Henry Rollins: The Major Labels Are Screwing Up Record Store Day
Photo by Heidi May
Record Store Day 2015 is only a few days behind us. This is a great event that I hope gets more full-on every year. It has been encouraging to watch it grow all over the world.
It didn’t take long for major labels to see the potential of RSD and start generating product to exploit their catalogs. Hey, if they have some cool stuff in those massive vaults of theirs, then with all speed, press it up and sell it to me. I have met many people in the record business over the years, and some of them would tell me stories about live albums recorded but unreleased, alternate versions of famous songs, demos, etc., that made me dizzy with envy at what they had access to.
Having even an inkling as to what they could release, I am always a bit let down to see the deluge of subpar major-label bilge that takes up so much space at participating RSD stores.
Some of these records probably will half-life into goo, such as the RSD 2015 Tom Verlaine/David Bowie “Kingdom Come” single, featuring the 1979 Verlaine song from his self-titled, first post-Television effort, covered brilliantly by Bowie on Scary Monsters in 1980. It’s a stunning display of yes-we-have-no-imagination plot loss and because-we-can arrogance. If you are a fan of either artist, you probably are aware of, and very well might have, both records. These two previously released songs on one single is not at all interesting.
I have a cool Bowie bootleg called Vampires of Human Flesh with a great demo version of “Kingdom Come” on it, as well as a live tape of Verlaine doing a killer version of the song at the 9:30 Club on 11-11-81. There’s your single. That took a few seconds.
These big labels are like your parents coming to a party you’re at. “Don’t worry, we’re cool!” Nope. So not Record Store Day.
Why does there need to be a Record Store Day? What, record stores are in danger of a lack of patrons? We need to be reminded that record stores exist? Well, yeah.
Why do you think this is?
It’s certainly not the fault of all those incredibly hard-working independent labels, many of which exist in perpetual threat of tanking, taking great risks on the bands and artists they believe in. No, they’re good and have always been so. But at least one of the reasons that many record stores have to wave their arms in varying degrees of distress is that major labels are almost hostile toward them and, in my opinion, toward music itself.
Let me take that a bit further: Some major labels are the fuckin’ Death Star of music. Record Store Day is, at least in part, an effort to save music from these monsters.
What would they have me do? Listen to some miserable MP3 on my phone, or subscribe to their streaming service, where the artists get paid in pennies? Again and again, the fans have had to rescue the music in more and more adversarial climates. I totally understand why people download music for free. Some labels are so crass, they beg to get beat.
I am probably older than most of the people who read this column, so I have witnessed the shuttering of many great record stores all over America. I noticed it starting in the late 1980s. Amazing places, run by people who lived for the music and made a career of selling records.
Then the chain stores had a ride of several years. The good ones such as Tower, as well as the awful ones like Virgin, eventually keeled over like woolly mammoths, frozen into extinction by far larger, more efficient and frustratingly anonymous delivery systems.
Artists like Beyoncé, long may she wave, are not even real to me. Not for a lack of talent or sincerity but for an almost nauseating hugeness that fairly obliterates their humanity and reduces their fans to a microscopic, screaming blip. They are from a space so far beyond my comprehension, I believe they only beam down now and then to a stadium for a couple of hours to dazzle us mortals and then vanish in seconds to their must-be-incredible dwellings via 4G technology, to do invisible business and tradecraft. Aren’t their records sold via impossibly huge online stores, packaged by underpaid, overworked employees in depressing working conditions? I would be almost afraid of one of their records attacking me if I didn’t like it.
This is what major labels abandoned record stores for. They turned them from meeting points and dens of discovery to last-stand fortresses warding off a potentially culture-free future. It’s almost funny when they come bursting onto the RSD scene like they’re your “tight bros from way back when.”
But with their bountiful vaults, they could amaze in almost every genre on RSD. I remain optimistic.
It’s so great to find out that so many people give a damn about music media that you actually have to touch and maintain, and that there is still plenty of excitement for music and the sheer joy of going to the record store to check out what’s happening.
For me, it’s always Record Store Day. I think of buying records from record stores as a way of tithing. It is a walk on the wall to keep the party going.
Great music is ours to lose. What replaces it won’t be any good. Those who cram themselves into vehicles and go from city to city to deliver the goods in often challenging circumstances are a threatened species and need all the protection they can get.
Long live Record Store Day. I can’t wait for the next one.
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