For most of its existence, Record Store Day has been an annual block party.
Vinyl addicts and casual music fans alike swarm indie shops across the country every year, lining sidewalks or crowding the edges of temporary stages as live bands perform and pint-pouring beer reps circulate to keep the festivities going. It's an all-day mini-festival put on by the locally owned houses of musical worship so many of us adore. The lure of an influx of new albums, all dropping on the same day — and free concerts — has been both a boon to profits in a struggling industry and an opportunity for music-loving employees to mix with like-minded customers.
But this year's Record Store Day, set for this Saturday, July 17, will be a quieter affair. There will be no sidewalk ragers soundtracked by local DJs or aisles packed shoulder to shoulder with shoppers thumbing through the racks. All the cans of free beer appear to be empty. Stores will sell a new batch of select albums, but most of the trappings of the party will be on hold for another year.
The changes are designed to address the safety concerns of an ongoing pandemic while preserving the thrill of finally laying your hands on records anticipated for months. Even the one-day bonanza has been split into two. This will actually be the second installment of Record Store Day this summer, the first drop having occurred last month as a way to further diffuse the crowds. In 2020, the day was split into three.
The irony of the muted celebrations is that we're in the midst of an incredibly successful period in vinyl sales. With concerts and most live music outlets off limits for months, people have spent more than ever to build up their collections during the COVID-19 pandemic. That first drop of 2021, on June 12, sparked the biggest week of sales ever for a Record Store Day week, with 1,279,000 vinyl albums sold, Billboard reported.
And stores plan to keep selling this week. The core piece of what many music lovers flock to indie stores for on Record Store Day — the exclusive and impossible-to-get vinyl — is still happening. For many, this is how they praise their favorite stores, and that's a good thing.
Throughout the 2000s, record stores were in trouble.
Primarily due to digital platforms such as iTunes, CD and record sales were declining. People just weren't buying physical media, which left many record stores across the country struggling. Mail order kept some businesses alive, yet others simply couldn't stay afloat and closed. It was a scary time for owners, clerks, music lovers and collectors. But that was about to change.
In 2007, inspired by the success of Free Comic Book Day for independent comic shops, Eric Levin of Criminal Records in Atlanta and Chris Brown from Bull Moose Music in Maine brought together a group of indie record store owners in Baltimore. It was time to get shops to start working together to create hype and awareness nationwide. During this meeting, they formed the basis for a yearly celebration of all things record store. Record Store Day was mapped out to unite fans, labels and artists in a massive celebration of the culture surrounding independent record shops.
In 2008, they put their plan into action. Stores across the country threw celebrations to praise independent record stores during that inaugural event. Among the festivities were live music, food, drinks and exclusive releases that can only be purchased at indie record stores.
It was a smart marketing move that helped remind customers of all the pleasures they were missing in the rush to downloads. But it was also a boost for those on the other side of the register, the employees who turned their music fandom into careers, or at least part-time jobs. Employees like me.