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Record Store Day Triples Down On Its Mission Amid Covid And Calls To Buy Music


About three weeks ago, Nashville’s Sadler Vaden released a statement on social media, white text on a black background. “With no touring in sight and record sales heavily declining for years, we are struggling,” he wrote on behalf of musicians. His proposal was, depending on your point of view, outmoded or radically counter-intuitive: “Enjoy music how you want to but please consider buying that song or album you love from artist merch stores or websites, Bandcamp, and even iTunes. That’s all.”

Vaden, guitarist for Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit and an artist himself who released the album Anybody Out There? in March, says he popped off the manifesto in fifteen minutes at home as a counter to “tone deaf” comments by Spotify founder Daniel Ek who’d said in an interview that, in essence, if artists want more streaming revenue, they should release more music to up their volume. Most artists found this offensive, and Vaden’s retort got shared and endorsed by a number of notables, including folk icon David Crosby and Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, sparking a robust conversation about the lost ethos of purchasing cherished music in an all-you-can-stream age. “Which was good, because I felt like I hit a nerve with these guys,” Vaden said in a follow-up interview. “Hopefully, other people will see that and kind of start to think differently about it.”

This invitation to rethink established consumption habits came in the run up to Record Store Day, which over 13 years has become a virtual national holiday celebrating physical recordings and directly bolstering the ownership economy that surrounds them. Sadly, this weekend’s 2020 edition will lack the joyful, community aspects of the event, from buyers camping out overnight in line to live performances and crowded record bin browsing. Rules for the radically redesigned Covid-19 edition will vary from store to store, but what we know is that the postponed April date was trisected into three “drop” days, with the year’s special edition records arriving in stores in batches for sale this Saturday, Aug. 29, plus Sept. 26 and Oct. 24.

“There was just no way financially the stores were going to be ready for one giant day of releases. So that’s the idea of splitting them into three days,” says Record Store Day co-founder Carrie Colliton from Raleigh, NC. The re-configuring was a huge undertaking, coordinating more than 1,200 stores, record labels, distributors and artist managers, but it was critical for the financial health of the stores which rely on RSD’s annual revenue haul the way other stores think about Christmas. Three days “is the scenario that best serves the most number of stores and that’s all we can do,” Colliton said, while noting that participation in terms of labels and artists releasing special editions didn’t flag this year and that enthusiasm at stores is high. “I’ve been kind of amazed at the creativity and the trust they have in their communities," she said. 

Locally, buyers should check social media for each of Nashville’s record stores before Saturday to see what policies they’ve set. Grimey’s New and Preloved Music, arguably the city’s most influential and nationally known record store and annually a site of an all-day festival for RSD, will close its doors on Saturday – its physical doors, but it will participate. “We cannot be in a position of being a vector or even just an event that draws a crowd,” the shop posted on its website. “With that in mind we have decided to offer the RSD Drops 8-29 releases exclusively online.”

On the other side of East Nashville, Vinyl Tap is taking a different approach, with an online lottery that assigned buyers a fifteen-minute time slot across a 12-hour day to come inside and shop. It’s a far cry from what they were hoping for in April. “We had big plans for this year,” said owner Todd Hendrick. “Three stages. Three bars. Lots of bands. Way more copies of each title than usual. All that stuff. So, we were amped up and had been planning for six months.” He could be morose about several months of being closed in the spring, but instead he’s upbeat about prospects for sales across three Record Store Day drops and confirms that over four years, his business overall has steadily grown.

But can the spirit of Record Store Day – an ethos and posture toward music that includes at least occasionally buying albums, CDs or downloads – spread to more conventional music fans and make a difference for artists in the year of silent stages and perhaps beyond? Other artists besides Sadler Vaden seem to hope so. Nashville’s Emma Swift, an Australian born indie songwriter, released her album of Bob Dylan covers Blonde On The Tracks, by design, in physical format and for online purchase at Bandcamp only, eschewing at least for now the streaming services. And Americana star Margo Price recently poked Paste magazine on Twitter when the media outlet ran a list of “10 New Albums to Stream Today” and she replied, “oh s**t y’all spelled ‘buy’ wrong.”

Before Covid, it was par for the course for artists to directly promote physical sales to their fans. It’s just that they did so as part of their routine banter on stage, pointing audience members to the “merch table” where they could add to their experience by taking home a CD, LP or t-shirt. For thousands of roots musicians, gig sales add up to a significant income stream. Making that ask has become harder in the online space, where initially at least, many artists found it more awkward to directly appeal for cash. But it is happening. Artist and bandleader Drew Holcomb told WMOT that when he turned his video Kitchen Covers series into a set of signed LPs that fans pre-ordered, “we definitely sold a lot more than we thought, and it absolutely was a major help to the loss of touring income.”

Holcomb sizes up the music market as both a songwriter/artist and as the founder of the Magnolia Record Club, a mail-order vinyl subscription service that’s done well in recent years. Physical sales, he says, are “a great way to support the artist and the most immediately tangible way to support the artist.” At the same time, he joins most observers I spoke with in stressing that keeping a variety of ways to access and derive royalties off music, streaming included, is important. As for Record Store Day, Holcomb said, “I just honestly hope it’s a huge win for the stores. Everybody’s doing the best they can to keep the wheels on. Record stores are an incredible asset to a community, and I hope people remember that. And I think it’s important for artists like myself to ring the bell – ‘hey don’t forget this is an important part of the music ecosphere.’”

Bandcamp stands out in 2020 for its unique role straddling the digital and the physical markets. When artists set up an online home with the 12-year old Oakland platform, they can share their digital music for no charge or paywall it. They can set their own prices or let fans pay what they want. And they can use the platform to sell physical pieces, from CDs and LPs to t-shirts. This year, Bandcamp attracted widespread notice and plaudits for its “fee-free-Fridays,” when artists were allowed to keep the 15% commission that is Bandcamp’s usual revenue share. Four such days have generated more than $20 million altogether, amid a blockbuster year when Bandcamp is on track to facilitate nearly a billion dollars in overall sales to its artists.

In an interview with artist activist and rocker Damon Krukowski at NPR recently, Bandcamp CEO and co-founder Ethan Diamond said while it’s a digital platform, he doesn’t want it to be seen as a streaming service. “I consider us a record store and a music community,” he said. “The primary difference being that we're a way to directly support the artists that you enjoy listening to. You know, half of the sales on Bandcamp at this point are for physical goods.” (emphasis added), while “digital has also seen really strong growth.”

Thus in a 21st century when the vast majority of social and economic pressures have favored digital everything over analog anything, the music business appears to have almost entirely surrendered to all-digital before having second thoughts. Whatever else 2020 has taught us is that past pronouncements that any given music format was “dead” were premature and anthema to the counter-trend Vaden and others hope to cultivate. Industry watchers see a vibrant market where music streamers, vinyl-heads and CD nostalgists are all being well served. Music associations could become champions of the movement, but sources there say they are wary of explicitly promoting physical ownership because they have so many constituencies to attend to.

At the local record store, at a time when their working relationship with artists is stronger and more important than ever, some of the new dynamics may be taking root in a serious way. “I feel like we’re working really hand in hand - the stores with artists who think that physical media is important still,” says Hedrick at Vinyl Tap. “Luckily there’s a lot of them out there, and they all want to help us out right now, and vice versa. Artists and independent labels are using this as a revenue stream. If that changes things long term in that regard, it’s a good thing. It keeps all of us afloat.”


Sadler Vaden's full statement.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org