Record Store Day’s Limited ‘Drop’ Was a Social-Distancing Success, Relieved Indie Retailers Say

If there are two things that don’t go together, it’s quarantining and queues. Yet beleaguered independent music retailers are offering positive reports on Record Store Day 2020… or, rather, the first of three monthly “Record Store Day Drops” that are belatedly substituting for the major RSD that was to have gone down in April.

RSD organizers have reported — and Variety has confirmed with a number of stores — that, on August 29, they did roughly half the business they would have seen on a normal April Record Store Day, which for most would be far and away their biggest sales day of the year. If halving that usual bonanza sounds discouraging, stores had good reason not to see it that way: This “drop” date had well under half the 415 exclusive limited-edition titles that have been parceled out over the last Saturdays of August, September and October. While the rollout was a bit top-heavy with 176 exclusives released on the first date, there are still more than 100 titles to come on each of the two remaining dates, Sept. 26 and Oct. 24.

Other factors make the sales look like more than just a qualified success, like the fact that many stores would only allow customers to shop for RSD releases during their limited time slots, keeping the rest of their shops off-limits, foregoing the usual attendant sales of catalog or used titles that typically contribute to a RSD tally. Others kept their doors closed entirely and only did web orders. And more stores than not, in an informal survey, admitted they underbought stock, for fear of being stuck with it if customers turned out to be timid about coming in, a fear that turned out not to come to fruition. Stores generally reported a higher-than-usual sell-through of what they did stock, and some placed additional orders and are just getting them in, two weeks later — although, of course, good luck finding those Tyler, the Creator or John Prine releases from anyone but a flipper at this point.

Carrie Colliton, one of the co-founders of Record Store Day, says, “I think a lot of it was and will still be: ‘I want to support my record store, and I want some of that excitement that I would have felt about some musical event this year.’ Because they’re not going to get the concerts back. They’re not going to get the festivals. You know, ‘Drops’ is one small, small part of feeling like a musical community coming together.”

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Shoppers line up with social distancing for Record Store Day Drops in late August at Canterbury Records in Pasadena, Calif. Chris Willman / Variety

On the subject of which titles were most across-the-board popular, one word immediately pops out of Colliton’s mouth: “Tyler!” That would be Tyler, the Creator, who had two first-time vinyl issues of catalog product that both sold through quickly. “I heard from one store that said, ‘You know, the customer base seemed a lot younger than maybe it usually does,’ and he attributed that to Tyler, the Creator and Billie Eilish having titles, and he’s probably not wrong.” (Eilish was represented by the first wide-scale release of her “Live at Third Man” recording.) “We knew those were going to be at the top. But David Bowie is always on the Record Store Day lists, but for really good reasons, and this year’s were both excellent.” (Bowie was represented by two first-time live albums, both of them among the top ranks of archival material that has come out on him, with “I’m Only Dancing,” a 1974 recording, being one of the hardest to find on shelves by afternoon.) “And Gorillaz, that’s exciting. And then there were other things — I don’t want to call them smaller titles; they don’t have the same recognition but they’re just as exciting and cool, and I’ve had stores saying, ‘We actually sold more of these things.’

“I think one unintended beauty out of this is that  if you were only allowing five or six people into your store at one time, you really got to talk to those people and pay attention to what they were buying, because it wasn’t just like, boom, boom, boom; they were able to actually look and see what customers were buying. And I think some of the stores were a little surprised at how much of the deep, cool stuff that sometimes gets overlooked they were seeing in everybody’s stack of records, and they were saying to people, ‘Oh, that Nat Turner Rebellion piece. That’s kind of cool. How did you know about that?’ So I think that was a benefit, and I guess it’s good to find the benefits in this year of pandemics. Everybody getting to know their customers a little better was a good thing.”

Variety checked in with some of the stores we talked with about their plans for coping with COVID concerns prior to the date, and all reported that customers seemed pleased with the social distancing measures undertaken, and that sales exceeded their expectations.

“The main takeaway from us was that interest and enthusiasm for the exclusives has not waned — in fact, it seems to have increased, despite the pandemic,” says Chad Dryden, marketing director for the Record Exchange in Boise, one of the key retailers in the Northwest, which had hundreds of customers sign up for a lottery to get timed admission slots in the first few hours. “Our take on that is that we were helped by the fact people are turning more toward creature comforts during the pandemic, and that it’s easier for our customers to budget for three days of exclusives spaced out over three months. as opposed to a single Saturday.” After buying fewer numbers on many titles than they would have in a normal year, out of caution, he says the store “did 44 percent of our RSD 2019 business and sold through 87 percent of our exclusives inventory. We went into the day with a ‘first-time event’ mentality, so nearly hitting half of our total 2019 RSD felt like a big win and bodes well for the next two RSD Drops dates. We also had a big Sunday, up 13 percent over the Sunday after RSD in 2019.”

Says Brandon Salzer of Salzer’s in Ventura, Calif., one of the biggest independent retailers on the west coast, “It went very smoothly and our sell-through rate was 81% the day of, which is our highest RSD sell-thru rate since 2012. Unfortunately, most of the good stuff had sold by later in the day.” He says the lottery system they set up for morning shopping slots was well-received by the hundreds of customers who got guaranteed early admission and will be repeated for the next RSD “drop” this month.

Zia Records’ locations in the southwest states didn’t go with the lottery system favored by so many stores, but, says the chain’s CEO, Jarrett Hankinson, “It went smooth for us. We had people line up at all of our locations but they were masked, distanced and overall in great spirits — no issues. The online portion was also received very well. There are some things for us to tinker with internally to make sure we maximize the online experience, but we are generally very pleased with the outcome of the first drop.”

There may be more than a little tinkering to be done for some outlets on the online experience, as some of the bigger names in music retail had their websites crash that morning, including Amoeba on the west coast and Rough Trade on the east, along with some U.K. retailers. RSD usually prohibits participating stores from selling online until the next day, to keep interest piqued around the brick-and-mortar experience. This year, they allowed shops to begin selling on the web at 1 p.m. ET, whether their physical locations were opened or closed (as Amoeba’s three locations currently are).

Says Colliton, “That’s another thing that you just don’t know how to prepare for, because you say, ‘Okay, we’ll up the servers and up the bandwidth,’ but you don’t know how much everybody’s going to be coming at it at the same exact time. I tried to support like four or five stores that couldn’t open at all by buying a couple of things, and with the Pretenders (a 1980  live album getting its first release), I tried to buy it from four different stores, and with all four, it kept getting taken out of my cart online because I was not fast enough. So it wasn’t just the Amoeba website. There is a reason we don’t want stores selling on the day on a regular Record Store Day. But this isn’t regular, so I think everybody understands now. I don’t know how you plan for thousands of people hitting websites at the same time and trying to buy the same thing, but hopefully we get it a little more right on drops two and three.”

Her suggestion: “Maybe not everybody go at 1:00 eastern. A lot of stores made the decision that ‘all day Saturday, I’m just going to support my local customers, and then I will ship on Sunday,’ which I think kind of helped a lot of stores keep that website trauma at bay a little bit. Or maybe you don’t put everything up until 4 or 7, and it staggers out a little bit. But all in all — and somebody’s going to hear me say this who didn’t get the records they wanted, and I’m going to feel really bad about it — for the most part, we heard from stores that the web thing was a good bending of the rules, that we allowed them to do it on (Saturday). Because there were some stores who weren’t able to open, and it really saved them.”

When the “drops” plan was first announced months ago, at a time no one really knew for sure what the COVID protocols would be like in the late summer and fall, some online commenters said it was irresponsible to continue with RSD plans in any form. There have been few such comments since Aug. 29, as stores either set up rigid protocols for entry or, in more laissez faire lineups, hundreds of masked customers maintained their own six-foot distancing. There was even a shared celebratory spirit in that that may have made up for the lack of beer and bands.

“When we announced it, I mean, I’m no dummy — I know what’s coming on social media when I talk about certain things, sSo I block out time to monitor and respond to people,” Colliton says. “And that was really probably the most aggressively negative thing we’ve ever (had to respond to), in terms of people’s comments to us, because people were so hyped up and so afraid and so concerned. And nobody knew what anything was going to be like, or even what this virus was going to be like, because we had to figure it out so much earlier in the year. I get it. I understand what they’re saying. But the stores did a lot of work to calmly, rationally communicate with their customers and explain to them, ‘We’re totally changing things up. We’re making it as safe as we can. We think this is going to work; please trust us.’

“A regular Record Store Day is kind of like two different days,” Colliton points out. “In the morning, there’s the fun and the hunt and the excitement of ‘What did I get? What did I get?’ It’s like Christmas. And then the rest of the day is kind of like the party, where the family gathers and you watch bands and drink beer and eat the Christmas dinner. So it’s almost like two different days. And this year, the second part of the day pretty much didn’t happen.”

But, she adds, “When I hear from a store that is saying, ‘This helped me have, short of $600, the best August I’ve ever had’ — during a pandemic, when retail stores have been closed to regular business… I consider that day a success when you hear stories like that.”