It sounds like the ultimate retail riddle: Is there a way to sell as much product in one day as possible, while having as few customers in-store as possible, at least at one time? “How to throttle store traffic” has rarely led the agenda when music shop owners and managers talk amongst themselves… until 2020. But it’s certainly been the No. 1 trending topic among not just retailers but customers, too, in the weeks leading up to Record Store Day — or the condensed and serialized version that will transpire this Saturday in 1200 participating independent shops.
As most vinyl enthusiasts already know, Record Store Day was pushed off its usual April berth shortly after the usual annual list of about 450 exclusive releases was announced in March, due to the pandemic. After initially being delayed to an untenable date in June, a new plan was announced: RSD as we know it would be replaced by three monthly “RSD Drops,” in which the releases that had been sitting shrink-wrapped in warehouses for close to six months would finally be put up for sale in separate batches on the final Saturdays of August, September and October. Part of the thinking was that spacing it out might help leaven the crowds, assuming some customers are just looking for one item out of the 450.
On a practical level, unemployment, overdue mortgage payments and virus fears might help a bit with the crowd-thinning, too. But vinyl fetishism will trump even these concerns for a possible plurality of faithful RSD customers. So how to keep the on-sale date for the first 180 or so titles this Saturday safe as well as efficient and at least a little bit fun has been a dilemma that different stores have approached in different ways. Variety spoke with eight retailers from across the country as well as RSD co-founder Carrie Colliton about the variety of methods stores are experimenting with to keep sales high but crowds at bay.
“I think you’ll find that pretty much at every one of the 1200 stores that are participating, they’re all doing something a little bit different,” Colliton says. But that’s in keeping with tradition, she points out, because “nobody ever really did Record Store Day the same way in the first place. But we knew you can’t have people line up like they have before. You can’t say, ‘All right, you crazy committed person, you’re here at 5 p.m. the night before — you’re the first one in the door.’ You don’t want people sleeping out. And you don’t want somebody driving by your store two hours before you open and seeing a mass of people and taking a picture and putting it on social media. And obviously we’re downplaying the celebrations so that the stores remain solvent and healthy and are there for a party in 2021 or 2022.”
Some stores — probably a minority — are still going with the traditional lineups, but enforcing six-foot distancing in line, masks inside, only a handful of customers allowed in at a time, and a limited shopping time of anywhere from two minutes (yes, two minutes) to a half-hour. Others have nixed the idea of lines and set up online forms for customers to be assigned a time, either in a first-dibs fashion or with random assignment via the lottery system. Reportedly, at least one store is staying closed but offering shopping via Zoom video for its preferred customers. Some — like California’s Amoeba chain — are remaining closed but ramping up the web-order business, which is now being permitted by the RSD overseers starting at 1 p.m. ET on the day of the event, rather than being prohibited until the following Sunday or Monday. One in L.A. is shuttered but putting its RSD purchases on Instagram, one at a time, with the first commenters earning the right to buy the LP or single.
Says Colliton, “About two months ago, we started having what turned out to be 10 or 11 Zoom calls that stores could call into. And we were very clear with the stores: We don’t expect this to be Record Store Day. We don’t want you to have a party. We don’t want you to have bands. We don’t want you to have barbecues. We don’t want you to invite crowds, and we want to talk you through how you do that. We wanted the stores to be able to talk to each other and get ideas. … If you’ve been with Record Store Day from the beginning, this would have been your 13th one, so you’ve probably honed it to a science at this point, and it can be really hard to look at ways to do it in another way…
“We had some stores that just from the very beginning flat-out said, ‘We can’t do this. We’re just going to pass.’ But we encouraged them to be on the calls,” Colliton says, “so they could hear other stores talk through the various ways you could get people to sign up for appointments. Zoom is good because you can see people’s faces as they listen, and by the end you could see the wheels turning and these stores would end up saying, ‘Okay, I actually think I have a plan now. I think I can make this work.’”
The biggest store in the L.A.-adjacent San Gabriel Valley, Rhino Records in Claremont, announced that it would take reservations at 9 a.m. last Saturday for half-hour slots beginning at 9 a.m. this Saturday. Within moments of the free reservations going “on sale” on the website, the first couple of appointment periods were gone, but afternoon slots still remained available for a while. Rhino owner Chuck Oken, Jr. is happy with how the release schedule is being dispersed over three days in three months. “The RSD folks were very wise in breaking this up for both financial and health reasons,” he says. “We still like having folks come in for RSD, and limiting to 20 per half-hour worked for me and my staff, since the Rhino square footage is about 4000 square feet. It will be interesting and different but very much still in the spirit of the event.”
Bull Moose is a chain in the Northeast with 12 stores in New Hampshire and Maine, though it’s more nationally renowned for its robust webstore. Says Mick Pratt, the chain’s marketing and events manager coordinator, “As you might expect, internally, a lot of the questions are like, ‘How are we going to do this so it’s safe?’ And externally, a lot of people are more interested in like, ‘Well, how do I get my records?’” He laughs. “Which isn’t to say the customers are not aware of the concerns and don’t have safety in mind at all, but obviously they’re more motivated by ‘How do I get this thing that I want?’”
The aforementioned chain that is limiting shoppers to two minutes at a time before they check out? That’s Bull Moose. But if that sounds unusually hurried, Pratt expects it to go fine. He says they actually base their early-morning system on the way Amoeba Music has always done it in L.A., where customers fill out a checklist online, then are handed whatever records are in stock from that list. The difference with Bull Moose, Pratt says, is that buyers actually get to go past the alphabetized racks and grab the records themselves, with assistance from clerks. He expects that’ll work fine for keeping customers in-store for five minutes at a time in the early hours, and they can come back later in the day at greater leisure.
“We’ll see how it pans out,” Pratt says. “I choose to be optimistic about it and hope that it will be great and it will not result in too much stress, either for staff or for customers who are like, ‘Damn, what I really needed to get through 2020 was this record.’”
As for what’s most likely to be the items customers think they can’t live without: “A lot of people are excited about the David Bowie and Tyler, the Creator drops. I know that hip-hop has always been sort of a weakness of Record Store Day, so whenever there’s a really big hip-hop release, tons of people get super-excited for it.”
At Amoeba in California, co-owner/founder Marc Weinstein says that “Bowie, Iggy Pop, Robyn, Billie Eilish and The Weeknd have sure been getting a lot of inquiries through our site.” And Amoeba’s inquiries are website-specific, since all three locations have remained closed since the beginning of quarantining.
Amoeba, which is rumored to do the biggest RSD buy in the nation, might have been stuck with a lot of stock if the normal prohibitions against putting releases up for sale online on the day of the event had stayed in place. “We didn’t know until the last month or so whether we could do the online sales, and at least that’s settled,” Weinstein says. “The most obvious challenge with the concept of RSD during COVID is that the whole idea for the day is designed to create a frenzy and crowds and demand — -which of course is not what we can or should do at this time. How to translate the energy and excitement of that shared experience with other music lovers safely is the issue. Of course it is about the releases, but it is also about the camaraderie and the shared experience,” he says, regretfully. “In our stores we have thousands of people come for the celebration of record sore culture, so obviously this year we can’t have that shared experience.”
As for how much it’ll affect the bottom line during Amoeba’s time of closure, Weinstein says, “It’s not really a money maker considering the costs involved in pulling off something like this, especially all done with free shipping, But we’re excited to connect with our customers in any way we can, and being a conduit for so many great pieces that will make a lot of folks happy… It’s a nice little slice of feel-good normalcy in the eye of all this chaos and darkness. So while it financially won’t make much of a dent, we’re grateful to be around and selling records whichever way we can.”
As for whether Amoeba’s three locations will be open by the time of the third Record Store Day Drop in late October — or RSD’s little sister, the Black Friday edition in November, which is tentatively on the books — Weinstein says, “We certainly hope to be open by then, but will only re-open our stores when it is safe for our staff and customers to do so. One advantage we have for managing a larger RSD turnout is that we’ve always done our RSDs via menu” — the aforementioned fil-our-your-want-list-in-line model — “which translates well to the current traffic-flow considerations. If the time seems right, we will be there and ready to go.”
At Salzer’s in Ventura, one of the largest record stores in California, they set up a lottery system, where for the first few hours 20 people will be allowed into the 10,000-square-foot space every 20 minutes. The random assignments didn’t make some customers who are normally early birds happy. “Some people are upset to be in the last group,” says owner Brandon Salzer. “As some people cancel, I try to bump those people up into sooner groups.” But he’s predicting a pleasant shopping day: “I think people are trying to find ways they can safely shop outside the house and spend money on themselves and lift their spirits.” He also expects a lot of people to make the drive an hour north from Los Angeles, because of Amoeba in Hollywood still being closed to walk-ins. “We’re already seeing a lot of L.A. folks on weekends since Amoeba is not an option,” he says, “and we do typically in other Record Store Day years anyway, because we order a lot of product and get allotted favorably and people find a more subdued shopping experience here versus L.A.”
(Interestingly, Salzer says business has been surprisingly good since his massive store reopened in May, with limited admittance and masking: “We’re doing really quite well considering. We’re open four hours less per day, but we’re still seeing higher totals than last year. So we’re making hay while the sun is shining, so to speak.” That’s a boon since his father, the founding namesake of the store, died in March: “He’d want us to continue and it helps keep us distracted. The store is a testament to his memory.”)
The Record Exchange in Boise, Idaho, which rivals the great stores of Seattle as one of the most longstanding and popular indie stores in the Northwest, also went with a lottery system for the morning hours. “It’s nice to see the positive response that we had to the lotto,” says Chad Dryden, the 42-year-old store’s marketing and promotions director. “Given that we normally do have about 250 people in line on a Record Store Day, to have 150 people sign up for it, we think that’s a pretty good ratio of interest. … We did a random drawing and assigned 10 customers per time block starting at 8 am. Each customer block will have 15 minutes for customers to shop. We’re arranging the exclusives alphabetically for the first time, so customers will literally walk by every exclusive A-to-Z as they wind through our vinyl racks. And then in between each time block, we’ll take five minutes to clean and sanitize counters and other surfaces throughout the store.”
The lottery system did result in some slight grumbling. “Some people are used to lining up and getting there to be one of those first customers,” says Dryden. “A couple of those guys did end up through the luck of the draw getting later time slots in late morning or early afternoon, and one guy just responded back with a frown emoji, which I thought was pretty funny. All in all, though, we’ve had people say, ‘Hey, thanks, we’re happy you’re doing it this way.’”
Adds Dryden, “We’ve seen a lot of people that are still excited about it, but we also are anticipating being a little bit less busy. The tricky part is gauging how it’s going to look, because each year the past three years, we’ve set a new all-time store sales record on Record Store Day. That of course isn’t going to happen this year. So we scaled back our orders. With the big titles, like the Billie Eilishes, and the Tyler, the Creators, we didn’t really shave off too much off the top of those orders; even if we do end up with excess quantities, those titles are just going to be good inventory for us to have. But some of those titles that are super-fringy and maybe we would order 3-5 copies, we scaled back and said, okay, let’s do one to two copies. Just because each year, we stick our necks out pretty far financially for Record Store Day” — with orders being non-returnable. “And given that the pandemic has had an impact on our normal sales figures over the past few months, we really had to look at our budget for Record Store Day and adjust that accordingly.”
At Zia, the Southwest’s best-known chain with eight locations in Arizona and Las Vegas, they’re sticking with the old-fashioned line system — at least for this “drop,” reserving the right to change it up for the next two — but opening two hours earlier than usual to try to disperse arrivals. “Ultimately it was a tough decision,” says Zia CEO Jarrett Hankinson, “but we decided to institute the socially distanced, masked line system before “pulling people in in small waves to let them shop for about 15 minutes.” Another reason for letting the line in at 7 a.m. instead of the normal 9: “It’s blazing hot out here!”
“We’re really just not sure how our customers are gonna really respond to what this is,” Hankinson adds. “We feel like we’re going to be able to do this in a fun and safe capacity, but it’s not Record Store Day, man. It’s more of a release date. We can’t have bands come in. We can’t have food. We can’t have donations or capitalize on a lot of different things that we’ve done in years past. And to me that’s personally sad, but come on. Everybody’s going through this together. I don’t think anybody’s incredibly happy right now. So we’re doing our best and we’ll see what happens.”
Permanent Records in L.A. is the rare example of a store that has remained physically closed and has no webstore, period… yet is somehow participating in Record Store Day, against all odds. They’re doing what they’re doing with all their other sales right now: putting photos up on Instagram, and then offering “first dibs” to whoever comments first, however many copies may be available, before concluding the sale later over the phone.
Are any stores just sitting it out entirely? Yes, and one such is the favorite store of San Fernando Valley denizens, Freakbeat Records, which is open but will just have a normal sales day this Saturday, due mostly to a tiny size that is a small fraction of the footprint of an Amoeba or Salzer’s. “From the day that they re-announced all the dates, we were hemming and hawing about what we could do,” says owner Bob Say. “And it’s mostly just because logistically, our store’s too small and we don’t have enough employees to handle everything. Even a regular Record Store Day is difficult for us.”
Adds Say, “Usually we get 200-300 people lined up before we open, and some people stay overnight. This year we thought it might be even worse with people lining up, because Amoeba is just doing it online. we currently only let five people in at a time you, so that would have meant we’d have to have an army of people keeping everybody six feet apart and around the corner. And regular customers couldn’t come in” (the store deals predominantly in used product that draws a different customer base). “So with all those negatives, I mean, it would be fine if there wasn’t a pandemic, but there’s a pandemic. I’m just not going to take a chance of employees getting sick, me getting sick or the customers getting sick over the ownership of a record.” Say does add that he’ll be watching how things go for other stores and hasn’t ruled out having Freakbeat participate in the next two drops.
Colliton is counting on those huge lineups not materializing, with the creative solutions so many stores have arrived at. And she says buyers shouldn’t shy away from showing up on subsequent days, when, chances are, all but a few the hottest titles may still be available at many stores.
“I personally hate it when things are called ‘Record Store Day leftovers,” says the event’s cofounder. “I feel like that makes them sound not as cool as they were the day before. But I think there’s going to be more sales of those throughout the week, because there are those customers that say ‘I don’t feel great about coming on Saturday,’ because they may not be able to get out of their head the picture of the giant crowd, and they say ‘That’s not for me.’”
One of the reasons for settling on three “drop” dates was to space out those crowds. But another was with the stores’ budgets in mind. “In the U.S., stores are coming out of months of drastically reduced revenue, and our list was about 400 titles, and the stores have to order that and bring it in. We didn’t feel like any of them were going to be in a position to be hit with a list of 400 titles on one day and be financially responsible for that.” (Stores were allowed to change orders they’d already made from the full list in March.) “So splitting the list up gives them time: You get a 150-piece list you have to order from, and then the following month you get another 150. And for customers who have things they really want to get on each of the three days, that’s three days to support an independent business in your community.”
Some stores have complained that this Saturday’s drop includes about 30 more releases than the ones coming in September and November, preferring that they would have been spaced out more evenly. Colliton concedes that this first drop is a little top-heavy, but points to how long some indie labels and artists have already been sitting on stock for five months. “Some smaller labels were like, ‘Look, we can hold out till August, but we cannot hold out longer than that,’” she says.
So will Record Store Day’s annual Black Friday postscript happen? That would mean four months in a row, not just the currently scheduled three, of RSD drops. It seems likely, given that at least a couple of indie labels have already announced their plans for a release the day after Thanksgiving.
Colliton laughs, then allows: “We’re working towards Black Friday. We haven’t announced it or solicited it. We don’t want to confuse things, since there’s still two more ‘drops’ dates to come. … Black Friday is very much like a drops date anyway; the size of the list is very much like that, and it’s much less of a party, without the bands or beer kegs or anything like that. Usually for Black Friday, it’s much more a really great shopping day than a celebration day. So we’ll see how the drops go. And how society as a whole goes.”