Reconnaissance of a Rough Trade - Record Store Day 2019

Date of event: 13th April 2019

I don't even own a record player, nor any vinyl records. 

So why would I be rummaging through the racks at Rough Trade East for a limited-edition release of something I won't be able to play when I get home?

In the build-up to Record Store Day 2019, this paradox poked at my logic for wanting to take part in this annual celebration of independent music retailers; now in its eleventh year. Perhaps I will finally try out a turntable, repurchase all my favourite albums on vinyl, and find another thing to obsess over as a music fan already well off of the beaten path and into the rough?

Then The Piper Will Lead Us To Reason

Record Store Day 2019 Logo.png

Aside from attending gigs, the life of a music fan can be quite an insular, private one. Even if your friends share similar tastes or mindsets, connecting to a wider community usually comes through online portals or forums, where discussions and diatribes play out digitally.

So when an opportunity comes for a real-life reconnaissance - like Record Store Day - it's best to get on board and head over to your nearest independent outlet, even if vinyl records or being in a record store are foreign concepts to you.

Record Store Day brings together fans, artists, and thousands of independent record stores across the world, creating a ecosystem of excitement through the releases of special one-off singles or rare re-pressings of classic albums. The event has helped revive the vinyl record as a living format, but it's also kept the culture and spirit of collection alive in the music community.

The Tune Will Come To You At Last

My intention going in was 'to be' instead of 'to buy'. Even when Rough Trade East in Shoreditch posted their 'picking list', I was not particularly swayed to fork out for Green Day's infamous Woodstock '94 performance (you know, the one with the mud) or for a translucent blue-and-white coloured vinyl of Weezer b-sides from their Blue Album era.

Mastodon - Stairway To Nick John - Record Store Day 2019.jpg

But I took a turn towards curation when I heard that metal monoliths Mastodon were doing something pretty poignant for their RSD release.

The band's long-time manager and friend, Nick John, tragically passed on in September 2018 following a battle with pancreatic cancer, and the members had paid tribute to him by performing an acoustic cover of Led Zeppelin's classic 'Stairway To Heaven' at his funeral. Given the intimacy of this moment, only one amateur recording of it exists, taken on another attendee's phone. Thus Mastodon decided to head into the studio to lay down a full-sized electric version that could have a wider impact; one beyond just fans and vinyl junkies.

Packaged as the 'Stairway to Nick John', only 1,500 copies of this limited 10-inch vinyl were pressed, with all proceeds from their sale going to benefit the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research.

Having seen the band live in London less than two months prior, I proudly pulled on my Mastodon tour t-shirt and set off for an afternoon in search of high fidelity.

Just A Spring Clean For The May Queen

The queue snaking out of Rough Trade's East London location was imposing - and probably not surprising - because despite the utopian sign above the door, not every day is Record Store Day. The UK flagship store sits on a busy pedestrian street off of Brick Lane, serves coffee & craft beer, and frequently plays host to in-store performances & signings. Today there happened to be more of those than most.

Entrance to Rough Trade East on Record Store Day 2019 - Shoreditch, London, UK.JPEG

Yet not every vinyl vanguard was on the hunt for Record Store Day releases. Some devotees - like the couple behind me in the queue - saw it as a record grocery day. "We've just come from a shop in Soho [West London]," the gent told me, with MF DOOM and Miles Davis already peeping out of the packet in his hand. So why the cross-city trek? "It's a fun day out sometimes," replied the lady with a knowing smile towards to her partner, "To see what different places have". And to each their own.

When inside, Rough Trade is much like any bustling shop on a sale day. The queue had been instilled as a crowd control measure to allow for those who linger longer for one of the live performances over a pint from Beavertown Brewery, or like to scrutinise album art for surprises. Business was booming, and not just through the speakers.

Your Stairway Lies On The Whispering Wind

The hoard-minded uncertainty brought on from Record Store Day's ephemeral ethos injected a nervous energy into the mini-multi-purpose venue. 

Record Store Day 2019 Releases inside Rough Trade East, Shoreditch, London, UK.JPEG

"We see most of our business come from Record Store Day, no doubt," one of the floor staff assured me in between anxious inquiries at the till. "As much as 10 times in one day than we do in a month. But it has significant long-term effects too."

At this point, a flustered brunette appeared to my side, asking about the availability of a scathing seven-inch single by Bauhaus founder David J called 'Thoughts And Prayers' (complete with provocative blood-spattered packaging). Apparently it was being promoted with an in-store show at the New York branch.

An almost-imperceptible pause. A clear answer at the ready.

"I'm afraid that's an American-only release," replied the Rough Trade employee. 

“Ah no!” the woman faux-cried out.

"But we're getting a whole batch of leftovers from our store there after the weekend, so I'd say check back around then." So there was hope for the hungry.

A robust recollection for discography details certainly helps the stock-check, and comes with its own perks when you are the one unpacking the product - both physically and persuasively.

"Yeah, we got the first look this morning before opening time. Came away with some goodies before the crowds!"

And that jogged my memory like a errant cut in the groove: I still needed to find my Stairway (in the racks).

And My Spirit Is Crying For Leaving

Ady Suleiman, performing live at Rough Trade East on Record Store Day 2019

Ady Suleiman, performing live at Rough Trade East on Record Store Day 2019

Scarcity is a strange thrill to have. 

When outside of a life-or-death necessity, it synthetically stitches itself onto potential transactions. It heightens the stakes for personal purchases that otherwise would receive little tension or fanfare.

As I flipped through the 'M' section of the 'RSD Releases' spot near the storefront, I channelled all the childhood cravings I had for the latest toy or game. The trepidation felt as a sports fan in the dying moments of a playoff match.

The reality of scarcity (in this sense) is far more devastating, because of how polarised it usually is. A last-minute loss by your local team is rarely viewed with rose-tinted glasses. If there was no monster truck remote-control car under the tree, Christmas was ruined.

Yet with music, we can all be winners - even if I wasn't going to find the limited-edition vinyl I was seeking by the afternoon's end. No, not because the single might eventually pop up online or be ripped to some file-sharing site. 

It's because the transactions are still happening; the artists still creating, finding a way to relate, and then making us fans receive. Initiatives like Record Store Day could be seen as contrived capitalistic carnivals - the Black Friday of the music world - but they present another starting point in the circle of music culture, reminding us of our brick-and-mortar heritage in a world moving to the cloud(s).

To Be A Rock And Not To Roll

The panic percolated out of me as I picked up the last remaining copy. A smiling man sporting sunglasses and a white goatee stared back from the cardboard packaging.

Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor had said in a recent interview that one of the things he was most excited about for the release of 'Stairway To Nick John' was how it was putting the face of a man who loved independent record stores inside dozens of them.

I walked over to the side of the stage oddly relieved, with Nick John now peeking out of the packet in my hand. I looked at the faces around me; swaying in time to the acoustic pop-R&B vibes from singer-songwriter Ady Suleiman holding court. Leather-clad longhairs, tattooed trios, non-descript normies; all potential Nick Johns.

There might come a time when the stores are all closed; when handwritten lists and lovingly-crafted mix-tapes give way to complicated algorithms and choice at a click. In some ways we’re already there.

It’s through buying that we continue being, contributing to a cause greater than just one record. The song remains the same - vinyl, CD, or just flowing from the stream - even if these palaces of sound aren't populated with all the people who keep the wheels turning. 

There's a sign on the wall, and with a word you can get what you came for. There's still time to change the road you're on.

Now to find that turntable.

Rest in playback, Nick John

Rest in playback, Nick John