Saturday, April 19th is Record Store Day around the world, but should we care?
What makes our culture exceptional is that it’s personal. We own it, we contribute, we consume, and we share. Rinse-and-repeat across many industries, from fashion to film. But in a world dominated by technology and the ephemeral, why is vinyl still so important to our culture?
Saturday, April 19th marks the 7th annual Record Store Day. Launched in 2007 by a global network of independent record stores to promote sales through limited, rare and special edition releases of vinyl, CDs and cassettes (yes, some people still buy cassettes). But what Record Store Day did was shine a light on the positive side of an industry in decline, both in sales and significance. Just last week, another report of digital download sales being down year-on-year showed how Spotify, Deezer, Pandora, Songza, Rhapsody, and other streaming media is on the rise (up by 30%), taking a big chunk of the shrinking downloads market (down by 13%). Is the desire to own the music you listen to via services like iTunes and Amazon shrinking?
Vinyl is an analogue, tactile experience. You can’t get more organic than the experience of removing an LP or a 45 from its sleeve (touching the edges and label only, please!), placing it on a turntable and gently lowering the needle into the groove. A record can be an exotic messenger; it can be cherished, exquisite and rare. Unlike mp3s, which can be copied endlessly, a record is a physical object, sometimes produced in very limited amounts for a hungry set of collectors and tastemakers. (Some of this year’s Record Store Day releases are limited to 200 copies worldwide!) Much like the microbrewery or the artisanal cheese monger, this DIY aesthetic grew from the backyards of Brooklyn, San Francisco, London, and Portland. It’s the human quest for purity and texture in both sound and touch. Heck, a friend of mine who lives in Boston told me last summer that his neighborhood Saturday farmers market in Allston’s Union Square had just opened a stall that sold vinyl LPs and quality turntables to play them on, right next to the organic vegetables and gluten-free muffins.
The connection to organic culture becomes obvious when you examine the numbers. If you look at the increase in vinyl sales in the Mashable sales chart below, it’s dramatic. Sure, it’s still a small piece of the pie compared to other formats, but vinyl is the only format that has grown consistently, skyrocketing in the last year alone (32% increase since 2012). Now if you look at trends over the last few years, you’ll see very similar patterns in just about every small artisanal industry, from chocolates to bicycles.
I’ve been a record buyer since the 1980s. I don’t consider myself a collector, though I do have records that are worth hundreds of dollars. For me, that description is saved for the crate digger, dusty and desperate for that rare find from the 1970s German label Brain Records, or the first pressing of Bowie’s “Heroes” 7” single. That’s a breed I can’t compete with. Still, my passion for vinyl runs deep. The first record I ever bought was Pink Floyd’s The Wall and it’s been a love affair ever since. That said, the convenience of the streaming services and the portability of MP3s make them an excellent tool for travel and discovery. I’m not a purist, but I keep going back to vinyl for sound, design, texture, and relaxation. Listening to an LP is a more focused, attentive experience than turning on a playlist.
So why participate in Record Store Day? Well, for one it helps out the independent retailer that feeds our community with culture. Here in NYC we’ve seen plenty of stores close down, pinched by rent hikes and online retailers. But we’ve also seen some real success stories: Other Music continues to fly its banner on East 4th Street off Broadway, and Brooklyn’s recent openings of Rough Trade in Williamsburg and Captured Tracks in Greenpoint support the growing trend of vinyl sales. You’re also supporting the artists and labels that contribute limited releases and rare material for Record Store Day. When you buy their art, you’re sending a message saying thanks. The most important part is to satisfy your tastes, whether you’re into Jack White or ’80s electro-pop pioneers The The.
These days, most vinyl releases come with a download code that provides access to a high-quality download (sometimes FLAC, more often high-bitrate MP3), so you get to take your music on the go as well. And even if you don’t have a record player, buy an album with a great cover design and display it on your bookshelf.
Paul Parreira is the Founder and Director of Company Cue, a New York City-based custom content agency that provides editorial services to a growing number of global entertainment media companies. Paul works with a team of writers, editors and experts worldwide to create bespoke content to support databases, websites, and content initiatives for many leading music streaming services, retailers, brands and media publishers. Paul is an expert on music culture and spent most of the 1990s and part of the 2000s DJ’ing at New York City venues in the DJ duo Perry & Smith.