Can Small Record Shops Keep Up With Record Store Day?

By Ally Schweitzer

Record Store Day is bigger than ever this year, and at least one local store is nervous about it.
Record Store Day is bigger than ever this year, and at least one local store is nervous about it. Flickr user Krystian Olszanski

Record Store Day announced its complete slate of 2014 releases Thursday—all 438 of them.

That’s a big increase from 2013, let alone 2008, when Record Store Day debuted with just a handful of special titles. Is this getting a little bonkers?

“It’s out of control,” says Neal Becton, who owns D.C. shop Som Records. Some business owners say Record Store Day records are too expensive and too numerous, and stores risk losing a lot of money on records that don’t sell.

This wasn’t how Record Store Day was supposed to be. The twice-annual event, which takes place April 19 this year and on Black Friday, was started to help support record shops. It makes special records exclusively available to independent brick-and-mortar stores to drum up business, and it’s been quite a hit, at least judging from the lines that form outside of stores on the big day.

But in a Washington Post story about the event last year, Red Onion Records owner Josh Harkavy was quoted as calling the event “Record Label Day” because of a perception that labels are its true beneficiaries. That sentiment hasn’t changed. Crooked Beat shop owner Bill Daly says some of the vinyl slabs are so costly, no one is buying. “Customers balk at a certain price,” he says. He cites a 2013 Nick Drake release that, at nearly $40 retail, barely moved from his shelves—even though Drake is a reliable seller at his store. “It stiffed, basically,” Daly says. He bought 40 copies at $27 a pop, and still has two dozen left.

Most shop owners would tell you that Record Store Day is more about exposure than making money, because the profit margins just aren’t that high. But it’s also considered a must-do. Buyers mob local stores to buy the day’s special reissues, fancy pressings, and exclusive recordings, which can help generate new customers and move regular stock in addition to the exclusive stuff. For those reasons alone, some owners wouldn’t even consider not buying in. “You kind of have to,” says Becton. “It’s our busiest day of the year by far.” Johnson Lee, owner of Joe’s Record Paradise in Silver Spring, agrees. “It’s definitely the best day of the year, as far as sales.”

But Daly says he’s still holding on to between 700 and 800 Record Store Day releases that never sold, and he expects to add more to the pile this April. The Crooked Beat owner says he ordered copies of about 400 Record Store Day releases this time. But come 2015, he’s cutting back. He says he plans to purchase no more than 150 RSD titles next year, because there’s no way he could sell all the stock he needs to turn a profit.

“It’s going to bankrupt the store,” Daly says.

For what it’s worth, Record Store Day co-founder Michael Kurtz agrees. “I don’t think we’ll ever go above 450 [releases],” he says in a phone call from Los Angeles. It’s just too much for the stores they aspire to help. “Most of them are mom-and-pop stores, and that’s a lot of money that they have to pay out.”

Shops don’t have to buy all 438 releases, of course. Not all of them are even available to every store—many are extremely limited runs, and some are only available regionally—and owners can pick and choose which ones they think will do well. Kurtz says most small businesses focus on between 200 and 300 titles. Becton is even more selective: He says he ordered around 100 this year. Lee says he ordered about $5,000 worth of stock, and doesn’t expect to actually get that much. But Daly is a heavy buyer—last year, he claimed to have purchased more RSD vinyl than most shops on the East Coast—and as the Record Store Day list grows, he becomes more worried. “Every year they keep adding more and more,” he says. “It’s just the greed of the major labels.”

Kurtz quibbles with the idea that labels are to blame. “I think that’s just a lack of knowledge,” he says. He contends that many artists and labels don’t turn a hefty profit, if any, on Record Store Day. When bands record new material just for RSD releases, that costs money, he says. Manufacturing small numbers of records instead of big pressings is extra costly, too. Then shipping the vinyl from place to place—well, it all adds up, Kurtz says, and plenty of bands take a haircut.

“The bands are doing it to help the stores,” Kurtz says. “Most [Record Store Day titles] are sold for less than they cost to make, and [shop owners] just don’t know it.”

Still, small shops have good reasons to be more selective about which Record Store Day releases they buy: The stock is nonreturnable, and some of it can depreciate rapidly after the event. The key to winning Record Store Day may be to do what Becton and Lee do: Buy a little, and increase your chances of selling all of it in one day, even if it means some folks walk out empty-handed. If stores buy everything they think their customers want, they could wind up with heaps of overstock that they simply can’t push out of the door.

“That’s kind of what happens on Record Store Day,” Daly says. “It’s a roll of the dice.”