Record Store Day spurs vinyl comeback

Saturday, April 17, 6:59 a.m.: A line of bleary-eyed yet eager shoppers snaked along the sidewalk adjacent to Fingerprints, an independently run music shop in the Belmont Shore section of Long Beach.

The throng, a shoddy assortment of teenagers and adults donning jeans and sneakers, plaid button-downs and band T-shirts, was a somewhat unusual fixture on Belmont Shore’s Melrose Boulevard-reminiscent Second Street, the well-groomed community’s main drag that consists mostly of chain coffee shops and retail boutiques.

On an ordinary Saturday during normal store hours (10 a.m. through 11 p.m.), Fingerprints hardly blends in, despite its unassuming stucco exterior that bears only several windows usually clouded with colorful posters and do-it-yourself fliers announcing album releases and local shows.

The inside is even more of an anomaly on the pristine block with its deep wooden cases of vinyl and CDs packed like a can of sardines and partitioned by white plastic cards adorned with Sharpie marker scrawl.

Yet, most peculiar about the corner of Second Street and Roycroft Avenue Saturday morning was that every customer waiting for Fingerprints to open its doors at 7 a.m. did not exactly know why he was out and about at that unholy hour. According to Fingerprint’s website, the store ordered more than 150 “exclusive releases,” but wouldn’t know which would be in stock “until the boxes hit the floor.”

“If there is something you’re determined to add to your collection, you’re gonna want to get here early,” proclaimed the webpage.

And so they did.

Meanwhile, in Claremont, Calif., music enthusiasts young and old gathered outside Rhino Records at 10 a.m. to receive wristbands for an in-store performance by New Jersey-based trio Yo La Tengo. For the experimental noise pop band, Rhino was not just a pit stop on the way to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival but also Yo La Tengo’s first acoustic set in California since 1993.

In the hills of Los Angeles’ East Side neighborhoods, Echo Park’s hole-in-the-wall record shop, Origami Vinyl, held an afternoon concert that featured L.A. locals Dum Dum Girls, U.K. natives Male Bonding and Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh founding member Lou Barlow. Further west on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, Amoeba Music hosted a wristband-only Smashing Pumpkins performance at nearby Space 15 Twenty, while Amoeba browsers were treated to a book signing with hard-rock musician Slash and various D.J. sets.

And that was just Los Angeles.

Up north in San Francisco, French actress/singer-songwriter Charlotte Gainsbourg made a detour on her way to the Coachella Valley, stopping for a few hours at that city’s Amoeba Music for an in-store concert. On the East Coast, the already-buzzing streets of New York City were even more abuzz with music lovers swarming stores from Greenwich Village to Brooklyn.

Across the pond, audiophiles in the United Kingdom were treated to a series of exclusive vinyl pressings, including a newly released limited edition single, “Plundered My Soul,” rediscovered from the homegrown Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street (1972) recording session.

It might have been Coachella weekend for some 75,000 concertgoers, but for the rest of us it was Record Store Day.

The brainchild of Bull Moose employee Chris Brown and established in 2007 by Criminal Records manager Eric Levin and a coalition of independent music retailers, including Michael Kurtz, Carrie Colliton, Amy Dorfman, Don Van Cleave and Brian Poehner, Record Store Day has become a Christmas morning of sorts for record collectors, vinyl nerds and advocates of Mom and Pop stores.

Struggling to stay afloat in this age of multimedia chains and iTunes downloads, Record Store Day was conceived in order to connect independently owned music shops, artists and consumers to show that music is meant to be bought and appreciated with care.

Now in its third year as a globally recognized event, Record Store Day continues to grow exponentially. More than 1,400 stores spanning the United States and United Kingdom participated in this year’s event, compared to 300 stores in 2008. Additionally, 2010’s record of 150 exclusive releases is a significant jump from 2008’s 10 special releases.

“It was crazy this morning,” said a staff member at Fingerprints over the drone of psych-rock band Dios, which was throwing an album release concert in the store late Saturday afternoon, as customers continued to file in and out. “There must have been over 100 people lined up outside.”

The inception and increasing attendance of Record Store Day comes at a prime time for vinyl record sales and the music industry as a whole: According to Nielsen SoundScan, an information system that tracks music and music video product sales throughout the United States and Canada, vinyl sales were the highest in 2009 since SoundScan began tracking music sales in the late 1980s. Overall, 2.5 million new albums were sold, presenting a 33 percent increase from 2008 sales.

Though the resurgence of vinyl and, on a lesser scale, cassettes still remains a mystery, it seems that no one minds if it remains unsolved. For indie-minded musicians, the reasoning is simple: Vinyl and cassette releases are an easy way to get your music out to the world on a limited budget.

But in our contemporary lifestyle, vinyl by design is inaccessible. It’s clunky, oversized and incapable of being uploaded to our iPods or played in our car stereos. With its cohesiveness as a medium, however, vinyl is a vehicle for appreciating an album as one unified work of art.

Akin to creating mixtapes, which required more labor than simply dragging MP3 files from one folder into another, uncovering the much-lusted-for record is like discovering a gem among a pile of rubble — you have to earn it.

More than anything, vinyl forces you to cultivate your musical knowledge. Perusing floor-to-ceiling stacks of records compels you to learn the difference among first editions and reissues, stereo and mono versions, and the history behind an artist’s discography. Like Tom Waits, who performed during the 2009 Record Store Day, said in support of independently run record shops: “Folks who work here are professors. Don’t replace all the knowers with guessors — keep ’em open, they’re the ears of the town.”

Although local stores like Amoeba and Origami Vinyl frequently host events, Record Store Day reminds everyone from music snobs to casual listeners that audio stores outside of retail hybrids, such as Best Buy and Borders, exist on a larger scale. And although cynics like to contend the recent increase in sales is a minor blip on the music industry radar, which continues to fight stagnant CD revenue, vinyl’s morphing connotation from antiquated to classic represents a much-needed change in consumers’ need for high-quality rather than faddish or mass-produced items.

If only Record Store Day could do for 35mm film and independent bookstores what it does for vinyl, there would truly be a revolution of the obsolete on our hands.

Lauren Barbato is a senior majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column “Sound Check” runs Tuesdays.

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