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Let's Talk Record Store Day
The owner of one of Orlando's most popular independent record stores discusses RSD.
Thank you for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. I apologize for my absence. My ongoing conversion of a website I run into a private business has taken more time than I expected, which is part of why there have been no new issues in a few weeks. However, the bigger issue is that I’ve had several interviews fall through in a short period of time. Some of those were simply canceled due to schedules, some were bands I was told I could get and then it didn’t happen, and a few were just postponed (some indefinitely as of right now). I’m extremely bummed about two of those that fell through, because I was really excited about them, but I can’t really complain when I look back at some of the artists I’ve spoken with for this newsletter.
After a few weeks to regroup, MRC is back and Saturday will be the new release day moving forward. I think it will work better with my current schedule and I hope that’s not an inconvenience for you, dear reader.
For this issue, I caught up with Sandy Bitman, the owner of Park Ave CDs here in Orlando, Florida. It’s one of the best independent record stores in the country, specializing in both new and used vinyl and CDs. They also sell cassettes, books, audio accessories, Funko Pop figures, and lots of other odds and ends. Sandy’s interview is one that pushed for a few weeks and then finally happened. I had been trying to touch base with him since Record Store Day back in late April to discuss that very annual event.
Let’s get to that story.
Record Store Day became a thing back in 2007, as independent record stores everywhere banded together to try to inject a bit of life into an industry that needed a lift. Brick and mortar stores that catered to those who loved physical product were on slippery footing at that time. More and more people were switching to digital files or buying more cheaply from Amazon or big box stores that could sell such items at a loss to get customers in the door in hopes they’d buy other products while visiting the store. Many independent music stores and even sizable chains didn’t survive.
Basing the idea on Free Comic Book Day, Record Store Day was conceived as a way to celebrate the culture surrounding local independent record stores. Unique album pressings specifically for Record Store Day, or titles that first become available on that day, were a way to attract music lovers into the stores, and the buzz surrounding the event grew. While all stores celebrate in their own ways, all participating independent shops sell records, CDs, and even cassettes that are made uniquely for release on that day and are only available in independent stores.
Some stores make it an even bigger event — inviting food trucks to park outside, giving away prizes, etc. A few lucky shops even have in-store appearances by musicians who either perform or sign autographs for fans (or both). It’s all a celebration of each store’s place in its community.
“We liked the idea,” said Sandy Bitman, owner of Park Ave CDs in Orlando, Florida, which has participated in Record Store Day since the beginning. “We belong to a coalition of record stores around the country. And there’s three of those coalitions. All of them kind of worked together to figure this idea out. I was familiar with (Free Comic Book Day) and saw how friends and people went crazy for that day. And I just thought that it seemed like a natural extension to try that with records and music.”
I remember fondly my first Record Store Day experience. I’m not sure what year it was, but it was one of the first few. I went early, enjoyed great food from a chicken ‘n waffles truck, stood in line, and eventually got in and bought a few CDs (I had no turntable at the time) to help support Park Ave, which is one of the great places to shop for music in the Orlando area.
Living about 25-ish minutes from the store, I didn’t get over there very often, but I enjoyed the experience every time I did. Even if I could get the albums I wanted cheaper online or at Walmart, I enjoyed the experience of being in the shop, flipping through the bins — even if I didn’t buy anything. It took me back to my childhood, when I used to thumb through the records in a small corner of a department store in Heath, Ohio, while my mother did her shopping — often with my younger brother and sisters in tow. Later, when I was in college, there were multiple stores near Ohio State University where I’d waste time between classes looking at records and listening to whatever the staff had playing.
I’d been to Park Ave CDs for an amazing in-store performance of Porcupine Tree as well. The band recorded that performance and released it as a CD titled We Lost the Skyline. It was amazing being 10 or 12 feet from the band while they performed stripped down and acoustic versions of some of their best material. That’s the kind of experience only a good local record store can provide.
So, I had a vested interest in making sure the store survived, and so I happily showed up at Park Ave both on Record Store Day and whenever I happened to be in the neighborhood.
The start of Record Store Day was a time of anxiety for record store owners like Bitman, who were trying to steer their shops through some uncertainty of their value at the time.
“I was super nervous. There wasn't hardly any releases compared to what there is now,” Bitman said. “And there was lots of giveaway stuff. And I remember we made cookies, we made cupcakes, we had stuff to give away, just hoping people would show up to this party.
“At that point, the conversation for record stores wasn’t favorable. You know, from really the turn of the century into the early aughts, it was somehow like record stores were to blame for the high prices of CDs, record stores are to blame for this and yada yada yada, so it was an attempt by the stores who were involved to figure out how to change that conversation and to get some good press for independent record shops, because we didn’t understand why somehow we’re the villain, so to speak.”
The event quickly took off and, over the years, it has become a monster event that requires a lot of planning and logistical thought beforehand to ensure the day goes off without a hitch.
“It’s crazy. We start preparing for Record Store Day (which is in late April) probably right after Christmas,” Bitman said.
The record labels and Record Store Day organizers come up with a list of the titles that will be available for RSD each year, and then individual buyers from the stores have to figure out what they think they can sell. Park Ave CDs sends out a community survey to gauge interest, and Bitman reaches out to other independent stores to exchange ideas and try to strategize on which titles they think will move and which ones might not.
Bitman also looks at his store’s sales history to see how certain artists are trending in the market and how well artists may have performed on RSD previously before placing his orders.
As for the logistics of the day itself, this particular store has been drawing time slots for customers who plan to attend Record Store Day — a practice that spawned from the pandemic. Previously, Park Ave simply opened shop on RSD to a long line already wrapped around the block, waiting to get in. The line still exists with the time slot reservations, but it’s not as long, moves more quickly, and is far more organized.
The store sends out RSD order forms via email and posts it on the Park Ave website, and, upon arrival, customers hand in their completed forms and can shop as long as they’d like. Employees in the back fill the orders while they shop and call out names as each order is filled, letting customers know they’re ready to pick up. They also explain to each customer if there is a title missing (I missed out on the limited edition Porcupine Tree IA/DW/XT EP this year, although I got the other two items on my list and bought an additional album from the bins).
Pallets of records and CDs start arriving two weeks prior to Record Store Day and the shop has to use storage units as staging areas to open boxes to sort through the arrivals, check off items they’ve received, and to see if any of the merchandise is damaged.
“We rented a U-Haul van for the week, so we can make trips back and forth between storage, staging all that, and then getting it organized in the backroom.”
In front of the store it’s like a carnival, with tents filled with people selling merchandise, giving stuff away (I scored a cool KISS Destroyer slip mat for my turntable, a Beatles mug, and some stickers), and having raffles and other promotions.
As with all things, humans have found a way to use RSD for their own personal gain. There are lowlifes out there who buy what they can on Record Store Day and wait until those titles are sold out so they can sell them online at a steep markup on online marketplaces such as eBay or Discogs.
“ We can’t prevent 100% of people flipping all the time, but we can at least reduce the chances of that happening,” Bitman said.
One of the ways he does that is by not putting RSD titles on the floor after Record Store Day until a period of time goes by. That way, those who check the stores on RSD and several days afterward don’t find more records they can flip and profit off someone else’s music fandom. It’s just as bad as scalping concert tickets.
Some music fans lament what RSD has become in terms of high prices or what’s being offered. Bitman said he believes the list each year offers a good cross-section of artists and genres, and a mixture of rare, live, and special releases (colored vinyl, picture discs, etc.) that should offer something to satisfy most music fans to some extent. While some of these titles seem outrageously priced to some, there is usually a reason. Many RSD titles are limited pressings, and so scarcity and the law of supply and demand comes into play. Plus, the labels and stores are gambling that these titles will be sold, and setup to do special pressings of records can be more expensive than a normal run of vinyl. For me, it’s worth a few extra bucks to support the store and the industry, and to get a really cool record.
How much impact does Record Store Day have on these independent shops? It varies, of course, by how involved the individual stores are with the event, and how popular titles are in any given year, but Bitman said it’s certainly been a boost for Park Ave.
“So the number of transactions for this past Record Store Day, compared to a normal Saturday, is about four or five times the number of actual transactions,” he said. “The dollar equivalent is much higher, because people are buying bigger stacks. On a (normal) Saturday, you might come in and buy maybe one or two records, or three records. But on Record Store Day, there’s a lot more that you're you’re picking up. So, it doesn’t scale proportionally.”
Now that we’re 16 years on, did Record Store Day have the intended effect?
“I think (it changed) for the better,” Bitman said. “It did what it set out to do, which was to change the conversation. It went from being all the press that was happening about record stores was negative and changed the conversation to being like the celebration of these stores, these experiences that are part of communities, that have always been part of the communities and will continue to be so. It did that. We saw it. We felt it. We saw the excitement. People showed up and continue to show up.”
While I won’t say that RSD is for everyone, it is a lot of fun for me and for many music fans. Sometimes I only want one or two titles. Sometimes there are so many I want that I can’t possibly afford to get even half of them. But it’s always a unique experience and the only bad part for me is waiting to get in the door.
But it usually turns out to be worth it.
Thanks again for your time. If you want to check out my full discussion with Sandy, watch the video below or download Episode 108 of the Michael’s Record Collection podcast. In addition to Record Store Day, I spoke to Sandy about how he went from part-time employee, to manager, to owner of Park Ave CDs, the best and worst part of owning your own record store, and much more. It was a fun conversation. I encourage you to watch/listen and also to support your local, independent record store.
Thanks again for your time. Please consider sharing this issue of the newsletter with the music lovers in your life via the first button below, or sharing Michael’s Record Collection (in general) with the second. And be sure to check out the podcast version of MRC at your favorite podcast dispensary. I invite you to visit my website at michaelsrecordcollection.com and to take a look at the membership levels on my Patreon site at patreon.com/michaelsrecordcollection to find out how you can support independent writing and podcasting for as little as $2 per month (that’s only 50 cents per week!).