Limited-edition LPs highlight flourishing music-biz sector

Record Store Day, which began as a grassroots stunt to drive traffic for indie music retailers has blossomed into an annual marketing platform for major labels to reach key music-buying demographics: hipsters, collectors and, most importantly, never-say-die vinyl enthusiasts.

The major labels have set a slate of contempo and vintage releases on vinyl to coincide with the fifth annual Record Store Day event, set for April 21 at 1,700 stores in the U.S. and overseas. The showcase for a format the industry left for dead 25 years ago is a factor in the surprising resurgence of vinyl LP sales, which climbed 36% last year with nearly 4 million individual pieces sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan figures.

Since the start, Record Store Day’s traffic has been churned by unique limited-edition vinyl LPs and 7-inch singles produced specifically for participating stores.

Labels ranging from the majorstores to niche indies are producing more than 300 fresh titles for this year’s event. Younger consumers will be drawn by product from artists including Arcade Fire, Lana Del Rey, Florence and the Machine, Beach House, Deerhoof, Animal Collective and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, to name a few, while vinyl by such heritage acts as Paul McCartney, Grateful Dead, James Brown, Janis Joplin, the Knack, Abba and Miles Davis will pull older fans. There’s also red meat for pop culture collectors such as Universal Music’s pressing of “The Breakfast Club” soundtrack on white vinyl and the “Pretty in Pink” soundtrack on — what else? — pink vinyl.

Michael Kurtz, indie coalition Music Monitor Network topper and event organizer, said, “After the second (RSD) was such a success, we said, ‘Should we be doing CDs?’ The artists were like, ‘Well, no, we really see vinyl as the ultimate way for fans to experience our music.’ It’s all limited, numbered. Nobody makes too much money off of it — the numbers are too small. But they’re saying, ‘If we put so much love into it, we want it on vinyl.’ “

Kurtz estimates that 90%-95% of the pieces produced for Record Store Day are vinyl only.

One company, San Francisco-based Tompkins Square Records, is even producing exclusive 10-inch 78 rpm singles by Ralph Stanley and Luther Dickinson.

Increasingly, artists who are fervent indie-store boosters are creating music especially for the event. It’s also a prime opportunity for in-store appearances by rising stars.

One act has taken its devotion to extreme lengths: The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, a longtime RSD supporter, has announced that a handful of the band’s two-LP “The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends” will be pressed containing samples of the blood of some contributors.

In all cases, these pieces are produced in small quantities. An LP or single by a major act like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen or U2 may be pressed in 5,000-10,000 units, while a new artist or regional act may be manufactured in the 1,000-5,000-unit range. Per-store allocations sometimes fall in single digits.

“We started out with this idea that they would be limited and, if possible, numbered pieces of art,” Kurtz said. “We keep the numbers pretty small. … You’ve got to keep it special for the fans, or else it becomes, ‘Yeah, who cares?’ You want them to sell out. You want them to be collectible.”

RSD’s raft of custom-produced micro-edition vinyl releases have not only stirred long annual lineups at participating stores, but they’ve also renewed interest in the LP format, which was shunted aside with the arrival of the compact disc in the mid-1980s. Sales of turntables, not surprisingly, are also on the rise, electronics retailers report.

“When we first started, and we talked about producing 7-inches, people would laugh at us. They said, ‘There’s no business for it.’ Now, you’ve got this one day where a couple million dollars in 7-inches are sold. … It emboldened the vinyl manufacturers to expand their business.”

The success of RSD has spawned a like-minded post-Thanksgiving event, Back to Black Friday. Last year’s soph pre-holiday indie store day saw sales lifted nearly 20%, according to Kurtz.

“Independent retail was sort of disenfranchised from the whole launching of fourth-quarter marketing of music,” Kurtz said. “(But) a lot of stores reported it was the first time they’d had lines outside their door for Black Friday ever.”

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