It’s Tuesday night and I have an early call time, but instead of getting a full six hours I’m at The Empty Bottle watching Saint Pé – of the Black Lips – and company blast through forty-five minutes of sonic bliss. Before heading out I stop by the merch booth and spot something that most concertgoers have been seeing at an ever-increasing rate: a copy of his new record “Fixed Focus” available on vinyl.
Over the past decade, vinyl sales have reemerged. This year’s projections by Deloitte predict the medium raking in over $1 billion. It will be the first time record sales reach 10 figures since the ‘80s, back when wax was king and compact cassettes were new to the scene. The rise of the Internet in the early 2000s pulled the plug on big box retailers. Now most record stores are locally owned and a growing number of enthusiasts have turned to online subscription services like Vinyl Me Please to amplify their collections.
Record Store Day (RSD) was established in 2007 by a group of independent shop owners as a way for the vinyl community to celebrate the industry. Every April, analog enthusiasts flock to their favorite shops to nab limited edition pressings along with souvenirs designed for the celebration honoring high fidelity. This year marks the event’s 10th anniversary, and St. Vincent is the official RSD Ambassador. Over 50 shops in the Chicago area will participate in the festivities, including Record Breakers, Shuga Records, Logan Hardware, Pinwheel and Bric-a-Brac. (Click here for a complete list of area participants.)
“A broader cultural movement is taking shape here,” says Vinyl Me Please founder Matt Fiedler. “Beyond vinyl, you see a lot of people returning to analog and almost exchanging convenience for the experience. It’s similar to things like physical vs. digital books, drip coffee, slow food movement, etc. Each of these examples, people are paying, in most cases, a premium to have an experience, to have something tangible.”
Founded in 2013, Vinyl Me Please (VMP) sends subscribers a record each month and allows members access to an exclusive online vault. They have worked with Chicago artists Wilco and Twin Peaks as well as Black Sabbath, Gorillaz, My Morning Jacket and J Dilla. In 2015, the record supplier organized a secret show at the Virgin Hotel Chicago featuring Father John Misty.
However, Fiedler maintains that VMP’s operations will not intrude on local businesses this coming weekend. “We’ve done pop up shops here and there but that’s about the extent of our physical retail initiatives,” he claims. “The local record store is an important part of the vinyl community… we don’t need slash want to interfere with that.”
At Shuga Records, they’re extending hours to host a variety of in-store performances. The day’s bill includes The Evening Attraction, Joe Bordenaro and Lucille Furs. The record store turned label recently put out Max Loebman (Yoko and The Oh Nos)’s first solo effort as a follow up to their 2016 re-pressing of Ne-Hi’s self-titled LP. In addition to music, Shuga hopes to lure record junkies in with free coffee and donuts.
While the event brings worshipers and storefronts together, it also strains in-house buyers. Colin Brennan, an employee at Record Breakers for almost a decade, has witnessed the evolution of Record Store Day since its inception. “There [were] people coming out and that was cool and it was a better day than usual. But maybe four or five years ago, it started getting really busy,” says Brennan.
To acquire the limited edition pressings, shop allocators order from distributors just as they would on a daily basis. However, the purveyors can’t fully anticipate their stock, and newer stores rival longstanding shops in the war over units. “Say there’s 3,000 copies made of a particular record. If every store orders 30 of them, not everyone’s getting 30,” Brennan explains. “With the hypothetical release where there’s only 3,000 made, if I wanna make sure that we have 20 of them, I might order 50 knowing that we’re not going to get 50.” This makes advertising difficult and drives enthusiasts from store to store in search of hidden gems.
Record Breakers will also offer live music on RSD and, for Brennan, it’s the highlight. While the holiday is a solid reason to visit your local record store, the longtime employee is disappointed that shoppers need an incentive. “You start to see people that you don’t regularly see, which is cool and kind of a bummer, because we’re here another 364 days out of the year; it’d be nice to see you one of those days. But I’m not overly upset about it. At least they’re coming out,” Brennan says.
While vinyl sales soar, some critics think the format has reached its climax. Opponents point to manufacturing issues and a shrinking target market. Additionally, vinyl only accounts for 4.5 percent of U.S. music sales overall.
Nevertheless, the classic format maintains a niche market, and the skeptics don’t faze Vinyl Me Please owner Fiedler. “I don’t think it’s peaked by any means. I think there’s a lot of growth yet to come,” he says. “There are a lot of signs within the industry itself, and I just don’t see anything better coming along to replace vinyl. I very much believe in a future that is streaming and vinyl as to the primary formats for music consumption.”
In the age of instant information and gratification, when you can summon any song with the swipe of a finger, why are people shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for a high maintenance format riddled with limitations? Why in the world are artists fronting their own hard-earned cash to serve listeners on a platter? Ian Saint Pé thinks it’s because “in a world of throw away everything, its nice that something that sounds so good is still available.”
For more information on Record Store Day visit their official site.
Header image courtesy of Kevin Allen.