A Record Store Day 15th anniversary program at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles this week was meant to be a celebration of vinyl and music retail first and foremost. But if it turned into a Metallica lovefest as well, that was understandable. It wasn’t just because members of the crowd had started lining up outside in the a.m. to get a closeup glimpse of panelists Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo — the band’s guitar and bass gods, respectively — but because Metallica really does have a history with Record Store Day that’s unparalleled among other artists.
The association began with an in-store on the occasion of the first RSD in 2007, and continues on through a new solo release by Hammett, “Portals,” the vinyl version of which is one of several hundred RSD exclusives hitting stores Saturday morning, giving Metallica fans a reason to line up nationally.
The Variety-moderated panel also had RSD co-founder Michael Kurtz digging into the 15-year history of recorded music buffs’ primary national holiday, and Rand Foster, the proprietor of one of the greater L.A. area’s most beloved brick-and-mortar stores, Fingerprints Music in Long Beach, adding a retail perspective on the explosive growth of both vinyl as a medium and Record Store Day as an emblematic, revivifying force.
And the conversation veered away from a Metallica-centered one to focus on why jazz has become such a phenomenon with RSD — although, even there, some roads lead back to Metallica’s influence, surprisingly — and the impact of Taylor Swift on this Saturday’s event.
Kurtz recalled how low things had gotten for vinyl in 2007, when market forces seemed to augur that you really can take the “record” out of “record stores,” with their ostensible replacement, compact discs, already rapidly losing ground to digital downloads and shrinking love for any physical format.
“I>n the beginning, it was very hard, because almost nobody carried vinyl unless it was used, and most used vinyl was 25 or 50 cents,” Kurtz recalled of RSD’s late-2000s origin story, when not many more than 100 stores participated in the U.S., versus the nearly 1500 that do now. “There were exceptions, of course – there were punk bands doing it and maybe some DJs. But there was no business model for vinyl at that point. It had been completely dismantled. So when I talked to record store owners to get on board, the initial response was pretty negative: ‘We don’t sell vinyl. That’s not what we do. We’d have to re-fixture our stores’ [back from CD racks]. It was like pushing a rock up a hill. Warner Bros. was very receptive to it, and really was out there to make it happen, but almost any other label didn’t understand — and we had to actually struggle to get the record store owners to understand it. But then,” he added, “when it happened, it exploded, and then it became as if it had always been there or something.”
Kurtz couldn’t pinpoint an exact year when he felt the turnaround had solidified, with RSD as its figurehead. “I think for me it was when Seth Myers did a joke about Record Store Day on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ I think that was the fourth year. When that happened, it was like, ‘Oh wow, we’re here.’”
The co-founder remembered working some connections during the lead-up to the first RSD in 2017 to get Metallica involved in some way, and being shocked at the enthusiasm. “From the feedback we got from the band, the reaction was ‘Hell yeah, let’s do that, that would be fun.’ It really was like a big explosion for everybody involved, because Tower had just gone out of business, and everybody was a little bit down, uncertain about everything. And then Metallica comes in and goes, ‘Fuck all that. Let’s have a party.’ And they put out their records on vinyl for that first Record Store Day, and then it just exploded from there.”
Hammett and Trujillio shared their seminal —and still ongoing — experiences with record shops and why the experience of physical retail as a place of community or discovery is not something to give up, for them.
Hammett said that growing up making the trip to Rasputin Music in the Bay area “was important for me because I knew that for the music that I wanted to hear, I couldn’t get it even at my local record store. It was filled with just a lot of pop music and real contemporary music, and I was into this weird kind of like hard rock I was hearing from Europe that you could only get it in the import section of Rasputin. So I have great memories of having so much anticipation of heading toward the import section and and being like, ‘Wow, this great Tygers of Pan Tang album! Oh wow, Motorhead, these guys look scary — this must be good!’ That’s how I discovered the type of music that went on to influence me the most and shape my artistic career. And I have very unique memories of putting records on turntables and just picking up the needle and putting it down again, trying to learn a song on guitar. I got pretty good at knowing where in that little inch that part of the song was that I needed to work on,” he laughed.
Said Trujillo, “For me it was Tower Records, it was the Wherehouse. You would go there with your mom or your dad, and it was like going to Disneyland. It was just this fantasy world, driven by the music itself, but also seeing the album covers. They become part of that chapter in your life. ‘Abraxas’ by Santana was the first album I ever bought, and if you look at that album cover, it’s insane. ‘What does it mean?’ You’ve got these beautiful naked people on there and you’re a little kid going, ‘Wow.’ At the same time you’ve got this table of fruit and these conga drums and these indigenous characters, and it was just really fascinating to me. But then Imy friend’s older brother had the first couple of Black Sabbath records, so if you look at that cover and you hear the song ‘Black Sabbath’” — he broke into a vocal version of the central riff — “and you look at that cover… do it tonight and you will get scared, I promise.
“The fantasy world that was created through vinyl and through the images of the album art and then the music itself was just all encompassing. And to this day, when I hear a vinyl record, I go to my tour assistant, Jeff Bass, who is a vinyl enthusiast that loves audio gear, and I actually christen” a new album on great gear, the bassist said. “I’m going to do this with Kirk’s record, I am going to sit there and I’m gonna play that record and I’m gonna close my eyes and it takes me on a journey. And I love that that can happen again now. It faded for a while, but it feels like it’s back, and thanks to Michael Kurtz and everybody here, vinyl is strong again. I love going up to Watts Music in Marin (in Novato) and seeing Darren (Chase) up there. He tells me he’s doing the best business in 45 years right now.”
Said Hammett, “Another thing that I always noticed was that certain albums smelled a different way. I don’t know what it was; maybe they used a different ink or certain process. But the first ‘KISS Alive” album had a very unique smell to it.”
“I think Gene Simmons licked it, that’s why,” figured Trujillo. “What do you remember about Cheech and Chong?”
“That big old rolling paper,” answered Hammett, remembering the unique packaging of the “Big Bambu” LP. He remembers his youthful reaction to the giant set of rolling papers that formed the packing of the album: “Why is there toilet paper with this album?”
When the subject turned to jazz, that was up Trujillo’s alley as well, as fans know. While Metallica has been responsible for a number of RSD releases as a band over the past 15 years (including even an exclusive cassette seven years ago), and of course Hammett has his turn in the RSD spotlight as a solo artist this weekend, Trujillo has, besides putting out an LP from his band Infectious Grooves, been behind the release of his hero Jaco Pastorius’ music for RSD.
Said Kurtz, “How Robert and I became friends, really, it was election night, and a friend of mine and I were rolling a joint on a Miles Davis album, and somehow Metallica came up — and then that took us to Jaco. He said, ‘Robert’s working on a documentary about Jaco.’ I said no way, and I emailed him and he answered back before two hours.” Kurtz, as it turned out, has been a teenager who used to sneak an 8mm camera into concerts, and he had silent but still valuable footage he had shot at age 16 of Pastorius jamming with Mick Ronson, which Pastorius wanted to include in his film. That movie, “Jaco,” was eventually named an official film of Record Store and the soundtrack was released as an exclusive the following year.
“You see Jaco come up and mug for his camera,” recalled Trujillo. “You could tell what a connection to live music Michael had, that he was sneaking an 8mm camera into shows in North Carolina. Michael Kurtz is bad-ass.”
Said Kurtz, “Robert put out a demos record with Omnivore Records of Jaco’s early stuff. That was the first jazz record that we did of any note, that anybody really noticed. And it went to No. 1 on the Billboard jazz chart that week. I don’t remember how many we did –5000 or something like that. And it’s crazy to say, but that really helped make the (RSD jazz release proliferation) possible, because all of a sudden, jazz records were selling. I mean, they’d done OK. But now…” He talked of Zev Feldman and Resonance Records making an RSD tradition of finding unreleased tapes from Bill Evans and other greats. “Before, if you tried to put out a jazz record like that, it would just kind of go into like a black hole. You’d get no feedback; nobody would go real crazy over it or anything. But now, (Feldman) has built this beautiful thing, and the packaging on his records is just stunning. He’s in love with it. It’s his passion that’s in there. So again, everything comes back to Metallica for Record Store Day.”
“Now we have (jazz) things that are phenomenons that we just can’t keep on the shelves anymore,” said Foster. “I think the scarcity of those releases certainly plays a role, because if you don’t get it now, we all know where it’s going and how high it’s going to be when you get there.”
Speaking of scarcity, the undeniable hot-ticket item for this weekend is not the two Bill Evans releases on the docket, although those will go fast too. It’s a 10,000-copy release of a “The Lakes” single by Taylor Swift, who is following in Metallica’s footsteps (and those of everyone from St. Vincent to Brandi Carlile to Jack White) by being Record Store Day Ambassador. There is concern about how vastly demand for the Swift item will outstrip the supply. Some stores have gone so far as to hold charity raffles for whatever supply they get of the Swift record, which may be fewer than 10 for an average participating store.
But Fingerprints Music is holding a separate event in the evening for Swift fans who want to get that single, which will involve a drawing. Fingerprints is already doing things a little bit differently anyway; since the start of the pandemic, they’ve been on an appointment system instead of having the customary lines around the block, which may return if the pandemic has really subsided by next time.
Foster says the separation is not a matter of wanting to segregate Swifties, but rather of not wanting to completely disappoint them. “The concern with Taylor was that if all of the Taylor Swift fans took all the appointment times, we’re getting such a small number of them that we were going to push all of the people that come out and spend every Record Store Day with us so far back in line that it would be a bummer for them. And for her fans, we wanted to make an event that hopefully everybody that comes out that doesn’t get to buy the record will still have a good record store experience. Because for me, that’s a big risk. I mean, we’ve always approached like it’s a huge day at the cash register, but it’s way more important for people to come in and see what this is about: Why does anybody give a shit about a record store? And with Taylor it was like, well, we can still do an event and can bring in a DJ … hopefully the idea turns into something that is not just the disappointment of ‘Wow, Record Store Day sucks,’ because I get that (potential), and that’s the last thing you want to have happen.”,
In a way, that mini-event will return RSD for those fans to being a bit more of what it was partly conceived as: an excuse for stores to throw a party, and not just be an in-and-out stop for exclusives. But for the most part, although some stores are resuming the usual pre-pandemic lineups, actual festivities with in-store appearances, giveaways, food trucks and the like are most likely to resume in 2023, at which point Metallica fans will really be able to experience a heavy metal parking lot experience along with the limited editions.