An event that is now all but ubiquitous, the annual celebration-cum-gathering that is Record Store Day has, in its decade-long existence, proven to be the great watershed for the vinyl revival of the twenty-first century.
Conceived of in 2007, this worldwide get-together is an all-encompassing shindig for both independent record stores and the record-crazed themselves, with shops across the globe participating in special releases and a plethora of in-store performances, which is to say nothing of the music titans who have carried the torch for Record Store Day as ambassadors over the years, such as Iggy Pop, Chuck D, and Dave Grohl.
Hot on the heels of RSD’s tenth anniversary event this April 22nd, we talked with co-founders Carrie Colliton and Michael Kurtz about the day’s history, their favorite releases, and some plans for the future.
So, since you guys got this up and running in 2007, this is the big tenth anniversary, isn’t it?
CARRIE: It is. Our first one was in April of 2008, but we had this idea in September of 2007. Having done it ten times now, I can tell you that the idea that we thought of it in September and did it in April is astounding to me. It’s a year-round process now.
I would assume there’s going a little something extra thrown into the mix for the event this year?
CARRIE: We try to do that every year, throw something extra into the mix. There are great releases and in-store performances. Everything is kind of amped up a tiny little bit.
Could you give me a sense of where the numbers were at in terms of vinyl sales at that time? Vinyl was really on its last legs, was it not?
MICHAEL: I think it was in the hundreds of thousands of releases. It was less than a million dollars a year. I think we’re up to a billion a year now.
Would you say the effects were rather immediate?
MICHAEL: Well the first year, there were only about ten releases. There were almost no independent labels involved because nobody had the confidence to produce records because it’s so expensive, and I think that’s been the side effect of Record Store Day. This residual buildup of confidence over the years has led to everyone producing records with the expectation that they will sell.
So that was one of the larger hurdles that you needed to get by?
CARRIE: I think so. Even from the very beginning, we were also not clear on what Record Store Day would become and consist of. From the beginning, it’s been a party that encompasses three groups of people: those who work in the stores, those who shop in the stores, and those who make and put the music in the stores. And the question was, “What can these three sets of people bring to the table to make this day?”
As the day grew and people saw what it was becoming, that helped inform what you could bring to the table for it. As more and more people got involved, things became easier and more creative, and that’s just something that will naturally grow, and it’s grown over the last decade. But we did have to convince labels that this was a true thing. We had to convince the stores that we were in it to help them and celebrate record stores.
There was skepticism, but I feel like that was going to happen no matter what the event was because it was something brand new. If you don’t know the person who’s bringing this crazy idea to you, maybe it takes you a little while to trust that they are in for the right reasons, but ten years on, I think it’s pretty clear to everyone involved that we’re doing it for the right reasons and those reasons are just to celebrate how great a brick and mortar record store really is.
I would say that you could also see how quickly this all developed just by looking at the list of names that Record Store Day has had for its ambassadors. How impactful has it been getting folks like Iggy Pop, Chuck D, and Dave Grohl to serve as ambassadors for the event?
MICHAEL: I think it’s just validated what we were doing because they came out of that culture. Most of those guys worked at records stores at one point in their lives, so it was a natural connection. And their celebrity status elevated what we were doing.
CARRIE: Validation is really the key there. From our standpoint, the ambassador role is kind of a fun thing. For marketing purposes, you want it to be someone who can speak to a large group of people and authentically talk about what you’re doing and how great it is to go to a record store. We’ve been incredibly blessed to work with people who were very authentic about their love of record stores and also well-known, and that’s key for us. It’s been really helpful and a lot of fun to work with these ambassadors. They’ve been really creative.
Well now you’re adding in the extra element of the RSD “legend,” with Elton John serving as the first to bear the title. I remember seeing him in that Tower Records documentary that was released a few years back and how big of a record collecting fiend he was, so I bet he was more than excited to participate this year.
CARRIE: He still does that. He still shops wherever he happens to be. There was a story about him going into a record store in Canada less than a month ago and doing a lot of shopping. I know that when he’s in Las Vegas for his residency, he visits the record stores there all the time. Elton doesn’t ask for special privileges or any of that. He just goes in and shops. That’s ideal because it means that he’s just like all the other record store freaks whom we celebrate once every April.
Based on what I’ve heard, the eureka moment in the whole creation of Record Store Day seemed to revolve around Free Comic Book Day, so what led to this being the initial template, so to speak, for Record Store Day?
MICHAEL: It was the creation of special vinyl records, really. I mean we’ve done some CDs over the years that have been incredibly successful, like the Metallica one we did last year, but the media and chatter is always about the vinyl pieces, so that was it.
CARRIE: We have some stores who celebrate both days, who have celebrated Free Comic Book Day for a long time, and that day is about comic books and comic book stores, but it’s a different model than what we do. Those are literally free comics that are produced and printed, given to the stores and then given away. We have an element of that since we have some free goods that are given out to stores as party favors to give to their customers. That’s a pretty exciting part of the day, but what we took from Free Comic Book Day was the idea of celebrating something across the nation or the world, having a day to shout out all the stuff that goes into a record store. That’s really what we took from Free Comic Book Day, even if we didn’t follow the model exactly. We kind of blew it up and made several of our own models out of it.
Did you guys come from a record collecting background or record store management, something of that nature?
MICHAEL: The guy who first presented it was Eric Levin at Criminal Records. He was the one who said, “Believe in this idea, it’s gonna happen.” As Carrie mentioned, a lot of record store owners were very skeptical of this in the beginning because, back then, maybe 2% of their sales came from vinyl and at that point it was almost all used vinyl. About 99% of vinyl sold in 2007 was used. There was hardly any new vinyl at all. Eric was the one who said it was going to happen and, in the beginning, I fought with him. I had many arguments with him about it. I was taking the position of, “How can this be when almost nobody is selling any vinyl?” And that came from store feedback. So Eric said, “Because it is.” Well, OK [laughs]! We went with it.
CARRIE: Everybody who is a “cofounder” of Record Store Day, Michael and myself included, our day-to-day job was and is working with independent record stores throughout the country. Michael and I run a coalition of them and have for almost twenty years now, and they’re thriving and expanding in their own communities. We knew from the start that record stores were viable.
One of the reasons we started Record Store Day in the first place is just to throw a big party and say to the press and popular culture, “Look, major corporate chains like Tower may be closing, but that doesn’t mean that physical brick and mortar record stores are closing.” We knew that to be the case because we deal with them everyday. That’s our day-to-day job. Some of the other cofounders run record stores or coalitions themselves, so we come from that background. Everybody who runs, organizes, or takes part in Record Store Day is, down to their core, a believer in physical media and the power of indie stores.
How exactly do you distribute your time throughout the year? I would imagine that at this point you guys have a hand in a lot more than just Record Store Day itself. Are you assisting with other forms of promotion for certain independent stores over the course of the year as well?
MICHAEL: Well we do a sister event on Black Friday that isn’t quite as big, and Carrie and I work on special records that come out during the course of the year. Like right now, we just got a Blondie single in the stores that you can buy for two bucks and get two dollars off of the album when you come in to buy it. So we’re always doing promotional things like that with the stores and most of it focuses around vinyl, but we do some stuff with CDs and DVDs, too.
CARRIE: Yeah, it’s definitely grown to be a year-round thing. We communicate with the stores every week and we almost always have some sort of promotion that they can sign up for, something they can use or do to benefit themselves either business-wise or just getting some fun thing out to consumers. Our website is updated throughout the year with information on new releases, videos, contests, all that stuff. Our big day is obviously still a Saturday in April, but it’s a year-round thing. I think one of the great things about that is stores have kind of come together more than they would have had they not had this umbrella structure of Record Store Day to tie this together.
MICHAEL: Another example of that is that we’re going to have a Record Store Day convention in New Orleans in late August. Record store owners from all over the country will be coming down to meet and talk to each other and work together.
That’s going to be more of a meeting as opposed to a record fair, correct?
CARRIE: Yeah, it’s more of an internal business conference for the store owners, but you never know. With the way Record Store Day has expanded, maybe that’s something that happens in the future and we involve the customer side of it. It’s always going to come back to record stores and driving people into them. That’s always going to be what our goal is.
Is any of the promotional work you did with these stores a part of the pledge that they’re required to sign, or is the pledge strictly for the event itself?
CARRIE: Right, the pledge is for Record Store Day and Black Friday, just those two events.
And so “acting in the spirit of Record Store Day,” which is, y’know, the overriding proviso to the pledge, how would you define it? Is it as simple as putting out all the releases at the permitted time and with the proper pricing?
MICHAEL: Well it was a document created by record store owners. They basically said that they don’t want anyone to have the impression that we’re trying to gouge them, overcharge things, or sell them online before Record Store Day. They put that document together and all of them sign it, so it’s now sort of a fellowship.
CARRIE: There are very few rules or regulations that we ask them to abide by, and they’re all spelled out in that pledge. They’re all very defensible, and they come out of issues that stores have had in the past. It’s a pretty easy document for stores to sign. It makes a lot of sense.
What have been some of the more memorable releases over the years? Ones that have really stood out to you guys?
MICHAEL: For me, it was the Doors album that all the record store owners curated and put together, having all their favorite Doors songs on it and then having Robbie Krieger and John Densmore, along with their engineer Bruce Botnick, go through their archives and find unique versions of those tracks to create a special record. Of course, the Doors have always been one of my favorite bands, but to me, that embodies what makes Record Store Day so special.
CARRIE: I like the series records that come out every year. This year, one of those is actually kind of like what Michael is explaining. We worked with the Sun Records catalogue and Tito’s Vodka to create this record. I think this is our fourth year of doing it, where we go into the catalogue vaults of Sun Records and the stores choose the tracks that go on this album, so it’s them curating the best of Sun with a little theme every year. It ends up being tracks that people aren’t overly familiar with and it becomes great releases.
I also like the series of side-by-side 45s with two tracks by two different artists. And the idea that there was a mystery one for a couple of years was pretty exciting. I like the live-at-a-record-store releases. That to me is the full circle celebration of what record stores are. You have a band go into a store, you get to see this intimate performance, and it gets recorded. Then it gets released and sold at record stores. It’s this complete circle of all this great stuff that happens at record stores. We’ve had it from artists of a lot of different genres at a lot of different record stores, and they’ve always been great sellers.
MICHAEL: When we started getting independent labels more involved, the creativity that they brought to it was just phenomenal. I think the very first, and probably best, example of that was Traffic Entertainment’s Wu-Tang vinyl box set release. That was pretty cool.
CARRIE: There are definitely some pieces that really stand out. I almost feel bad calling any of them out because there have been so many. It’s been really exciting to see them. We get lists, details, and spreadsheets of all the releases, but actually seeing them in person is the really exciting thing.
Were in-store performances a staple of Record Store Day from the get-go?
MICHAEL: Yes, it was launched with Metallica at Rasputin Music on the very first Record Store Day.
CARRIE: They sat and signed at their hometown record store for hours, and that was just fantastic. It wasn’t a performance but last year they went back and performed at a record store.
MICHAEL: It was recorded and released with their deluxe box set, Rasputin.
CARRIE: Yeah, these appearances have been a really big part of it. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a performance or a signing. People can get really creative with this stuff. The first year, Amanda Palmer just showed up at a record store in Boston. She just laid herself on a counter and greeted people, and that’s pretty cool!
MICHAEL: Billy Bragg launched it in the UK doing the first Record Store Day performance in Europe, and then it took off over there. In Paris, they have actual events during the day and music festivals at night.
CARRIE: It gets very creative and very fun at the stores. I like to focus a lot on the events and what goes on in the stores. The releases are amazing and they’re a very important part of what we do and of what Record Store Day is, but what happens in the record store on that day, maybe after the lines have died down, that’s the fun part. That’s the party. You’ve seen pictures of Grimey’s in Nashville, where they literally had thousands of people watching bands in their backyard. You’re not gonna have that at a grocery or hardware store.
Yet another incentive for the stores to buy into this whole concept.
CARRIE: Absolutely, I think that’s exciting for them, but most of the stores plan their days with regional or local bands, so they’ll have killer, blowout parties that way as well. I really like to see that, when a store has a complete afternoon and evening of music lined up and it’s all bands who have shopped in the stores because that’s where they live. That’s pretty awesome, too.
So what do you see as the next step for Record Store Day? You seem to have it down to a science already, but do you foresee a new phase or direction in the future?
MICHAEL: Well right now we’re testing a Record Store Day vinyl club, but it’s not like a vinyl club in the traditional sense. It’s more about creating special records for the stores and then going to them and saying, “Hey, is this something you want?” For example, we’re working on a soundtrack to the Doors documentary When You’re Strange and a reissue of the Record Store Day release of Television’s Live at the Old Waldorf.
And, y’know, there will be limited edition ones just like a Record Store Day piece, but just creating pieces for them throughout the year with the long-term goal of creating an inventory experience at the stores so when someone goes into them, they know that they’ll find unique stuff. I have to say, for me, I started out collecting vinyl in the ’70s and ’80s when you went to record stores specifically to search the bins and find unique records, so that’s always been a romantic idea of mine and it’s part of why I think this is going to work.
CARRIE: I think those two things are probably the biggest innovations for us. We’re spending a lot of time on the record convention that we have planned. This year’s conference will be our second one, and that’s really a way for us to bring the community of record stores who come together under the Record Store Day umbrella and continue to assist them in being the best that they can be in all ways.
And then the vinyl club, as Michael just mentioned. Also, Record Store Day itself is acting as a label for two pieces that are coming out on Record Store Day, and that has never happened before, either. So this year at least, we are focusing on helping them be better businesses and also on actually creating some of that special content that Michael was talking about, content that you can only find in a record store. Being the curators of some of that special content is where a lot of our energies are going right now.