“I have heard about Moses getting the 10 Commandments handed to him,” said one Hollis, Queens record-store manager, “but where is it written down that the 11th Commandment is that Tuesday must be the universal street date?” That was in 1994, at a conference attended by Billboard‘s Ed Christman. Debate over which day new music should hit the shelves goes back to when most music was actually still bought from shelves, but a new proposal that’s on track to make Friday the designated release date worldwide could hurt indie labels, the remaining physical record stores, emerging acts and, ultimately, listeners.
As NPR noted several years ago, it’s not really clear how Tuesday became the street date of choice for American music retailers. Billboard‘s Christman has said he thinks the Tuesday street date came around in the late ’70s. A Capitol Records exec told Rolling Stone‘s Gavin Edwards that the labels agreed on the day “in the mid-’80s.” Tim Baker, chairman of Record Store Day Canada and general manager of the Sunrise Records retail chain, recalls the universal North American street date coming out of meetings with the National Association of Recording Merchandisers in the early ’90s. However Tuesday became the day of choice, Baker and other brick-and-mortar music sellers argue strongly that it should stay that way.
A move is afoot that would probably result in Friday becoming the new universal release date globally. Right now, records become available on Monday in the United Kingdom, on Tuesday in the United States, on Friday in Germany and so on. Clearly, the ongoing shift toward digital music downloads and streaming has affected the rationale for having different release dates in each country. Billboard notes that an album can be pirated worldwide as soon as it is arrives in any one country. And Beyoncé‘s shock-and-awe self-titled album arrived last December right as Thursday night gave way to Friday morning. So the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), which represents the recording industry worldwide, announced earlier this month that a single global release day could be in place by next summer.
The arguments for a global release date, including that it would allow performers to tell all of their fans around the world that their record is out on a particular day, largely make sense. A pop star’s social-media followers, for instance, aren’t limited to a specific geographic region. “Moving to a global release day will help to rekindle excitement around launching new music, allowing for truly global campaigns, bringing fans around the world closer than ever to their favourite artists,” IFPI head Frances Moore said in a statement. “That is why IFPI supports a global release day.”
The idea that Friday should be the day, well, it’s less easy to love. According to IFPI, the proposal currently under discussion would have music released at one minute after midnight local time on Friday mornings. That may be fine for streaming services or digital downloads, but for anyone who cares about brick-and-mortar record stores and the efforts they make to promote emerging or lesser-known music, it presents all kinds of problems. How Tuesday became the traditional North American street date might be cloudy. Why it has stayed that way is less so.
A universal release date exists in the first place because otherwise a store that could get a major album days or even hours ahead of its competitors used to be able to get an unfair sales boost. Friday is typically payday, but it’s too late to get more records in stock by the weekend if necessary. Monday is often a holiday, and getting records in stores by then could involve shipping or doing other behind-the-scenes work over the weekend. Tuesday is late enough in the week that it’s a consistent, practicable release day, but early enough that stores can have more copies on the shelves by payday if it turns out a release is a surprise best-seller.
What’s more, at this point, many devoted record shoppers already have the Tuesday street date ingrained in them. Tuesday is also a day in the week when shops can have in-store performances from artists without conflicting with promoters who might have a concert scheduled on Friday. And Fridays mean competition with the deep-pocketed movie industry.
Independent record stores aren’t taking the proposed change lying down. Last week, as Billboard was first to report, Record Store Day co-founder Michael Kurtz sent out an email in his capacity as head of trade group the Department of Record Stores. He wrote that the organization’s members, which consist of small indie regional chains in Canada and the United States that between them run about 100 stores, like the idea of a global release date but consider Friday the worst possible choice. The retailers would prefer to see the rest of the world move to the Tuesday release date.
“Say Anti- puts out the new Tom Waits album or something, and everybody orders it thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be cool,” Kurtz says. “But they didn’t know NPR was going to do a story that Friday. Oh shit, now they’ve sold out of all their Tom Waits records, and instead of being able to just go online and place an order and have them there the next day — the next day now is a Saturday. Either the record label is going to pay double shipping, which is not going to happen, or the store doesn’t get it until Monday.”
The problems will be particularly acute from the smaller-selling releases that tend to be part of record stores’ lifeblood. “We sell lots of smaller numbers of things,” Kurtz explains. “It’s not like thousands of Chris Brown records. This is hugely adversely impactful on developing artists and artists on small labels, because the system that supports them is just completely blown out of the water.” Kurtz also questions the idea that the proposed shift would help fight piracy, saying most piracy happens a full eight days before the release date.
Indie labels, like the indie retailers Kurtz represents, have come out in support of a global release date but with strong reservations about Friday. Rich Bengloff, president of the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM) — which represents a who’s who of well-known U.S. indie labels — says “we’re very much in favor” of a worldwide street date, because it creates confusion on social media to have different release dates in various countries. But he says having a Tuesday release date gives labels “two bites of the apple,” with diehard fans who know about new-release Tuesdays coming in then and more impulsive purchasers coming after getting paid on Friday. He also brings up the problem of how to replenish inventory if the street date is Friday.
When asked, in light of the criticisms, why Friday would be best, a rep for IFPI, the global music industry organization, pointed to the group’s previous statement. “The international steering group will be meeting in the next few weeks to discuss the implementation of the Friday release day and we will be happy to keep you posted as the project develops,” IFPI’s Alex Jacob added in an email.
Some who see benefits for musicians from a global street date aren’t opposed to the Friday plan. Casey Rae, VP for policy and education at artists’ advocacy group Future of Music Coalition, says in an email that a single worldwide release date would be more efficient for indie and major labels alike and that this should help musicians. But he points out that strategic “leaks” and early exclusives have lessened the meaning of street dates, which might limit the impact from standardization.
As for Fridays vs. Tuesdays, Rae says he can see both sides. “Given that much of the working world still gets paid on Friday, I would give the slight edge to the IFPI plan,” he writes. “That said, as a onetime buyer for an indie record store, Tuesdays will be a hard habit to break.”
The idea of moving the U.S. release date for new music from Tuesday has come up before. That Hollis, Queens record store manager in the ’90s proposed shifting the street date to Thursday. In 1998, after Master P‘s MP Da Last Don cracked the Billboard 200 album chart a week before it was officially released, the industry bible’s sources suggested one major label was considering changing the day to Wednesday. But this time, the discussion is global, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to stop.
“It makes no sense to any of us in physical retail to change the street date to a Friday when Tuesday is wonderful,” says Record Store Day Canada’s Baker. “It’s not broken. It doesn’t need to be fixed.”
“It’s a bad idea. Unless we say something, it’s just going to be rubber-stamped.”
Until next summer, Friday should be on music listeners’ minds.