Interview – Record Store Day Founder Michael Kurtz

Record Store Day is a fantastic initiative that urges music fans to visit and support their local reord stores en masse on April 21st. Record Store Day has been celebrated by record collectors the world over since 2007, so M3 spoke to Michael Kurtz, one of the founders of the initiative, about the importance of the record store day in today’s society…

M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Michael – I’ve worked for record stores on and off pretty much my entire adult life. I am currently the President of the Music Monitor Network, the largest of the indie record store coalitions in the USA, as well as the guy who works with most artists/labels to create the special Record Store Day releases and events.

What inspired you to found the Record Store Day initiative? What is your own musical background?
The original inspiration came from working with the owners of record stores to create an event that celebrated the artists and music we love. We were also annoyed by all of the negative media coverage on record stores and wanted to counter the negativity with something positive. I was a musician/artist for about ten years (while working in record stores). I recently purchased a piano and I’m teaching myself how to use Ableton software to record and create both electronic music and standard recordings.

Why would you say that the record store is worth preserving? What do you think it adds to a community?
Record stores are part of the music industry eco system. I think people would be amazed by the amount of artists/musicians that worked at a record store at one time. For example, when Adele was recently asked what she did after she received her last Grammy she said that she went to work in a record store for about a half year. Beyond that, record stores actually offer the best prices for commercial music in a lot of cases. On an artistic level we create new channels for art and music. For example, the vinyl explosion can be traced to the beginning of Record Store Day. We have essentially successfully relaunched an entire industry.

What do you think is the best survival strategy for record stores today?
The best stores stay engaged with their customers and offer good prices, a unique experience, and unique products. They are a part of their local community and have a good relationship with their local clubs and promoters.

What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
Listening to vinyl requires that you allow the music to be the most important part of the experience. It is no longer a background experience. It is now “the” experience. The sound is warmer and much closer to what live music is like. I like holding the record’s jacket and looking at the artwork while I listen. My next favorite experience is listening to CDs in the car, followed by listening to music on iPod when doing exercise or playing cards. After that, I like listening to speciality channels (like Andrew Loog Oldham’s show) on Sirius radio.

Do you feel the idea of an album, as a piece of art that people will listen to from start to finish, has been undermined or forgotten about in the digital age?
The digital age has definitely made listening to music more dysfunctional. Listening to a snippet of a stream, or listening to only the single from an album, is not the same as experiencing what the artist intended. This doesn’t really give artists as much of a chance. The listeners hear a little bit of something and then move on. Or they gravitate to just one song. In a sense, this is nothing new. The music business has always been a “singles” business.

Do you think the popularity of limited pressings, coloured vinyl, rare releases etc. is in some way a reaction to the widespread availability and easy access of digital music files?
Maybe it is, I’m not sure. I think people really like the experience and that would probably be true with or without the widespread availability of music digitally.

What would you say are the main challenges facing an up-and-coming musician/band in today’s cultural climate?
Writing good songs. I have a theory that an artist really has to hone their craft and this means having a great understanding of not only harmony, rhythm, and melody, they also have to understand song structure. To do this, you really have to have an understanding of great songs, even songs from as many as 100 years ago. You also have to be able to be current and do what feels true to listeners today. It’s tricky.

What is your take on the current SOPA/ACTA controversy?
I got the sense that almost no one actually read the legislation. I admit that I didn’t. When I talk to people that have though they say there is nothing in it that hints at censorship or trying to diminish people’s ability to use the internet freely. I think what really happened is that the high tech industry wanted to protect their ability to use peoples’ art (films, music, graphics, etc.) freely to sell gadgets, technology, advertising, etc. and got plenty riled when they thought this was threatened. This led to a lot of teeth gnashing and the killing of the legislation. I think this is short sighted as protecting an artist’s ability to make money directly from their work is an essential part of their life.

I know that from the record store perspective, all efforts to run an on-line business have failed simply because you can’t compete with the crooks who sell tracks illegally (I’m thinking of the Russian websites) or the guys who run sites that basically circumvent copyright laws. Of course, this is a bummer for artists too as they are getting screwed but it’s also a bummer for people who love music and want to run legitimate businesses.

That said, there are upsides to everything so I don’t lose a lot of sleep worrying about how this is going to play out.

Finally, what does the future hold for Record Store Day?
We’re celebrating our 5th anniversary this year and it feels good. We went from selling a few thousands of dollars worth of vinyl on our first Record Store Day to selling millions, creating one of the biggest music events in the history of music.

The future is watching it grow globally. It’s already happening and it’s quite rewarding to get emails from store owners in Belgium, China, Japan, Sweden, Denmark, Italy and everywhere around the world, all thanking us for making Record Store Day happen. We’ve just launched our Record Store Day app and we’re launching what we are calling the “Third Option.” This is essentially a campaign to try and get artists to place a record store “buy button” on their websites to allow customers to chose to buy locally instead of just with iTunes and Amazon. I think this is important as people become more aware of how supporting their local merchants helps to keep their local taxes lower, and creates more and better paying jobs. It also keeps the artists employed while they hone their craft.

For more information about Record Store day, and to find your nearest participating record store, you can visit their website and follow them on Facebook, and don’t forget to pay a visit to your local record store on April 21st!

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About M3 Event

The music industry is rapidly changing. The internet has enabled widespread piracy, as well as a variety of new business and distribution models. We want to offer an engaged audience in and around the Euregion an opportunity to develop a coherent and detailed picture of the future of music distribution. On the 31st of May 2012 a music conference in Maastricht, consisting of oppositional debates, creative workshops and lectures, will provoke opportunities for intellectual stimulation, debate, as well as networking. We hope to utilise the skills and ideas of some of most forward thinking minds and operators in the industry in order to highlight some promising new ideas and areas which can be improved upon.

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