Retail

The ‘A’ And ‘B’ Sides Of Record Store Day

This past Saturday (April 16) marked the ninth annual occurrence of Record Store Day, a celebration — which began in 2008 — dedicated to bringing attention (and sales) to thousands of independent record stores worldwide.

In the current century that has seen tactile forms of music (be they CD or vinyl; we can all agree that cassette tapes are gone forever) be overtaken by digital in consumer popularity, representing a massive change in the business model of music retail at large, Record Store Day might be personified as something of a collective stance against that trend by those merchants and consumers alike that believe in the “old ways” — particularly as they relate to the ownership and listening experience of the vinyl format.

While the annual event — which most recently saw independent record shops around the world participate with sales, exclusives, album re-issues and live performances by bands (including Metallica at Rasputin Music in Berkeley, California) — cannot likely be credited entirely for the resurgence in popularity of vinyl, it’s fair to say that Record Store Day came along at the right time.

As Fortune notes, in recent years, the richer sonic texture that vinyl offers coalesced with a wave of nostalgia among consumers to drive sales of vinyl records up 32 percent to $416 million in 2015, their highest level since 1988, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). That number also outpaces the $385 million earned last year from ad-supported streaming services, like YouTube, Vevo and (the free version of) Spotify.

In that context, Record Store Day could be perceived as a success for the “little guys” — i.e., independently owned, brick-and-mortar retail shops — in their competition for consumer traffic and dollars with corporately backed and wide-reaching outfits, such as Apple’s iTunes, that dominate the ever-growing digital space of music retail.

Befitting the physical nature of vinyl records themselves, we might call that the ‘A’ side of the event.

Accordingly, though, there may be a ‘B’ side — AKA a downside — with some in the retail music industry arguing that Record Store Day isn’t as good for the “little guy” as it might appear.

For one thing, the event is not simply a “sell-as-they-wish” opportunity for record stores. More than an annually celebrated moniker, Record Store Day (RSD), as Reverb points out, is an organization that decides what stores can participate in the event and controls the exclusive stock of merchandise that locations can sell during it.

Given that vinyl retailers are required to pay RSD up front and in full for the exclusives that they stock for the celebration, that can be a pretty serious gamble for smaller shops.

The Reverb story shares a quote from one record store owner in particular, who remarked, “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.”

Another concern surrounding RSD for independent music retailers is borne of the fact that the aforementioned resurgence in the popularity of vinyl has not gone unnoticed by major record labels — and they are setting prices for their merchandise accordingly.

In a different story on RSD, Fortune notes that suggested retail prices of major label vinyl releases have increased by as much as 75 percent since last spring.

Referring to the MSRP of the vinyl edition of Lana Del Rey’s album “Honeymoon” — which ranges between $39.99 and $49.99 — Randy Boyd of Cobraside Distribution told Fortune, “If that last Lana Del Rey album had come out priced like before [which ranged between $19.99 and $24.95], we’d have sold 800 or 1,000 as a wholesaler, instead we sold 60.”

Meanwhile, record store owner Stephen Judge told the outlet that “the [retail music] marketplace cannot bear the cost and volume” generated by the vinyl format’s renaissance, calling it “too much, too fast.”

While Record Store Day, on its face, appears positioned to benefit smaller retailers riding the wave of the vinyl resurgence, that’s not exactly how the song is playing out — at least, not for some of those merchants.

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