Billy Fields, Warner Music's 'Vinyl Guy,' Explains Why Record Store Day Needs Both Indies and Majors: Op-Ed
Billy Fields is Vice President, Sales, Account Management for WEA, the artist & label services arm of Warner Music Group. As the company’s resident vinyl expert, Fields serves as the day-to-day conduit for independent retailers and the three major independent music coalitions, overseeing all aspects of vinyl production, planning, marketing, sales forecasts, projections and strategy.
A decade ago, Tower Records closed their last few doors, quickly followed by the U.S. exit of HMV and Virgin Megastores. It felt like the entire world had changed. It hadn't, of course, but Record Store Day, a now-annual success story, was conceived out of that feeling. How lucky we all are that a small band of music fanatics came up with this idea and that, more importantly, they executed the most exciting and dynamic retail promotion in modern memory. This isn’t hyperbole on my part; name any other music retail event that garners as much attention and excitement as Record Store Day. I’ll wait.
For fans of both the day and its larger implications, Record Store Day 2016 requires plenty of patience. The last few years have been thick with labels, journalists, store owners, and various prognosticators detailing all the reasons why Record Store Day is a bad idea, well past its (very young) prime. To what end? And why?
Had the physical music market progressed down the path it was on in 2006, none of us would be talking about this. Perhaps our collective memory cannot recall that long ago, or maybe the positive turn has some of us thinking, “Surely this wonderful affair has some hidden pitfalls.” Instead of focusing on what makes Record Store Day a miraculous occurrence, the naysayers dig to find the fissures.
I work for Warner Music Group. There, I’ve said it. I work for a “major.” You probably imagine I drag my butt out of bed every day to sit at a desk in a cave with accountants and lawyers running around telling all the music heads what to do and how to do it…
…but, guess what? That isn’t how it is. Not even close.
Instead, I work in a vinyl-lined den of analog, referencing both our newest records as well as quality used finds from the past. I work with label and management contacts to ensure we’re doing everything we can to make the best records possible but, most importantly, records that our artists want us to make. This assistance isn’t limited to only the major labels we distribute, but to our independent distributed labels as well.
For these reasons, and many others, I love my job. I respect the people I work with, and feel that respect repaid in kind. I think I’m one of the luckiest people alive. I get to talk to record stores and to passionate music fans and label people at both the “majors" and the “indies.” I know that the entire music market doesn’t really hum without success for all shapes and sizes of labels and artists; it can't truly thrive without strong and dynamic independent labels, in the same way that it can't thrive without major companies and global hit makers. The differing levels of success, penetration, awareness, and type keep the ecosystem balanced and strong. We are a culture-enhancing, future-predicting business, and nowhere do I see that as clearly as with Record Store Day.
Record Store Day is many things but, at its very core, it is a collective of independently minded entrepreneurs who work hard to make an unforgettable yearly event by wrangling indies and majors alike. RSD's small core of organizers come directly from independent music stores, or oversee independent retail coalitions. They want every music fan to find what they are looking for, even when their favorite band only made 1,000 copies because that’s exactly what they (their favorite band) wanted to do. They want every store, big or small, to make a meaningful profit so each store can grow or continue on as each sees fit. They want music retail to flourish for the next 10 years, the next 20 years, the next however-long-it-takes, until all our music is piped in direct to our brain stems.
As a result of RSD’s efforts, hundreds of new record stores have opened over the last decade. The almighty Institute of Music Retail keeps tabs on new stores, and RSD has grown from 400 participating locations in 2007 to 1,300 today. Additionally, all three of the independent retail coalitions (AIMS, CIMS, DoRS) have increased in size and membership since the inception of Record Store Day. New labels have opened and harnessed their niche; re-issue labels have found lost gems and relaunched careers; and established artists have navigated the new landscape to success. Thousands and thousands of fans have found new communities in which to share those records' secrets and their charms. Record Store Day ain’t perfect, but it’s close. Where would you rather spend your third Saturday in April each year? I’m going to a record store, or seven.