Record Store Day appeals to music lovers

We’re still rocking: That’s the primary message of Saturday’s third annual Record Store Day.

Some 800 independent music retailers nationwide will participate in this year’s hoopla, which will witness the sale of nearly 200 exclusive releases from major and indie labels, giveaways and live in-store performances.

Consciousness-raising event has provided a much-needed fiscal shot in the arm to music merchants battered by a decade-long downturn in CD sales; some retailers say they attained their biggest one-day grosses ever on previous Record Store Days.

Long-term impact is more difficult to divine. Some operators say they have enlisted new customers in the wake of the event, but others are unable to attribute significant gains to their participation.

While the in-store mood during Record Store Day is festive, there is an undercurrent of urgency.

Figures from the retail tracking firm Almighty Music Marketing show the universe of indie music stores has shrunk by a third during the past five years, from 3,024 outlets in 2005 to 1,932 today. Just 146 stores have opened their doors during that time period.

Meanwhile, physical album sales for the first quarter of this year were down nearly 8% from the same quarter last year, according to the most recent report from Nielsen SoundScan. But that was better than the first quarter of last year, which saw a 13.5% drop — indicating the rate of decline may be slowing.

Record Store Day bowed in April 2008 after a discussion at a Baltimore music confab involving members of three indie retail buying coalitions representing 170 stores — the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, the Alliance of Independent Media Stores, and Music Monitor Network — and reps of chains Newbury Comics and now-defunct Value Music.

AIMS topper Eric Levin, who owns Atlanta retailer Criminal Records, said the music event was designed to emulate Free Comic Book Day, the 8-year-old vehicle mounted by comics publishers. Levin, who does big business with comics, envisioned a similar set-up for music.

“We met for a half-hour and said, ‘Let’s do this,’ ” Levin said.

The development of unique product that would serve as a traffic driver was key in the launch of Record Store Day.

“With Free Comic Book Day, the publishers would print origin stories and cliffhangers and things that we would put in the bags and capture readers. It’s the same thing with music,” Levin said. “I (solicited) CD samplers, LP samplers, free 7-inches, Monster energy drinks, free backpacks. … Everybody got it from day one — ‘Oh! OK! Let’s make some bitchin’ shit!’ ”

Exclusive releases — many of them on vinyl, an important profit center for indie stores — remain the backbone of Record Store Day. Indie imprints are contributing products such as Sundazed Records’ 7-inch of unreleased Moby Grape sides, Anti’s vinyl version of Roky Erickson’s forthcoming album and Knitting Factory’s Fela Kuti 12-inch — and the majors have stepped up their participation.

This year’s must-have packages include Universal’s 7-inch single of an unreleased track from the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” and Warner Bros.’ LP release of the Flaming Lips’ version of “Dark Side of the Moon.”

EMI Music’s catalog releases include a package of John Lennon singles and an exclusive two-LP edition of the Sex Pistols’ “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle.”

“Our intent is to be good partners with our indie retailers,” said Jason Boyd, veep of EMI North American catalog sales. “That’s where our business began.”

Record Store Day has been a springtime boon for indies, which otherwise look to December holiday sales for their biggest grosses.

“Everybody’s calling it Christmas in April,” Levin said. “It’s absolutely a needle-raiser for everybody, and the halo effect before and after, the good will, the good vibes — you can’t monetize that.”

Veteran retailer Terry Currier of Music Millennium in Portland said, “Outside of the month of December, Record Store Day was our biggest day of the year the last two years.” However Currier admitted his store hasn’t seen a halo effect beyond the one-day boom.

“Last year’s Record Store Day was the best single sales day we’ve had in our history, and the previous one was one of our best days ever,” said Doyle Davis of Grimey’s Records in Nashville. “Both previous years, we picked up new customers from it.”

Grimey’s moved its annual Spring Fling — a promo-fest with live bands, free beer and food, and a warehouse sale — to coincide with the national event. “It’s a real community-builder,” Davis said.

Paul Epstein, owner of Denver’s Twist & Shout Records, witnessed big sales the first two years of the event, he said he didn’t see a surge in traffic afterward.

“I would not say it was a game changer or a turnaround moment,” Epstein said. “Things pretty much went back to normal the next week. … It kind of acts as a tap on the shoulder or reminder of what used to be the center of the culture and how the center of the culture has shifted. It’s a speed bump on the cultural highway.”

Despite the financial hardships faced by music retailers, Levin bristled at the notion that Record Store Day is akin to Custer’s Last Stand.

“This is not a wake,” he said. “This really is a celebration.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more