A view from inside the Princeton Record Exchange. Photo courtesy of the Princeton Record Exchange.
This Saturday marks the fifth annual Record Store Day — a chance for music lovers across the nation to trek to their favorite mom-and-pop indie music hub for in-store performances, special releases, and sweet deals on the new and used. What began as an effort to save brick and mortar establishments from disappearing in the wake of tough times is finally starting to take the form of a holiday; albeit, a sort-of Black Friday for the niche-est of niche markets.
To commemorate the occasion, BTR talks with Jon Lambert, General Manager of the famed Princeton Record Exchange, to talk about their plans for the weekend. The last time we heard from Jon was three years ago, when he spoke with DJ Madalyn about the goings-on at the store for Record Store Day 2009. We catch up on the time since, fielding questions about false predictions from way-back-when, how the day has evolved over the years at the store, and finally, touching on recent interesting trends from the underbelly of the industry.
BreakThru Radio: What do you guys have planned for Record Store Day this year?
Jon Lambert: Well, the most exciting thing for us this year is that the Grammy-award winning band, They Might Be Giants, has generously offered to play for us, for free. That’s big, big news for us; we’re all big fans here, the town really loves them, and well, they’re loved everywhere. They just called us out of the blue a few months ago, looking for a venue to play. I guess they’re New York-based and we’re having a little difficulty finding the right amount of space here. They had been to Princeton a few times, playing at our local theater — the McCarter Theater. Unbeknownst to us, they had shopped in the store before and I guess they liked the tone of it. So they just offered up their services, which is really exciting for us.
We’re a big store but we’re cramped with merchandise so there’s really no space for an in-store performance by a full-band. We teamed up with our pals at the Princeton Public Library (which is one block away from here) where there’s a very large outdoor courtyard right out front. So, they’ll be putting on a show there — a sort of mini-concert running from 6:00 – 6:45 pm. And then they’re going to come back to the store for in-store signing for as long as people want to meet and greet them. We’re all very excited – we never do in-store performances like this.
BTR: We interviewed you three years ago for Record Store Day 2009, back when the event was just blossoming and had this air of activism about it, as if it were an effort to say, “Save our Record Stores!”
JL: [Laughs] Yeah.
BTR: Now it’s more of a holiday – or rather, how have you seen this day evolve in such a short period of time?
JL: Yeah it’s just grown beyond, I think, everyone’s wildest dreams. There’s just been an exponential explosion of new titles and customers looking for it year after year. Last year was tremendous, I mean, we brought in close to 2,000 pieces. And we were really sweating it, because it was, obviously, a pretty big outlay of money. But before our doors were open, we had over 300 people waiting in line that were staked around the block. I think for three solid hours we had people in line looking to buy this stuff and the tone was just so awesome. Even though people were waiting in line a long time or maybe not everyone got what they were looking for, there was just this spirit of camaradarie and joviality. Everyone was talking to everyone else, everyone was psyched to be there, everyone seemed so happy just to support the store. It was just a really amazing experience of good will that permeated the whole thing.
BTR: Do you think the contrary tone of the industry, with sales receding for the last ten years, has anything to do with this camaraderie?
JL: I think in a looser sense, one of the great things about independent stores is that they’ve always been that focus in the community of die-hard music shoppers. They bring people together in a lot of ways, be it physically or just in spirit, and as more and more people found out it, they were just happy to give voice to be able to give voice to that passion that they had.
BTR: Although, between this year and last year, these are the first two Record Store Days that haven’t seen a decline in the industry. In fact, they’ve seen it flatline.
JL: It’s interesting, actually. You could break down how the music industry works in a lot of different ways. We’re both a new and used store, and about 80 percent of our stock is used. We’re not a direct reflection of what’s going in the new music sales community, but we are finding that in our new sales, the new CDs, which pretty much had been in a free-fall for the last ten years, did stabilize. Our new sales, at least in CDs, for the last few years has been steadied now instead of those double-digit drops we were seeing every year. New vinyl, on the other hand, has kicked-up about 20-30 percent every year. So there is a resurgence in new product. That said, used is still our bread and butter and it draws people into the store but the new sales, even as a whole, has stabilized to a large extent if not kicked-up a little bit.
BTR: In speaking of rising trends in the sensory experience of music, back three years ago, the latest craze was that vinyl was doing better than ever. In the time since, there’s been a proliferation of cassette tape releases and a subset of musical cultures from across the country arising around them. Has the Princeton Record Exchange done anything to address that new market?
JL: For the cassette, not much for us. I’m still viewing it as essentially an uber-cool, super-niche market. There are certainly some substantial bands releasing their product on cassette but we’re not really emphasizing that yet and we’ll see how the trend goes. We do try to react as quickly as we can but we’re not quite finding that demand in the store, we’re not having our customers really ask for it. It still seems more of a thing you buy and trade with your friends. I’ve definitely seen in places like Ebay, some of the earlier noise cassettes from the ’80s and ’90s. They’re starting to go for some big bucks. But as far as new cassettes, I don’t know, it’s just not that great a format. Vinyl’s nice, it’s warm, it’s rich, it’s large, it’s great. Or cassettes? Well, they don’t do much for me. So, we’ll see. Certainly the pre-recorded cassettes from the 80s and 90s, they’re all taken box-set-wise and that market is really dead. What happens to the new market of cassettes? It could peter off, but I could be wrong — we’ll see.
BTR: What would convince you?
JL: Well, the customers essentially. We try to stay ahead of the market but we’re not going to bring in product that nobody’s asking for. As an example, there was a cassette from a band I don’t remember for last Record Store Day. We brought in four or five of them and they sat, not a single one sold. If that demand arises, we have more than enough space for cassettes. But for now, there’s just not the demand.
BTR: Another popular discussion within the industry three years ago was putting away “death of the album” hyperbole since it never happened on the independent store level. Since today you have multiple formats for albums, i.e. CDs, vinyl, and cassettes. Do you fear that the album will at one point lose its physicality?
JL: I guess it will, down the road. In it’s physical form? Yes. In it’s entity? No. I hesitate to guess when the CD will stop being the dominant form, but in a few years I’m expecting to see artists, distributors, and labels start to be a little pickier about whether they put that release out on a physical format or CD. I think that will still exist in a digital form because it’s a good idea the same way you have a novel — you have a packet of information that is a thing, it’s a time period, it’s a tone, maybe a theme.
BTR: So you don’t see a demand for the long form artistic statement going anywhere anytime soon.
JL: I don’t. How that form is distributed will change undoubtedly throughout the years. I was just on NPR a few months ago and there was a piece discussing how 2012 will be the year CDs stop being manufactured, and I just don’t see that yet. But within five years, probably, that will slip out. You’ll see deluxe packages and may be less individual titles being released specifically on CD. Or maybe they’ll do it on demand in limited batches, or something like that. But as a long form, as an album, where all the songs relate to each other and are a thing that is released? I doubt it, but we’ll see. It just makes sense to me to keep that form so I can’t see it going anywhere.
BTR: Before I ask my final question, I take it the business of the store hasn’t taken you from keeping with music in 2012?
JL: Well, actually, I’ve got to be honest with you. I’m old and I love my jazz from the ’60s and I love my soul from the ’70s and I dabble a little bit in what’s out there now. We have a lot of wonderful staff members here who are very very up on top of things. I personally don’t spend a huge amount of time listening to the new things out there because there’s so much used and old that comes through our store. It’s hard just to keep up with the cool things I see from decades ago — but shoot, I might have an answer.
BTR: In that case, what’s the best record you’ve discovered in the last year that you might be able to pick up at the store on Record Store Day?
JL: Oh wow…
BTR: I know, it’s tough. Take your time.
JL: I’m trying to think of anything modern in the last year…
BTR: Well maybe go back to the classics?
JL: The biggest find for me in the last year was Shuggie Otis’s Inspiration Information, which I absolutely love because it’s right up my alley from back in the ’70s.
BTR: And you’ll have copies available on Record Store Day?
JL: Well, maybe we should go with Sharon Jones instead…
For more information, check out the official website of the Princeton Record Exchange here. For now, here’s a video from an acoustic in-store performance during last year’s Record Store Day at P-Rex (as many of its supporters refer to it) by former Bongos frontman, Richard Barone, and backing musician, Nick Celeste: