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For some time now, it’s been a grim truth: The record industry is dying. The Virgin Megastore that was once the biggest visual draw of Union Square is no more—a shiny new Forever 21 stands in its place. iTunes and chains like Walmart and Target have supplanted mom-and-pop record shops as places to snag the new Kelly Clarkson CD. And thanks to that unstoppable juggernaut we call “online piracy,” even iTunes is becoming obsolete now that you can download entire discographies with the click of a mouse. Let’s just face it: There’s nothing left to do but cover our heads with our hands and pray that the onslaught of pirated Taio Cruz MP3s isn’t yet another har- binger of our cultural demise.
But in a show of true rebel spirit, local record stores—and the artists who owe so much of their success to them—aren’t going down without a fight. April 21 marks the fifth annual Record Store Day, a celebration of the unique
culture of the hundreds of independently owned record stores in the United States and around the world. It’s also, perhaps next to Christmas, the best day of the year to be a music fan. There are the special vinyl and CD releases unavailable anywhere else (including online), the in-store performances and signings, the cookouts, and even the parades. Ever since Metallica kicked off the first Record Store Day at Rasputin Music in San Francisco back in 2008, audiophiles have been forming lines outside their local stores well before they open in the hopes of snagging some of the goodies.
This year, expect those lines to be extra-long: Dozens of prime-time acts have signed up to release exclusive Record Store Day material. Canadian chanteuse Feist and heavy metal giants Mastodon—artists diametrically opposed by musical convention—will release a split 7” of metal Feist covers and folky reinterpretations of Mastodon tracks. If you’re more into classic rock, there’s the deluxe, 7” vinyl box set of T. Rex’s seminal Electric Warrior. You can even snag a limited-edition LP containing a remix of Katy Perry’s latest single. The range of offerings is immense and genre-spanning, with only one common denominator: rarity. Record Store Day releases have been known to fetch absurdly high prices on eBay and Craigslist. Who said scalping was limited to tickets?
But even the most faithful of music lovers can’t help feeling skeptical: Will selling a colored vinyl version of a Lana Del Rey track be enough to stop the steady decline of an industry that’s already lost such giants as Tower Records? The short answer is maybe. According to Nielsen Soundscan, vinyl sales in the states topped 3.9 million units in 2011. That’s a 39 percent gain, despite an industry-wide slump.
Why the increase? Perhaps it’s the recent resurgence in popularity of classic rock ’n’ roll: The top-selling vinyl re- leases of 2011 included Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, the Black Keys’ Brothers, and Vampire Weekend’s Contra—and that’s not including FM heavy-hitters like The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Because today’s vinyl generally comes with a free MP3 download, music fans can have the high fidelity of one musical medium without losing the convenience of the other. Or perhaps, as the economy starts to break its slouch and creeps toward something resembling normalcy, people have more money to spend on a new LP.
But even if more and more people are buying vinyl, Record Store Day entails a lot more than just sales. It’s about preserving a unique com- mercial and musical culture—the types of spaces glorified by music lovers, misfits, bourgeois tastemakers, and, of course, High Fidelity. After all, before there were blogs and gigantic online audio databases, most people depended on the folks at their local record store to turn them in the direction of the next big band. The hallowed “Staff Picks” shelf is the pinnacle of musical curation. Long before there was Pitchfork’s “Best New Music” label or the iTunes Discover and Download section, such displays performed the important task of exposing people to music they wouldn’t hear otherwise.
As rapper and record store owner Tech N9ne explains, independent record stores also function as a center of musical expertise—fostering a culture of discovery and exploration as well as a deeper sense of appreciation for the art. “Indie stores create their own unique atmosphere within their stores, giving their customers a true sense of what the music is about, instead of cookie-cutter stores that all look alike, carry the same product, and have the same guy who is selling me a washing machine telling me what the hottest new record is,” he says.
Maybe that’s what Record Store Day is really about: celebrating a culture at risk of extinction. Maybe it’s about the smell of used vinyl, the smile and nod from your favorite store clerk—who, of course, knows you so well that he sets aside the new Alabama Shakes LP because you mentioned once that you wanted to hear some good soul revival. Above all, maybe it’s that feeling you get when you hear the sweet sounds of Neu! or Can for the first time as they boom from the loudspeaker and you fall in love. We may not all own a turntable, but we all know how important it is to find spaces like these. That’s something iTunes can’t touch.
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