Now in its eighth year, the annual Record Store Day celebration (and its autumnal Black Friday counterpart) has been met with its share of praise and criticism. On the one hand, it's undoubtedly brought business to independent record stores, if only for two days a year.
Then again, the enormous list of exclusive releases is often jam-packed with unnecessary filler, from 180-gram videogame soundtrack reissues to fancy new versions of records that are readily available at any half-decent yard sale. While these gratuitous releases might seem like minor inconveniences for cranky record store clerks, they also come with more sinister consequences. Namely, they've created a huge backlog at vinyl pressing plants, preventing independent labels from going about their usual business.
While Record Store Day ostensibly helps independent record stores stay afloat, it's having the opposite effect on independent labels. Tim Clapp, who operates Vancouver's Kingfisher Bluez, says he feels the pinch from these 20-week wait times. "It really hurts small labels who aren't benefiting from big major label events like this," he tells Exclaim!, adding that it's "basically a cash in on another 'underground' medium very recently turned profitable again."
Gord Dufresne, proprietor of the British Columbia-based hardcore and punk imprint Deranged Records, explains that he doesn't participate in Record Store Day releases, but it still poses a problem for his business. He calls the pressing wait times "too long," saying, "It used to take eight weeks plus assembling and shipping, but it's been gradually getting longer for the last three to four years. Turnarounds for vinyl right now, including the initial setup, lacquers, tests, et cetera, is approximately 20 weeks."
Simon Harvey of Ugly Pop Records adds, "I am indeed experiencing those same stresses, although I can't lay the blame entirely at the feet of Record Store Day. For the last few years, turnaround times have been strained in the spring as RSD approached, with the bottleneck eventually (albeit temporarily) clearing after it passed. Now we seem to have moved to a point at which the overload is so complete that we are permanently at that stage."
The overloaded pressing plants simply can't keep up with the demand. "There isn't such a thing as business as usual anymore," Dufresne says. "It's a waiting game and you have to be patient — which isn't easy when bands are going on tour and you have another three releases about to go into production the following month.
"What business do you know where you pay multiple thousands of dollars upfront and have to wait five plus months to get your product? It's not like plants are not trying. Many of them are operating seven days a week with two shifts per day."
With a number of record presses rumoured to be launching around the globe, including the forthcoming Canada Boy Vinyl in Calgary, the label owners hope that the industry will eventually balance out.
Still, as DuFresne puts it, Record Store Day's model puts an emphasis on pumping out gimmicky records and selling them to independent shops at ludicrous prices.
"The way RSD is structured, it makes financial sense for labels to go 'outside the box' for that one day a year," he explains. "There's little to lose for most labels participating in RSD since you are almost certain the release will sell out and most are charging ridiculous wholesales rates. Labels would not get away with this nonsense, nor could they afford to do so, any other time of the year."
All of it comes down to the risk-free approach of major labels, who can afford to crank out bizarre releases once a year. "Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of crap records being released every day of the year, but there's a certain amount of commitment and risk that comes with running a label," Dufresne continues. "RSD makes it financially viable and often lucrative to release projects that would otherwise be ignored or ridiculed."
The frustration with the Record Store Day pressing bottleneck has already resulted in a rise of DIY cassette- and digital-only imprints, and if things don't change soon we may see a further spike in non-vinyl formats. "I really hope CDs don't become cool again," Clapp says.
Record Store Day returns on Saturday (April 18). You can see all the exclusives up for grabs here.