Do Twin Cities record stores need Record Store Day?

2012 Record Store Day events roundup
A celebration of independent Twin City record stores

With Record Store Day upon us once more, it's a little hard to believe that this is only the event's fifth installment. The annual celebration of brick and mortar music retailers has turned into such an extravaganza, and feels so deeply embedded in the culture of the business, that it feels like it could easily have been going on twice as long.

This year, no doubt, will be bigger and better than ever, with stores across the Twin Cities pulling out all the stops on special releases, concerts, and a variety of other side shows, from beer gardens to clowns to face painting. Unquestionably, Record Store Day is the biggest day of the year for those who love crate-digging -- and, crucially, for the businesses themselves. But it also begs a question: Can these businesses survive without Record Store Day? And if so, do they need it?

Record sellers, after all, can be any number of things. Yes, at heart they will always be the great temple of worship for music lovers, and specifically for vinyl heads, second only perhaps to concert venues. Records, after all, help make our experiences with music more tangible, not only because you have to get up and flip the damn things over while you're listening to them, but also through the artwork, and through the pure pleasure of flipping through the racks in a store; some people live for the thrill of finding that long-lost rarity.

But, whether by nature or necessity, record stores are more than that too: they're a place to hang out with like-minded people, to discover new music, and to even see live shows. They're businesses, of course, but they're also part of the local community -- a fact that stretches back to the head shops of the '60s and '70s, and which almost got lost in the rise of the big-box chains, and in the simultaneous implosion of the music industry and nosedive of the economy-at-large. Thanks to Record Store Day, we have reason to celebrate that heritage, and to (at least try to) keep it alive.

"It's a little bit like [the old days]," says Bob Fuchs, the manager at Electric Fetus in Minneapolis, where he's worked since the mid-'80s. "At times it was just crazy; for ten years Saturdays were nuts. So I'm super happy for the newer staff to see what it used to be like -- but it's also bigger than any one day we had in the old days."

Last year's Record Store Day brought a line around the block at Electric Fetus.
Last year's Record Store Day brought a line around the block at Electric Fetus.
Photo by Erik Hess

The Fetus, more than any local record store, has been become a brand as much as anything else, a ubiquitous sort of presence that also sells all nature of clothing, books, knick-knacks, and other, er, paraphernalia. The store helps to keep a high profile for itself by having year-round in-store performances and listening parties, so that Record Store Day isn't so much a departure for the norm as it is a highly concentrated day of everything the store has to offer -- in short, a microcosm of the business model.

Fuchs is adamant that, in this day and age, record stores couldn't survive without finding ways to become part of the community, rather than just a place to buy records. "If you are not the church where people worship music, you will be gone," he says. "If you're not creating some sort of event and being the center of culture, then why wouldn't someone go to iTunes?"

There's a sound logic to that argument, and a little bit of a romantic streak, too: Shouldn't record stores be a cultural hub, a gathering place for people who love music? It's not just a place that exists because people like stuff, or because the owners need to earn a living. As a result, "diversifying the product" helps justify record stores' existence at a time when they're not truly necessary. "Ten to 15 years ago," Fuchs points out, "the only place you could buy music was in a record store..."

Perhaps a little surprisingly, given how frequently his own store hosts events, Hymie's Vintage Records' owner Dave Hoenack doesn't see in-store performances as a crucial component of the business. "I think we could do just fine without doing all that, but I think it'd be less fun," he says. After all, as he points out, "We don't make a ton of money [from doing] in-stores."
Embedded in that comment is the notion that Record Store Day could, at least potentially, turn into a bit of an arms race, however unlikely. If that were to happen, it would likely favor a store like the Fetus -- or, to a lesser extent, Hymie's -- which has a much higher profile, and greater resources, to throw towards making bigger and better parties. Meanwhile, smaller stores like Yeti Records or even Treehouse Records might have a harder time keeping up, and probably little interest in doing so. "I've gotten a lot of criticism from other record store owners for all the stuff we do," Hoenack admits, a little sheepishly. "That it's maybe a little cheap of us to do."

Hymie's owners, Dave and Laura Hoenack
Hymie's owners, Dave and Laura Hoenack
Craig Willford

(Of course, those sorts of accusations are almost inevitable when businesses are competing for what remains an essentially small pool of customers.)

The truth, not too surprisingly, probably lies somewhere in between: record stores don't need to have special events in order to survive, but the extra traffic those events drive in could also be the difference between turning a profit and simply breaking even--depending, one imagines, on where you set your expectations.

What's probably easier to figure out is just how much of a boon Record Store Day itself is for the stores. "In the long term?" asks Fuchs. "Probably not much." In fact, even in the short term, he tempers the day's significance: "Sure, there'll be lines up people who want the limited content--it's a way of reaching out to the hardcore fans--and that alone will drive 500 people here. But half my regulars who show up couldn't care less. They just want to support local, see some band, spend their money in town."

To put it bluntly, a good showing on Record Store Day just ain't gonna make up for 364 days of otherwise mediocre-to-bad business. So, no, record stores probably don't need Record Store Day, and they may not even need to be "cultural hubs" in order to survive. That much we should be able to agree on. What's more likely, however, is that we need Record Store Day -- the customers who flock into the stores every April, and who always check out one of the local shops before even thinking about hitting up Amazon or Best Buy.

In truth, Record Store Day may well have started as a desperate bid to create artificial traffic to the stores, but it's become something more than that over the years. As Hoenack explains, and Fuchs concurs, "Record Store Day was this weird event paying tribute to the record store, so we've gone the other direction. Yeah, there's the special releases and everything, but we look at it as a way for the record stores to say thank you to everyone."

Bob Fuchs, Electric Fetus store manager
Bob Fuchs, Electric Fetus store manager
Courtesy Bob Fuchs

All those romantic ideas we mentioned earlier? Yeah, those exist mainly because of us, the customers, because we like records, and we like the idea of connecting our listening experience to one people had back in the good ol' days. And, even if just for a few hours, once every year, we get to relive those long-lost days in all their glory. Amen to that.

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