Interview with Michael Kurtz
A little over five years ago record sales were all but dead, giving way to compact discs, digital downloads and streaming. Vinyl was becoming scarce – as rare as the 8-track tape. But something happened. That something was Record Store Day. As seen in the graph below, sales of vinyl in 2012 actually surpassed the number sold in 1997 after a decade-long nose dive into near extinction.
Ok, so we’ve seen the numbers, but what is Record Store Day?
From the RSD website:
“Record Store Day was conceived in 2007 at a gathering of independent record store owners and employees as a way to celebrate and spread the word about the unique culture surrounding nearly 1000 independently owned record stores in the US and thousands of similar stores internationally. There are Record Store Day participating stores on every continent except Antarctica.
This is a day for the people who make up the world of the record store—the staff, the customers, and the artists—to come together and celebrate the unique culture of a record store and the special role these independently owned stores play in their communities. Special vinyl and CD releases and various promotional products are made exclusively for the day and hundreds of artists in the United States and in various countries across the globe make special appearances and performances. Festivities include performances, cook-outs, body painting, meet & greets with artists, parades, DJs spinning records and on and on. Metallica officially kicked off Record Store Day at Rasputin Music in San Francisco on April 19, 2008 and Record Store Day is now celebrated the third Saturday every April.
While there’s only one Record Store Day a year, the organization works throughout the year to create contests, special releases and promotions in order to spotlight these special stores on the other 364 days of the year. These include the Adapter Prize—which honors releases chosen as “The Best” by store staff and customers and Back To Black Friday which gives record stores exclusive releases as part of the attempt to redirect the focus of the biggest shopping day of the year to the desirable, special things to be found at local stores.”
Coming up shortly – Saturday, April 19th, 2014 – is the seventh annual Record Store Day. [Click here for the pull-down menu of this year’s RSD releases or here to download the PDF]. One Louder Magazine spoke with RSD co-founder Michael Kurtz to find out about its origins, what to expect from this year’s event and what we can expect going forward.
One Louder Magazine: Hi Michael! Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy life to answer some questions for us. So the first Record Store Day occurred on April 19th, 2008. When/how did the idea cross your mind? What steps did you have to take to get RSD from being just an idea to being an annual (and growing) event?
Michael Kurtz: Chris Brown works for a record store in Maine called Bull Moose. Chris noticed what the comic book stores were doing with Free Comic Book Day and said we should try and do something like that. The idea was presented to a bunch of record store owners who were meeting in Baltimore and we talked about the concept. I then took it to a few record companies and Metallica’s management to see if they would help us celebrate the very first one. Metallica said “yes” and a few record labels, mainly Warner Music labels, created the first ten or so RSD releases. We managed to get about 150 stores on board for the first one and I ran into Billy Bragg at the airport and asked him if he would celebrate in the UK. He did and that opened the door for the event to go worldwide.
OLM: Records were (seemingly) all but replaced by compact discs in the ‘80s and ‘90s, followed by CDs being replaced by digital downloads and streaming in the 2000s. There has been quite a resurgence in vinyl sales over the past half-decade-or so. Do you think this resurgence would have happened without RSD or would vinyl be as scarce as the 8-track tape had RSD never happened?
MK: The vinyl format was pretty closed to dead in 2006 and 2007, at least compared to its heyday, or even by today’s standards. The sales were so low that I remember early discussions we had before launching in 2008 where we doubted ourselves. We weren’t sure if we could get enough people interested in vinyl but we had one guy in the group that said, “You need to listen to me on this. It’s going to be all about vinyl.” That guy was Eric Levin. He is one of our co-founders and he runs a store called Criminal Records. I took Eric’s passion for vinyl and it got funneled into working with artist managers and labels to begin getting really cool records made for the very first Record Store Day. And we’ve done it ever since. In doing this we created an explosion in interest. So to answer your question, Record Store Day single handedly launched the vinyl counter-revolution to the digital revolution. I have no doubt about that. We gave artists and labels the confidence to really get behind vinyl and this flowed to the stores. My understanding is that the vinyl manufacturing and turntable plants are now humming beyond capacity. Record Store Day did that. No doubt about it.
OLM: What RSD releases are you looking forward to the most this year? Why?
MK: I want to get my hands on the RSD releases from Tame Impala, Jake Bugg, Bruce Springsteen, Ronnie Spector, Garbage, Jaco Pastorius, Public Enemy, The RSD Curated Sun Records album, Nina Rota, Frank Zappa, the Southern Culture on the Skids/Fred Schneider piece, Frightened Rabbit, The Specials, Flaming Lips, Tears For Fears, Regina Spektor, and The Space Project releases. I want all of these because I’m fans of the artists and everyone of this is cool and special for different reasons. That said, I’m like anyone else who celebrates RSD. I have no idea what I’ll get until I get to the stores.
OLM: What have been some of your favorite RSD releases in past years? Why?
MK: There are so many, but my personal favorite is the Doors’ Curated By Record Store Day record. The various/unusual mixes of the tracks are exceptional. The fantastic job engineer Bruce Botnick did on the mastering is top notch. I also thought the artwork was amazing.
OLM: What was the first record you ever owned? How old were you?
MK: The first 7” record I bought was in the fourth grade and it was The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields, b/w [“backed with”] Penny Lane. The first full length album I ever bought was The Doors’ Strange Days.
OLM: Do you have any records that are still sealed (and will remain that way)? Which one(s) and why?
MK: I have a few Beatles albums that are still sealed, but the only reason is because they are my back-up copies.
OLM: Because of their limited edition, the price of many of these RSD releases increase significantly. Is it possible to discern between people wanting to purchase the album for the album itself and not for what future value it may hold? In other words, is there a way to curb sales to people looking to make a quick buck?
MK: I can’t really worry about vinyl scalpers. They exist and while I’m not happy about it I’m also grown-up enough to know that they play a role in establishing value for records that collectors want. As far as the cost of the record goes, I am a big proponent of making RSD releases as special as possible, even if that means driving up the cost some. I’d rather have a few truly great things floating around then a lot of average stuff.
OLM: I’m sure you’ve visited some outstanding record stores throughout the years. Which ones are some of your favorites and why?
MK: Becks in Munich, Germany because it’s a great store and it’s in the city where I was born. I like Kompakt in Koln, Germany. I like Generation on Thompson Street in NYC. I like Zia in Phoenix, AZ. I like Bull Moose in Scarborough, ME. I like Criminal in Atlanta. I like Vacation in Silver Lake. I like The Sound Garden in Baltimore. I like Grimey’s in Nashville. I like Fingerprints in Long Beach. There are so many that I like but all of different reasons.
OLM: The oldest record shop in the world is the 120-year old Spillers in the UK. Have you visited there? What do you recall from that trip?
MK: No, I haven’t been there, but I learned about it in RSD’s first official film, a British movie called Sound It Out, by a fantastic film maker by the name of Jeanie Finlay.
OLM: With RSD being an international event and occurring only on one day, where do you plan on celebrating RSD this year?
MK: I will be in Paris, France with the Doors’ drummer John Densmore. Last year John launched his new book The Doors Unhinged on Record Store Day. This year we are launching the French version of the book in Paris and will do a tour of a few French record stores. I am pretty excited.
OLM: What does it take to become a participating RSD store? What is the RSD Pledge?
MK: Record Store Day itself is an open source event. It only exists because enough record store owners and their customers believe in it. This means that any record store can celebrate RSD in their own unique way. The RSD pledge is something that we created when store owners got annoyed by people who were flipping records on eBay and selling them for outrageous prices. We essentially asked them what they thought should be the guidelines for a store that wants to sell the special RSD releases. The stores that do sign the pledge, carry the RSD releases and they all agree to play by the same rules, while discouraging bad actors from ruining the event. This means no eBay and gouging.
OLM: Record Store Day has an ambassador. Ambassadors in the past have included Metallica, Jesse Hughes, Josh Homme, Ozzy Osbourne, Iggy Pop and Jack White. This year, it’s Chuck D. How do you decide who the ambassador will be? What is the role of the ambassador?
MK: It’s different each year but Chuck D is someone we’ve talked about working with over the past several years. 2014 was the year that it all came together. The Ambassador is simply an artist that embodies what RSD is about and, if they have time, they agree to do press interviews and events with us. Chuck D just did this very thing with our big RSD press conference at Amoeba in Hollywood. He was amazingly articulate and can really communicate in exceptional ways. I was a bit in awe.
OLM: Is RSD a full-time job? What do you do during non-RSD season?
MK: RSD is beyond a full time job. In fact it is several full time jobs. We just do the best we can. When I’m not working on RSD I’m working the Dept. of Record Stores, which is a large coalition of independently owned record stores in the USA and Canada.
OLM: Why does RSD occur on the third Saturday of April? Is there any significance to the date?
MK: We spent a good deal of time early on figuring out the right date to do the event. We settled on the third Saturday of April and it’s worked out great for the most part.
OLM: Occasionally there has been a Black Friday RSD, (not coincidentally) taking place on the same day as the annual Black Friday shopping day following Thanksgiving. How does it differ from April’s RSD?
MK: We put more of emphasis on creating releases that we think would make a good holiday gift. We also do much less of them.
OLM: Last January (2013) you were Knighted in France. That sounds like a pretty amazing honor…congratulations! What does that mean to you? What does it mean for RSD?
MK: Getting Knighted was a validation of good instincts and hard work. I especially liked that it came from the French where a Knight can be either a man or a woman. That I think is really cool. I feel a real affinity for the French and the value that they place on the concept of “neighborhood.” It is a perfect fit for what RSD is about.
OLM: What’s the future of RSD? What would you like to see happen? How can RSD be even better?
MK: The core of Record Store Day will remain a focus on the culture of record stores and a celebration of their place in their neighborhoods. We are working on different cool projects that will help us but we’re going to stay the course. Some of the best recent examples of this are our RSD Peanuts turntable and the RSD figure of Nick Cave that graphic artist Frank Kozik created.
OLM: What do you like to do when not focused on RSD? What are some of your hobbies/interests outside of RSD?
MK: I started meditating early on when we first launched RSD. It helped me immeasurably. My meditation studies have grown since then and I feel good about that. I also continue to write music, work on a book, and hike. I love to walk.
OLM: How can people find out more information about Record Store Day?
MK: We have a website, Facebook page and Twitter. I personally like the Facebook page because it shows so much more of our personality. I’m cool with it if someone wants to friend me on Facebook, too.
OLM: The desert island question: if you could take the collected works of five artists, who would the five be?
MK: At any given time in my life I could give you a different answer, but right now it probably would only be Ravi Shankar music. I can’t get enough of Ravi’s music. It makes so much sense to me.
OLM: What are some of your guilty listening pleasures?
MK: An occasional joint, the French brandy Calvados, and music by America and Burt Bacharach. I especially like “Muskrat Love” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” Oh, and I love Miyazaki animation films. They are like Beatles’ albums to me.
OLM: What have been some of your favorite releases this year?
MK: Beck’s Morning Phase. It’s a fantastic album.