Beer vs Records a tough Record Store Day choice

The Song by Toad vinyl records, going up against Barney's Beers with the music available as downloads. Picture: Contributed
The Song by Toad vinyl records, going up against Barney's Beers with the music available as downloads. Picture: Contributed
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FOR Record Store Day Matthew Young decided to pose a question about whether music fans prefer booze or vinyl for their cash

People will happily spend £12 on a single round of beer, but it seems they’re reluctant to spend £12 on a record. Why? On 20 April, Record Store Day 2013 (RSD), my Edinburgh-based label Song, by Toad Records will be releasing eight songs on a limited run of 250 clear red vinyl records, in a beautiful sleeve featuring photos of the recording session taken by talented local photographer Nic Rue. Simultaneously, we will be releasing another eight songs as download codes on bottles of Barney’s Beer. Each one of a limited edition of 250 custom made four-packs will represent the same amount of music as the record, only delivered on a selection of tasty, tasty beer. Who will sell out their batch of 250 first? It’s BEER vs. RECORDS!

It’s a little gimmicky of course, but in the current musical environment, it’s a serious question. Music is intangible, but many passionate music fans are still strongly wedded to physical formats. Normal people are not necessarily so sure, however. For them digital music is enough, they don’t really feel the need to pay much for it, as evidenced by the success of Spotify. This is true even though the sums are relatively small compared to the amount of money we regularly spend on beer on a night out – and we all know where that ends up by the end of the evening.

Record Store Day is a campaign to get people back into music shops by using the lure of exclusive products, in a fairly desperate bid to keep the few remaining independent stores alive. The disappearance of Virgin Megastore and the uncertainty around HMV may gain all the headlines, but smaller independent shops are under just as much threat.

The major entertainment companies have been subsidising the existence of HMV for the last few years, primarily because they are terrified of losing their one remaining foothold on the high street, but they extend no such courtesy to small shops, making the subsidy a bit of a kick in the teeth from their perspective. Especially coming on top of the well-documented squeeze they are feeling from internet retail, supermarkets, direct-to-fan sales from labels and bands themselves, and of course the traditional bogeyman: the “illegal” download.

The motivation behind RSD is a laudable one, but in reality it hasn’t quite worked out as well as it might have. As these releases are exclusive to RSD and relatively limited in number, cynical eBay scavengers get themselves in the inevitable queues nice and early, buy up whatever they think might be the most sought-after products, and then flip them on eBay for ten times the price later that same day.

The main issue, I suppose, is whether or not it works. Does this festival of artificial scarcity actually get people back into record shops on a regular basis, or just for the one day? I have my doubts. As an alternative, this year at VoxBox Music, on St Stephen Street in Stockbridge, Edinburgh, we and our friends from Gerry Loves Records are collaborating with the shop to put on a series of small shows in the Last Word cocktail bar across the road.

Largely specialising in second-hand records, VoxBox don’t go heavily in for the RSD exclusives, but this kind of community event strikes me as being a more effective approach. If you look at the biannual Independent Label Market, where the owners of independent record labels man market stalls to sell their wares directly to the public, there seems to be a lot of value in directly connecting the fans to the people who make, release and distribute their music.

It reminds me a little of the success of farmers’ markets and the locally-sourced movement in food. People are sick of secretly being fed horsemeat, and increasingly want to know what they are eating, how it was made, and where it came from. They want a connection with the grower, with their local fishmonger, with the people who made their chutney and their cheese, and I think that is an attitude that could serve the music industry well.

A large part of the success we’ve had at Song, by Toad Records is down to the fact that I have maintained a blog since 2004, where I talk regularly about the actual process of making recorded music. I take silly pictures when we’re recording, I describe the difficulties I have mixing records, the frustrations of the publicity process, and pretty much everything else which springs to mind.

That kind of openness and demystification seems to encourage people to care about what we do. If people care, they will support something, and I think that is the best way forward for Record Store Day. Don’t worry as much about the exclusives, good as they are for getting bodies through the door, but turn the day into a celebration of music and get people involved. Have a laugh with them, bicker about records with them, have a drink. I think that kind of relationship is more likely to be what saves shops in the long run.

As you can see from all the hand-wringing about the plight of HMV, in the music industry we are still surprisingly in thrall to old, industrial-scale business models. Maybe music businesses should learn from their counterparts in the food industry about how to make a living out of small batches and more modest reach and distribution?

The thing is, as powerful as digital music is, certain kinds of people will always want a physical product. Humans are collectors: we surround ourselves with things which tell us and other people who we are. Some people collect records, others keep dozens of books they have read once and will never read again, but would they consider getting rid of them? Of course not, it’s part of their identity, and part of what makes their house a home.

The industrial scale, mass-market product in the music industry is now digital. Be it Spotify streaming or an iTunes library full of MP3s, it is little more than an ephemeral stream of ones and zeros, but that doesn’t mean physical artifacts will go away. It just means that we have to stop treating them like the commodity they have ceased to be, and start treating them like what they are now: a small batch, hand-crafted product made for an audience of enthusiasts and connoisseurs.

• Song, by Toad’s Beer vs. Records merchandise will be available in record shops in Scotland (and nearby off-licences) on Record Store Day, 20 April (see beervsrecords.com for details). There will also be a launch night at Summerhall on the evening of 20 April, with £2 off the door price if you spend money in a Scottish record shop that day, and £4 off if you buy the Song, by Toad Split 12” at a Scottish record shop that day. All four bands on the record – Le Thug, Magic Eye, Plastic Animals and Zed Penguin – will be playing live.