Bringing Record Stores Back to Black: Record Store Day's Carrie Colliton on U2, Retail Celebration and... Cassettes?

When Record Store Day's Black Friday event was launched in 2010, the idea was to take advantage of the increasing profile of the annual brick-and-mortar celebration at a time when customers were (quite) receptive to spending money on their loved ones (and maybe a little on themselves, too).

In the three years since its inception, Record Store Day's Black Friday event has steadily increased its scope in much the same way that vinyl sales have continued their ascent -- hitting their ten-year peak in the U.K. this year and up 3% earlier this year over 2012. On the eve of the Thanksgiving and with Black Friday looming, we took time to catch up with Record Store Day cofounder Carrie Colliton about how her organization is growing, how they get those sweet pieces of special vinyl, and... Cassette Store Day?

Billboard.biz: What's your role at Record Store Day?
Carrie Colliton: I'm a co-founder, and there are four or five of us who are the organizing commiitee. The day-to-day comes down to myself, I do anything that involves the detail. Any communication that goes out to stores, customers, social media, all of that comes through me. Michael works year-round to help create the special pieces. He works with artists, labels, manager, distribution to make sure that we have good pieces every year.

And then of course all the organizers have regular full-time jobs within the world of record stores.

What's yours?
I am the director of marketing for a coalition called the Department of Record Stores.

Which is the umbrella organization over Record Store Day, correct?
Yes, Record Store Day is one of the things we do. I would end up doing it for our chains anyway, so I do it for everybody.

Is Record Store Day a full-time job for anyone at this point?
It's not, no. Record Store Day is not really a profit center... so we do not have actual employees. We don't charge the stores to be part of it. We also have sponsors, but of course we have expenses like the website, press, stuff like that.

So it's break even?
Pretty much, yeah. We pay our bills.

You mentioned in an interview that there are detractors to having an increasingly large list of exclusives. Who are they?
I should say, there is a difference between -- it can sometimes be hard to get this across right. There is a difference between Record Store Day, the day, and Record Store Day, the organiziation behind both Record Store Day and Black Friday. There's a difference between Record Store Day in April and this Black Friday event. One of those differences is that the list for Black Friday is much smaller, about a third smaller.

The reason is that we don't want to create a second Record Store Day. We were asked by stores: "Please don't take anything away from the beauty that is Record Store Day." What we're trying to do on Black Friday is have a few pieces in as many genres that appeal to as many different kinds of music listeners as we can, that are available only at record stores, as a way to show how great a place an independent record store is for holiday shopping.

If you're going out to get a gift, why not get a gift that makes someone happy, makes them feel an emotion? Record stores pretty much sell only that. So the Black Friday list is much smaller, yes, and the Record Store Day list is pretty big.

You said it's much smaller for Black Friday, but it's almost doubled each year since it started -- 30 titles in 2010 with 100 this year.
A lot of that is just the popularity of the event. When we started it it was just like Record Store Day. The Record Store Day list has grown, percentage-wise, about the same. That's because more artists now know what we do for Black Friday. And more artists, more managers and more labels now want to help us help the stores and shine that spotlight on Black Friday. It will always be smaller than Record Store Day. It may be smaller next year.

So how's the balance work out -- you said that some stores asked you to protect that exclusivity around the original Record Store Day -- with the growth of Black Friday?
What the stores were asking us to do when they asked us not to create a second Record Store Day, and the biggest difference between Record Store Day and Black Friday -- is that Record Store Day is a celebration of the physical building, a brick-and-mortar record store. The building, the people, the culture. Walk in to a record store, buy a record. The releases that come out on that day are just one part of that celebration. What the store chooses to put on as far as a party, sale, in-store performances -- everything that happens in that store is part of Record Store Day, to celebrate that store.

What we're doing on Black Friday -- it's a subtle difference, but there is a difference -- it's really more of a street date for these special pieces that the stores can have for the holiday shopping season. It's really a way for them to highlight what they do as a business all year long. So if the store has a website where they sell products, we're using these releases to let the stores spotlight what they offer all year long. It's not part of a day-long celebration of record stores. I don't even think all of these titles will sell out on Black Friday. The idea is for them to be there -- be limited, still, be exclusive, not sit on the shelves forever -- but be there for the holiday season. So maybe they're there for the first couple weeks, maybe you're not shopping on Black Friday, that's great. Still nice to know there could be something special at that record store during the holiday season.

Just leaning towards incentive as opposed to a dance around the fire, as it were.
Exactly. That's the thing; I know the releases are so shiny and sparkly and they get all the press and that's great, we definitely use that to call attention to stores. But Record Store Day itself is about more than just those releases, even though that's the thing that a lot of people focus on which is fine, the day itself is so much more than that. And the releases for Black Friday are also about more than that; they're about what does this store offer versus other retailers that you might be going to on Black Friday?

That brings me to something I was wondering about which is the U2 release -- you guys launched the first Black Friday event in 2010 with a U2 release --
They were one of the first artists to kind of step up and say 'We see what you're doing.'

So how did that deal come about? U2 is one of the biggest bands in the world. I know their manager Paul McGuinness has his eyes everywhere.
One of the great things about the fact that we all come from the world of record stores anyway is that we have connections, contacts and relations. Michael Kurtz, a cofounder, goes around and waves the flag year-round and asks 'What can you as an artist bring to the table? How can you help us celebrate?' He works with labels, managers, goes to everyone and is really great about using his relationships to create these pieces and he's really good at finding the people who will get what we're doing. Who know how they can help and benefit. That was the case with U2. It really came about because the band gets it and they want to help record stores. I imagine that when those guys were on tour they went to record stores everywhere.

Do you have any more specifics on the deal?
I know he works with management and that there was an existing relationship obviously from 2010, but I don't know specifics. I wasn't in the room with U2 or I'd have a much bigger story to tell [laughs].

You have some pretty deep music business sponsors -- Ingrooves, Caroline as well as UMG, Sony. Do those also come about from your cofounders/workers day jobs?
Sort of. Those distribution companies are all part of Record Store Day too, they all have records they release on Record Store Day and they see the benefit. We have relationships with them throughout the year and work with them on other titles that aren't exclusives. I do think one of the reasons they have stepped up to be sponsors is because they see the benefit and value of what we're doing both for them and the stores. It probably did come out of those relationships that were pre-existing.

What do those agreements look like?
Financial. We have a website that's actually very expensive, is fairly complicated and does a lot of things. Probably 3,000 stores are on there, including Europe. We have come up with advancements where we can let a label -- say they have a title that's coming out on Tuesday, they can create a URL and put a "Buy It at a Record Store" button right up on the website of the artist next to iTunes and Amazon. That all takes money!

We don't have a large budget, but we do have a budget and that's what those sponsors are there for. Especially since, as I said, we don't charge stores to participate. We're kind of a conduit for these records stores. That's kind of our role.

I interviewed someone about this a few months ago, and I couldn't help but ask: What your thoughts on Cassette Store Day?
We don't have an official comment on Cassette Store Day. That's something that some of the stores participated in, but it didn't run through us.

Were you surprised?
A little bit -- I know that the format is coming back. We have some stores who do really well with cassettes, and some genres that do really well with cassettes. The Billie Joe Armstrong/Norah Jones record is coming out on cassette. I don't have anything against cassettes -- I have a car that has a cassette deck in it.

I guess I'm not really surprised that someone wants to celebrate that format. We just... don't know of any cassette stores.

Last question: What Black Friday releases are you most looking forward to?
We have a 7" reproduction of the Vince Guaraldi "Linus and Lucy" single, the famous Christmas single form Charlie Brown. I'm looking forward to that. Band of Horses, "Live at the Ryman." I have someone here who's very excited about the Cheap Trick box set. I like the pieces that stores themselves are involved in. There's a Doors piece that stores were very involved in -- the stores actually curated the titles that are on the record. So we asked record stores what Doors songs they liked, and those are the ones that are on the record. Which I think is awesome -- these guys are the ones who live around music and records day in and day out.

I like to think of us as the ones who shine the spotlight on them.