I like music. Who doesn’t? I grew up with a guy whose entire musical interest was limited to the soundtrack for the movie Smokey & The Bandit and the cassingle of Inner Circle’s surprise 1993 smash hit “Bad Boys.” Even, so, Tony truly loved those few songs, although, for reasons I was never able to precisely determine. Because one’s enjoyment of music is so aggressively subjective, I sometimes try and think of questions that will help me understand what that inner experience for them is actually like. The most effective question I’ve come up with lately is this:
“What do you use music for?”
Seems pretty simple. I guess it is. But this question does kind of confuse people, I’ve noticed. They often ask me to clarify or rephrase the question. The best strategy, I think, is to not elaborate on it and just ask them again. Soon they start talking and a little window into their world begins to open. Music is something we exchange in massive quantities, so, surely we actually use it for something, right?
In 2007, a holiday was created to celebrate and support the increasingly smaller pool of physical shops that sold music to the public. With the participation of major artists like Paul McCartney, Metallica, and about a half a dozen behind-the-scenes organizers, Record Store Day was born, and it has been thriving and growing with each passing year.
The holiday’s main attraction is the exclusive vinyl pressings of beloved albums both new and old, sold in limited quantities in participating independent shops. A fan’s quest to obtain a desired, rare release in their local shop on RSD is dependent on a mixture of chance, the ability to wake up early, and a knack for wiggling your way through dense masses of music fans. Play your cards right, and you could go home with a physical artifact containing some great music that a fairly low quantity of other people on the planet have in their collection.
But what does that mean? What does it mean to own music, anyway? If we both adore a song and I’m listening to an illegally downloaded version of it on my iPod, and you’re listening to it on a limited edition 180 gram red-colored vinyl shaped like a pentagram, are you guaranteed to have a more rich, deeply personal relationship with the song? It seems to me that people have strong reactions to the ideas and emotions contained inside music, and that even the rarest, most limited physical edition of those ideas/emotions don’t do anything significant in contributing to the mysterious equation that dictates that you’re gonna cry when you hear your favorite heart-breaker.
So, that is all to say, I never really understood Record Store Day; I avoid the shops on the nascent holiday. Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled that people rally around record stores because I truly love those places. But manufactured scarcity, the kind that labels use to egg on music fans to obtain the rare offerings only available on RSD at all costs is a manipulative ploy, the kind that tricks music fans into fanning the flames on the music industry’s very own version of Black Friday.
There are even RSD record-flippers now, listing items on eBay at inflated prices in the weeks leading up to the holiday— items that aren’t even in the seller’s hands yet. Both the record-flippers and the major labels have smelled significant money-making potential around the perimeter of RSD, and their ideal version of it would probably look like the lobby of a Walmart at 6 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving if they had their way.
Regardless, it’s clear that RSD has been a boon for independent shops, ushering in record-breaking sales on the day itself and increased business year round, and that’s great news for my favorite retail institution (tied with bookstores). That’s why this year I decided I would try something different and not only make an attempt to appreciate Record Store Day, but to actually force myself to blow up my enthusiasm for it to massive proportions to see if that changed my mind about the festivities. Maybe I just haven’t given this a proper chance, I thought.
Consulting the official Record Store Day website I saw that there were 49 participating shops in Massachusetts this year.
So, of course, I installed a functioning turntable in my Saturn Vue and plotted a day trip to visit every single participating shop in the state while listening to vinyl on the drives between.
Here are my observations from Saturday, April 18th, 2015, the 8th Record Store Day.
Newbury Comics, Cambridge, MA – 8:47AM – I am outside of the store in my car listening to “White Punks on Dope” by The Tubes on vinyl, gulping down coffee, staring at a map of Massachusetts. I chose to begin the day here in Cambridge because it’s a major store in the area and they are likely to have many of the exclusive RSD items that get somewhat randomly distributed to the participating stores. Inside there is a line of about 45 people waiting for the shop to open. Dude to lady ratio is 10 to 1.
There is definitely a palpable energy in the air as collectors review their wish list and anxiously keep glancing up at the door to the shop. I spot a friend, music writer Brad Searles, and he lets me cut into line with him since I am not here to obtain any of the especially coveted items. We look around and try and do some unfair profiling: the guy wearing sunglasses indoors is probably a record-flipper, the man who brought his young son is apt to use him as a human shield if it ups the chances of grabbing that exclusive Brand New record.
Speaking of that Brand New record, Brad tells me that a store employee had come out before I arrived and asked people who were here for it to raise their hands. The employee then counted how many copies the store had and pinpointed the exact spot in the line people would be disappointed. One guy who got shut out was visibly upset; he left the line and began swiftly pacing up and down the hall outside the store. A Newbury Comics employee opens the door and welcomes us all to Record Store Day. He begins to describe how the store is laid out and how this will work; each person is only allowed one copy of the exclusive releases, no exceptions. He also announces, “we’re also having a big CD sale today, too” to which the gathered line heartily laughs in his face as he shrugs and prepares to open the flood gates.
We are let inside and everyone begins scurrying trying to assess the layout of the displays while gaining high ground in the stacks that need to be flipped through manually to find out what’s inside. It’s not chaos, I’m not sure what it is— I kind of feel like an observer in the middle of a beehive. An employee walks through the store hawking the Phish release as if he’s selling popcorn at Fenway, “Phish box sets! I got the Phish box set here!” I stand by the stacks where the most people are crowded around, angling to get a spot in front, and a young woman in a green Army jacket looks up from the stack but no one notices her until she loudly asks, “Can I get out?” and everyone makes room to let her exit the intense huddle.
On my way out, I notice the person who was first in line this morning over in a corner of the store going through all of his selections. I ask if I can interview him. His name is Paul and he arrived at the store at 3 a.m. The top of his wish list included the Brand New album and The Pianos 7”, both of which he got. There are three public entry points into the building that houses this Newbury Comics, and when I ask Paul how he chose the door to wait outside at 3:00 AM, he looks at me very wearily and says, “it was a hard decison.” Luckily, a rogue second line at the other doors never appeared.
Me: “What do you use music for?”
Paul: “Oh man, a lot of it is music I grew up with. It’s nostalgic. I’m a chemist and I love physics. With turntables, it’s got a lot to do with physics. So, just getting that whole sound quality from the actual recording. It’s a personal experience.”
See what I mean about getting strange answers to that question? Then again, Paul has been awake for over 24 hours. I thank him and head out to visit the other 48 stores.
Purchases Made: Guided By Voices Do The Collapse vinyl reissue (RSD exclusive), Guided By Voices Isolation Drills vinyl reissue (RSD Exclusive), Built To Spill Untethered Moon vinyl (RSD First Release)
Weirdo Records, Cambridge, MA – On the way out of Harvard Square I tried to stop by Armageddon Records as well as In Your Ear, but both shops were closed, which was surprising. I’d figure most shops would expand their hours on this holy-commerce day. But that’s on them, not me, and if I touch the door knob of the establishment, I cross it off my list. Weirdo Records is a closet sized shop on Massachusetts Ave without any of the exclusive releases for sale, but still an official RSD participant, and it houses an incredible collection of odd and little known artists. Here I make my first used purchase of the day for $3.
Purchases Made: Famous Monsters Speak, Wonderland Golden Records 1973
Goodwill Boston, Boston, MA – I cross the river to start hitting all the Boston stores and am dismayed to find the main In Your Ears store closed as well.
This store has a special significance for me: it’s the first shop where I was a ‘regular’. During my senior year at Boston University, I was the music editor of the student newspaper, and with that job came dozens and dozens of promotional CD’s mailed to me from record labels every week. I would assign some for review, keep some for myself, and then, I would sell the rest to In Your Ear. I found the owner, Reed, and the rest of the staff to be incredibly intimidating at the time, but I still loved being there. Whenever Reed presented me the option of cash or store credit, I would experience a deep, internal crisis where I would weigh all of the new music I could obtain verses the prospects of having any money in my pocket for the coming week. Usually, I’d choose store credit, but sometime I had to take the cash for groceries. Nearly every time I browsed the aisles of In Your Ear, some true eccentric would come in and loudly tell a story or make a scene. I loved it.
But they’re closed right now, and I have 15 more minutes on my parking meter, so I wander into the Goodwill store next door to browse their small used record section. I notice that there’s an unusual amount of well dressed young women walking around the thrift shop with purpose. As I sit down to flip through plastic storage cartons full of vinyl, I am approached by one of the well dressed women, who comes up to tell me about her “look.”
“Do you like my look?” she asks as she proceeds to tell me that she assembled her entire outfit by selecting clothing items from the racks right here at the Goodwill. She then asks if I would be so kind to vote for her so she could win some kind of prize (she told me what the prize was, but the whole thing was so unusual that I forgot some of the details trying to make sense of it as she spoke). She hands me a piece of paper with her name on it and asks me to drop it in the voting box on the way out. Then, much to my amazement, one by one, all of the well dressed women approach me to ask if I will vote for their look. It’s not even noon.
Brighton Music Hall, Pop-Up Record Store – I’m given a free Pabst Blue Ribbon t-shirt here.
Newbury Comics, Newbury Street, Boston, MA – Around this time, I start to see pictures and descriptions of items obtained at Record Store Day from friends popping up on my Facebook feed. Have you ever seen a “Purse Haul” video? This is a YouTube trend I was made aware of last year in which young women create videos that give audiences a tour of recent purse and bag purchases they’ve made. I find them slightly disturbing. But anyways, if I’m the exact wrong audience for the “Purse Haul” video, I might be the precisely correct audience for the Facebook RSD-purchases-haul-picture. Hit like.
Listen Up! Music Store, Natick, MA – I exit the city and get onto the highway for the first time of the day. The turntable works a lot better on the highway, though it is still in no way ideal. Plus, the muffler on my Saturn Vue has been falling apart in pieces, and the car’s unmuffled sound is monstrously loud.
I cannot vouch for this style of music listening at all. As I stop to pick up my friend David to accompany me for a few stores, the rest of the muffler drops off the frame of my car and then I drive over it. Some nearby cars honk letting me know the obvious. The muffler is piping hot. I can’t touch it so I kick it over to the curb until David comes up the street wearing oven mitts to help me get it off the road. The car will now be unbearably loud, but I cannot stop. I have to try and do Record Store Day right.
Natick has a quaint little center of town; there’s a live band performing outside of the Listen Up! Music Store comprised of guitar, bass, and bongos. This is a small, independent store, but they’ve got a lot of the brand new RSD exclusives here. Russell Reitz, the owner of the store, is thankful for all the business the holiday brings in but doesn’t like how you have to submit your order for exclusives mere days after the list of all offerings is made known to stores. “It gives me no chance to get feedback from my customers to know what they’re interested in getting.” I thank him for his time and as we exit, a possible friend or employee who had been watching my exchange with Reitz carefully asks, “You sure you’re not with the CIA?”
Purchases Made: XTC English Settlement vinyl
Newbury Comics, Natick Mall, Briantree, MA – My car sounds like a constant stream of exploding firecrackers tossed down a well, but onward we go to our first mall of Record Store Day. This is a mall that new owners tried to rebrand as an upscale shopping experience called The Natick Collection, but after four years of ceaseless teasing from shoppers, it’s now named The Natick Mall again.
David and I grab lunch at the food court before hitting another store. Across the way, I can see an FYE storefront with “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS” signs plastered all over the windows. FYE started out as a music chain in 1993, eventually buying up and converting small, beloved chains like Strawberries and Record Town into FYE’s as well. I am truly shocked to see an FYE still open in a mall, or anywhere for that matter, even if it’s only for 8 more days. FYE always seemed to me like a far less cool Newbury Comics with significantly higher prices. After lunch, we take a stroll through the fire sale in progress at this FYE. I become enamored with a bright red tablecloth that reads “SPECIAL VALUE” in yellow block letters that’s on a table displaying some hats in back. At the check-out counter, I ask the young woman if the store would be willing to sell me the “SPECIAL VALUE” tablecloth but she says no, there will be other stores to close after this one. I ask her if she’s sad that the store is closing and she tells me, “it’s bittersweet.”
“Why,” I ask, “sad to see the end of physical retail shops even though it’s never been clearer that the future of everything points towards digital existence?”
“No. I liked working here, so I’ll miss it” she tells me, “but it’ll be fun to try something new, too.”
At the Newbury Comics store I ask four employees behind the counter, “What do you use music for?”
“Oh my god, what don’t I use music for?” an employee named Cassidy explains to me. “I listen to it in the car, I listen to it while I cook, I listen to it when I’m just chilling.”
Josh, the assistant manager of the store tells me, “it’s good medicine. You listen to something for ten years and suddenly it’s making you feel something new that it didn’t before.”
Outside the store, the Newbury Comics’ mascot, a creature these employees call Toothy, is dancing in the mall aisle trying to attract business.
The Vinyl Vault, Littleton, MA – I say goodbye to my friend David because I’m about to do one of my longest stretches of driving to get to the next store. Littleton, MA lives up to its name. It’s a tiny town with a population of about 9000 people. Actor Steve Carrel used to be a mailman here 30 years ago. Next to an electronics shop in a tiny strip of retail is The Vinyl Vault.
Inside, I notice the place is run is by a husband and wife team helped by their two, long-haired teenage sons. On the counter there’s a large sheet cake congratulating the store on their one year anniversary. The whole thing is like an updated Norman Rockwell painting, and there’s a pang in my gut that wants this store to succeed so badly. Seriously, the RIAA should film anti-downloading PSA’s at this place. It’s the most wholesome record store I’ve ever seen. My wish for their success is only interrupted by a guy who comes into the store already talking, “hey what’s the deal on those Jerry Garcia magazines?”
One of my goals for purchases this RSD was to find music that I was certain I would be unable to find online in any listenable way, therefore actually owning rare audio. It’s pretty hard to do, and there’s no way to check until I get home, but my purchases at The Vinyl Vault are good bets.
Purchases Made: The Nonesuch Explorer Music From Distant Corners of the World vinyl – Margaret MacArthur An Almanac of New England Farm Songs vinyl
Music DNA, Methuen, MA – I have never been to Methuen before today. The center of town is quaint but eerily quiet. There is not one person outside here. The store, Music DNA, is closed.
My band was once approached by an anonymous person via email about pressing a 7” for us. We agreed and he or she chose a boutique lathe cut vinyl company for the job. In the months, and then weeks, leading up to our 7” release party we grew increasingly nervous as neither the 7”s arrived nor could we get the company to respond to emails or phone calls. Finally, my bandmate Brian attempted a desperate, last ditch effort to talk to someone at the company and dialed up the only record store located in the same town as the vinyl company.
He told the clerk who he was and the name of the person he was trying to reach. Can you believe that person just happened to be in the store looking at records at that very moment and that’s how we finally got some answers? Even stranger, can you believe we were told a squirrel infestation at their office had ruined some of their essential equipment, and that they were so embarrassed by the predicament that they had simply stopped returning phone calls and emails?
Welfare Records, Haverhill, MA – This is just about as North as you can get while still remaining in Massachusetts. Haverhill is another Massachusetts town I’ve never been to, and I’m glad RSD has indirectly forced me to visit. Haverhill used to be the home of a massive shoemaking industry, so much so that the town’s nickname was once “Queen Slipper City.” Oh, and Rob Zombie grew up here.
Welfare Records is another one of the official RSD stores that does not carry new releases, nevermind any of the exclusive RSD offerings, but that’s OK with me because this place is fascinating. Dimly lit like a dive bar, the shop is a series of connected rooms that displays not only records, but also old stereo receivers, tube radios, antique vinyl carry cases, reel to reel machines, 8 track tapes (locked inside a display case for some reason), hell, I even find a box set featuring “the definitive laserdisc release of The Wizard of Oz.” I’ve often noticed that if a record store clerk doesn’t speak to you within one minute of entering the store, unless forced to do so, he or she will not do so voluntarily. That is indeed the case here at Welfare Records where I’m allowed to wander to any of their unsupervised rooms and screw around and not once get checked on in any way. It’s a great store.
The Record Exchange, Salem, MA – I know now that I’m not going to make it. There’s no way I’ll be able to visit every participating record store in Massachusetts today, even if I cut out all of the multiple Newbury Comics stores and booted the Martha’s Vineyard store off the list for requiring a boat to get there. I didn’t get to Western, MA at all, for instance, and I’m disappointed, but no one can tell me I didn’t throw myself full-hog into Record Store Day.
This store has been open for 41 years according to the sign on the door. There are three people behind the counter and they’re having conversations with each other and with customers who they often call out by name with ease— this place is like the Cheers of record stores. I find a beautiful looking record from 1953 in the back of the store called Songs from Mexico – Carme Prietto with Bert Weedon and approach the register to buy it.
As Paul, the manager, rings me up, he tells me the store has had an amazing day. He says, “Music should connect people, and that’s what this day is all about. You see, I run the store’s Facebook page and I can post pictures of cool records all day long. But you know what pictures get the most attention? It’s people. People holding records, people enjoying the store— it’s about people.”
I love the idea of Record Store Day being about people, but wonder if an event that’s so closely associated with items for sale that many desire but only some will take home can rise above the inherent commercialism and become primarily about human connection. Which, funny enough, is also a question you hear bandied around a lot in relation to a much older holiday called Christmas.
Deep Thoughts, Jamaica Plain, MA – The drive from Salem back to Boston gives me time to listen to my new Songs from Mexico album which is gorgeous. Deep Thoughts is another relatively new record store that has opened in defiance of the steady news of declining physical music sales in the last few years. This is my neighborhood record store. I am so tired. I talk to a guy named Nick at the counter and cut right to the chase.
Me: “What do you use music for?”
Nick: “Oh! There’s SO many things to use music for. I use it to relax, to amp myself up, to focus, you can use it to distract yourself, you can use it if you’re sad. Uh…my mom always said, even when I was little kid, ‘Nicky, music is like a drug.’ This is before I even knew what a drug was. I think that’s very true, it has a very powerful effect on you. Even the same music different people use in different ways. It’s really sick, it’s really cool. [laughs]”
Newbury Comics, North Attleboro, MA – I’ve somehow convinced myself to visit one last store. I started at a Newbury Comics, I should end at a Newbury Comics. I drive south, loudly. This store is inside a mall and there’s nothing interesting going on. Even the employee at the counter is so zonked from his intense RSD that he’s just barely able to tell me, “It was a crazy day. I’m tired.”
It’s late. I’m sitting in my parked car listening to a record. Today’s adventure is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever done, and I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about Record Store Day, but I had fun doing it.
There is so much writing currently happening about the changing landscape of the music industry, including Record Store Day. In fact, there’s never been more coverage about the business of music. Just look at the last few weeks: moguls launching new listening platforms, debates about streaming payout rates for artists, the vinyl resurgence vs. the few aging vinyl producing plants, the music festival bubble—you can learn more about what happens behind the scenes more than ever before, and you can also weigh in and have your voice be heard too, if you want.
What I find odd about all of this discussion about the music industry, though, is how all of it is related to this process where you put sound into your ear holes and then you feel amazing in some way and your life seems better. I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out:
What if we started repeating that information in every music business piece that got published? Wouldn’t that help us obtain and retain some much needed perspective about what we’re fighting for?
Here’s an example: I’ve taken the first paragraph of an article I just found, published hours ago, about the music industry and simply amended it with an additional sentence to show you what I mean.
A month ago, news came that revenue from streaming services had surpassed CD sales for the first time in history. Now, The Wall Street Journal is reporting that after securing $400 million in fresh funding, Spotify is now worth more than the entire US recorded music industry. People care about this because music is an unknowable, wildly powerful form of intangible magic that many use to transform their lives, give meaning to their existence, and process emotions.
See, wouldn’t that help us remember what we’re actually talking about here?