A young man sporting shoulder-length hair and a Wolfmother T-shirt looked back as he followed an Amoeba Music staffer's direction to the end of the checkout line in the Hollywood, Calif., store on Record Store Day this past Saturday.
"They should have Record Store Week!" the young man said as he took his place, a few pieces of freshly procured vinyl in hand.
He had a point.
Record Store Day was founded in 2007 appropriately by Chris Brown, an employee of the East Coast-based independent record store chain Bull Moose. The goal of the event is to celebrate the unique standing held by independently owned record stores and their importance to their respective communities. From San Diego’s Record City to Waterville, Maine-based the Record Collection, more than 700 independent record stores participated in this year’s installment. Additionally, more than 100 artists released special RSD vinyl and CD exclusives, including Ani DiFranco, the Beatles, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, MGMT, Phoenix, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, Them Crooked Vultures, and Wilco, among others.
Amoeba had been open barely an hour on this day and the line from the cash registers already snaked all the way from the very back corner of the massive store through the classical and blues sections in the rear room, then down the main aisle of the huge, bi-level front room. There were at least 150 people queued up already. And they weren't here for the Slash CD signing (that line was forming outside) or the Smashing Pumpkins performance happening later that day.
They were here simply to buy recorded music.
Among them was Lydia Chain, a 25-year-old "student/starving artist" from Los Angeles, bearing not just goodies gotten by having been poised at the door before opening, but some battle scars incurred in the process.
"I have bruises from trying to get the records I was after," she said. "There were a lot of elbows being thrown."
She didn't actually get the record that had been her primary target — an exclusive vinyl release of the Hold Steady's new Heaven Is Whenever album, released two weeks before other versions in a very limited RSD run of 500 nationwide — but she was anything but bereft of items. Her basket contained $300 worth of music, all vinyl and including some RSD exclusives, among them a Them Crooked Vultures 10-inch and both special seven-inch platters released by Peter Gabriel. Chain said this was an extension of her year-round passion: buying music (especially vinyl) online and at Amoeba and the several other smaller indie stores that remain in the Los Angeles area. It was also a bonding experience with her dad.
"My dad and I are tight," Chain said. "He was around in the great days of music, the '60s. He's like, '$30 for a piece of vinyl?' I have to justify it — 'It's 180 grams, limited edition.' He says, 'I don't care. Just get it.'"
It's a sort of scene you'd expect to find in Record Store Days, a new book looking lovingly at the wonders of indie music stores written by Gary Calamar, a DJ on Santa Monica, Calif.-based public radio station KCRW and GRAMMY-nominated producer and music supervisor, and veteran music journalist Phil Gallo, who a few minutes later took over the Amoeba DJ booth to provide a soundtrack for their book-signing session.
Calamar grabbed the microphone, declared RSD "my favorite holiday of the year" and held up a CD he'd picked out of the vast selections in the bins. "Where else could you find Spuds MacKenzie's Party Faves for $2.99?" he said, with only a little sense of sarcasm.
And with that he said he wanted to start with the first record he ever bought, at a little store in the Bronx, N.Y., and the room was filled with the staggering guitar riff of the Kinks' "All Day And All Of The Night."
Record Store Days chronicles the evolution and impact of this phenomenon as a key thread of modern American history and crucial in the shaping of indie music of all stripes. But given the general perception that the retail music business is dying — and with many record stores having gone under in recent years — should it be filed under history or current events?
"It's current events in 2010," said an adamant Gallo. "But if we'd written this five or six years earlier, it would have been an obituary. All the fun was gone. People were scrounging by. It was a world of gloom and doom. But the people who are starting now are shaping their record stores like the stores in the '60s and '70s."
The vibe of the store is exactly what attracted Slash to Amoeba. His new album, simply titled Slash and featuring the iconic guitarist with such collaborators as Iggy Pop, Ozzy Osbourne, Maroon 5's Adam Levine, Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, and the Black Eyed Peas' Fergie, was designed for settings such as this. Sure, it's available digitally on iTunes and elsewhere. But to the top-hatted one, Slash was meant to be bought in a store just like this.
"First, we recorded to two-inch tape, so you want it on vinyl," Slash said, noting that the old-school tape format is pretty much dead in the digital age, despite being considered by many to be far superior in sound. His producer, Eric Valentine, had stowed some away when the manufacturers stopped making it, knowing that some project would simply call for it, and Slash's was it.
The guitarist was thrilled to see that so many young people have embraced the plastic platters. Even if it's still a very small part of the market, he sees it as a positive sign. "As long as artists are putting it out in different formats, it's good," he said. "The resurgence of vinyl…people will rise up and surprise you."
Jim Henderson, one of the co-founders of the small Amoeba chain that also includes the original store in Berkeley, Calif., and a second across the Bay in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, is thrilled with all of the activity — the lines, the frenzies, the vinyl, even the obscure $2.99 items in the clearance bins. Well, everything except the bruises.
"We've seen terrific reactions to what we've done for three years in a row, but never had this reaction where people were fighting tooth and nail," said Henderson. "We expected a good crowd and that people [would want] to share the day. But it was much more aggressive."
He said this in front of one of the big clearance bins filled with CDs at almost giveaway prices — not just special for this event, but an everyday thing now. That, to some, might be a sign that despite this one-day surge, the rest of the year is marked by declining interest in CDs.
"CDs are not as in demand as they used to be," Henderson acknowledged, citing supply and demand for the reduced prices on thousands of items. "But music is. Sales have stayed steady on the used side."
But with reduced revenue?
"We do make it up on volume. And our counter sales, people selling back to us, still do more than 100,000 CDs a month, so we're seeing more recycling of things."
Now, in some ways this day is just a more intense version of normal for Amoeba. The huge shop, which became the dominant record store in the region pretty much on opening in 2001, regularly hosts major in-store performances (GRAMMY winners Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello are just two of the more prominent stars in the last few years) and has such community involvement activities as regular auctions benefiting New Orleans' recovery and other causes. And, of course, for a real music fan, the hunt through the bins is always rewarding.
It's a pretty simple approach, Henderson explained. "Almost everything we do is to keep people coming back."
How about Record Store Year?
(Steve Hochman writes the Around The World music column for AOL's Spinner.com and is the pop music critic for KQED Radio's "The California Report Magazine." He has covered the music world for 25 years for the Los Angeles Times and many other publications.)