Last year alone, Great Britain lost more than one-quarter of its independent record shops, and the outlook isn't any rosier here in the States, where sales have plummeted steadily ever since the Napster days. Once the pride of the music-retail industry, the Virgin Megastore in Times Square will go from best sales to belly-up when it closes its doors this week. But as corporate giants tumble into bankruptcy, the harder they fall, the more business for the little guys.
This Sat., April 18, hundreds of shops nationwide are celebrating the survival of the independent record store with the 2nd Annual Record Store Day. They'll be stocking the shelves with limited vinyl and CD releases from artists like Slayer, Bruce Springsteen, The Jesus Lizard, Bob Dylan, Jay Reatard and Sonic Youth, among others. But there's a catch. The incentive behind Record Store Day is this: These are Saturday-only releases distributed exclusively to independent retailers.
Bringing a local angle to this national "holiday," Paul's CDs and Wicked Discs will be carrying limited copies of a new split 7-inch featuring noteworthy Pittsburgh bands Centipede E'est and Kim Phuc. Mikey Seamans, who runs the local label Dear Skull Records, put the gears in motion a few weeks ago when he asked two of his favorite bands to help him put out a limited vinyl-only release.
As luck would have it, Seamans' longtime friend, Centipede E'est guitarist/audio engineer, Josh Tanzer, needed help in the studio while he and the band recorded some cuts at the New Hazlett Theatre. While Seamans manned the levels, Centipede explored the extraterrestrial underwater to spawn "Stingray," a psyched-out space groove with sinister proportions. On the flipside, the venomous crunch punk of Kim Phuc's "Rustbelt Noose" delivers a head-check with brutally local ties. Originally recorded during sessions for the band's forthcoming LP, this cynical anthem soon found itself being pressed onto wax in another state.
"What happened was, basically, United Record Pressing, in Tennessee, sent out an announcement that they were running a special for Record Store Day," says Seamans. "If you did the special, they'd put a generic promotional label on the B-side and cut out a bunch of the pressing costs." The factory is only pressing 200 copies. Half of these 7-inches will be sold locally (at Paul's and Wicked), while the other half are distributed throughout the states to independent stores Seamans and the band members have befriended over the years.
"What we're trying to address with this record is the situation where people are like, 'I'll buy that later or just get a copy off of so-and-so' rather than going to the store and buying the record," he says. The very motivation behind this wake-up call reveals just how much the explosion of options in music retail has changed the landscape for the independents.
Seamans' former co-worker at Paul's CDs, Karl Hendricks, has witnessed the transformation firsthand. "We're not selling music that I would describe as 'cult,'" says Hendricks. "It's just that the mere act of buying something on a record or a CD has become cult, so music fans of all stripes share more in common than they did in the past." Still, this interpersonal proximity is becoming ever more precious because, as Hendricks says, "It's so much more a world of niches."
Drawing on 20 years of experience behind the counter at the same location, Hendricks approaches this year's event with a measure of caution. Many stores encountered problems last year when, on account of the shaky distribution, some special-release orders were never filled. But Paul's CDs is not in the business of counting eggs before they hatch, so it comes as no surprise that employees are humbly preparing for Saturday business as usual.
"We're not going to do anything particularly special on Record Store Day. But, maybe that's because the day highlights what we do every day," says Hendricks. "Which is just try to fit as many good records in here as we possibly can and sell them as cheaply as we possibly can and we'll be doing that on Record Store Day as well."
Each participating shop is putting its own spin on the event. Dave's Music Mine, for example, will offer a live in-store performance by local band Shelf Life, along with special sales, gift bags and refreshments. The granddaddy of all Pittsburgh stores, Jerry's Records is hosting an "indoor yard sale" and offering a dollar off of all LPs, 45s and 78s. Whistlin' Willie spins vintage honky-tonk 78s from 3-6 p.m., and the store will also be giving away old Bay City Rollers 45s and other vinyl goodies.
Like a benevolent shepherd, owner Jerry Weber has inspired customers and employees alike to open their own record stores. "They're all my children," says Weber. "It's like a soap opera." This unique kinship will be on full display as Weber treats customer after crate-digging customer to some bona-fide merrymaking and rallies them to visit all of his "children."
Deeply versed in the history of record collecting (and a prominent figure within it), Weber has an idea of why this part of the country is so fertile with vinyl. "National Record Mart was actually the first chain to sell used records. They'd sell used 78s for a penny apiece. Every neighborhood or small town around here had its own record mart, so records were more available in Pittsburgh than in most places in the country. That's why all these records are here and that's why all these record collectors are here. It's part of a long tradition."
Ironically enough, what keeps local used record stores in business is the everlasting footprint of a national chain. This plethora of forgotten vinyl provides quite a foundation, but it's the people, not the product, that truly spread the roots of record collecting here in Pittsburgh.
"There is a sense that the small shop has a place here," says Vince Curtis, co-owner of Wicked Discs. "We have, in our city, folks who want a direct connection with the bands, their music, and the place where they buy it."
Curtis is a firm believer in the symbiosis between the city's record stores and its music, so Wicked Discs maintains sharp focus on local independent releases. "The limited pressings and self-made CDs will die out unless there's a place for bands to sell their product," says Curtis.
Manufactured by traditional, time-tested process on a durable medium, vinyl records are made to be permanent. The shops that carry them, however, are not. Like any fragile microcosm, independent retailers and their customers breathe the same air together. Sewn into a social fabric that's far too close-knit to comprehend in only one day (and so many revolutions per minute), storeowners don't expect a promotional event to turn cult into mass appeal.
But, thanks to various in-store performances nationwide and a bunch of shows, including the Totally Wired Festival, slated around town this weekend, Record Store Day might be able to fully extend the invitation for more music fans to make themselves at home in area music stores.
"From years of working at a record store, the reason that people keep coming back is the [same] reason that it's really great to work there," says Seamans. "I've watched customers go through that feeling that a lot of people have of being a marginalized individual who doesn't quite fit in. Then, after seeing them at more and more record stores and shows, I'd see them starting to play in bands. They were becoming a part of the bigger community in Pittsburgh and that's really great."
Visit these Pittsburgh-area participating stores on Sat., April 18 for Record Store Day: