Interview: Chris Brown Talks Black Friday/RSD

Black Friday 2013 / Interviews / November 27, 2013

In honor of Record Store Day’s upcoming Black Friday event, Modern Vinyl spoke with Chris Brown, the man who initially conceived Record Store Day and who currently works at Bull Moose. One of the good guys within the indie record store world, Brown is very involved in both of the annual events, even releasing preview videos, which showcase the various exclusives. You can check out our conversation with Brown, below:

As former chairman of the Department of Record Stores (or Music Monitor Network), you were a primary figure in the initial Record Store Day pitch. What can you tell us about that initial process and furthermore, what would you say was the beginning vision of the board in relation to the now, annual event? 

I suggested the idea to the Department of Record Stores (then known as the Music Monitor Network) President, Michael Kurtz. He took it up with others inside and outside DORS. Store owners were very enthusiastic. There had been a feeling “somebody” needed to do “something.” I just happened to be the person who said that all indie stores working together should be that “somebody” and had an idea what that “something” could be.

I suggested that we band with as many indie stores as possible to create a holiday to celebrate ourselves and our loyal customers. The holiday would have three components: in-store events with or without artists, special sales, and a few special releases created exclusively for us.  I wanted to cut through all the doom and gloom and show off how rocking things were at the indie level. Many indie stores were packed with music-loving customers. Many independent labels were doing just fine.

It turned out pretty much as I hoped it would. The biggest difference between the vision and where we are now is the scale. We thought it could get big, but we thought it would take longer. We hoped we could grow it to the point at a band like Metallica would take notice, but we had no idea they would want to sign autographs at Rasputins that first year. Metallica’s early involvement helped all stores so much and there is no way we can repay them. Looking back on it, it makes sense. They are visionary guys who seem to really want a strong connection with their fans. They maybe saw RSD’s potential more clearly than we did.

In those first couple years, what were the main challenges faced by RSD? For example, the vinyl industry had begun its resurgence during this time, but how willing were labels to work on exclusive releases with you guys?

We didn’t try to get a large number of exclusive releases the first year, but the labels were generally quite supportive and created lots of freebies for us. After that first year, all the labels wanted to join the fun. What do they know how to do? Release records. You didn’t ask, but this is why there are so many exclusive releases every year. Everyone wants to contribute.

That initial pitch, which took place in 2007, took place shortly after the closing of Tower Records (in 2006). Many outside the industry believed this to be the “death” of the traditional record store. Was there a fear present at this time in relation to the industry you all knew and loved?

It was the opposite. We wanted to show the world that traditional record stores, as you put it, were thriving. We lost a few great stores during that period, but many of us were expanding and nobody was talking about it. I wanted to reassure our regulars that we would be around as long as they need us. It was such a glass half empty time. The industry was changing, not disintegrating, and people weren’t seeing all the good news.

On a related note, the number of record stores has actually been increasing in the last few years. Many regional chains, like Bull Moose, continue to expand, while little stores are opening up all over the place. I can’t wait to see how all those new stores affect the business. I’m really excited about that.

Today, you find yourself in a much more informal role, helping out with the celebration whenever asked. What have been some of the exclusive releases you’ve had input on and are there any you’re particularly proud of being involved with?

There’s only so much I can say, because a lot of things are mentioned to me in confidence. My input is frequently limited to helping people choose between options or advising on quantities. Because I make the RSD preview videos, I have to learn about every release and physically handle most of them. Even so, I am only one of the retail people who are consulted.

I am proudest of the Ani DiFranco Live at Bull Moose CD, because she inspires me in so many ways. I almost quit the day after her performance because I knew nothing could top that day. I have a pretty darn cool job, but that will always be the highlight.

I suggested that Phish release an audiophile version of Lawn Boy. They had a different idea, but weren’t sure about it.  All I did was point out that their fans loved what they did with Junta and they were hoping that Lawn Boy would get the same treatment. The made the decision on their own. That’s a good example of how I try to influence things. I try to let labels know when they do a particularly fine job. It’s the best way to encourage them to do it again!

And watching from your position — involved in an indie store and in the formation of the event — what’s been the most surprising aspect of the event’s growth throughout the now, five-plus years?

It was the explosion of all the limited edition vinyl.

One of the primary complaints I’ve seen about today’s version of the event is pricing. First, do you think there is a pricing issue with RSD? And second, if there is, do you feel like there’s a way to correct such issues or is it just the way the vinyl record industry is traveling?

I haven’t noticed that list prices for the exclusives are higher than they would be if the same item was given wide release. The windowed releases come out at the same price later, don’t they?

A few Black Fridays ago, some really elaborate 7″ box sets were released. This was in response to complaints the previous April. Anyway, some of the packaging was really expensive to make, so the prices were higher than people were willing to pay. They didn’t sell and that was the end of the fancy 7″ box set. Not buying something is a pretty great way to vote.

And I know we’ve talked about this personally, but what is your opinion on the large amount of releases being “flipped” almost immediately after their RSD or Black Friday purchases? Do you see this as a cultural issue within the vinyl world, or is it just a few bad eggs?

Well, first of all, it’s not a “large amount” of records, if you consider  that more than 1,000,000 records sell in the US every RSD. It’s actually a small percentage, but it should be smaller. It happens every day and it’s probably hard for some collectors to understand why flipping is OK only 363 days a year.

Collectors buying records they don’t want for resale is very inefficient and does nothing but drive up the prices. Let’s say I buy a record for $20 and sell it to you for $50. Then I buy a record from you for $50 for which you paid $20. After shipping fees and the sales commissions we pay, we each paid $30 for a $20 record. The only winners were the USPS and the online marketplace.

This might be a good time to mention that to actually receive any RSD titles, stores must pledge not to sell them for obnoxious prices on their own or any other website. That pretty much rules out online auctions. Stores that challenge this are banned (This really happens). I’m really not sure what to do about flippers. Should we quiz everyone who wants to buy a record? “OK, kid before you can buy that record, tell me who was Stiff’s highest-charting artist.”

To get back on a positive note, what are the Black Friday releases you’re most looking forward to?

I am looking forward to all of them! I love looking at them, even the ones I would never buy. I just love the variety and all the care that went into them all. Personally, I am most excited by Nilsson, Jethro Tull, Zabriskie Point, and Hendrix. I might buy the Paul Simon [records] and at least one Miles Davis if we don’t sell out. Those are windowed titles, so I don’t mind waiting until next year. Oh, I almost forgot! Percy Dovetonsils and the Linus & Lucy 7″. The Grinch too! Sunn 0))), the Sundazed singles because their 7″s always sound so great.

I’ve always enjoyed the preview videos you post around RSD and Black Friday. Do you plan to continue these and what was the initial inspiration for them?

Thank you very much. I do plan to continue making them. I wish I had a good story about the first one. I just did it without telling anybody.

And lastly, we always like to ask about the personal record collection of the people we interview. And I’d assume you have a pretty massive music collection at home?

It’s smaller than it could be, that’s for sure. I moved this year, so I spent the last two years cutting back on unneeded items, from old clothes to Limp Bizkit’s second CD. I just bought a refurbished Thorens to replace my old Dual turntable, so the LP portion of my collection will grow quickly again.

Thanks for all the great questions. This has been very fun.  I hope you have a great time wherever you shop on Black Friday.

Thanks to Chris for participating in the interview! And if you want to support his specific store, make sure to check out Bull Moose. Wherever you are, though, just go out and support your local record store on Black Friday.

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Christopher Lantinen
Chris Lantinen is the owner and editor-in-chief of Modern Vinyl. Along with his modest collection of sad sounding records, he collects his share of soundtracks and previously adored indie up-and-comers. Chris is currently a professor of journalism and public relations at Edinboro University in the Erie, Pennsylvania area.

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