Record Store Day 2011 is here. When the sun comes up here in a few hours, it will be the UK’s turn to take part once more in a day dedicated to the country’s dwindling number of shops that cater to the music fan in all their many shapes and tastes. Fans celebrate music itself every day – on Twitter, blogs, and occasionally in person; RSD helps us do something different. It celebrates the joys of browsing in a well-stocked shop, chatting with knowledgeable staff, picking up records based solely on their covers: it is about the physicality of music and the ways it is brought to us through places, people and objects.
Already, much has been written about RSD this year. On the main site I write for – The Line of Best Fit – David Laurie of indie label Something in Construction offered his passionate advocacy for record shops. Over at Drowned in Sound, Wendy Roby put across a similar perspective which seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people. Then there’s John Doran at The Quietus, Ben Patashnik of the NME (the less said about Rick Martin the better) and Dennis Shin at PopMatters. After so much has been said, so eloquently, what use am I? Well, I want to talk about CDs.
First, though, I’ve got to talk about vinyl. There not one vinyl record in the RSD logo – there’s two. On the list of special releases for the day, it can be seen that only a tiny number of the music everyone is so excited about hearing right now will be available on anything but vinyl. Yes, RSD is about “keeping vinyl alive” (to quote the slogan of a record shop near here) at least as much as it is about helping to keep shops afloat. Now I’m not opposed to vinyl on any level, and I think they definitely have a place in our listening world – but I can’t help feeling that by neglecting the humble compact disc, RSD, shops and the media are making a mistake.
Vinyl holds great currency with audiophiles, “serious” music fans, collectors, and a lot of music critics. Yes, there’s evidence that young people do buy vinyl, and it may well be the case that vinyl sales rose by 14% in 2010, but personally I doubt very much that “keeping vinyl alive” is enough to keep record shops alive. The simple truth is that the vast bulk of people don’t buy or listen to vinyl. As wonderful as they are, a vinyl disc’s appeal to collectors is in part reflective of its obsolescence. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was the CD to which most listeners began to turn; today, the MP3 reigns supreme in most people’s hearts.
In focusing almost solely on selling vinyl, then, RSD is ignoring the two main ways most people acquire music in 2011: by buying CDs and downloading MP3s. Now, MP3s aren’t going to be much help to our ailing record shops – selling digital files on USB sticks and the like has never caught on, and shows no sign of doing so. On a normal, non-RSD day, if you’re going to sell someone music in a shop – using all that human interaction and know-how staff are so deservedly applauded for – the CD is your best bet. It is not a second class format, it is a driver of sales, and it has strengths that RSD and shops should make more of.
They are more compact and affordable, not to mention more easily transferable onto an MP3 player or iPod. They may not come with as much packaging or art as a vinyl, but that’s not to say they can’t become prized possessions. My three-disc 10th anniversary version of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible - my favourite album – is a pleasure to hold and to play. The same goes for Tina Dico’s triple-EP set A Beginning, A Detour, An Open Ending, or my copy of Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero, which changes from black to white when I play it in my CD player. The best of them can be as worthy of celebration as a vessel for life-changing music as a vinyl.
Could it be that the increased sales of vinyl are partly explained by the fact that a significant number of releases aren’t even released on CDs these days? By comparison to vinyl, record labels tend to treat their CD releases with much less respect, seeing them as throwaway and disposable, undeserving of special treatment that could make them more desirable than a cheap (or illegally free) download. A special, affordable CD release by a great band would get more friends of mine into a shop – RSD or not – than any vinyl release, and I’m willing to bet that the same would be true for a wider spectrum of people.
As for me? I’m going to Music Mania in Stoke-on-Trent for Record Store Day, where I’ll be on the lookout for a few affordable, neglected CDs as opposed to fighting over one or two pricey 7-inches. Whatever I buy, I’ll bring it back home and do what I usually do – turn off the lights, turn up the speakers and listen to those songs in the way they were intended. When it comes to music, it’s the message that matters most, not the medium – but if we focus too much on one medium and forget about the others, it will harm – not benefit – the message.