In 2011, I attended a panel discussion about Record Store Day at the South by Southwest music conference. Titled “Record Store Day and Revitalizing Indie Retail,” this early afternoon discussion was framed more as an awareness rally than a conference panel. Moderator Susan Tanner—a Record Store Day volunteer and former label employee and talent booker—began the session by excitedly handing out Record Store Day buttons and other souvenirs. “Independent retail is still out there,” she noted once she had taken her seat on the dais. The three panelists—Record Store Day organizer Carrie Cotillon, record store owner Joe Nocero, and Scott Register, the owner of an independent distribution firm, stayed firmly on message. During the question-and-answer portion of the panel, any inquiries that were critical of the holiday’s operation were rephrased as motivational statements. Others came up to the microphone not with questions, but simply to profess their love for record stores and the role they play in their local community. For about 10 minutes of the discussion, Tanner cued video testimonials recorded by famous musicians for Record Store Day on a laptop connected to a projector, and Cotillon breathlessly read submitted testimonials about the value of local, independent record stores from artists such as Tom Waits and Paul McCartney.
This panel was an extension of Record Store Day’s branding, a broader attempt to create a manifesto for 21st century music consumption. In Lury’s phrasing, Record Store Day aims to establish “a set of relations between products or services,” and “a platform for the patterning of activity, a mode of organizing activities in time and space.” Record Store Day has no offices or paid employees; all of its organizers are volunteers who work in some other aspect of the recording industry. The networks of participating stores, which by 2013 numbered over 1,400, overlap with existing retail coalitions: the Association of Independent Music Retailers (AIMS), the Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS), and the Music Monitor Network (MMS). The trademark on Record Store Day’s logo is collectively held by the members of these coalitions. “Technically, we own a small percentage of Record Store Day,” Jason Nickey, the owner of the Bloomington-based, AIMS-affiliated Landlocked Music, told me with a chuckle. “Which is worth…goodwill, I suppose. Not any money.” Record Store Day’s website contains the specific criteria for the type of store allowed to participate in the event:
A Record Store Day participating store is defined as a stand alone brick and mortar retailer whose main primary business focuses on a physical store location, whose product line consists of at least 50% music retail, whose company is not publicly traded and whose ownership is at least 70% located in the state of operation. (In other words, we’re dealing with real, live, physical, indie record stores—not online retailers or corporate behemoths).
This definition of “independent” retail is based on a political economic ideal in which ownership, and therefore acts of consumption, are localized—not transacted online, and not via a local outlet owned by a distant corporation, or for which music recordings comprise a small percentage of their stock.
For hundreds of independent music retailers, participation in Record Store Day means opting into a branded network that helps them promote their store. In Latour’s (2005) terms, this network is defined, powered and stabilized by a consistently negotiated affiliation of actors (record store owners, distributors, spokespeople), actants (local, independent record stores; exclusively released vinyl records, the Record Store Day logo), and strategic discourses (the value of independence and community, and shared strategies to maintain relevance). Each on-message utterance, each iteration of the event and its media coverage, and each purchase of exclusive vinyl recordings by consumers, are the “vehicles, tools, instruments, and materials” that provide the “inertia, durability, range, solidity, commitment, loyalty, (and) adhesion” to allow Record Store Day—and thus independent record stores themselves, to continue (Latour 35). Eric Levin, owner of Atlanta’s Criminal Records and one of the event’s co-founders, situates Record Store Day as advertising. “All the music industry has for advertising, what’s left of it, which is very little, basically sends (consumers) to Amazon, Best Buy, or iTunes,” he explained to me. “So this was really a matter for us to advertise, and get our own word out.”
The founding of Record Store Day arose from a desire to “speak with one voice, or at least a larger voice, to our industry,” Levin told me. “The whole point of doing it in the first place,” he explained, was “to counter some of the overwhelming negativity that was out there.” He continues,
There’s been a strange…almost a schadenfreude as far as the collapse of the music industry. And we…record stores were kind of the butt of the joke. And those of use with successful and kind of exciting community record stores were scratching our heads, wondering “why are we portrayed as on the verge of extinction, when we’re actually quite important regional entrepreneurs?”
Throughout the interview, Levin linguistically aligns independent record retailers with the “music industry” at large, as a subtle linguistic move to include them in larger discourses about its ostensible decline. Record stores, however, are an integral part of the retail end of the recording industry, one of many sectors selling music and music-related objects and services (one might also speak of a licensing industry or an instrument industry, which are affected very differently, if at all, by the commercial forces Levin notes). In Latour’s phrasing, Levin creates a “figuration,” or an actant with “some form or shape…(which) gives it exactly as much a figure as when it is endowed with a name, a nose, a voice, or a face.”
Within popular music discourses, Williamson and Cloonan highlight a similar linguistic pattern used by the recording industry’s lobbying groups (the BPI, RIAA, and IFPI) in their claims about the corrosive effects of music piracy. Presenting ‘the music industry’…as a collective mass, rather than a number of smaller, less economically significant, companies and industries,” they write, “is a means of…disguising the social and political differences within ‘the industry.’” Levin’s aim in conflating the financial woes of the independent retail sector with the entirety of the music industry is done in better faith than the RIAA and IFPI, though the effect is similar. Record Store Day is helping to revitalize not just retail, but music.
The ideas and strategies driving Record Store Day align with those that have been adopted in other cultural industries. The original idea for the event was borrowed from Free Comic Book Day, which started in 2002 to promote independent comics retailers. Stores which opted into the event received exclusive items from publishers, which were given away free to customers as a reward for their patronage but also as a consumer prompt, reminding them that local, independently-owned retailers care about them more than chains or online retailers. Levin’s store Criminal Records is also a comics retailer, so his input was crucial to the formation of Record Store Day in this regard. Record Store Day also has a connection to independent booksellers, another group of retailers who see themselves as beset by the incursion of online and big-box retailers. “We followed a lot of the rules laid out by the American Booksellers Association,” Levin explained about the event’s membership criteria.
Like independent booksellers, the shape, scope, and point of Record Store Day are defined by its spokespeople defining it in opposition to what Latour calls “anti-groups.” For Levin, a significant rationale to start the event was to publicly demarcate what actually constituted a record store. “That’s kinda why we had to put those clampson it,” he says of the criteria for inclusion. “We didn’t want FYE or Best Buy to try to get in there. ‘Hey it’s Record Store Day, we’re a record store!’ No you’re not.” Such a strategy highlights the shared ideologies and strategies between independent record stores and bookstores. Many of these are cited by Miller: “Independence signifies smallness…being locally based, and limited in geographic scope” along with a relationship with the customer that is unavailable elsewhere. “If a record store is doing its job, it’s a place of education, it’s where, this sounds a little silly, it’s where inspiration happens,” Levin told me. “It’s just not gonna happen in the aisle at Best Buy, it’s not gonna happen at the digital columns on Amazon. I’m talking about real interaction.”
In building a moral economy, the Record Store Day participants must also ensure its own members behave according to clear principles. Though the Record Store Day participants primarily define themselves against corporate-owned and online retailing anti-groups, the organizers also seek to regulate the participation and behavior of smaller stores in their network. In response to those stores who withheld exclusive merchandise and sold it for higher prices online—as with stores “flipping” the Hold Steady record—in 2011 the organizers developed a “pledge” that stores are required to sign, at the risk of being excluded from future events and merchandise. The Record Store Day website describes the pledge, which is associated with a logo that stores can embed on their websites:
The stores with this mark have signed the Record Store Day Pledge, which means they have agreed to act in the spirit of Record Store Day, and sell the commercial Record Store Day releases to their physical customers, on Record Store Day; not to gouge them, or hold product back to sell them online.
The Record Store Day pledge is part of the event’s visual and discursive branding, reaffirming, occasionally with odd phrasing (who would not count among “physical customers?”) the ethical practices that the event promotes. All independent record stores, the pledge states, are not the same. “We invite every record store, even the shittiest ones, to be a part of Record Store Day,” Levin told me. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that they get access to all the same product we get, a used store should not have all the same access to product as a new store, because a new store is supporting the industry on a daily basis.” Record Store Day, in other words, does not just pit local, independent record stores against corporate-owned chains and digital retailers, but also demarcates the behavior of small stores who are not deemed to be acting in the best interest of their in-store customers.