LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - 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.
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
"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
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