A chat with Record Store Day co-coordinator Rick Johnson
“I fell in love with music when I was a kid. I was one of the guys who listened to the local station on my transistor radio everyday. I requested my songs, waited for the contests to come up, and entered them. If I won, I’d hop on my bicycle and ride down Radio Road to the station, to pick up the things I’d won – tickets to the movies or the miniature golf course. This was in Statesville, NC.”
The speaker is Rick Johnson, one of the coordinators of Record Store Day, the biggest worldwide music celebration on earth. Since it was launched in 2008, Record Store Day has led to a revival of interest in LPs, helping to save a format that was considered obsolete a few years ago. “Last year, the stores sold more than 750,000 records, all in one day. I think we’ll do even better this year.”
Johnson backtracked a bit, to tell The Globe about his record store history. “I went to Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem and got my dream job, working in a record store – The Record Exchange. I was 20. There were two older people there who knew a lot about music. They taught me about Buddy Holly, Elvis, The Who – all the classic bands. They gave me a rock’n’roll education. I spent most of my paycheck on vinyl.
“After college, I worked at the Record Exchange’s distribution center. We had about 14 stores in two states, going up against Tower, The Record Bar and other big chains. I was put in charge of organizing the in-store appearances. I met, and became friends with, the Ramones. They traveled in a van and they’d play anywhere, so I’d set up in-stores for them and rode around in their van to gigs. I got to know Johnny and Joey. I saw them 106 times and I still have some of my hearing left.
“When I started working, at the Exchange in 1986, they had two rows of CDs. Everything else was albums and cassettes. By the time I left, in 1990, it was the reverse. Two bins of albums and the rest of the store was compact discs. I had a front row seat for the killing off of vinyl, so I’m glad to be working for Record Store Day. They’ve played a big part in bringing vinyl back to life.”
When Record Store Day started in 2007, Michael Kurtz and Carrie Colliton, the organization’s funders, wanted to pay homage to independent record stores, the people who owned them, the fans that shopped in them and the artists who still put out LPs. Rick Johnson joined the team a few years ago, but he’s well versed in the history of Record Store Day. “Some people thought it was a strange idea,” he says. “At that point (2007), downloading had decimated physical CD sales. Michael was working for the Department Of Record Stores, a coalition of stores that were trying to figure out how to survive. Somebody said, ‘What if we do a Record Store Day, like the comic book stores do for comic books? Something that will help the individual, independent stores?’ We had a tough time getting some of the stores, and the record labels, to come on board.
“We had 300 stores sign on for the first Record Store Day, April 19, 2008. Metallica loved the idea and did a free concert at the Rasputins store in Mountain View, CA. That helped launch the idea. That first year, the major labels put out around 12 limited edition titles from acts like REM and Death Cab For Cutie. This year, we have more than 1,200 stores participating. We expanded to England when Michael (Kurtz) met Billy Bragg. Bragg did a free in-store concert at Rough Trade and the idea took off in the UK. Today, we have Record Store Day events in Japan, Sweden, Norway, France, Germany – on every continent except Antarctica. It’s kinda crazy.”
After a relatively slow start, Record Store Day grew exponentially. In 2009, on the second Record Store Day, major and indie labels released 85 titles. Artists including Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Iggy Pop, MC5, Wilco and the Eagles of Death Metal made in-store appearances. Jesse Hughes, from the Eagles of Death Metal, declared himself the official Record Store Day Ambassador and, since then, there has been an Ambassador every year. St. Vincent, Dave Grohl, Chuck D, Jack White, Ozzy Osbourne, and other heavies have all stepped up to wear the Ambassador’s sash.
“On the third Record Store Day, there were hundreds of releases,” Johnson says. “Frank Black from the Pixies, Slash from Guns’n’Roses and Emmylou Harris all did appearances. They could see that Record Store Day had momentum and it led to a 40% increase in sales of records, over the course of the first two years.
“The tipping point was 2011. We had in-stores by The Beach Boys, Foo Fighters, Todd Rundgren, and 600 other artists, in about 1,300 stores. It’s run like a 1960’s collective. Michael Kurtz is the guru, Carrie Colliton runs the nuts and bolts of the organization and people at the record store level get artists to come in and play gigs. This year, we have thousands of artists playing at their local indie record store. Pearl Jam will be our ambassadors. It’s also the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock, so we’ll have special releases by various Woodstock artists from ‘69, as well as the live Woodstock ‘94 set by Green Day to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of them playing the Woodstock ’94 concert.
“Prince was a Record Store Day fan. He’d celebrate it at Electric Fetus in Minneapolis. He was talking about all the stuff he was going to release for Record Store Day before he passed and his estate continues to make new titles available. This year, we’ll have over 350 releases, from major and indie labels, and even a few from labels owned by record stores.”
The big news for this year’s Record Store Day is the launching of a mini turntable, called the RSD3, which plays only 3″ records. It’s made by Crosley and has an Audio-Technica cartridge. “It only plays 3”, one sided singles,” Johnson says. “Record Store Day has them pressed at a record plant in Japan. Each turntable comes with a single from the Foo Fighters. Jack White’s label, Third Man, is putting out some singles. So is Rancid and Bad Religion. We’re talking with other bands about doing them. It’s hip and cool and we hope they evolve into collector’s items that fans can share and trade with each other.
Here is the link to everything coming out for RSD 2019.