MICHAEL KURTZ

Get the word on the beats from the founder of Record Store Day 

Words: Alex Herrmann 
Photo: J Countess/Getty Images

Michael Kurtz goes on the record about the romantic power of music, Beliebers and their love of vinyl, and why independent shops are important in a world of digital dominance

In 2008, Michael Kurtz formed a coalition of record store owners and employees to launch Record Store Day, an international event devoted to independent music shops around the world. Now held annually, Record Store Day brings special limited-edition pressings to local stores and has helped reinvigorate the independent music industry everywhere from Los Angeles and New York to London and Liverpool. We sat down with Kurtz to talk about Record Store Day’s roots, Justin Bieber vinyl and how independent stores can thrive in the digital era.

THE RED BULLETIN: When you started Record Store Day, what problems in the music industry were you responding to?

MICHAEL KURTZ: The discussion for starting Record Store Day started right after Tower Records closed. Tower Records was the premier record store chain around the world, so when that happened, the media jumped to saying, ‘Record stores are dead, and if they’re not dead they’re too stupid to know they’re dead.’ It was kind of mean-spirited, actually.

But business was good for us, and we were having a really great time. So we thought, if we don’t do something to counter this message, we probably will be dead because people will just read over and again that there are no record stores. In fact, we still encounter people that aren’t aware of the vibrant community that we’re a part of.

Record Store Day

Over the past five years, independent record stores have gained a bigger market share 

At that point, music streaming services were just emerging. Have they made life harder for record stores?

The challenges have evolved since ‘08, but they’re really not that different. Back then, it was the height of mass merchant [stores] selling CDs really cheap, and their business was booming. Somewhere around 70 percent of albums were being sold through mass merchants in the US. They could sell CDs for $9.99 and labels were charging us $12. Fast-forward to today, and mass merchants sell a very small percentage of music, but there’s still the struggle to stay relevant in the world of streaming.

It really comes down to whether a store can develop a relationship with their customers, a relationship where they’re turning people on to music and the store is involved in their local music scene. Those are strengths of record stores, and they’re nothing new. It’s been happening for 40 years.

For record stores, our business has been up for the past five years, we’re gaining market share. A lot of that is because of vinyl, because independent record stores make up 70 percent of vinyl now. And vinyl sales have now surpassed the income record labels have made off ad-supported streaming, which is a huge part of their business.

People ask me if I feel threatened [by streaming], but I don’t. I’m an avid music buyer, and I use both. Almost everyone I know does – they exist side by side.

With the convenience of streaming, why are people still buying records?

I’ve been told over the years that 10 or 15 percent of the population are hardcore music fans. The rest are casual consumers of music, meaning if they like a hit song they’ll download it or buy it, or they listen on the radio. That hasn’t changed, and we’re still catering to those people who are really into music.

That’s why Record Store Day works, because we have the experience to go to labels and ask them to make special records for our community. Looking at the list of releases that we launched in 2016, with around 350 titles [there will be 560 titles in 2017], the casual person would probably wonder why you go from Brian Fallon to Frank Zappa to The Weeknd. We do it because we know what people are into, and we ask labels to make things for the fans.

I’ve had people send me snarky emails, like, ‘Oh, God, how could you do Justin Bieber? You’ve jumped the shark.’ Justin Bieber has millions of fans. We want them coming to record stores. I don’t care if someone likes his music or not, he’s relevant.

“I know countless people who met their significant other in a record store”

Do modern artists care if their music ends up on vinyl?

There are some artists, like Adele, who demand that their albums come out on vinyl at the same time as the digital version. They pressed 50,000 copies of her album, and it pressed, shipped and arrived in stores the same day it went up digitally. She strongly believes that that’s an important way to experience her record.

Now, is that a big part of why the record had such a long life? I think the answer is yes. It’s not the only reason, but when you get 50,000 people to invest $20 into a record, they’re going to evangelize it. They’re going to tell their friends about it, they’re going to connect and it’s going to be real.

Beyond selling music, what do record stores offer their communities?

Bands have formed in record stores, and that’s still happening a lot – people find out about someone else who’s a good match for them. This sounds romantic, but I actually know countless people who met their significant other in a record store. It’s a very significant part of people’s lives, and that’s still very vibrant. 

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04 2016 The Red Bulletin

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