The people behind every venture are terrible at predicting the future. For all their hopes and wishes that their sweat equity will strike a chord with people and help their new project grow and thrive, things rarely go that smoothly. Which is why even the folks behind Record Store Day, the now-annual celebration of independent record shops around the world, can look back on the inaugural edition 10 years ago with both pride and a bit of shock.
“I just look back at us and think what adorable babies we were,” says Carrie Colliton, one of Record Store Day’s co-managers and part of the team that launched the event in 2008. “Maybe we didn’t understand how much these places meant to people. There’s no way anyone could have predicted it would become what it became. Yeah, we had people at the time like Eric Levin at Criminal Records who was full on, ‘I’m feeling it. Vinyl’s it.’ And he was right! But Record Store Day becoming the party that it’s become and becoming the organization that it’s become, and record stores growing and expanding? I don’t know that anyone could have predicted that.”
Record Store Day has dealt with its share of bumps in the road, like the people who post eBay listings for the exclusive releases before they are actually available, and the smaller labels who accuse it of clogging shelves with inferior products.
Record Store Day, which arrives this Saturday, April 21, has become a bona fide event, with independent shops all over the world (“in every continent but Antartica,” as their PR copy says) offering a wealth of exclusive releases, which this year can mean anything from a cassette reissue of AC/DC’s Back in Black to a vinyl pressing of the soundtrack to the 1973 horror film Ganja and Hess. Along the way, it has become a key driver behind the recent growth in vinyl sales. Last year, more than 14 million new records were sold (the most in the Nielsen era since 1991), accounting for 14 percent of all physical media sold. That’s a lot of glow-in-the-dark Ghostbusters picture discs.
They might take some pride in that, but their chief concern is how to keep those numbers steady or growing in the streaming era. Key to the effort is helping support the folks who manufacture each new record. Last year, Record Store Day—an organization managed by the Department of Record Stores and organized in partnership with the Alliance of Independent Media Stores and the Coalition of Independent Music Stores—helped stage the Making Vinyl conference in Detroit, which connected representatives from pressing plants with music distributors. It was a chance to celebrate their successes but also to discuss solutions to some of the issues facing the vinyl industry, like how to help cut down on the turnaround time for pressing records and how to make the production process more environmentally-friendly.
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“It’s already a pretty green product,” says RSD co-manager Michael Kurtz. “But manufacturers are working on ways to make a quality record that doesn’t use a lot of heavy metals as they do now.”
RSD is also working hard to continue its international reach. The organization took baby steps outside the U.S. in its first year, working with shops in the United Kingdom. By 2009, it was expanding into markets in Europe, Canada and Japan. But with such big leaps come all manner of small hurdles.
“Every major country that participates requires its own infrastructure based on local economies and local relationships,” says Kurtz, who had just returned from a trip to Toyo Kasei, one of the largest vinyl manufacturers in Japan. “I’ve been lucky to be the kind of person that communicate fairly well with some language barrier, but that growing international side is very difficult.”
Here at home, RSD has had to deal with its fair share of bumps in the road and sizeable potholes to crumple into. There are, for example, people who post eBay listings for these exclusive releases almost immediately after they’re announced (and well before they are actually available). Some stores gripe about not getting everything they ordered from the list of available items in any given year. And a small but vocal contingent argue that RSD has grown from a noble idea into a bloated waste of resources and time, like the venerated reissue label Numero Group, which dropped an official statement earlier this week calling the event an “unwieldy bitch-and-grip fest” that fills stores with “all manner of wasted petroleum and bad ideas.”
Still, RSD has managed to sail through the rough seas and waves of criticism with surprising ease. If there are any hints of concern about issues like vinyl sales hitting a peak and then quickly trending downward, the folks behind this annual celebration aren’t revealing them.
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“I mean, anything’s possible, but I don’t see any indication of it,” Kurtz says. “The amount of turntables being sold is beyond anybody’s imagination. All these people have got players now; that means they’re going to buy records to play on them. I know there was a slight decline last year, but that was after a 400% growth in the previous years.”
Even if the public’s interest in vinyl begins to wane, Kurtz and Cotillon and their team will continue to shout from the rooftops about the great things on the shelves at your local record shop. “I firmly believe that physical media will not go away,” Cotillon insists. “Everything in the cloud, everything on a screen, everything isolated with headphones is not a great way to live. A happy medium, a balance of all that is great. Hopefully what I’m able to do is to be a cheerleader for physical media. And I feel okay about that.”