© 2011 Matthew Lee Johnston

Record Store Day 2011: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.

The least important part of Record Store Day 2011.

“So nice while it lasted…” – Earl Zero

The official Record Store Day website exclaims that ever since 2008, when Metallica kicked it off at Rasputin’s in Berkeley, the third Saturday in April shall henceforth be known as the day when we all band together and pay tribute to our independent community music retailers.

As someone who weighted my one and only home purchasing decision back in 1997 heavily on my prospective home’s proximity to West Seattle’s Easy Street Records, this idea resonated with me. In 2008, and for a few years after that, I brought the staff at Easy Street a bottle of tequila as a gift on Record Store Day. I’ve since slacked on this ritual offering, but these days, it’s unclear that they would even notice if I were to have brought it in.

It’s not their fault. As Record Store Day got more organized, the digital delivery machine cranked up, and vinyl sales surged, Record Store Day has become a huge marketing win for the struggling indie retailers. An Easy Street employee told me last year that it was easily their best single day of sales that year. 2011 will officially be known in my household as the day that Record Store Day turned my awesome local record store into the temporary equivalent of an AT&T store on iPhone launch day, an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day, or a strip bar on any given Sunday. It’s ironic that while iTunes has been credited for the decline of the brick and mortar music retailer, the indie record stores have adopted a constrained supply/abundant demand situation that is oh-so-familiar to anyone who has ever tried to get an iPhone or iPad on launch day.

I had ambitious plans for RSD that involved sending the kid to sleep at grandma’s, getting up early, and hitting the store at 8am: one hour before they usually open. Now, there’s a café at Easy Street, which I frequent every Tuesday morning before work, so that I can grab any interesting new releases along with my coffee. This is a ritual I’ve been enjoying for 13 years, and I will gladly reveal for the sake of journalism that my detailed tax itemization spreadsheet contains almost $2000 worth of purchases at this one store in 2010. Last year it was almost double that. Sorry Easy Street….but times are tough. My point: I do this every week bitches.

But I was genuinely excited for RSD this year. I printed out the list of exclusives, which I had been tracking as they rolled them out in waves over the last month or so. I had checked off the items I wanted. I made note of the available quantities. I managed my expectations. I went to the cash machine. I woke up “early”.

Ha ha! Fool fool (channeling Dio posthumously, who had a picture disc out for RSD this year)! This is what the sidewalk in front of Easy Street in West Seattle looked like at 6:45am, as I was disembarking from a night’s journey on the SS Child-free Slumber:

Photo courtesy of Easy Street's Twitter feed.

My friend Peter and I had arranged to meet at the store at 8am. 1 hour earlier than normal opening time seemed reasonable to me. I didn’t expect to be first, but I deliberately planned to come in after the wave of attack vultures had completely cleared the area. Last year, I worked a similar schedule and had only heard tales of these atrocious and embarrassing freaks. This was of course, my critical mistake.

To my dismay, at 7:36am, Peter texted me a cryptic yet revealing message: “I ain’t cheating. Just timed my walk wrong…” FUCK! I knew instantly I had lost Peter to the dark side. Not only was he undercutting me on our gentlemanly pact to arrive in unison, but even when I half-jokingly challenged his intentions later, he had revised his recollection of this action by 15 crucial minutes: “I texted you at 7:50am and I was still 3 minutes away!” He was exhibiting that primary psychological symptom of addiction: DENIAL. Inside, I wept.

Backing up a bit… I entered the store, I was confronted with a striking visualization of my deepest fear at that moment. A serpentine line of all the people who had beat me to the punch and grabbed up all the cool shit. IT WAS A GIANT SNAKE COMPRISED OF SNAKES! I was swept with a wave of simultaneous anger, regret, humiliation, and shock. I wandered amongst these unwashed assailants looking for the rack of exclusives, but I couldn’t locate it. The last thing I was going to do was speak to one of them. Through deductive reasoning, which is difficult when your eyes are filled with blood by the way, I determined that Easy Street had placed all of the RSD items upstairs.

As I reached the top of the staircase that leads to the vinyl area, my first point of human contact (extreme emphasis on “human”) and verbal exchange was with my friend Tony, who I trust implicitly to act in a reasonable and logical manner. After exchanging pleasantries, and I pointed to the small stack of records in his hand and asked him how he had done, he said with an expression of mutual empathy and understanding: “it’s already pretty picked over”.

This is when I leapt into survival mode (apologies to Tony). I instantly moved toward the rack. I channeled my inner Inbred Wal-Mart Shopper on Black Friday and got in line to rush the racks. As I flipped through the slim pickins, I was simultaneously trying to cross reference my list, but after getting through the first row I realized that was moronic squared because I was going to be lucky if I found anything, and it would be immediately evident when I did. You don’t need a list to find water in the desert. That list says ‘WATER’, and I think you’re basically drinking it before you see it.

Miraculously but mostly because I have pretty marginal musical tastes, I ended up grabbing a few of the things I was looking for. These were mostly major label releases that were “limited” to 5000 copies, or things that no one else likes. I do believe I grabbed the last copy of the Foo Fighters covers record, which is surprisingly great. My condolences go out to Beth Ditto, who’s 12” EP on Columbia and limited to 2000 copies, appeared to have been procreating while the stock all around it withered rapidly.

As I got to the end of the line, and was waiting for the guy in front of me to stop pretending he was going to find anything that he wanted, I noticed my friend Peter casually perusing the used racks. It was as if he was saying, “You know…grabbing all that cool shit really wasn’t enough, what I need now is a clean copy of Metal Machine Music for $5.” He let me look through his stack, and sure enough, there was half of my list: the ZZ Top/Mastodon 7”, the Joan Jett I Love Rock and Roll re-issue, the Graham Parsons 7”, and the Steve Earle 7”.

I had to wonder how much of this crap gets bought up by the store staff before it even hits the racks. Sure, this is pretty much the only benefit these brave cultural martyrs, who slave away for little-to-nothing in exchange for the opportunity to listen to crazy people go on forever about the Grateful Dead, ever receive. I am not begrudging them this singular benefit to their otherwise miserable profession. But it did hurt a little when one of the store employees said “That ZZ Top 7”? Oh yeah…I got my copy…” as I was sorrowfully signing my credit card slip for half the amount I had anticipated spending.

But there was a ton of shit I never even saw, which makes me think that either the people who got there before me are much cooler than they seem, or that Easy Street simply didn’t bring it in. There were cool Peter Tosh and Fela re-issues, an International Submarine Band LP/7” on Sundazed, a Mississippi John Hurt 12”, and a Beach Boys 78 that simply were nowhere to be found. I did not even sense their presence, and I am relatively sensitive. There is also another, much larger Easy Street that may have gotten more of these releases. There were in-stores all day, etc… but I refuse to go there because I live in West Seattle and Queen Anne is stupid.

Once the item acquisition part of the morning was over, and I had resolved myself to being a third class shopper in an first class retail institution, I settled into a table in the café for some breakfast with Peter, Bob, and Kim. These are three people who I consider to be excruciatingly knowledgeable and fanatic about music. They routinely get together and stare at the record player while listening to stuff. I love these people and what they stand for, but they have a penchant for singular focus and Steeleye Span that requires they be cautiously but only peripherally supervised.

It turns out that Record Store Day, for me anyway, is officially no longer about acquisition. It’s about everyone going up to the record store and hanging out, talking about music, and participating in a communal celebration of the fact that the store still physically exists. As I sat there shooting the shit over breakfast with these guys, I forgot that they had hauls that dwarfed my miniscule stack, including of course a few of the things I wanted. Matt Vaughn, the guy who has been valiantly holding up this institution over the decades, came over and said “hi” and took our picture. I suddenly felt like I was a part of something more important than a single day of buying. I realized that for me, every day is Record Store Day, and Matt gets that, Bob gets that, Kim gets that, and Peter got it too, but he got it more and he got it 15 minutes before I did.

But I have it now. I just still don’t have that ZZ Top 7”. I guess I’ll go steal it off the internet. See you Tuesday!!!

MLJ