I missed Record Store Day. Fortunately, I like to think of every day as Record Store Day. Kind of like Children’s Day. But without kids ruining one’s enjoyment of a good record.
Not that my interest hadn’t been piqued by the promise of some cool limited-edition releases. But my days of lining up to buy records ended around the time Organised Sound had its last Boxing Day sale.
Fortunately, as Paul “Going Underground” Weller has publicly lamented, there’s always eBay. Indeed, indications are that certain disreputable retailers may have hoarded treasured RSD releases, taking them straight to eBay rather than to store customers. Some RSD enthusiasts have suggested a retool of all that the day represents. Others are too busy buying and selling on eBay.
But if certain seedy retailers are to blame for tarnishing the record industry, well, they’ve learned from the best. And as sales of vinyl records continue to skyrocket — nearing two per cent of current total music sales, according to some estimates — perhaps we LP aficionados can take solace in the fact that greed continues to drive an industry built upon same. I get all misty-eyed just thinking about it.
But if Jack White fans are pissed-off over being denied the opportunity to purchase a new item for a reasonable price, it may be time for disgruntled collectors to consider changing their approach. Try, for instance, amassing vintage James Last, Barbra Streisand or Ray Conniff LPs. Dedicate your time to tracking down a mint-condition copy of Santa Claus is Canadian. You’ll find building a collection to be as easy as a trip or two to the nearest thrift store. (Though, sadly, St. Vincent de Paul appears to have abandoned its tiny record section, a sad development that likely began with the slippery slope that was charging $18 for Eric Clapton’s Just One Night live album and $10 for Wilf Carter records.)
But back to the death and rebirth of vinyl records. And to the indignities the poor defenseless platters evidently continue to suffer.
Some of that abuse is documented in a recent British documentary film, Last Shop Standing. The doc received a fair bit of attention among music-geeks for its allegation that the music industry deliberately and systematically killed vinyl records. The biz did so, shop-owner after shop-owner claims, by delivering poorer and poorer quality pressings, utilizing recycled vinyl and offering paper-thin platters not worthy of the music carved into them. (Granted, it was the late-1980s, so a lot of releases were indeed worthy of such treatment.) As the sound of records continued to deteriorate, more expensive and supposedly indestructible — and supposedly sonically superior — compact discs inevitably emerged among consumers as the way to go. Survival of the fittest, folks.
Possibly true. In the UK.
Here in North America, poor quality pressings and packaging had long been the norm. We’re talking well before the CD existed. This had nothing to do with killing the vinyl LP and everything to do with making as much money as possible while spending as little as possible. And playing the general public for chumps. By the time of the arrival of the CD, the continent’s audiophiles were routinely paying hefty import prices for superior UK pressings. That the UK and Europe eventually sank to our level is unfortunate but was probably unavoidable. (For a time, this meant those in need of a good-pressing fix were forced to turn to Japan. Alas, that vein too ultimately dried up.)
Hence, there are those among us who’ll claim vinyl has never sounded better than it does now. I say, throw on a 45 pressed in the early 1960s and see if you agree. That’s right, vinyl sounded pretty bitchin’ back in the day. Way back. But does today’s vinyl sound better than domestic pressings from the 1980s? Hell, wire recordings from the 1890s sound better.
Now, it’s possible the major labels simply didn’t notice the difference at the time. For one thing, music people were rapidly being replaced by business people, who could hardly be expected to notice something as insignificant as sound quality. Remember, as far back as the early 1970s RCA Records had bizarrely hailed its Dynaflex series as being a step forward in sound because they were thinner than the average record. Ultimately, Dynaflex discs fell well short of the sonic mark. They did, though, offer one advantage over conventional LPs, in that once you’d become sufficiently frustrated with the quality of the pressing, you could at least derive some enjoyment out of throwing the record against the wall and trying to catch it as it bounced back. Trust me, if you’ve been searching for an original pressing of The Kinks’ klassik Muswell Hillbillies LP, you’d do well to instead buy the recently released vinyl reissue. Fine record. And this time it won’t slip out of your hands.
So here’s hoping the industry that killed vinyl does not let it slip through its hands this time. Paul “In the City” Weller’s frustration with the mercenary angle (not that his limited-edition 45 is trading hands for big money) is perhaps understandable. He has vowed not to participate in Record Store Day 2015 as a result. So far, the music industry has not revealed details of expected losses that may result from the That’s Entertainment singer’s absence. They’ll just have to live with it. And, as always, try to learn a lesson from the experience.
Therefore, to help the biz — and with all due respect to Last Shop Standing — allow me to recount what really happened during the first final days of vinyl. I was there. I saw it. At the time, I was working at Sam the Record Man, a pretty crappy chain of stores that unsurprisingly called it a day not so long ago. And I craved more and more records. In vain.
First, there was the promotional approach. Those ads that encouraged us to believe that even if you used a compact disc to play tug-of-war with your dog, it would play just fine in your digital device. The sound, we were repeatedly told, is superior to vinyl records. And CDs, unlike vinyl records, last forever. Even if you feed them to Spot.
Not exactly true. And to the public’s credit, few bought into the myth at first. There were two solid reasons for such reluctance, beyond questionable claims by the industry: no one felt much like buying albums he or she already owned; and, at around $25 the average CD was priced far higher than an LP.
The industry’s response came quickly: the selling price of a new LP was raised significantly. Bonuses were no doubt dispensed all round for a job well done.
And still record-lovers refused to put the tone-arm away and come quietly. ‘But,’ the Man cried, ‘CDs can hold 60 minutes’ worth of music!’ (Later adjusted to 80 minutes.) Hence, bonus tracks available only on CD, and the realization that a lot of bands only have 40 minutes’ worth of good music in them. Bonus tracks not enough? How ’bout bonus discs? How ’bout compilations and reissues available only on CD? Had enough?
And yes, the tide began to turn, hastened by such presumably accidental hiccups as unexplained delays in the shipping of new vinyl releases — resulting in gate-crashers arriving to find an anticipated new title only on CD, with a vague promise of the vinyl record’s arrival in a few days. Oh, and a refusal to allow stores to return unsold vinyl releases.
For record collectors, it just wasn’t our day.
Not like now. Today, every day is Record Store Day. All hail record stores. And the records they sell.
And the lessons they’ve learned.
As for the industry, let’s just say you’re still on notice.