Siding with vinyl: The pros and cons of Record Store Day

Cal Glattfelder, owner of Sidetracks Music, stocks up for Record Store Day on November 29. “I have ghosts of Record Store Days past floating all around the shop,” he says. Image: AMY AND JACKSON SMITH Cal Glattfelder, owner of Sidetracks Music, stocks up for Record Store Day on November 29. “I have ghosts of Record Store Days past floating all around the shop,” he says. Image: AMY AND JACKSON SMITH

Perhaps you’ve seen them, the vinyl devotees. They live among us, frequently darting in and out of record stores and flea markets, some more conspicuous (and vocal) than others. But twice a year, on the Friday after Thanksgiving and a Saturday in April, many wake early and convene outside independent record shop doors. They line up—waiting with bated breath—for the chance to score a limited release on Record Store Day.

According to the Record Store Day website, a group of independent record shop owners launched the inaugural event in April 2008 to “celebrate the unique culture of a record store and the special role these independently owned stores play in their communities.”

In the decade-plus since, RSD has grown to include more than 1,400 shops in the U.S., plus thousands of others on six continents (Antarctica is the exception), offering more than 500 exclusive vinyl releases in April and more than 150 every November.

Three of Charlottesville’s independently-owned shops participate, and we wanted to know: Does the event actually honor record-store culture in the way it claims to? Yes and no.

Record Store Days are a lot of work for employees—the buying and the staffing (in some cases, it’s all the same, single person)—and prep begins months in advance.

Label and band offerings appear on an official RSD list that circulates among shop owners and buyers, with special releases ranging from a Barbarella soundtrack picture disc to a 180-gram mono pressing of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue to (yet another) previously unreleased Grateful Dead live set.

Buyers consider what might sell well—what regular customers would definitely or maybe want, and which releases might appeal to new customers (those exclusive Taylor Swift picture discs, for example)—and place orders. Customers can view the list at recordstoreday.com and make requests at their local shops as well.

But the boxes that arrive don’t always include what the shops order—perhaps they’ve ordered 10 copies of a Father John Misty EP pressed on heart-shaped red vinyl, but receive just three of the 5,700 made. Shops are not allowed to hold releases for customers; enthusiasts have to show up at the store, in person, on that day, to get the records they seek.

Not having the releases that customers want is one of the greatest frustrations of Record Store Day, says Cal Glattfelder, owner of Sidetracks Music. It’s difficult to tell an eager customer that the shop doesn’t have a particular release.

Plus, RSD is risky business for these small shops. They pay thousands of dollars up front for records that may or may not sell, and labels don’t take returns. Stores might not make their money back right away, if at all.

“I have ghosts of Record Store Days past floating all around the shop,” says Glattfelder. Some have been there a few years, he admits with a laugh.

A few releases “are like a bad penny; you just can’t get rid of them,” says Bob Schick, who buys for Plan 9 locations in Charlottesville and Richmond.

Others are highly coveted and show up for sale, usually at an inflated price, on Ebay or the online music database/marketplace Discogs as soon as lucky opportunists can list them.

That’s yet another drawback, says Schick. “Sometimes, I feel like the scarcity of some items make them more desirable than they might be. But that’s a really small quibble.”

Plan 9 tries to circumvent that, and help its customers out, by participating in a RSD releases exchange via the Coalition of Independent Music Stores—after the event, it will take customer requests and try to fulfill those requests via other brick-and-mortar stores across the country. “Whatever we can do to bring it in and keep it at the same price as the day,” says Schick.

The two Record Store Day events tend to be local shops’ busiest days of the year—Sidetracks and Plan 9 have more staff on hand, and Gwen Berthy, owner and sole employee of Melody Supreme, calls in his wife to help him out. Stores see a mix of regular customers, occasional customers, and those who come in just for the sale events.

In Berthy’s opinion, the opportunist shoppers who come in only twice a year for the special releases can cast a shadow on the event.

“I feel always a little sad when people only go see RSD stuff, then come to check out,” says Berthy. “They don’t look around to see my collection, to see what I’m doing [with my shop]. That’s pretty tough.”

After all, the personal interaction, be it through conversation or through the carefully selected records hanging out in the store bins, is what Record Store Day aims to celebrate.

Despite the mayhem, the reward can be great. And not just for business, but for the love of music. There’s almost always something truly precious that sets customer and shop staff hearts aflutter. This time around, for Schick, it’s cartoon music composer Raymond Scott’s The Jingle Workshop: Midcentury Musical Miniatures 1951-1965.

That’s why “we have to do it, because there’s always great stuff. There’s always something for someone,” says Berthy, who’s eager to have Seiche’s Demo Press, a hard psych record originally issued as a limited edition in 1981, in his hands on Friday. The original is quite rare (and thus wicked expensive), so to have a Record Store Day reissue created from the original master tapes and sold at a nice price, “is great,” says Berthy. “It’s just great.”

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