Can Criminal and VIP Records Be Saved?
Can Criminal and VIP Records Be Saved?

Last week, Criminal Records in Atlanta announced it would probably close its doors right after Christmas. This week, VIP Records in Long Beach California also said it would shutter, probably by November.

Both announcements generated plenty of press buzz, and accordingly so. Criminal Records owner Eric Levin, who founded the AIMS coalition, and VIP owner Kelvin Anderson, a member of the UIMRA coalition, are both high-profile indie merchants. Levin has been one of the forces behind Record Store Day and Anderson eventually ran UIMRA, one of the early urban retail coalitions that would ultimately help inspire the creation of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, the Alliance Of Independent Media Stores, the Music Monitor Network.

For both announcements, the mainstream and business press wrote that Criminal Records and VIP are going out of business because those stores can't compete with digital merchants like iTunes - that was even the sub-headline for the Long Beach local newspaper, which said that VIP was "felled by digital competitors." Meanwhile, the Atlanta Business Chronicle paraphrased Levin as saying, "Criminal Records has had increasingly difficulty turning a profit since the rise of digital audio."

Of course, Levin said nothing of the sort. What he told and others is: "The story behind our closing isn't about the music biz, it's about mainstreet U.S.A. I did what I felt business owners are supposed to do, grow and expand. So I moved from a 2,500-square-foot-store in October 2008 to a 6,000 square-foot store. It didn't work. The large location proved to be not viable in this economic environment."

Levin financed that expansion using debt, and that debt could prove to be Criminal Records' undoing, so to speak. But even as Levin was telling me this, before word slipped out about his planned closure, he also said, "it doesn't mean the end" of Criminal Records.

"Of course, there will still be a Criminal Records," he said. "I don't know where it will be, but it won't have comic books and toys. I will get back to basics, mainly carrying vinyl."

But now, two weeks later, things are looking different in Atlanta. The Criminal Records news generated a massive outpouring by local bands, customers and other local businesses, and even a Facebook page entitled "Save Criminal Records" begun by customers.

Now, Levin says, "The future is looking brighter because it's feeling like the Atlanta community won't let us go out of business." In addition, established acts and record labels have also stepped up with ideas that could be monetized on behalf of Criminal Records, he says.

With all the ideas and events that have materialized since the announcement, collectively they may generate funding to help Levin deal with his debt, he says, although he declined to identify those ideas because they are still in the early stages of development. "It is extraordinary, but none of it is accomplished yet," he says.

"In addition to dealing with the debt, there could be enough funding to potentially offer my longtime staff, Lillian Lai-Hughes and Shannon Mulvaney, an ownership stake in Criminal Records," he said.

Late last month, Levin told Billboard that although he was planning to close the store, he will remain president of AIMS. "The board is very excited about having a full-time president. I have way more fun with AIMS and Record Store Day and helping bands than I do running a giant record store." But now he may also get to have whatever fun running a giant record store may generate as well.

Meanwhile, in Long Beach, Anderson was just experiencing the first day of reaction about his planned closure, which hit news sites late Tuesday night. Anderson says he has been having a tough time for the past few years; the press has attributed his downfall to digital music, as well. Anderson does in fact blame digital music, but hye is not talking about iTunes and Rhapsody or Napster or Pandora.

"The biggest problem is people are not paying for music; they are downloading it for free," he says. "I don't hear people saying they are downloading music and paying for it with their credit cards or as part of their phone bill -- very seldom do I hear that. What I mostly hear is [people] saying they are getting music for free."

For the sake of comparison, Anderson, who buys mainly from one-stops, says the average wholesale price for a single CD is $12.41.

If he pays that amount, and adds in enough profit to cover his overhead, illegal downloading does look attractive, compared with the pricing in his store. But Anderson says despite his plan to close up shop, he still has hope that something will forestall that day.

"If I can raise enough capital to flip the store into a lifestyle situation with music, this business can be salvaged," he says.

Since news has gotten out about his planned closure, the community is just beginning to respond, and he has already heard one idea to raise funds from a former employee who wants to work with a local club to put an event together to benefit Anderson's store.

But it's too early to say if Long Beach will respond the way that Atlanta has for Criminal Records. And it's too early to say if Atlanta's response will be enough to keep Criminal Records open. But all things considered, it is certainly heartening to see bands, customers, communities, and even labels rallying around a record store -- something that the record industry failed to do when stores like Tower Records were heading for liquidation.