Dan Matherson has been participating in Record Store Day since it began in the spring of 2008.
The owner of Repo Records on South Street was unpacking boxes of brand new arrivals when we spoke on Tuesday afternoon, preparing for his biggest business day of the year.
“There’s just a ton,” Matherson said. “We have six bands playing. We rent (the space) next door for the day. The bands play from noon until six o’clock. There’s hundreds and hundreds of releases. We probably do as much business in that day that we would do in two weeks. That’s how busy it is.”
This Saturday marks the tenth anniversary of the annual celebration.
Record Store Day sees thousands of people flock to mom and pop shops to get their hands on limited edition releases pressed exclusively for the third weekend in April.
Some are there for the rare items while others come for sales and discounts, or just to buy local.
Matherson showed me a list of the items he’ll have in stock, which included records from The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Prince, and the Sex Pistols. He says these are limited to a few thousand worldwide copies that don’t go on sale until April 22nd.
The line around Repo Records starts with 50 to 60 people waiting to get in when the store opens at nine in the morning.
Matherson says the line remains until three or four in the afternoon.
“The first group of people are all hardcore collectors,” said Matherson of his clientele. “They’re the people waiting in line for hours and they want to get this limited edition stuff right off the bat. When that kind of clears out, it’s just a whole mix of people. It’s anything from kids, to older adults, and not everybody buys the limited release stuff. They’ll buy the regular stuff that we have. It’s just a whole mix of people. We probably get close to a thousand people coming through here.”
At the Reliquary, there are eight boxes laying on a table, waiting to be opened.
Both are niche shops, with one selling industrial CDs and records and the other peddling heavy metal music and merchandise.
“We participate because we get offered a lot of exclusive releases,” says Joe Scott, owner of Digital Underground. “It draws a crowd that we wouldn’t normally draw and bringing people inside the shop is always a plus.”
“It’s the best day of the year, better than Christmas or whatever,” adds Chris Mazeika, who runs the Vinyl Altar side. “It’s the day that people go out and support small record stores selling vinyl. It’s a big boom and everybody is out searching for music and looking for exclusive stuff.”
Mazeika says the annual event has grown his business and brought new customers to the store. He also sells online, but the foot traffic provides physical presence, creating a shopping experience that you just can’t replicate on the internet.
Last year, both shops stepped outside of that niche market somewhat, buying exclusive items that they normally wouldn’t stock. Mazeika says it worked out “really well” and resulted in people coming to the shop who would not have come otherwise.
“That’s how we function and survive everyday, the idea that we’re a niche market,” he said. “But Record Store Day is about everybody going out and buying music everywhere. We celebrated that and we got a lot of new customers that just came in specifically for that. Not all of them, but some have returned as customers.”
But some shops want nothing to do with Record Store Day.
I spoke with three Philadelphia record store owners, off the record, who don’t take part.
One was disillusioned with shoppers’ intentions, pointing out that “sharks” will come to their place, buy a bunch of records, and then sell for profit online.
Another mentioned the fact that you have to front large amounts of money for special inventory, only to be stuck with it if you can’t sell it.
A third owner spoke of people buying for the wrong reasons. They might pop their heads in looking for a purple-colored, special edition David Bowie vinyl, but show no real interest in browsing the rest of the store.
“It’s a huge financial investment and there is a risk involved with that,” Scott said. “If you can’t sell all of it, then generally vinyl is non-returnable. Once you have it, you have it. you’re not sending it back to the distributor. There is that whole aspect of it. I don’t know what distributors are dealing with, but a lot of them have you pay in advance. You’re talking five, ten-thousand dollars in records for one day and that can be substantial for a small business. That’s a lot to front.”
“People get too wrapped up into it and they order everything,” said Matherson. “You can’t do that. If they get stuck with stuff afterwards and they can’t sell it, then that’s their own fault. We only order stuff that we can sell that day or down the road, like The Cure or Grateful Dead. A lot of people don’t want to do it because it’s a lot of work and you have to put out a lot of money.”
“After the first rush of 70 to 80 people, the rest are browsing and buying other things. And there are people who come in here and buy shit just to flip it and resell. But that’s a small percentage.”
Matherson says the reselling bothers him but he’s willing to live with it.
“Two days later, people might call up and ask, ‘Do you know that Cure record you had? Do you know how much it’s selling for?’ I don’t want to know. Don’t tell me because I don’t want to know. If people do that, that’s their preference. It’s just the way things are. You can’t stop it.
“But that’s really a small percentage of people. You get that in any walk of life, people trying to take advantage of the situation.”
Scott and Mazeika agree.
“It’s part of anything in business,” Mazeika admits. “There are people who buy sneakers and resell sneakers. Ages ago I worked in a sporting goods store, and I never thought that people were buying shoes to stick them in a closet and resell them later, but people did that. If that’s how you want to spend your time, then go ahead.”
In a way, Record Store Day isn’t much different than Black Friday or general Christmas shopping.
You might not have people trampling each other, but the good and bad of a free market economy is on full display. Some people buy for the love of the product and the good deals. Others might have unscrupulous motives.
“We’re a business; that’s the bottom line,” Mazeika said. “We are trying to sell product. It does not benefit us to say, ‘No, you can’t buy our product.’ That’s just not how we think about it. I can’t assume that you’re doing whatever you’re doing with it.”
More than anything, vinyl seems to be here for the long haul.
At Repo, Matherson says that vinyl is going strong and that cassettes are also selling. He says CDs are starting to come back since prices have dropped.
He points out that it’s actually harder to get used vinyl since people are holding onto it and trying to resell for profit.
“They think it’s worth more than it is. I’ve got people coming in here saying, ‘I looked this up on Ebay and it’s selling for 50 dollars.’ I’m like, ‘look, we sell it for five.'”
At the same time, he mentions that people are buying records for the audio quality, claiming that digital formats sound “like crap.”
“When the record companies started this, they thought it was a phase,” Matherson said. “They didn’t want to open up more pressing plants. They didn’t want to do more vinyl. Now they’re realizing that this isn’t a trend. It’s going to continue. My big worry is that the companies get greedy and price records too high. They started to do it, then they cut back. The only thing that can kill this is if the prices of records get too expensive.”
At the Reliquary, there’s a good mix of musical formats.
Mazeika says that records attract collectors while the demise of the compact disc is overstated.
“CDs are not going away yet,” said Mazeika. “I still like a physical format over just a download. That’s not my thing at all. I’m still buying product, I’m still supporting a band, and I have a physical something to show for it. CDs are still here and I think they still outsell everything else. They’re just not looked at the same way. They’re not held in the same regard, maybe. But they’re still an important part of what we’re selling.”
On Scott’s side of the store, his stock is determined by trends in industrial music.
“I deal with a very niche market, and compact discs are still a format that moves, for me, to my customer base,” Scott said. “Vinyl is increasing, but for the genres of music that I deal with, it’s not a slam dunk as far as translating over.”
All three shops seem to have the same attitude towards Record Store Day.
The overwhelming feeling among owners is that a capitalist, free market society creates habits both good and bad.
People are going to come in, buy items, then resell for profit. Some may never come back. You might get stuck with special inventory that doesn’t sell, then eventually becomes marked down for a monetary loss.
Those are the risks that come with participating in Record Store Day, and all three owners are well aware.
“I think it’s still a positive thing, even if it’s become more and more commercialized,” said Mazeika. “Like anything in life, the more popular it comes, it’s going to be more generic. And it doesn’t always hit the mark perfectly. Not everything is a super desirable, collectible item.”
“I think (shop owners) are like, ‘Well, I have to pay 20 dollars for this record, and I’m only making 10 dollars, and the record companies are getting all the money,'” adds Matherson.
“But that’s the way things work. I know more and more people are not doing (Record Store Day), but we are.”
Click here for a full list of Record Store Day Releases and participating shops.