Which Way to the Record Store, Brother?

In this essay, guest blogger Adam presents his opinion on the present state of the music industry, how it got here and where it’s going.

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Listen to: Beck covering Sonic Youth’s, “Green Light”

Which Way to the Record Store, Brother?

Saturday, April 18, 2009 marked the third annual Record Store Day (RSD) where independent record shops hold promotions all day to encourage patronage.  Among the events that took place that day were in store performances and special releases formatted exclusively on vinyl. I frequent record stores many times a year but I was extra excited about this particular day because I was hoping to score limited 7” pressings from Sonic Youth, Beck and The Flaming Lips. A good friend and I fought long lines, vinyl sniffing-uber-nerds and small confines at three different wax factories in New York, coming away with the last copies of everything we wanted. 

Why is there a record store day?

Many small indie labels will be left standing, and unless their current out of date (and out of touch) paradigms and business models are revamped,   major labels will disappear. RSD promotes INDEPENDENT record stores and labels.  Labels pressed vinyl records just for this day and sold them exclusively at indie shops.  Artists on independent labels performed for free in the actual stores.  It’s this kind of fresh thinking that will keep small, independent institutions afloat and will drive interest in purchasing music.

The Death of the CD 

It is still the status quo for bands to press their albums on compact disc, but unlike just 10, or even 5 years ago, many new albums are also pressed on vinyl or even pressed EXCLUSIVELY on vinyl.  The major draw for the CD was its ‘superior’ sound quality and track seeking capability (as compared to the tape).  With the onset of digital music, both purchased and pirated, the CD doesn’t continue to serve much of a purpose. I have read (and fully agree) that the end of the compact disc era could be marked as September 09, 2009 when Capitol/EMI re-issues the Beatles’ entire catalogue re-mastered on CD for the first time.  9/9/9.  Revolution #9, #9?!  This release will mark one of the last epic releases on CD as labels will find that the interest will be slim to purchase music on a CD that will scratch and skip, in a jewel case that will crack and stain.  The last CD that I purchased was Idlewild’s Best Of collection in 2008…this will probably be the last CD I ever purchase. 

The Vinyl Re-Emergence 

A few years back, owning a turntable and browsing the vinyl section of your local record store might have been reserved mostly for record store geeks and your dad.  If this indeed was true in recent years past it is becoming less so now.  My girlfriend has informed me that the mainstream ‘hip’ clothing and knickknack repository Urban Outfitters now sells vinyl records.  Your dad does not shop at Urban Outfitters.  As the mp3 completes its campaign to overtake the CD, vinyl record sales are increasing.  Believe it or not, people enjoy spending money and receiving something tangible in return.  People want to own something physical.  The vinyl record has a much larger presentation area than the CD and people find the large format artwork more enjoyable.  More importantly the record produces a warmer, more dynamic sound than both CD and mp3 are capable of.  Indie bands, labels and stores recognize this (see Record Store Day) and are heavily promoting music on vinyl and usually include a coupon for a complete digital album download with the record at no extra cost.   

How Does the Current Music Industry Landscape Affect the Band and Label? 

As I have mentioned before, the internet has all but killed record sales, which has taken a critical toll on large music retailers and the major record labels that rely so much on those record sales.  Major labels have for long been known to put record sales in front of artistic freedom and integrity.  If this wasn’t enough reason for a band to sign with an indie, the dire shape the majors are currently in should be.

Large, established bands are moving to independent labels.  Sonic Youth recently left Geffen after nearly 19 years to join Matador. This will continue to happen.  What smaller labels lack in money for promotion they make up for with being in touch with what people want.  It will be wise for labels to use the internet, the same force that killed record sales, to promote bands by giving away music.  GIVING AWAY MUSIC!  Many less established bands rely on an album leak (some are even leaked intentionally by the band) to create buzz and blog coverage.  Where major labels are paying high court fees to prosecute bit torrent site masters (see Pirate Bay’s recent conviction in a Swedish court), smarter, band friendly labels would see a leak as a cheap promotional tool.

Although album sales in general are way down, bands themselves never made their living from pressing albums…the label takes most of that.  Bands make a living from touring.  The bands and labels that are able to adapt to the age we live in will use album leaks and blog buzz to generate show attendance.

Licensing.  Bands might not be selling records like they did 10 years ago, but there will always be a need for music licensing- especially with the omnipresence of the internet.  Major corporations like Apple are buying songs from indie bands and so it is such that the term “sell out” will change meaning.  I was upset when Wilco licensed tracks from their last record (Sky Blue Sky) to Volkswagen because “Impossible Germany” made me think about 20-somethings with smart haircuts stuffed into small cars in transit to their desk jobs…but this is not selling out- this is making a living.  One might argue that Wilco doesn’t need help from Volkswagen to sell concert tickets (and I fully agree), but lesser known bands might.  The term “sell out” will be applied to bands that don’t choose who they license to well (I’m looking at you Billy Corgan) and sell their music to the first uninspired bidder.  

No one ever said being in a band was easy.

8 thoughts on “Which Way to the Record Store, Brother?

  1. Great post Adam! I agree the CD is dead. I’m still not on board with vinyl, personally. I get the tangible aspect of vinyl, but it’s too inconvenient for me and see it as a trend. Digital will prevail, I think.

  2. Great post Adam! I agree the CD is dead. I’m still not on board with vinyl, personally. I get the tangible aspect of vinyl, but it’s too inconvenient for me and see it as a trend. Digital will prevail, I think. And as for bands making money, I’m all for the subscription-based model – like TopSpin!

    • hey guys thanks!

      -julie- i agree that digital will prevail over other mediums, but vinyl’s viability will continue to increase. there are more purists out there than you might think. it’s going to be a bummer when people realize 10-20 or whatever years down the road that they have lost files, don’t remember what they were into at certain points in their lives and don’t have any real memories associated with the digital file as compared to a tangible object that required actual effort to purchase (assuming a trip to the record store was involved)- at least that’s how i feel.

      -had fun doing this bit for you and can’t wait to do another one sometime. you’ve got a really impressive blog here!

      glad we can have this discussion…have a safe, awesome trip!

  3. I’m intrigued by your argument that more and more bands are going to leave the big labels for the smaller labels. My question: Why even sign with a small label at all? What value are they bringing to the equation if they don’t have the money to promote the music? Is it the relationship they have with bloggers and other media to get your music to rise above the “noise”? I’m trying to think of what other value they provide …

    Or with the digital age, are all labels on their way out, just like the CD? After all, bands can easily publish their own mp3s online, get in to the iTunes store, etc.

    • There are technologies emerging, like TopSpin, that are designed to take labels out of the equation all together and give bands the tools to do it themselves. I’m personally very excited by this prospect – the democratization of the music industry! I think independent labels still play an important role as a marketing engine tho.

      That’s my two cents. I’m interested to hear Adam’s thoughts as well.

      • so, i’ll quickly respond to all of the above posts.

        joshua- i think you’re right- many smaller independent labels are in touch with new media and marketing platforms which allows them to successfully market a band for less money. you have your super small labels and your larger indies like matador who have access to distribution and booking that will allow a band more artistic freedom than say a sony.

        julie- the john doe article points this out- majors are still trying to hit the ‘home run.’ this is why they sign american idol contestants and the like. a band with any kind of artistic integrity won’t sign with one of these guys.

        julie- topspin looks pretty great. i have a feeling that this could take off. this kind of ties in with joshua’s post- although the topspin website is pretty vague, it sounds like it will allow bands to publish their own music online- my question would be if they have ties to distributors- the physical music entity is still a viable income source…many band would still want to press their music. there will always be a market for medium that retains the best possible sound quality- the fact is that a digital file will never sound as good as an analogue record (to judging ears)- much like a digital photo could never surpass the quality of a well processed film print.

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