Or, Shove Your $30 Smiths Reissues Up Your Collective Asses
By Colin Tappe
came to the conclusion recently that my job as a record store owner is, first and foremost, to make record buying fun. Sure, keeping things organized, having a good relationship with customers and keeping the stock flowing are all crucial elements of running a successful shop, but all that doesn’t amount to the proverbial hill of beans if the overall experience for the record buyer isn’t fun.
The difficulty in this task lies in anticipating and adapting to every customer’s individual notion of fun. For some it’s finding a gem in the dollar bins, for others it’s walking in and seeing marquee items on the wall. Some want to be left alone to shop, while others will treat you like an amateur psychiatrist and talk your ear off. People want classic titles, what’s new and happening, and the desperately obscure (sometimes all in the same record). However, something that’s patently unfun for all parties involved is the increasingly common $30 retail price tag on new titles or reissues.
Of course as record sales dwindle, or even recuperate at a sluggish pace, these kind of reckless cash grabs from a wounded industry are par for the course. From major to indie, anyone releasing physical music at this point has to adapt to a market which is becoming more and more specialized, fickle and indifferent. And the word on every label’s mind these days is “downsizing;” doing more with less while adapting to a smaller market. Record buyers have accepted the financial reality that lower vinyl runs equate to higher prices, and perhaps because of this begrudging acceptance, it seems that certain labels have been nudging their vinyl prices up in some twisted game to see how much the record buying public will put up with.
I’m not ignorant of the high cost of manufacturing records and the realities of inflation, but there’s no way to justify an increase from $13 to $19 per title — the going wholesale rate for some Rhino reissues, for instance — within a year’s time without greed creeping into the equation somewhere. And greed can be good, as Kirk Douglas taught us in Wall Street, but when it’s a dumb, myopic greed that will only hurt all participants in the long run, I can only muster an exasperated amalgam of an eye roll, head shake and jerk off motion.
What the labels propagating these high priced reissues overlook is how vital teenagers are to the future of “the industry.” Of course teenagers and college kids generally aren’t dropping four figures on rare soul 45s or scrutinizing matrix etchings by any means, but the ancient craft of taking your allowance to the record store and seeing how far you can stretch it is alive and well. Every day I sell records to high school aged kids, and you don’t have to listen very closely to hear them groan and lament the high price tags on the reissue du jour as they flip past to swoop on the $5-$10 Van Halen and Black Flag records (and Rush, too…who knew kids were so into Rush these days?).
I cannot overstate the importance of keeping young people involved in buying records. Even if you’re some crusty collector who sticks to the sad-old-man digger circuits, how much value will your deep groove treasure trove maintain if no new blood enters the playing field to agree that what you have is worth what you say it’s worth? And obviously the industry’s number one priority should be to cultivate a future generation of record buyers; “hooking them while they’re young,” so to speak. Major labels notoriously blew it in the ‘90s by killing the single as a format and outrageously overpricing CDs, which of course lead to the downloading revolution and the crippling of an industry. Now that they’ve been given a chance to redeem themselves with the resurgence of interest in vinyl, not only are they shooting themselves in the foot, but it’s the same foot, the same gun, and they’re even reusing the bullet!
Any record label right now could learn a valuable lesson from the hardcore punk elder statesmen at SST, Dischord, BYO, Revelation, etc.: these labels stick to the $7-$8 wholesale price on their full lengths and as a result, retailers like me are able to make our mark up while keeping the records at a reasonable price. Customer, retailer, distributor and label all work together harmoniously, and more important than the miniscule profit being made off each unit, everyone’s doing their part to spread their love of music on to someone else. Not only is this an ethical and sustainable model, but if you participate, you might just have some fun yourself.
Colin Tappe is the owner of Standards Record Store in Vista, CA