Catching Up With ‘Fvck Record Store Day’ Manifesto Author Joe Steinhardt
Joe Steinhardt represents an interesting demographic. His label, Don Giovanni Records, is by all means 100 percent independent, yet is clearly among the largest of the indie labels. Maintaining independence is no small feat, and it's often tough to toe the line between indie ethics and large label mechanics. In the past, Steinhardt has been very vocal about his thoughts on Record Store Day, and 2017 is no different — except the stakes may be higher. As such, we caught up with Steinhardt to ask him a few questions about RSD and the ideas behind it.
You wrote a pretty exhaustive manifesto three years ago around Record Store Day. How have things changed in the past three years? Have they?
I honestly think things have gotten worse. The article I wrote in 2014 had three main criticisms: that Record Store Day [RSD] has nothing to do with independent music and is just using the rallying cry of "supporting independent retail" as a way to actually reduce the amount of independence in the music industry; that they are reducing that independence by filling independent record stores with major label records that they wouldn't normally carry, and as a result increasing their reliance on major label albums and their distribution; and finally, that the records they were filling these stores with were incredibly wasteful of the planet's limited resources.
Three years later and the records are even more wasteful than ever. If a glow-in-the-dark 10" version of the Ghostbusters theme that Ray Parker Jr. plagiarized from Huey Lewis was the major-label-scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel three years ago, then the Corey Feldman "Go 4 It" 7" or the Africa-shaped "Africa" picture disc single are like six feet under the barrel. It takes non-renewable resources to press and ship records, and while I honestly think the arts is a much better use of those resources than most of the other things they are used for, the RSD titles do not represent the arts at all, but rather the most wasteful type of consumerism.
The major labels also seem to have even more control over what titles get to be part of RSD than they did three years ago. For example, independently distributed, unreleased Sun Ra records have been rejected, while previously released major label-distributed Sun Ra records made the cut. The criteria for what type of records are selected tends to only be used to reject independent titles, while major label titles that fail those same criteria are accepted. The selection of what records can be part of RSD is done by a secret committee. Seriously. Secret committee. How many committees are there under intense scrutiny where the members are secret? Sure, there are many whose processes are mysterious and whose meetings are very private, but we at least know who is behind the decisions. Which means there may not even be a committee, and if there actually is one, it's clear what their interests are. The only one I can think of is the MPAA.
Do you feel like there is a bubble in respect to vinyl during Record Store Day? Do you feel like it had the power it once did?
I've voiced concerns about RSD threatening to take down the entire independent record store industry as stores become more and more reliant on RSD, and their cash flow becomes more and more heavily leveraged toward credit to be paid back after RSD. The response to those concerns was horrifying, and reminded me of something out of The Big Short or Too Big to Fail, except when record stores fail, the government doesn't step in. Instead, when independent record stores close, the only options for music discovery will be controlled by a small group of tech companies with no interest in nurturing culture the way independent stores do, but rather are only interested in growing their bottom line at the expense of anything else around them. When RSD blows this segment of the industry up, the major labels will feel no pain, but niche-oriented and independent labels who rely on independent record stores for distribution will lose the only part of their industry where they can actually compete fairly with the majors.
Do artists even want to participate in RSD anymore? The list of participating artists reads more like an obituary section. It seems like most of the artists participating in this are dead, and the living ones seem to contractually have little control over their music. Prince never fucking made a title for RSD, and he was famous for being an avid supporter of independent record stores. Now he's dead, and there are seven titles from him coming out. How many records did Allen Toussaint make for RSD while alive? This shit is downright ghoulish.
How have you personally felt the pangs of RSD this year?
I'm terrified of what RSD can do to the independent music industry, and of what it has already done to independent record stores. It hasn't really affected me personally by delaying our records anymore, since we just plan around it now and avoid releasing records anywhere near it. We had an artist ask us about doing an RSD title this year. I voiced my concerns and told them I didn't mind working with another label on it, but they lost all interest. I think that's the problem — artists and consumers don't always think about the ramifications of something like Record Store Day, but once they do, they usually lose interest in participating. It is in many ways the exact opposite of what it is supposed to be supporting.
As a music fiend, have you personally ever had the pangs for a RSD release?
I own about 2,000 records at this point, and only own one RSD title, which I found used just a few weeks later. It's the J.B.'s' These Are the J.B.'s album, which was recorded in 1970 and never released until RSD 2014. Another great example of a record by a dead artist that had no choice whether or not to participate in RSD. Every year on RSD, I support my local independent record store by buying independent records and CDs from them, but [I] haven't bought a RSD title and probably never will.
How do you think things can be improved?
I think the first step is [to] disassociate with the major labels. They have historically only made decisions which favor their own short-term profit over long-term stability of the music industry. RSD is just one example where this is true, but if the goal is to support independent music retail, it makes no sense to do it at the expense if the independent music industry. Perhaps if there was still a reason people wanted this day to be associated with limited new releases, then they could come from independent labels and artists. The majors can have their own RSD at Target and Best Buy, where it belongs.
However, I think the biggest room for improvement would be to no longer have limited new releases be a part of the day at all. I understand that it brings people to the store, but so would free ice cream. It's incredibly short-sighted to bring people into the store this way, because it is creating the type of consumer that will ultimately destroy the industry, for the reasons I discussed earlier. A day focused on musical discovery and what makes independent record stores so important would make a lot more sense compared to one focused on robbing people blind by making them pay collector prices for records they haven't yet realized that they are accumulating rather than collecting. And any day now, they are gonna realize what they are really doing.
RSD doesn't need to be a type of product. Record stores are quite literally filled with thousands of records, all of which are worth bringing home more than any RSD title, and that is something worth celebrating.