. It's at once a celebration of everything wonderful about independent music stores (the community interaction, the support of local music) and everything abhorrent about the collect-and-horde model of music consumerism that ran rampant before the Internet reshaped the market (the exclusivity, the way it fuels a black market for rare releases at inflated prices, etc.)

While we all lament how the Internet has decimated independent music shops, wiping out irreplaceable institutions like Atomic Records, the truth is its done a lot of good, too, making music more widely available at much more reasonable prices. I like not having to pay $25 for a Nirvana import that sounds like hell, or a Phish bootleg the band wants to give away for free anyway. I'll never forget buying, from a fairly short-lived and long-defunct CD store near UWM, a $20 VHS in the mid-'90s that compiled two Dinosaur Jr. shows—the first was a fleeting, inaudible set filmed like the Blair Witch Project; the second was by a band that was not, as advertised, Dinosaur Jr. Twenty bucks down the drain for the type of thing YouTube now makes free. The truth is music consumers were being taken advantage of back then, and Record Store Day, with its limited edition releases that end up on eBay at inflated prices within hours, romanticizes that "you'll buy it because it's rare" model.

It should go without saying, though, that this is not to detract from local Record Store Day celebrations at Rush-Mor Records and the Exclusive Company, both of which have planned grand, community-oriented blow-outs with some of the city's best musicians, partnering with local institutions (including Bay View's small music venues and 91.7 WMSE, 88.9 Radio Milwaukee and FM 102.1) while downplaying the significance of limited-edition collectibles. Record Store Day is undeniably good-intentioned event; it's just one that feeds some unflattering instincts.

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