Allow me to present a hypothetical situation:
Say you’re a Flaming Lips fan. For months you’ve heard about this crazy Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends album that features collaborations from everyone from Chris Martin and Bon Iver to Prefuse 73 and Ke$ha. You want it badly. It’s announced that the album will be a Record Store Day exclusive. You get to your local record store an hour before they open and find that there’s already a line around the block. You wait regardless. When you finally make your way inside the store you find out that they sold out within minutes. Now if you want one you have to go to eBay and shell out $100.
Another hypothetical problem:
You love Amanda Palmer. You find out that in a few weeks, Amanda Palmer and her husband Neil Gaiman will be releasing a live CD. The release date comes, but you discover that the album isn’t available for you yet. It’s only available for those who backed its release on Kickstarter. You would have done that if you had the money at the time, or if you followed Amanda or Neil on Twitter, but you’re not up on such things. As such, now you have to wait an unspecified amount of time to get the album. But then it turns up online illegally. Now instead of gladly handing over money for the album, you just download it. You make a promise to yourself to buy it when it does come out officially, but by the time it does you’ve lost interest. You have your music, but Palmer and Gaiman didn’t get a dime, and the sour experience of being screwed over and treated like a second-class fan probably sticks with you.
And a final hypothetical dilemma, I promise:
You LOVE Pearl Jam. You’ve seen them live over 10 times, own all their albums on vinyl (which isn’t easy) and you’re even a member of the their fanclub. But their fanclub is poorly organized, and you never get the email about a deluxe 3-disc edition of their documentary PJ20. By the time you do catch word about it, it’s sold out. The two discs of exclusive content aren’t made available anywhere else (except for iTunes, and only for Americans). You try eBay, but you see that the few copies that make it there are being sold for over $300-$500. Dejected, you just download it illegally. During this whole process, the band and the fanclub, who claim to care about fans more than any other organization, completely ignore you.
Beginning to see a pattern here?
In recent years, artists and labels (both big and small) have turned to limited editions as a way to entice people into buying physical product. Record Store Day is the biggest example of this, but examples like the other two I gave are just as common. They do this because their margins (the difference between the cost of production and the price they sell it for) are always higher with a physical product. And since they’re dealing with fans who by their very nature have a collector’s mindset, the very act of limiting the supply increases the demand. In fact, it increases the demand so much so that the demand ends up outweighing the supply exponentially. The labels win, they get their money, and the few fans that are lucky enough to snag their ultra-mega-limited edition item win as well. But everyone else just gets screwed.
Now, sometimes it’s not that bad. In some cases, the limited edition is just an alternate format or packaged edition of an already available product, such as a colored LP or alternate cover. It looks really cool, but the content is the same. The fan that scored with the limited release has the same music/video content as the person who could only make out with the regular version. No one is out anything major.
But what if the limited edition has music or video content that can only be found on that limited edition? Those fans want that content, that’s why they’re fans. I don’t know about you, but when I truly love a band with every fiber of my being, I want everything they put out. I want the version of the album with the bonus tracks, I want the import singles with the remixes, I want the EP that only came out in Japan. I want it all. But when you make an item limited to such an extreme like they seem to be doing these days, this becomes nearly impossible.
And I’m not saying that limited editions with exclusive content are by nature a bad thing. Sometimes they’re a necessity. For example, Amon Tobin is releasing a limited edition box set filled with LPs, CDs and DVDs that will all have never-before-released content exclusive to the box set. However, that “limited edition” box set is limited to a not-that-limited 4,000 copies. For an artist as niche as Amon Tobin, that’s actually a pretty hefty number for a box set that costs $200. Everyone who really cares about it will be able to get it. I’m willing to bet that Tobin, along with the production people at his label, Nina Tune, got together and figured out exactly how many to make so everyone who really wanted one would be able to get it, while not leaving themselves with much in the way of surplus along the way.
But if you’re the Flaming Lips, you have more fans than the few thousand that will be able to get the album on Record Store Day. If you’re Amanda Palmer you have more fans than the few that knew about Kickstarter when you launched that campaign. And if you’re Pearl Jam, then you definitely have more fans willing to buy a 3-disc box set of your movie than the very few that you made available. In these cases, what’s the point? How is it a benefit the fan to force them to either spend way too much money on eBay to get what they want or to steal it online? How does that help them? Better yet, how does that help you, the artist? You don’t get any of that money (unless your Jack White and you’re selling your own stuff on eBay, classy). As an artist making music in 2012, you should be ecstatic that anyone will buy your music, and you should make it as easy as possible for them to do so. The only people whose lives are being made easier with all this bullshit is the speculator.
Speculators aren’t fans. They are people who buy a product with the sole intent of selling it at an inflated value. It’s like daytrading, only with collectibles. Speculators love shit like limited editions and Record Store Day exclusives, because a lot of them have inside tracks to get the stuff that’s in most demand before they’re actually available to the public. This year I heard about many RSD exclusives reaching eBay before this Saturday. You think the people posting those auctions were customers who got lucky? They weren’t. They were record store owners and employees looking to make a quick buck by screwing over their customers and going directly to the secondary market.
That’s horrible, but can you blame them? Because if history is any indication, the majority of stuff that came out this Record Store Day won’t be worth much more than retail in just six months time. That right, that super-limited edition 7″ single you bought with no intention of ever playing because you thought it might be worth a mint in a few years? You’ll probably be lucky to get what you paid for it three years from now. These releases rarely have staying power, it’s probably because 90% of RSD “exclusives” are either only timed exclusives, or get re-released digitally or on other formats within months of their RSD release. It’s hard for something to maintain its value when the one thing that gave it value in the first place, a false sense of rarity, is removed.
That’s great for people like me, who actually want to buy and hold on to stuff, but bad news for probably a good percentage of assholes who buy this stuff, who are only in it for money that they think they’ll get later on. So not only are these super-limited editions bad for bands and their fans, but their even worthless to the majority of speculators who buy them as well.
But what about the record stores themselves? Isn’t that who Record Store Day is really supposed to benefit? Well, call me a cynical asshole (seriously, it’s cool, you wouldn’t be the first), but I fail to see how one day of crazy business is going to save a record store. The kids going to their local record stores to pick up these limited editions items aren’t the kind of people who are going to back to their record store to buy a non-limited edition item. Record Store Day is for record collectors. Record stores are for music lovers, and the stores, labels and artists should be trying harder to find (or create) the latter, instead of catering to the fickle tastes of the former.