Feel the music: Physical media still reigns in retail on Record Store Day

Charlottesville supergroup Borrowed Beams of Light will play at Sidetracks on Saturday to promote Record Store Day and the release of its split cassette tape (with New Boss). Publicity photo Charlottesville supergroup Borrowed Beams of Light will play at Sidetracks on Saturday to promote Record Store Day and the release of its split cassette tape (with New Boss). Publicity photo

It sounds like something a strung-out hippie might have muttered after two straight days of Dead jams and strong acid. “The music is all around us. It’s in the clouds, man.”

Music ownership has gone something like this over the past decade and a half: Physical media turned to digital media, digital media turned to licensed, server-based media. Forget not owning a record or cassette or compact disc, no one even owns their mp3s anymore. And yet they’re still able to reach up to the cloud and pluck from it just about any song they want at any time.

Which is all to say that when the music industry created Record Store Day eight years ago, a day on which music’s biggest names release some of their best music in unique formats, it was nothing short of a marketing masterstroke. For one glorious 24-hour period, music is tangible, music is something you can hold in your hands, music is something you can take to your home and call your own.

And according to three Charlottesville music store owners and managers who’ll participate in Record Store Day this year on April 18, that marketing masterstroke is still working quite well, with sales increasing year after year.

“It’s always a great day as far as sales go,” said Cal Glattfelder, owner of Sidetracks Music at 310 2nd Street SE. “Last year’s Record Store Day was the biggest single day I’ve ever had.”

Along with Sidetracks, Melody Supreme (115 4th Street SE) and Plan 9 Music (210 Zan Road) are registered participants in RSD, which means they’ve signed the all-important “Record Store Day Pledge.” According to the RSD folks, that means “they have agreed to act in the spirit of Record Store Day, and sell the commercial Record Store Day releases to their physical customers, on Record Store Day; not to gouge them, or hold product back to sell them online.” Big talk.

Whatever the bluster, Plan 9’s C’ville store manager Ruth Wilson agreed it’s a successful day. She said her customers, who range “anywhere from their 20s to their 70s,” are still excited about the event every year. Wilson said there’s even a sense of camaraderie between RSD participants, with the stores sending customers to their competition when they’re seeking a release they don’t have. Adding to the excitement this year at Plan 9 will be a series of in-store concerts anchored by the Buzzard Hollow Boys.

Melody Supreme owner Gwen Berthy said he expects a line when he opens his doors at the early hour of 8am, with close to 450 people coming and going as the day passes. Berthy said that of the staggering 400-plus RSD releases this year—the most since the event’s launch in 2007—he ordered somewhere between 125 and 150 records. He expects Phish’s New Year’s Eve 1995: Live At Madison Square Garden, the jam band’s first release of a complete live show on vinyl, to be among his best sellers. Other featured RSD releases include previously unreleased tracks by the Foo Fighters, Ryan Adams, Slayer and David Bowie.

But there are drawbacks to RSD, one of which is that it’s tough to know where any of those featured releases will be available. Stores put in their orders for the releases but aren’t guaranteed they’ll get everything. Wilson said that downside is mostly just a headache for the stores, though, and for the most part “the consumer isn’t aware of it all.”

Berthy said the large number of releases this year wasn’t necessarily a good thing. If they whittled it down to 200-300, he said, it would be easier to build some buzz for a handful of quality releases. “There is a lot of stuff you don’t need,” Berthy said. “Why do you want to pay $25 for a Bruce Springsteen reissue?”

Berthy said he stays away from the in-store concerts on RSD because his goal is to focus on helping customers find the records they want. But he said it makes sense for a shop like Sidetracks to host events because it’s more plugged into the local scene. This year, Sidetracks will feature shows by New Boss and Borrowed Beams of Light, two local bands that released a cassette with digital download for RSD. Beams front man Adam Brock said the show will be a bit more intimate than, say, the one the band is playing at Fardowners in Crozet the night before RSD, and he hinted the Beams and New Boss may jam together during the festivities.

Brock said he likes to support record store day as a fan because he’s “one of those dorks that goes out and buys a bunch of crap.” But he has some mixed feelings.

“I’m game for anything that kind of boosts people’s awareness of the format, but it is one day of the year that tiny record stores have to spend thousands on this catalog, and they have to count on it,” he said. “It’s turning into Black Friday. The fact that we need Record Store Day is a bummer because it goes to show you people aren’t buying enough to support these local businesses.”

Indeed, that seems pretty bogus. But check it out man—at least there’s one day when music fans can get their heads out of the clouds.

Are you lining up to make a purchase on Record Store Day? Tell us in the comments.

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