Eric Levin is a co-founder of Record Store Day (RSD), owner of Atlanta's Criminal Records and head of the Alliance of Independent Media Stores. Though this year he's scaled back his involvement with RSD to focus on his retail business ( which is facing financial difficulties), Billboard spoke with Levin about the event's fifth anniversary happening this Saturday (April 21) and what constitutes an exclusive release, the growing global reach of RSD, the inexorable rise of vinyl and, of course, ambassador Iggy Pop -- as well as a candidate for next year's ambassadorship -- Chuck D.
A full list of Record Store Day releases is included at the bottom of this interview. To find participating stores, click here.
Billboard.biz: What's the state of Record Store Day this year?
Eric Levin: I'll be doing a ton of stuff at Criminal. We have a really nice selection of releases, we've got Drive by Truckers playing, which couldn't be more perfect. They've helped every step of the way -- they even played a benefit party for us earlier in the year. We haven't announced this yet but Bradford Cox from Deerhunter/Atlas Sound is doing something.
What about the larger state of RSD?
It's really good. Every day I see new items and events. I'm so jealous of Fingerprints [in Long Beach, Calif.}. They've got. M. Ward, Al Jardine and World Party. And stores that don't have national artists are putting together great local events.
Each year Record Store Day seems to get bigger and bigger -- especially this year -- has that been quantified?
There's more releases coming out, there is more buzz. I'm told there's more than 400 exclusive releases and last year I think it was under 300. But I'm commenting as a buyer and a consumer, this year I'm volunteering for Record Store Day, but the day-to-day managers are Michael Kurtz and Carrie Colliton
How involved are you with RSD this year?
I'm on a weekly phone call, I'm doing a lot of behind the scenes stuff but this year I'm focusing on the duties of running the coalition (AIMS) and a record store. I did four years of intense volunteer work for RSD, this year I did less, I just had to concentrate on my own store.
I got a pitch about Record Store Day France yesterday. How global has RSD become?
It's unbelievable. That's where the behind the scenes work has taken off. It's thrilling to have expanded so far overseas. When we started we would get these exclusive pieces and people overseas would say, "We've read about these, where's our access to product?" I said at the time we were going to get them over there and we did. It's cool.
Other big RSD milestones this year?
It being the 5th year is pretty exciting. The first year was "what are these guys talking about?" Like anything in its first year, it wasn't a slam-dunk. We just hit over 100,000 likes on Facebook. I have Google alerts and I'm friends with all sorts of record stores on Facebook -- it's all I read about. Even in the editorial world, like Rolling Stone, who sit with their arms across their chests in their reviews will now mention, "Oh this is for Record Store Day." The press are acting like it's been around for 30 years or something. We were the No. 1 must-do in Entertainment Weekly.
I'm getting inundated with press releases from bands, indies and majors about supposed exclusive releases -- I think Universal had like 30-40.
That gets interesting. If you take a look at the Record Store Day website, you'll see we tried to break it down as much as possible into three different categories. We don't consider a windowed release or getting something early as a Record Store Day release, it might just happen to be out in time for Record Store Day. The Spiritualized record is supposed to be brand new for Saturday.
Are they fudging some of their quote-unquote "Record Store Day releases?"
I don't think fudging is the word, this is like Christmas and some plan their release schedule around it. It's a window release for indie record stores, but as the only places selling vinyl, it can make it a little awkward. I want to be able to talk to every single customer and say, "That record is really cool, you have in your hand there BUT I'm going to have it next week and a year from now."
So you can say, "Hey, this Spiritualized record will be out for a while, but this one, there's only 30 of…"
Last year a windowed release was the reissue of Modest Mouse's The Moon and Antarctica. It was out just before Record Store Day, it was out early. I was talking to a customer and she was like, "well, I just want it." Sony is a good example. They're re-releasing Paul Simon's Graceland 20 year anniversary and a nice, hi-res edition of Patti Smith's Horses, Lou Reed's Transformer and Lou Reed's Rock n Roll Animal. These are coming out on Record Store Day. I think we have a four-week exclusivity.
So what happens after the four weeks? They just sit until their release date?
Yeah and whoever would be buying vinyl, like Amazon who are a competitor and boutique shops like, I guess, Urban Outfitters. These windowed releases are only for indie stores.
It seems like everybody is fudgy these days about release dates releasing digitally, streaming, dropping half the album's singles before the release date.
We used to celebrate Tuesday, we used to have midnight parties on Monday. A recent example is Albama Shakes. We're going to sell it in perpetuity, but it came out three weeks early on iTunes.
With vinyl, it's the same story year after year -- it's not a huge part of the market, but it keeps growing. What's the story this year?
It's a wonderful phenomenon. It saved many stores. I don't see it fading. There's definitely going to be blow back against high priced, unnecessary reissues. As long as the label is going to take the time to make a product that is worth making, it has an exciting future.
What percentage is vinyl of your music sales?
About 70% -- maybe more factoring in both used and new. That's been consistent for a long time. Hands are tied because a lot of labels can't make the release date a concern of theirs. That kills us if a record comes two to six weeks after a release. We'll still sell it - but it can be a limited commodity. Stores like ours have a lifetime of records to sort and sell. I'm very confident that stores, concentrating on vinyl are going to do fine. It's still a drop in the bucket compared to the other departments within Sony and Universal.
Are you selling more incidentals?
We've always been a full service type of store. Music at the center, but comics are important, we have a healthy book and magazine section, DVDs and Blu-rays are completely separate from music titles. We make a $1.50 when we sell a concert ticket, we make a $1.50 when we sell a discount CD, you know? We make 100% when we sell used.
There are now links on the RSD homepage to UK German, Belgian and the Netherlands Record Store Day sites.
That's a lot of volunteer work we've been doing overseas... We've been working with them. We have a sponsor from the UK coming, someone from Germany coming, someone from Belgium coming to NARM.
What do you do at NARM?
We have three town hall meetings where labels are going to be invited to talk with us. This will be two weeks after RSD so we'll have a lot to talk about.
Do you do that every year?
This is three of the largest meetings we've ever had. For the past four years we've had meetings.
But it's going to be bigger this year.
Yeah, I mean, we're still going to NARM to meet with our label and distributing partners. We have a pretty big agenda now. Everything from shop local - I don't know if you saw that Third Option we've got up - we're trying to get artists to put recordstoreday.com next to Amazon or iTunes and that's been a battle. It's called the Record Store Day Third Option, It's asking our partners to consider advertising. You open up a magazine and you'll see an ad that says "Shop at Amazon" or "Shop at ITunes" exclusively," and we're trying to promote buying locally. It's just a logo and link trying to bring people back to recordstoreday.com and a message that says "Hey, consider shopping locally because it's very important."
How is Criminal doing nowadays?
We're doing fine. We're in a cruising altitude.
We're here today. We're still facing all the issues we were facing - terrible economy, bad financial situation in Atlanta. I tripled the size of my store and have to pay the rent. There are still a lot of people shopping here and supporting us but there are real world costs and decisions that have to be made from insurance to what we carry to how much I pay my staff.
Has this experience changed any of the philosophy you espouse -- supporting local, community businesses?
The feedback and support and love that came from the local community is the only reason we decided to continue. It wasn't the money raised by the community -- which was nice and I was able to pay bills with some of it -- but the fact that I wasn't in this by myself. It wasn't just me closing the door and having a sale. That was so I could continue with Record Store Day and continue doing all the things I enjoy doing with a growing independent business in this community.
How is AIMS doing this year?
We, as a group, our label customers are still taking advantage of our services and we're succeeding. In September/October we took over publishing Magnet Magazine, and we folded over a version of Magnet Magazine into our programming. Now when a label does a listing with us, they get free advertising space in Magnet. We grew this year adding five stores, we added value to our programming with the magazine, so we're doing great. Individually we are starting to stock different records and that's been the most exciting thing. iTunes doesn't do any A&R and we traditionally do.
Other Music here in NYC is starting a label, is that something you're seeing more of?
It's always been a phenomenon. Record stores have always released records. I would say 18 out of 25 AIMS stores have labels. Criminal Records included. Every AIMS member always asks me "what are we going to do with this record?" I'm looking for a solution for AIMS to help us distribute music from our scene. That's one of my goals with NARM and something I've been working on simultaneously.
Another big NYC retail story around here is Rough Trade opening in Williamsburg with Bowery Ballroom booking the in-stores.
I know Spencer Hickman really well. He's our UK counterpart, he runs Rough Trade in the UK and does Record Store Day in the UK. He's coming for NARM. I've been talking to him about this location for two years. It's difficult to do things in New York, from what I've gathered particularly if you're overseas. They are going to be very interesting in New York.
Has Criminal partnered with any live promoters?
No. We have a great relationship with some promoters in town who understand our reach and the social media with our community. They see great value in teaming up with us for promotions.
How big is the performance space in the new venue?
We can fit, comfortably, 350 people. It's huge. When the space came open I just grabbed it.
How often do you have shows?
2-3 a week. Sometimes less. We have a full stage, full PA, full lighting.
Circling back to Record Store Day, how did you get Iggy Pop to be the ambassador?
At last year's NARM, there was someone who worked with Iggy who said "hey, Iggy wants to do this," and it's not like we had a vote it was just "oh my god, Iggy!" At NARM we had another request from a superstar artist who I'll be putting forward for next year's ambassador. Chuck D, we'll see.
A full list of Record Store Day releases is included below.