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Record stores in Frederick aren’t rallying around Record Store Day the way you might think.
First started in 2007, Record Store Day was created to celebrate independent record stores with limited edition releases each April (April 22 this year). But if you look at the sponsors of Record Store Day, corporate logos like Sony Music and Universal Music Group are included. This tension, between independent record stores and expensive major-label-backed re-issues, has Frederick record stores choosing their own paths.
“It started out as a really, really good idea, where customers can come out and get limited editions of their favorite bands,” said Soren Dodge, a store manager at The Record Exchange on North Market Street, where he’s worked for the past six years. “It was really cool for local stores to do sales and that kind of thing.”
Chris Wolfe, owner of Rock & Roll Graveyard on East Patrick Street, said Record Store Day was created for “mainly independent labels like Sub Pop. They would put out certain limited records. Once the new vinyl started coming up, the majors — that’s basically Atlantic Records, Warner Brothers, Interscope, [which are] all owned by basically one company — have a monopoly on it, and it makes the pressing higher for independent companies to keep it going.”
What complicates Record Store Day is that music stores with mostly used products are tasked with purchasing high-priced new vinyl to sell to their customers. “I would love to stock [new Record Store Day vinyl], but it would bankrupt me,” Wolfe said.
Bob Berberich, owner with his wife, Martha Hull, of Vinyl Acres, also on East Patrick, echoed this in an interview. “I’ve been around enough to know that when you’re a store my size, it’s not worth the investment.”
Out of Frederick’s three record stores that make up the Record Alliance of Frederick, The Record Exchange is the largest, with a sister store in Silver Spring. Larger record stores that handle more volume are able to absorb the costs of purchasing new vinyl more than smaller ones. Case in point: The Record Exchange will be the only local store participating in Record Store Day. That said, if those high-priced records don’t get sold, they can’t be returned, forcing record stores to eat the cost.
Record Store Day may also be a product of having too much of a good thing. Record Store Day releases reached over 550 in 2016. “What’s happened is it sort of turned into this monster where they’re just re-issuing,” Dodge said. “One year they re-issued a Bruce Springsteen album. We see Bruce Springsteen albums every week. … It backs up the pressing plants with all that kind of stuff. So independent releases that would normally come out around this time can’t even get their albums pressed.”
Dodge spoke as if Record Store Day re-issues are close to being exhausted. “And … we hear feedback from our customers that the releases have become less and less desirable. How many Kinks 45s can you re-issue?”
One of Record Store Day’s most maligned releases have been a Justin Bieber picture disc. Bieber has been used as proxy for Record Store Day’s commercial approach. But if you dig through this year’s releases, like a 1974 David Bowie live recording, scarcity — both genuine and fabricated — is used to appeal to rabid fans who pay basement prices for products that will accrue in value.
This dynamic is the reason why Wolfe believes Record Store Day benefits collectors more than record store owners. “I worked at [the now-closed] Record and Tape Traders in Frederick the first time they ever had [Record Store Day], and people in line were not people who were looking for the music; they were looking to flip it on eBay,” Wolfe said. “It might cost $10 in the store, but you look online on eBay the next hour or so, they’re on there for 50 or 60 dollars.”
“It’s become very commercial,” Dodge said. He appreciates the influx of foot traffic, but he added, “There’s a lot of customers we only see once a year in April.” The record junkies who spend hours hunched over bins in dusty basement stores are sometimes not the people who are drawn to Record Store Day. “It’s good for people who are into collecting stuff, but I want to move things, I want people to listen to stuff,” Wolfe said. “I don’t want people to pay $50 for a record and hang it on a wall. It needs to be used.”
The response for Berberich? Simply don’t participate — but also welcome the spillover Record Store Day traffic from The Record Exchange. “There’s no bad side if you don’t join,” he said. “You get a lot of people in your store, and maybe they’ll buy other stuff.”
Turning the negative into a positive situation is how many record stores survive. Wolfe wants the music to come first and be accessible. “My goal is to keep it all cheap,” he said, “keep it affordable.”