33 Rip-Offs Per Minute

Record Store Day and the Two-Tier Market

33 Rip-Offs Per Minute
33 Rip-Offs Per Minute

By Rob Barbour

May 7, 2015 17:00

"I try as hard as I can to buy music from independent stores," says Alisha, 17. "If I travel anywhere and I’m able to visit a smaller store I will definitely go and pick up a few [records] and I try to buy online from smaller labels and sellers, like Ambition and Monkey Boy Records."

Despite growing up in the streaming age, during which MC Lars’ prescient 2006 assertion that ‘music was a product, now it is a service’ has come to full fruition, Alisha still pays for her music. And she buys it on vinyl.

‘I think having something physical is a lot nicer than just buying over iTunes and some of the variants and packaging are absolutely beautiful. I just don’t feel like you get that from just a CD. A vinyl collection is something to take pride in.’

In other words Alisha is the prime demographic for Record Store Day, which depending on your view is either an annual celebration of independent music retailers or an outrageous global manifestation of the phrase ‘money for old rope’. There are countless think-pieces out there about the impact of Record Store Day, positive and negative, but the fact is that on Saturday 18 April independent record shops up and down the country had queues round the block. Even fully-fledged post-grads with PhDs in disillusionment from Jaded University would have to admit that this is A Good Thing.

Oxford’s Truck Records opened at 8am and was serving customers coffee from their in-house coffee bar as the queue stayed in place for over 2 hours, the shop’s tiny retail space simply not sufficient to hold the wax-gobbling hordes. An employee at Rise Records in Worcester told me it was the busiest Record Store Day he’d ever seen. A cynical corporate wallet-gouge it may well be, but it’s that rare breed: one that injects a much-needed dose of stimulant into thousands of independent businesses around the world, a functioning example of the otherwise specious model of trickle-down economics.

The main driver of this sudden demand for 12 square inch plastic bags? Record Store Day Exclusives. Limited-edition variants, one-offs and represses, released on RSD and only available in stores. First-come, first-served. Footfall for the shops, profit for the label and the artist, and an often-beautiful collectable for the fans. Provided, of course, you can actually get to a record store. And even then, you have to get there before the other twenty people in your town who want that limited-edition picture disc every bit as badly as you do.

For Alisha, her must-have purchases for this year’s Record Store Day were those by Manchester haircut pioneers The 1975: 4 clear vinyl 12” EPs, each limited to 500 copies in the UK. As I stood in Rise Records the next day, alternately perusing their leftover RSD stock (including 5 or 6 copies apiece of said EPs) and salivating over the American candy on display in the shop directly opposite, some ‘enterprising’ individual was cheerfully creating an eBay listing for the full set. The ‘Buy It Now’ price? £125. Conservatively, that’s a 300% markup on their retail price. Conservatively.

I’m picking that price because that’s what Alisha had agreed to pay before responding to a message I posted on Twitter regarding the shop’s overstocks; that was by no means the most expensive listing for them. Or for any Record Store Day exclusive. To pick a few examples more relevant to the Punktastic crowd, you can currently pick up Biffy Clyro’s ‘Puzzle’ for a cool £80; Brand New’s ‘Deja Entendu’ is listed for upwards of £250 and Every Time I Die’s limited-edition 7” is going for £50, or over £7 per inch. No, vinyl may not be sold like carpet but that’s still a ridiculous ratio and indicative of something very, very wrong.

Author Ian Rankin, a vocal supporter of vinyl and – to a lesser extent – Record Store Day, tweeted the day after Record Store Day that he’d counted over 800 listings for RSD15 exclusives on eBay. And that’s before you open the Pandora’s box of price-pumping that is Discogs.

“The price that I paid for those records was insane. [But] these records hold a special place in my heart and I have been praying that someday they would finally press them onto vinyl so when I found out about them being part of RSD I had to get them no matter what.”

It’s this passion – the fire that drives people to support bands, and to start bands, to buy music and to play music – that powers the music industry. But Record Store Day’s best intentions have created a two-tier market, where the vast majority of the financial benefit is seen not by shops or by artists but by random eBayers preying on this attitude. How long can that possibly last? How many times do you have to miss out on a release, or get legally mugged via Paypal, before you just decide ‘screw it’ and spend that £125 on a year of Spotify and a couple of cans of cider?

And let me be clear: I’m not attacking the collector’s market, or resellers per se. One of the most expensive records I’ve ever bought is a limited-edition 45 RPM U.S. pressing of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’, because we are all doomed to become our parents. This edition was an RSD11 exclusive which sold out instantly.  I bought mine almost four years after its release, brand new and sealed, and certainly don’t begrudge the guy who sold it to me the £10 or so he made off it for having the foresight to buy two copies then deciding several years later to divest himself of one of them.

No, my issue lies with the sheer, cold-blooded greed of people going out on Record Store Day with the express intention of buying releases they know will sell out quickly, thus increasing their scarcity and, like a vinyl DeBeers, creating the market gap they subsequently exploit by listing them immediately. It’s not just passion on which these scalpers are preying. It’s also a variant of that 21st Century ailment known (to awful, awful people) as FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out. Ironically, rather than being encouraged to make the trip to a new town/record shop to find an RSD exclusive, younger music fans are taking straight to the internet and paying these hyper-inflated prices while stock still sits on shelves unsold. As record shops revert from resembling the opening scenes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and the day’s dust settles, so too do the eBay prices.

So where does this leave the fans, the people without whom – lest we forget – there are no record stores and there is no Record Store Day?

“Infuriated. And quite saddened. RSD is supposed to be for helping out independent stores and for people that enjoy collecting to be able to go out and buy records that they have been looking forward to for months. The spirit of that gets ruined by people flipping them on eBay.”

And what can be done? Even if you implement a ‘one copy per customer’ policy (which many stores do with limited-edition releases), that one copy could still find its way onto eBay. But the place to start, in this writer’s view, is not to engage. The top tier of this market is created by the unscrupulous souls who are reaping hundreds of pounds of profit per-disc simply by getting out of bed early on a Saturday, or by having the good fortune of living in a town with an easily accessible record store.

Like any market, it operates on the basis of supply and demand. Destroy the demand. If just one year went by when these people found themselves with a house full of Run The Jewels picture discs and no-one willing to pay their Schwarzenegger-swollen prices, I’d wager they’d cut their losses and switch off the alarm clock the following year.

Another idea – and a more realistic one, albeit one which would require a total shift in the way RSD is marketed – would be not to release the list of RSD exclusives until the day itself. To an extent, the high-demand items can be anticipated with a degree of accuracy based on the popularity of the artist, the album (if it’s a re-release) and the number of copies pressed. That ‘Deja Entendu’ sold out in less time than it takes to say ‘Daisy was mediocre’ came as a surprise to no-one to whom this sentence makes sense. That so many copies have appeared on eBay at comically high prices is, sadly, equally predictable.

Not only would this help reduce amount of individual profiteering around Record Store Day, but – folksy nostalgia klaxon-  it would revive the sense of excitement that existed in the days before the internet helped us plan our music buying with military precision. Not knowing what CDs your local music shop had in stock, or even what had been released that week, was all part of the fun. A lot more fun than getting out of bed before the postman only to discover that long-awaited repress of your favourite album is sitting, unloved, on the shelf of someone who’s about to make more off it than the people who wrote, recorded and released the damn thing.

The SS music biz  – and in this instance I’m not just talking about the labels and artists but the stores and distributors too – has been having an internal debate about how to keep itself above water for about fifteen years, ever since Napster’s periscope broke through the surf. With the resurgence of vinyl and the desirability of coloured variants and ‘audiophile’ pressings, it might have found a way to stay afloat; now it has to ensure these unethical bastards don’t torpedo it once and for all.


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