The past few years have been bittersweet for music retail in Los Angeles. The opening of Amoeba Records in 2001 gave the city one of the stronger music outlets in America, but was followed soon by the closings of Aron’s Records and Rhino Records.
Yet indie music fans not wanting to brave the Hollywood traffic to hit Amoeba had an outpost near downtown in Sea Level Records, run by Todd Clifford, merchandise man for the rock band Silversun Pickups. The store arrived as the city’s Echo Park neighborhood was undergoing a revitalization, and stocked a heavily curated catalog (top sellers this month include Silversun Pickups, adventurous guitar rock act Electrelane and avant-folk duo CocoRosie). Yet come the end of this month, the 32-year-old Clifford will close up shop for good.
And across town in Santa Monica, Philip Smith will shut the doors of his collectors-focused House of Records, which bills itself as the oldest record store in the city. Smith has run the store since 1991, when he purchased it from owner Jane Hill, who opened the retailer in 1952 as a seller of 78s. She soon added 45s, with a portion of the store’s sales generated by supplying music to customers of Hill’s husband, who owned a jukebox rental company. ENTREPRENEUR’S BURNOUT
Yet it’s neither the advent of downloading — nor the arrival of an indie superstore in Amoeba — that Clifford and Smith cite as the reason for their closing. Clifford’s store, in fact, is having a better sales year than last year, when sales were up over those of 2005. In reality, both owners are simply exhausted.
“Obviously, if I would have had tons more sales, I would have had employees and not have to be here all the time and wouldn’t be burned out,” Clifford said. “I wanted to close this a while ago, but I was torn because it should be here. And it should be here, but that doesn’t mean I have to do it.”
Clifford recently spent two months on the road with Silversun Pickups. He said he expected to come back feeling refreshed. Instead, within 15 minutes of walking back into his store, he “hated being here.”
Clifford said that when he opened shop in 2001 he used to love customers. “Now when customers come in, I’m like, ‘Just buy it and leave,”‘ he said. “This isn’t a job where I should wake up and say, ‘I don’t want to go to work.”‘
Clifford has two friends who want to open a shop in the Sea Level model, but it will likely have to be in a different part of town. He’s been told his $2,900-per-month rent will be raised to nearly $5,000 once he vacates the premises. “That’s quite a lot of CDs to sell,” Clifford said.
Smith, who didn’t stock new product — unless it was in the form of used advance copies — admitted that sales are down in 2007. On top of that, he started to lack the drive to keep improving the long-beloved store.
“There’s a Best Buy down the street, so we couldn’t compete in new product,” Smith said. “We were used, which is, in general, a strong market. Even when people are buying stuff online and burning, you can come here and buy a CD for $6 to $10. We noticed that sales were trailing off, but we were doing fine. There are just a lot of things working against the small business owner.”
Smith’s list of those things includes rent, electricity and insurance for employees, as well as his inability to raise CD prices without generating an outcry from consumers. He’ll be selling stock at 50 percent off through the month of June at his store and online, and leaving the record retail biz to those who are better at “being a hustler,” he said.
“You need to be good at marketing, promotion and PR, and making your store a hangout,” he said. “It can’t just be a shop. Some of the things might have to be gimmicky, but the business isn’t going to walk in the door anymore. It has to be pursued.”