1. Record stores have been thriving during the pandemic – for better and worse
Everybody thought that it was going to be hell. But as it turned out, the recorded music retailers had a great year last year in terms of selling. People were spending more time at home, which meant that they were listening to their records, they wanted to upgrade their hi-fi and they wanted to buy new records – and that was actually fantastic.
There was a portion of last year when I don’t think a single consumer-electronics company in Australia had a turntable in their warehouse, because so many were sold. Word would go out to the grapevine – “so-and-so brand, they’ve got some turntables!” – and whoosh, everybody was in because there was just nothing to be had.
However, one store owner told me that this wasn’t what he got into this business for. “I might as well be a warehouse,” he said. People were generally not ringing for chats. They were just putting the orders through in some way online. And then he would basically pack them and take a trip down to Australia Post two or three times a day. The upside was they did really well financially. The downside was that it didn’t feed their soul like their normal life does.
2. Numbers don’t tell the whole story of the vinyl craze
According to the latest ARIA figures, vinyl album sales saw a 32 per cent rise year on year and now make up 5.4 per cent of the music market. However, what that doesn’t pick up is any second-hand sales that have gone through the stores. The same goes for local bands that may put some stuff into the store on sale or return and, then of course, there’s record fairs. I think the number is higher.
Vinyl is going back to something that’s ‘real’ – something that’s tangible, that you can touch, rather than music being something on the computer. You read the liner notes, you look at the tracklist, you know who the producer was and who was playing on it. It’s all part of the experience of something that feels more authentic and genuine in what is a very disposable world.
What I think is interesting is that teens are getting into it. It’s not just the over-fifties remembering their childhood. It’s teens discovering this. Because so many people have moved to it, it also means the kids have moved to it. They can buy cheap turntables.
It may mash up their records but at least it can be bought for cheap.
“Is it a bubble? I don’t know. But we’ve given up asking, because we’ve said it for like 10 years”
3. The pandemic affected vinyl supply, which can’t keep up with demand
One of the big problems we’ve got is demand outstrips the ability to press, which means that, if you’re an indie band, you have to think ahead. You can’t say, “Oh, we finished the album this week – let’s go get it pressed next week and sell it the week after”. You may manage to get it pressed but, more likely than not, you’ll find you’re in the queue. Plus, the machinery is hugely expensive to set up, so you can’t easily open new pressing plants.
This was increasingly an issue before the pandemic but COVID-19 has just made it more acute. There were a variety of supply-chain issues last year. The pressing plants in countries that went into lockdown were not allowed to operate – and if they were allowed, they were operating one shift on half-power. So that severely slowed production and they threw all their pressing capacity into the Record Store Day limited releases.
Another issue was getting records into the country. Record companies and distributors were scrambling to change their freight plans and systems, which took a while because everybody was rushing to get into DHL and UPS and on the boat. So much of Australia’s freight comes in under passengers on planes, so that was a problem last year.
The American Record Store Day co-ordinators proposed August, September and October 2020 as three separate drops, which was for a whole range of reasons – one of which was to avoid bottlenecks while getting the volumes of pressing through the pressing plants when they were all on half or quarter-power. It’s a lot better this year than it was last year. A lot of people have learnt how to use the freight options they’ve got. People are just on their toes more.
4. COVID also forced stores to go digital
Stores that before had relied on really good sales just from passing traffic now had to go digital. They learnt how Discogs worked. They learnt about eBay. They put up Shopify stores.
A lot of record store owners are not in business to make money. They’re in business for the lifestyle. They’re by themselves, have somewhere lovely to go every day, and can thoroughly enjoy their job. And they can fund their lifestyle or their family or whatever it is they’re doing. They are not in business to maximise their return. So they didn’t feel they needed to move online. But when passive foot traffic disappeared, they had to look at alternatives.
5. RSD Australia is here to stay
We have said from day one, “Will we have a Record Store Day next year?” And the next year, we did have a Record Store Day that was bigger. It has just grown year on year ever since. Is it a bubble? I don’t know. But we’ve given up asking, because we’ve said it for like 10 years and the following year it’s always bigger.
One of the things that has saddened us about Record Store Day during the pandemic is that it’s meant to be a celebration of the indie record store, and about having a party and live music, pizza and mojitos. There’s a store in Adelaide that does vegan cupcakes and everybody goes there because they have to get one. There’s one in Newcastle that’s quite large, so it could get 25 people into the store legally on one of the Record Store Days last year. All of that – in Melbourne, certainly – was gone in 2020.
I think Australia is keen to try and get back to some degree of normality and Record Store Day is part of that. They want to go and be part of the music community again. They want to be shoulder to shoulder with someone else who’s crate-digging on the day.
Record Store Day Australia takes place July 17