Do We Really Need Record Store Day?

On the eve of the 11th annual Record Store Day, Olivia Bennett takes a look at the renaissance of vinyl and record store culture and its influence on the growing wave UK jazz, hip-hop and electronic artists.

Record stores and vinyl have long been an essential part of the UK’s underground music culture. Yet, despite the abundance of streaming services and digital media available to consumers in 2018, record store culture is flourishing.

A pioneer in record store culture since being formed in 1894, Spillers Records is one of the oldest record stores this side of the Atlantic. Its longevity can partly be attributed to hosting live events in store and forging strong links with the local music scene – providing emerging artists with a platform upon which to promote their work. After all, ‘music is sharing,’ as Spillers’ longstanding manager Ashli Todd is quoted as saying.

This inclusive approach has enabled Spillers and other record stores to become more than just a place to consume music. They grew to become a cultural hub – and this led to a wider movement.

Spillers Records El Sonido
Cardiff’s Spillers Records is one of the oldest record stores in the world.

Today, the cultural influence of record stores has earned widespread recognition and, in some circles, even fascination. The University of Birmingham recently hosted a study day entitled ‘Identity and Vinyl Culture’, and the London School of Fashion’s current exhibition ‘Super Sharp’ celebrates the fashion side of underground rave culture and frequently references the influence of 12” pressed wax.

So, it’s no coincidence that the recent increase in new UK record stores, such as Rye Wax, and online radio stations, such as Balamii Radio, has coincided with the emergence of young, homegrown talent within jazz, hip-hop and electronic music. Today, the scene is flourishing – bringing us acts such as Nubya Garcia, Little Simz and Kiara Scuro – but where did the initial interest go?

Today, the scene is flourishing, but where did the initial interest go?

In 1963 the Dutch technology company Philips released the first cassette player. This was the start of a musical revolution driven by technology. It enabled music lovers to play, pause, rewind and fast forward – all at the push of a button! The cassette was shortly followed by the compact disc in the 1980s, the MP3 player and then the iPod and iPhone.

The pace of this development quickly dragged vinyl away from the mainstream and into obscurity. Major labels and commercial outlets opted to focus on revenue potential – blindly following the fickle nature of the consumer and the thirst for variation which eventually led to streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music.

The culture behind the resurgence

The 11th annual Record Store Day coincides with Nielsen’s 2017 Year-End Music Report, which revealed an increase in vinyl sales for the twelfth consecutive year. Initially created to celebrate the ‘unique culture’ of independent record stores such as Rough Trade, Sounds of the Universe, Picadilly Records and Phonica, the annual event can now claim to play a vital role in worldwide vinyl record sales that eclipsed 14.3 million in 2017.

This steady increase in vinyl sales has been instrumental in the opening of more independent record stores. One of the UK’s relative newcomers, Rye Wax, has quickly established itself as a cultural hub in South East London. Opened in 2014, at its core Rye Wax is a record store. But it also sells books, magazines and comics, has its own cafe and bar catered by JD’s Kitchen, and hosts events almost every night of the week – such as ‘Open Desk Sessions’, which encourages inclusivity and gives new talent an opportunity to connect with other creatives.

Rye Wax El Sonido
Rye Wax in Peckham, South East London, is the flagbearer for a new generation of record stores.

Artistic energy is emanating from South East London. Alongside Rye Wax, Peckham proudly boasts online radio station Balamii Radio, the newly opened live music venue Ghost Notes, and Bradley Zero’s all-conquering record label Rhythm Section International.

Not dissimilar to the trailblazer Spillers Records, Rye Wax has a strong affiliation with the local music scene. With its close ties to Balamii Radio, the record store is able to host events featuring artists from Balamii’s eclectic roster. Acts like Kiara Scuro, Ross From Friends, Chaos in CBD, and Ben Hauke are all regulars.

A real DIY community has formed around Rye Wax. Joe Howard, the store’s assistant manager, who recently set up the label Cotch International, highlights the desire to be in ‘control of your art, create authentic collaborations and personable promotion’ as reasons for the enduring popularity of record stores. He says this moments before an artist comes into the store and asks if he can play him his record and if he will stock it – which he does. As if almost staged, I see a tangible example of his words.

However, the growing popularity of record stores and vinyl has not escaped the attention of major labels. As a result, the independent authenticity of the movement is slowly beginning to change. Earlier this year, Sony Music began producing vinyl in-house for the first time since 1989, and high street chains such as Sainsbury’s and Urban Outfitters are once again stocking vinyl records.

Rough Trade East El Sonido
Fans queue out of the door for Record Store Day at Rough Trade in East London.

For major labels and large retailers, Record Store Day is akin to Valentine’s Day – another commercial revenue coup. In the run up to the event, the already limited vinyl pressers (the last new presser was built in the 1980s) are often occupied with large quantity reissues of popular classics. This can be detrimental to smaller independent labels and their artists. ‘When an independent label requests to press 200 vinyls and a major label requests 5000, it’s evident who will get priority… For electronic and dance labels, whose art needs to be on the cutting edge, the often three month-long wait to get your vinyl pressed is damaging,’ Joe attests.

‘When an independent label requests to press 200 vinyls and a major label requests 5000, it’s evident who will get priority’ 

The disparity in resources has led smaller, independent labels and record stores to offer alternatives to Record Store Day. This year, Rye Wax will instead host their second annual ‘Run Out’ event in Copeland Park. Promising ‘a whole day of records, live music, stalls, food and booze’, this free event aims to celebrate local grassroots artists and the DIY music scene.

So, do we really need Record Store Day when record store culture is alive and well and vinyl sales are on the up? Does the commercialisation of the event signify the eventual commercialisation of vinyl and record stores?

It’s clear that the world’s love for vinyl is not so much part of a trend, but a constant affection which dips in an out of the mainstream. If Record Store Day is able to capitalise on this underlying romance to benefit the careers of promising UK musicians – should we complain?

While the initial aim of the event – to support a threatened subculture – may now be outdated, it still has a vital role to play in what is essentially a niche industry. As long as up-and-coming UK acts continue to be propelled onto the scene and artists are offered a platform by the ongoing support of their labels, affiliated radio stations and record stores there is an argument to say long may the vinyl renaissance – and indeed Record Store Day – continue.

Midlands-born but now London-based, Olivia Bennett is a music enthusiast with an ear for everything from spoken word to electronic, hip-hop, soul, jazz and reggae.

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