In 2008, Michael Kurtz joined a coalition of record store owners and employees to launch Record Store Day, a holiday devoted to independent music shops across the country. Now an annual event, Record Store Day brings special one-time-only pressings to local stores and has helped reinvigorate the independent music industry in America. We chatted with Kurtz 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 premiere record store chain around the world. So when that happened, the media jumped to: “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, geez, 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.
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 U.S. 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 or not 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% of vinyl now. And vinyl sales have now surpassed the income record labels have made off ad-supported streaming [the free products offered by services like Spotify], 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 this year, with around 350 titles, 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 whether someone likes his music or not, he’s relevant.
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. And that 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.