Record Store Day 2021: what next for UK and US record stores?

It’s been a good week for anyone who believes that every day should be Record Store Day.

After months of cratedigging cold turkey, record shops – somehow designated as ‘non-essential retail’ during the coronavirus pandemic – were able to re-open from April 12 in the UK, the surest sign yet that life, and the music biz, is getting back to normal.

Entertainment Retailers Association CEO Kim Bayley declared her members were “raring to go”, and they were. Indie record shops posted joyful social media posts as customers returned. And HMV re-opened 93 stores across England and Wales with owner Doug Putman declaring: “We’re confident that shoppers will return to supporting physical retail.”

Not everyone is open yet, including some of my favourite shops – Resident in Brighton is holding off for another week to “get ourselves preened and ready”. So is Rat Records in Camberwell, while Banquet Records in Kingston is only offering online and shop step sales until staff have been vaccinated and social distancing restrictions have eased (a problem for many shops without excessive floor space).

But, whenever they actually fling open their doors, it’s heartening to see just how many record shops have managed to stay in business during a year of unprecedented disruption. When the music biz shut up shop a year ago, physical sales plunged and new releases dried up, yet physical formats have proved remarkably resilient and their retailers inspirationally innovative.

Vinyl sales were up 11.5% year-on-year in 2020, according to the BPI, with 4.8 million units shifted, and boomed further in Q1, even amidst the latest shutdown. And for the past 13 weeks, the No.1 album in the UK has sold the majority of its copies on physical formats, proving it’s still a crucial element to many campaigns. But while dozens of indie shops have successfully pivoted to online operations – many from a standing start – to cope during the pandemic, it’s to be hoped that visiting the physical locations will remain a part of fans’ routines for many years yet.

Because a great record store is much more than just a shop. The best ones are part of the community, providing a meeting place for like minds, a focus for the local scene and a crucial outlet for creatives.

You can see that in the joyful scenes across the pond as Amoeba Music re-opened at a new location in Los Angeles. America’s digital music revolution is much more advanced than ours, while its vaccine programme is notably behind, yet people were still queuing round the block to return to the much-loved shop, closed for months thanks to the pandemic and its relocation.

And anyone who lost several hours flipping through the endless racks at their old shop (where you can buy everything from Laserdiscs to pin badges, as well as every music format known to man) will know why: record buying isn’t just a retail experience, it’s a way of life.

But despite all the positives, it’s also a way of life that remains under threat. And that’s why physical music deserves the industry’s continued support.

By most accounts, vinyl supplies – already stretched pre-coronavirus – have become severely challenged during the crisis, with many new LP releases – so vital to the continued health of record shops – delayed until months after the album has hit streaming services. This has been an issue ever since the vinyl revival started rolling, yet there have been precious few industry-wide attempts to boost capacity. That should change.

CDs, meanwhile, have suffered years of neglect. Yet they remain a popular (not to mention cheap) option for listeners who haven’t been seduced by streaming and may not have the funds or space to join the vinyl revolution. If the industry wants the format to survive – and the graveyard is littered with formats killed off before their time, as the belated vinyl and cassette revivals continue to show – it needs to invest in more interesting packages, as it does with LPs.

And the wider industry needs to get behind the humble record shop as its equivalent of an embassy in every town. At a time when the very concept of the High Street is under pressure, a brilliant local store can continue to serve older diehard consumers and impulse purchasers alike, as well as pull in the next generation of punters with an original offering and community outreach. From the ‘musicians wanted’ pin board responsible for the formation of so many bands, to the in-stores and out-of-shop gigs put on by many outlets, record shops play a role in music’s ecosystem that goes way beyond simply shifting a few crucial copies in chart week. And let’s not forget that – in the age of #FixStreaming and #BrokenRecord – many artists rely on physical sales to bring in the money that streaming doesn’t.

With the re-opening, and the prospect of not one, but two Record Store Days on the horizon in June and July (featuring an exceptional looking line-up of releases, from Linkin Park to Little Mix), record shops have some much needed momentum.

But it’s the months after that that will really matter. Campaigns such as National Album Day and Love Record Stores need to become as much a part of the calendar as RSD, but really record shops need 24/7/365 attention. A less unpredictable release schedule would help – if Hollywood knows which films its releasing two years in advance, why can’t the music biz? – as would making sure vinyl is available on the same day as digital for big releases.

Once touring returns, bands should be encouraged to make visiting the shop near the venue, and the resulting social media content, as much a part of their gig-day routine as the soundcheck. And everybody should be doing everything they can to make sure your friendly, neighbourhood record shop is plugged in to everything the wider biz is doing, rather than being cast aside for the big beasts of the tech world.

Because a week of increased footfall after a year of lockdown won’t be enough to safeguard the future of physical retail. And when it comes to your local record shop, you need to use it or lose it…