Inter-Coalition Collaboration as the Impetus for a National Record Store Day

By Jerome Hendricks

My interest in coalitions draws heavily on works at the nexus of organizational and social movements literatures (Carroll and Swaminatham 2000, McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001, Rao et al. 2003, Davis et al. 2005, Fligstein and McAdam 2012, Soule 2012, McInerney 2014) where the fundamental role of challengers can be more clearly recognized in critical moments of change. The stories I offer below come from a larger study on the role that independent record stores have played in reconfiguring the contemporary music retail market. Where the first paper from this study focuses on establishing the nature of market change empirically, these excerpts are from a working paper that details the advent of Record Store Day; a national celebration of “the unique culture of a record store and the special role these independently owned stores play in their communities.” Contrary to the popularized origin story, without the collaborative efforts of three independent record store coalitions, Record Store Day would not have developed the way that it has. I see this essay contributing to larger discussions of coalition success or failure as well as the reciprocity necessary to legitimize new understandings that can supersede perceived difference across groups. I chose to leave the conclusion of this piece largely open, allowing the stories to speak for themselves and, hopefully, inciting some discussion on coalition development in a market setting. I argue this case illustrates the role of coalition formation as a “central independent variable” (Soule 2004) in response to perceived threat. These collaborations foster a diffusion of tactics, resources, and ideological positons (Edwards and McCarthy 2004), and ultimately secure the adoption of innovations when strategically framed in such a way as to fit pre-existing, shared beliefs.

At the onset of the price wars of the mid 1990s, many small chain and independent music retailers quickly saw that their interests were not being voiced in a changing market. While some professional associations were in place to lobby retail interests and offer benefits, the price wars uncovered a need for new advocacy due to intra-field contention. After realizing direct engagement with major distributors, record labels, and trade publications was not progressing, Terry Currier, owner of Portland’s Music Millennium, put together an event called the “Garth Brooks Barbecue for Retail Freedom” that brought the concerns of independent retailers to the attention of local media by grilling Garth Brooks products. The success of the event spawned a west coast record store tour that opened Currier’s eyes to the common interests and problems across stores. Following the tour, Currier and then Album Network editor Mark Cope invited thirty stores to San Francisco in 1995 to discuss the formation of a support group. The resulting Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS) sought to both share best practices and develop innovative marketing strategies for member retailers. CIMS immediately improved the marketing efforts of member stores through a national pricing and positioning program, helped stores improve negotiations with landlords, fought for better terms with distributors, lobbied record labels for access to exclusive products, and enhanced store relationships locally.

The national demand for membership in CIMS was immediately evident but many members were concerned that growing too large, too quickly would compromise the coalition’s effectiveness. They began to favor the more “established,” “full-service” stores that provide a wide array of music and were most likely to have pre-existing ties to larger distributors. As a result, a group of small, regional chains launched a second coalition called the Music Monitor Network (MMN) later in 1995. By focusing on small chain stores as a foundation, the MMN could approach record labels as a unified organization and make quick decisions to deploy promotions across a network of chain stores. A third notable coalition called the Alliance of Independent Media Stores (AIMS) surfaced in 2003 to support a class of retailer that did not fit the “small chain” model of the MMN or established enough to join CIMS. Launching similar marketing and promotion programs through their network of “indiest-of-indie” stores, AIMS has been credited with being much more in tune with the newest trends and early exposure to the potential of a vinyl record resurgence. Together, the work of these coalitions exemplifies the networking and knowledge-sharing benefits of organizational collaboration. However, the large scale field change that Record Store Day would produce did not come until coalitions established a common framework that would supplant the subjective boundaries developed early on.

Indeed, despite similar tactics, resources, and ideological positons, coordinating inter-coalition collaboration did not happen for some time. My work has uncovered an overall lack of trust between CIMS and MMN early on as well as a perception that the chain structure of MMN stores made them more “hit-driven” and therefore less of a “taste-maker” as CIMS members consider themselves. It would take both collaborative successes and failures to more clearly articulate a framework that could overcome this early friction. I briefly offer two examples to illustrate this point. First, the successful 2002 exclusive release of Weezer’s, Lion and the Witch EP, both brought MMN and CIMS together on a national initiative and embraced the traditional strengths of the independent record store model such as underground collectability, live performance, and a focus on fans. Similarly, not one year before the first Record Store Day the three coalitions worked with the distributor for Warner Music on the creation of a digital download store that would service the member stores of all three coalitions. Early in the negotiations, the proposed “one-size-fits-all solution” for the digital storefront proved incompatible with the local distinctiveness of independent record stores. Despite an inability to collaborate on a web platform, the failure compelled further examination of coalition principles ultimately strengthening a value rooted in community and idiosyncrasy. Thus like successes, failures also compelled coalitions to evaluate the worthiness of a given initiative based on what makes the independent record store valuable. Through an uneven process of inter-coalition collaborations, understandings most resonant among coalition members surfaced that both legitimized further collaboration and delegitimized the importance of earlier boundaries.

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Filed under Coalition Building, Essay Dialogues

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