Monday 2 September 2013

Record Store Day and Independent Label Market: competing economies

Record Store Day (RSD) exists to sustain independent record shops; Independent Label Market (ILM) exists to help indie labels claw back some money lost by selling records to shops through distributors.

The 2 parties making money throughout the year are major labels and distributors. RSD is becoming more popular each year principally because of major labels’ involvement. In 2013 the RSD hype in the mainstream media wasn’t because of the Cannibal Corpse picture disc but because David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Kate Bush and Pink Floyd, among other established major label perennials, had limited releases.

This one day of feverish excitement about overpriced records - inflated by labels and shops - helps many record shops balance their books for the rest of the year. The bigger labels do pretty well out of it, too. For the smaller labels, though, the ones shut out from the RSD whirligig, it’s just another bad day at the office.

Independent Label Market
Every big city should have one of these. I’ve enjoyed the days at London’s Spitalfields Market, getting good deals on new records and back catalogue. For some of the smaller labels involved, it’s a financial lifeline as they can sell records at a small profit, which pays for the loss they incur when they sell through a distributor.

The unrealistic deals given to many small labels in the UK means that they lose money on every record they sell through a distributor. Self-distribution is rarely worth it for small labels thanks to the sheer time involved in successfully invoicing shops. Want to know about a label that’s never been paid for its records by the shop that’s sold them? Speak to a small label. Most of them have some horror stories.

Mail order
Declining sales have put record shops in reduced circumstances. Small labels have almost always lost money or broken even. Most of the records I’ve bought in the past 25+ years from these cottage (or bedroom in a cottage) industries have been by mail order, either direct from the label or from an underground mail order distributor.

I’ve spoken to bands on such labels and they’ve always been delighted when they see their records in shops. But the likelihood of seeing them in shops is dwindling. The small labels will survive selling their records at gigs and online. Many of them are now using singles clubs, which bypass record shops completely.

Some of these labels - OddBox, for example, whose are pressing 100 copies of each single - rarely get their records in shops as it is. For my money, their Tyrannosaurus Dead 12” ep is one of 2013’s most exciting debuts. You won’t find it in record shops, though.

It wouldn’t take a daring buyer to stock this ep - the frenzied fuzz puts it next to contemporaries Spook School or Joanna Gruesome, its heritage would see it happily next to Dinosaur Jr in the racks - but if independent shops decide they don’t need these sorts of records, then many labels are drawing the conclusion that they don’t need the shops.

Tyrannosaurus Dead’s second release was a 7” lathe cut. Just 50 copies. All money to the label and band. Makes economic sense.

This DIY ethic chimes with what Damon Krukowski said last month:
Musicians don’t need to reach everyone; we just need to reach our audience. And we don’t need to make everyone pay a little, but we do need those for whom our work means something significant to pay enough to enable us to provide it. I believe that relationship is relatively undisturbed by the Internet — that’s why limited editions, from lavish box sets to underground cassettes, seem to be humming along fine right now. Those are products made for a specific audience, which appreciates their agreed-upon value.

All of Britain's independent label shops that I've visited do great work under a lot of financial pressure. But some of them could work more closely with independent labels to ensure their survival and the indie scene's health rather than relying on the major-label blitz of RSD to balance their books.

I'd welcome suggestions from indie labels on what they could do to sell more records through shops. I bet they'll have some great ideas.

Rough Trade East
My local record shop is Rough Trade East (RTE) - I live about a mile away. Some of you might think I’m lucky. In a way, I am. However, I seldom buy anything there because they’re so expensive - 7”s are at least £1 more than other shops; albums are between £2 and £5 higher. So if I want more than one new record from a shop - and most weeks, I do - then it’s cheaper to buy mail order from another record shop.

But I’m glad it’s there. I was in RTE on Saturday and there were records I didn’t know about and, in one case, thought had sold out of its crazily small run. That’s the joy of record shopping. If I’d had a few more quid, I’d have bought a reissued album, too. Yes, all the ones I want are available cheaper mail order from another shop (even factoring in the postage cost) but I could’ve bought them at any point in the past 5 years. Picking up a record is always more enticing than looking at a thumbnail.

Most of the punters were tourists, many young enough to be with their parents. Yes, both generations could be buying records, but on that day I saw only the kids with record bags.

RTE is a destination venue for visitors, some of whom no doubt buy something just because they’re there. Perhaps they wouldn’t if they lived locally; however, the number of indie record shops in London is so low that there isn’t much choice and they'll eventually find themselves in RTE.

I wonder if it’s this small success or the idea of empire building that’s leading to Rough Trade to open a branch in New York. I wish them well. But I warn them: there’s room in central London for another decently sized independent record shop. And if, say, New York’s Other Music decide to open a branch on Rough Trade’s Shoreditch turf, and their prices don’t have Rough Trade’s silly mark-up, then RTE might find itself struggling to survive on its own patch.

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