Beware the Vinyl Bubble


On April 19, independent record stores across the city will celebrate the seventh annual vinyl boosterism bonanza known as Record Store Day. Founded after a 2007 brainstorming session by store owners about ways to promote their businesses, the day will see eager customers line up for parties, performances, and 300 piping-hot limited edition titles available for one day only, exclusively at your local indie record store.

This year’s booty — announced earlier this month at a gala mega-launch at Amoeba Records in Los Angeles — includes LPs, EPs, 7-inches, picture discs, and more, ranging from a re-pressed box set of early Dinosaur Jr. singles to music never heard before in any format, including a new full-length by nu-garage heroes Thee Oh Sees, a collaboration between Spiritualized’s J. Spaceman and Oneida’s Kid Millions, and live albums by Neil Young, Devo, Alice Cooper, and others. Surprises will surely abound. Last year, Scottish duo Boards of Canada used the day to announce their first album in eight years via a half-dozen cryptic 12-inches distributed unannounced to shops. One later resold for $5,700 online.

See also: How to Write a “Vinyl is Back!” Story

Since it was established six years ago to help draw customers away from faceless, small-biz-chomping online behemoths, Record Store Day has become a reliable income uptick for record stores, producing about six times the sales of an average Saturday, and helping boost the ongoing vinyl revival that has seen plants operating 24 hours a day to meet the ever-increasing demand. Around the boroughs (but mostly Brooklyn) this Record Store Day, one will find parties, celebrity DJs, and a very small percentage of satisfied buyers.

To take part in Record Store Day as a record collector — that is, to actually buy the severely limited product — the event truly begins at dawn, when customers line up outside shops to secure at least a fighting chance of maybe scoring a limited-edition LP. Around the five boroughs, there are some 37 stores participating, but only 26 have signed the official Record Store Day pledge “not to gouge” customers. (Buyer beware.) From the perspective of an excited record buyer fond of buying records at record stores, Record Store Day is an impressively immersive shitshow.

“Starting about a week before the Day, the phone just doesn’t stop ringing,” says Fabio Roberti, co-owner of Williamsburg’s Earwax. “The two questions are, ‘Will you have this?’ and ‘Can you set one aside for me?’ and I have to say, ‘I don’t know,’ and ‘No, I can’t do that.’ The calls are a real nuisance.”

Though Record Store Day is loosely run by a small L.A.-based coalition of shop owners, the real power belongs to the national network of distributors who decide where the records go. “For popular stuff, I might order 20 copies and get three,” says Roberti, a number he usually doesn’t discover until the boxes arrive. Roberti, like other owners, also points out the massive and temporarily paralyzing cash outlay required to stock Record Store Day product.

“It’s great to see the store packed to the rafters,” allows Jeff Conklin, the new music buyer for Greenpoint’s Academy Records Annex, though he can’t help but notice the faces he doesn’t see the rest of the year. Record Store Day, he says, is for “people who are fans of manufactured scarcity. I collect records, but I don’t collect them because there are X number of copies of them in the world.”

In a scathing 2013 editorial in UK music magazine The Wire, Ken Shipley and Rob Sevier, founders of the obsessive Chicago-based archival label Numero Group, struck out at the “irrational exuberance” Record Store Day promotes, comparing it to the limited edition bubble that destroyed the sports card industry in the early ’90s. “Creating a sustainable vinyl marketplace is going to require more than picture discs, record store days, speculators, and coffee-table LPs,” they wrote.

“I think they misunderstand what Record Store Day is about,” counters Michael Kurtz, one of the event’s co-founders and the president of the Department of Record Stores, a national coalition. “Record Store Day is meant to be a celebration of record stores. The manufacture and distribution of limited edition pieces is just one part of the celebration.” But that’s not much consolation for buyers unable to acquire what they want, especially if the event is the only chance to buy it on vinyl. “Some people just lose it,” says Earwax’s Roberti. And, on those occasions, the event designed to promote goodwill toward record stores results in customers being pissed off at them instead.

“When people bring this stuff up to me, I say, ‘Record Store Day’s not for you, don’t do it,'” says Kurtz. “As a kid, you gave your parents a list of what you wanted for Christmas, but didn’t expect to get everything.”

More than ever, vinyl records have become accessories, available at outrageously inflated prices at Urban Outfitters, the Varvatos store at the former CBGB, faux-boho Williamsburg boutiques like Robert James, and (for the first time since the ’60s) grocery stores, like Whole Foods’ new Gowanus location. To many, the vinyl revival as a whole (and Record Store Day in particular) has become a manifestation of the strange economies of the online marketplace instead of an antidote to it. To others, it’s pointless.

“Due to digital sourcing and bad pressings, almost no new music is worth buying on vinyl — they’re just big, crackly sounding CDs,” says veteran reissue producer Andy Zax. “All survivors of the 1980s’ ‘CDs good! Vinyl bad!’ groupthink should view 2014’s ‘Vinyl good! CDs bad!’ mindset with equivalent skepticism.”

Given the event’s obvious popularity, though, perhaps it is time for Record Store Day (or the labels feeding it releases) to pluralize the event into more populist, less blood-pressure-increasing gatherings. Record Store Day’s Black Friday events are disqualified for obvious reasons. Until then, collectors of Zax’s persuasion might simply want to save money for less frenetic events, like the annual WFMU Record Fair (May 30-June 1 at the 69th Regiment Armory), and spend time visiting with their friendly local record store clerks on days when it’s less crazy.