“I get by because of the people who make a special effort to shop here – mostly young men – who spend all their time looking for deleted Smith singles and original, not re-released – underlined – Frank Zappa albums…I’d feel guilty taking their money, if I wasn’t… well… kinda one of them,” sarcastically jokes John Cusack’s character, Rob, in the movie High Fidelity.
A movie that symbolically uses an independent record store as a life metaphor; an allusion so perfectly suited to the concept of Record Store Day, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary on April 21, 2012.
Record Store Day is an annual event celebrated around the world that brings together independently-owned record stores, artists, and audiophiles with in-store performances, extremely exclusive vinyl and CD releases, and a reclamation of that sense of community once cherished by music lovers who spent hours in their favorite store listening to albums.
With the resurgence of record appreciation, it seems that many music fans are looking for a more tangible representation of their sonic obsessions; vinyl, an artistic medium that generations of music lovers can share together and something different from the instant gratification of digital music.
“I think that it’s a revolution to the digital revolution,” said Matt Vaughn, owner of Easy Street Records in Seattle. “It’s warm and fuzzy and it makes you feel good. You stare at a computer screen eight hours a day. There’s nothing better than putting on a record that is a piece of art and taking it in as an experience rather than just throwing a CD on or putting an iPod on.”
“It’s appreciating the art itself,” continued Vaughn. “It’s also a throwback to a time of yesterday and what your older brother was listening to, what your parents were listening to, even what your grandparents were listening to. It transcends generations.”
Chris Vanderloo, co-owner of New York’s Other Music and Daniel Turres, the floor manager at Hollywood’s Amoeba Records agree; sonic purveyors want something more sensatory, social, and stylish to juxtapose the instant gratification culture of touch screens.
Five years after its start in San Francisco at Rasputin Music, the Record Store Day movement embraces these ideals. And, luckily, so do the artists and stores. The day has exploded organically thanks to the unbridled enthusiasm of artists, owners, and fans.
For artists, it gives them an avenue to re-release old favorites, unknown b-sides, or something wholly more experimental like The Flaming Lips’ Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends which may include vials of blood from their collaborators.
All three record store spokesmen said that Record Store Day gets them the same sort of traffic as the Saturday before Christmas, spiking their sales and bringing back customers that may have forgotten the allure of shopping directly in the store.
“It’s exciting,” said Vanderloo. “The customers love it because they get these special releases that are kind of limited. But at the same time it gets people to realize what the stores all about. Sometimes we get some people in here that haven’t been here in a while and they’re like, ‘I miss coming to this store.’”
With one of the “biggest Record Store Days in the country, ” Turres said Los Angeles’ artistic community “just demands it,” that the store is not “creating it,” and that Record Store Day “recreates the spirit of how record stores used to be.”
“Record stores used to be where things were kind of limited and on vinyl mostly and you would line up to get them,” continued Turres. “It just has much more of a local, small time kind of feel and it’s just much more exciting. As opposed to when everything is mass-produced and you hear a song all over the internet and TV all the time.”
Turres likened Record Store Day for Amoeba to a Black Friday like event. After the popularity of the second year, the store learned how to regulate the “violent” hordes of music lovers who would do anything for a special release.
“There’s going to be a line of like five hundred people out there on Saturday morning,” elaborated Turres. “The second year we didn’t realize how big it was going to be, put everything outside and there was a mad rush of like a hundred people almost like fist fights and people getting trampled…That’s when we realized it was too violent.”
“People were throwing elbows and stuff trying to get in there and it was like a feeding frenzy,” continued Turres laughing. “It was like a punk show.”
Now, Amoeba deals with the influx of people trying to get stuff like a T-Rex 7″ box set and the Pretty in Pink soundtrack on pink vinyl by lining up outside, filling out “menus,” reading a tally board to see if their pick has sold out, and purchasing from behind the counter.
Exclusive records aren’t the only draw of Record Store Day. There are often in-store performances. Other Music in New York has boasted celebrity DJ sets from the likes of the Black Keys, the Raveonettes, Pains of Being Pure of Heart, Animal Collective, and Interpol.
Easy Street said that they are having country star Dierks Bentley in their West Seattle store.
“Last year,” exclaimed Vaughn, “we had Peter Buck from R.E.M reach out to us a day before the event and said, ‘Hey can I be behind the counter? I worked in record stores before I was in R.E.M. Even while I was in R.E.M and I managed a store and I’d like to get back on the register and see what kids are buying and sign some autographs while I’m at it.’ He was here for three hours last year…He still hasn’t picked his paycheck up.”
For years after the popularization of the Mp3, many thought record stores would die away, but people like Vanderloo and Vaughn make points that people who love music would never let brick-and-mortar shops disappear.
Twenty-four years ago, a teenage Vaughn, right before the boom of the Seattle grunge scene, had the foresight to combine and consolidate the inventory of two record stores that couldn’t keep up with the” configuration changes” in music.
“If it wasn’t for this weather, I don’t think we’d have musicians getting in their basements and garages cranking out tunes,” Vaughn jokes before revealing a time when Easy Street had record release parties for big names in grunge, a time when Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam worked a day there, and the timeless practice amongst Seattle inhabitants to foster independent music.
“I opened my store and you couldn’t help, especially at the age that I was, to be enthralled by it all and excited to promote these bands and promote the scene,” elaborated Vaughn. “And you know there was a lot of attitude that we all felt and, call that what you will, but there was a little bit of that punk rock ethos where everyone stuck together but everyone at the same time felt supported and hopeful. It’s Jimi Hendrix country here so everyone felt like they might have a shot. It’s been done before.”
Vanderloo described a similar sort of scene in New York with “old-timers” always buying vinyl despite a period where there was a lull in the amount of younger people–people from the “college and post-college” crowd purchasing music.
Now, that younger crowd is drawn to physical records exactly for the reason that Vaughn mentioned: the “punk rock ethos,” or as Vanderloo described it, that “anti-digital, anti-establishment vibe.”
Perhaps it was Vaughn’s “punk rock ethos” that originally had him rebelling against the concept of Record Store Day, but customer appreciation quickly convinced him that Record Store Day wasn’t independent record store owners “waving a white flag.”
People were coming out of the “woodwork,” bringing “cakes and thank you cards and things like that.”
“And it just became this celebration of independent retail and it was just such a feel good story that carried out to the next year to the point where all the record labels and bands have a lot of appreciation for it,” continued Vaughn. “They’re reaching out to their favorite local stores and indie stores to see if they can do something.”
All three men—Vaughn, Vanderloo, and Turres—agreed that certain music sounds better on vinyl, especially blues and jazz which “wasn’t meant to be digitized.”
Turres said it best when he described how records are made using vibrations, literally the energy of a human being etched into the record.
“There’s no comparison to listening to something on an iPhone from having a record from the ’50s and putting it on,” said Turres enthusiastically, comparing vinyl to the “brittle,” “stretched out” sound of digital music. “It’s physical and tactile and the cover is amazing and it smells amazing. The sound is a world of difference.”
“That’s the thing that makes people turn back to records,” concluded Turres. “Nothing sounds anything like them. A record is really just a real physical vibration that Elvis was making when he was singing and playing his guitar…When you put that on, you’re just re-experiencing what Elvis really did in that room.”
“It’s kind of like the difference between the Mona Lisa and a cell phone snapshot of the Mona Lisa.”