Monday nights used to be unique. The anticipation for Tuesday mornings could barely be contained. Plans were made on how to ensure you could get to the mall and still make it to class on-time. Or, in many cases, how you were going to skip school altogether to sit with your newfound treasure. At one time, Tuesday mornings were the most significant moment each week for the music industry and music fans as new albums hit record store shelves. And unlike modern-day music consumption, decisions would need to be made. You couldn’t purchase every new release at $15 per CD. What album would sustain the listener’s insatiable music hunger until the next payday or allowance?
In the “old days,” the second day of the week was about more than half-price movies; it was also the day that curious music fans found out who Cam’ron was or what this mysterious white boy from Detroit was all about. If the office water cooler was the place to discuss politics and internal politics, the record store was the high school locker where jocks, hip-hop heads, goths, and others gathered to purchase the music of the day.
In the late 80s, Tuesday’s became the standard release day for the music business driven primarily by the need to ensure distributors could get stock to stores over the weekend and at the beginning of the week to provide the runway for a full week of sell-through. The timing of music releases changed in 2015 when the world’s “global release day” shifted to Fridays. The release day change to Fridays impacted what on the surface was just a day of the week to release music but more profoundly was a musical institution and habit that would ultimately die alongside the record stores that supported it. It also created not-so-friendly deadlines for music critics. “I work as a critic, and albums hitting at midnight Friday creates some wild deadlines from time to time,” states Vulture/NYMag Pop Critic Craig Jenkins.
As streaming’s dominance grew, and as physical music sales continued to die down, the considerations for shipping times and stock availability at stores went the way of music downloads — down the drain. What was it like to plan your day around the purchase of a new album?
The 90s and early 2000s in music were a time of extreme fandom and cross-pollination of musical genres. Many hip-hop fans born in the 80s can recollect skipping school as teenagers to buy Wu-Tang’s new double CD Wu-Tang Forever when it was released on Tuesday, June 3, 1997. Or for a more recent memory, who can forget the Tuesday release of Jay-Z’s classic The Blueprint, which hit record store shelves on 9/11. Despite that day being one of the worst tragedies in the history of the world, the album still debuted at #1 selling north of 400k copies as fans continued to hit record stores in droves. Rolling Stone said that fans were “unfazed and unconfused” by the events of that week, speaking not only to Jay-Z’s dominance at the time coming off multiple platinum albums but the habit that had been ingrained in music fans minds of hitting record stores on Tuesdays.
Memories are all music fans have now as most record stores have shut their doors. The exception is Canada where the Sunrise Records chain is by all accounts thriving despite a vastly different musical climate. The Canadian company rescued several HMV locations in 2019 and purchased US retailer FYE in early 2020 for $10M USD. The difference now is the chances of someone in junior high remembering a physical music purchase years later in a Friday release climate and the new musical landscape is slim to none. “I remember being in maybe 6th or 7th grade and Big Pun’s second album dropped,” remembers music manager Hovain Hylton. “My sister grabbed it for me on the way home and I played the CD on the way to school all week.”
Anticipation was one of the most excellent marketing tools of the record store era. Pre-internet music magazines largely fueled the excitement for upcoming releases, both via feature stories and through label ads teasing out forthcoming albums.
Outside of songs that had been serviced to radio, there wasn’t much in the way of “leaks” or “previews” to speak of. “What I miss about Tuesday releases was the anticipation,” recalls producer Djay Cas (credits include Nipsey Hussle, Jeezy, and Tory Lanez). “The release day was monumental. It was an event. Right now somebody might quietly release a surprise album and two weeks later…it’s on to the next. You knew everybody was going to the mall for that one specific album. You were jealous of the kid who was first in line to get this album because he got to read the credits before you. Now albums…you can just get to them whenever you’re ready. It’s a lot more convenient but there’s no urgency.”
It was anticipation that got you there, but the real draw of new release Tuesdays was a visit to the record store. It’s hard to believe that there was a time when a hotly anticipated new album release would see a queue forming outside the record store. In 2020, there is no such thing as an album “selling out” because we’re in the all-you-can-eat model of the music business. But in the 90s and 2000s, store stock mattered, and if you weren’t at the record store early, an album might sell out, and it might not be back in stock until later in the week. It was being first that mattered too. Being the first one of your group of friends to cop that new album was necessary. “You were jealous of the kid who was first in line to get this album because he got to read the credits before you,” adds Cas. It’s safe to say that during the record store era, many skips from school were driven by the need for music. Former Okayplayer managing editor Kevin L. Clark remembers putting aside social studies to study the “god MC.” “I remember when Rakim (dating myself a bit) came out with The 18th Letter. He was away from the game for a while and this was a rare chance to get new music from OG God MC before any of my friends. I broke out of AP Social Studies and ran to Sam Goody to cop two copies: one to play and the other to have The R sign for me. I never did get a chance for him to sign it though.”
But along with the anticipation at times came disappointment. The risk of a CD purchase back then was exponentially higher than adding a new album digitally today, which you can easily delete and not be out $15. What if the album didn’t live up to the hype? What if those one or two songs you loved were the only one or two good songs on the album? Such was the case for Tuma Basa, Director of Urban Music, YouTube back in the Summer of 1996. “I’ll never forget is when Nas’ “It Was Written” came out. I bought it the day it came out,” reminisces Basa. “I didn’t have his first album, Illmatic, because I was still in Zimbabwe when it came out and never got around to buying it or borrowing it. So, going straight to Nas’ second album was a leap-frog for my CD binder. Played it in my 1988 Toyota Camry and pow, I’m disappointed. There were only like three good songs on there (including the joint with Lauryn Hill). Unlike Friday mornings now on streaming services, Tuesdays back then were a big risk.”
And then there was the struggle around parental advisory stickers. The warning on albums was instituted by Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center back in the 80s after Gore bought a copy of Prince’s Purple Rain for her daughter. Originally intended to warn parents about albums with explicit content, teenagers started holding it as a badge of honor of sorts. “Best thing about all those releases back then…you literally couldn’t buy explicit rap albums unless you were a certain age,” recalls music industry entrepreneur Noah Williams. “I was a young kid who didn’t even look old enough to be in the mall alone trying to get these CDs and the cashier was like nope need an adult, fun times. It’s like not only do they have to take you, they have to go in like you’re buying cigarettes or something.”
A natural exploration happened with albums when they were released on Tuesdays where music fans could digest the release through the course of the work or school week and know whether it was an album that would be in regular rotation by the weekend or returned to the store later in the week. There was a time record stores would take albums back with a receipt prior to the influx of CD burning and bootlegging. “I remember Tuesday giving us the rest of the week to listen to all the new music instead of cramming to listen to it on the weekends,” recalls Adrian Swish, manager of rapidly rising viral artist RMR. Despite the social media excitement of Friday drops, Swish adds that it complicates promotion and marketing for the music business as well. “Music marketing on the weekends, if you’re not a major artist, can be very tough for independent artists to get visibility.”
But maybe the most crucial thing that was lost from the record store era was the sales battles. It’s impossible to forget the showdown set up to spike sales of 50 Cent and Kanye West’s new albums in 2007. “The 50/Kanye tiff stands out in my mind as one of the first times that buying an album was presented as a kind of vote,” remembers Jenkins. “I made sure to get a copy of Graduation. It felt like the future of rap was being decided…50 could be the architect of the current state of hip-hop fans using sales as a sticking point which is ironic because the tide kinda turned on him after his hardest push.” The end results of the showdown were Kanye West besting 50 Cent, with West’s Graduation album selling 960k+ copies the first week vs. 50 Cent selling 690k+ copies of his Curtis album. “It truly represented David Vs. Goliath,” says music writer Sowmya Krishnamurthy. “That was a great moment where we really saw culture and commerce come together.” And despite best efforts by armchair record executives on social media, this isn’t very easy to replicate in the streaming era.
Artists can trumpet streams as a measuring stick, but the effort, and quite frankly, dollars being committed by fans to support their favorite artists isn’t the same. There is a connection that used to happen when someone got dressed, took the bus or drove to the mall, found the album they wanted to buy, checked out at the cash register and drove home to spend quality time with whatever new album they purchased. Justin Tinsley of ESPN’s The Undefeated recalls a specific instance where the connection that new release Tuesdays and record stores used to have with fans. “It’s the summer of 2005, right after my freshman year at Hampton University. Before I go into work, I stop at Circuit City to cop Jeezy’s TM101 and Trey Songz’s first album. Trey is from the same part of VA that I am, so he was doing a meet and greet at the Circuit City…I remember it being a madhouse. The whole city was out there on that Tuesday.” In a way, new music Tuesdays were just part of the fabric of life. “Looking back on it Tuesday release dates were like comfort food,” Tinsley continues. “You always knew when the new albums dropped. It was never a shock. It was just as much a part of the routine of life as Monday Night Football.
The effort level and tangible connection found in the record store era was significantly higher than clicking play on a song on your phone when every song ever made is at your fingertips.
In 2020, new music can’t be physically touched. The discussion around the latest albums doesn’t happen at the mall or in the hip-hop section of the record store but rather online via Twitter, where new music is reviewed in short bursts and projects are immediately hailed as “trash” or “instant classics” mere hours after release. Albums used to be something to be cherished and discussed for weeks sometimes months. Back then, the listener’s new favorite song wasn’t communicated to them by a ‘New Music Friday’ curator, but rather tipped off by a friend or uncovered after listening to the same album over and over again. This isn’t to say that young music fans don’t get excited about new music releases but there was something special about holding that hotly anticipated release on Tuesday mornings — and that will likely never be replicated again.