Eric Levin is a happy man, despite working in independent music retail for more than three decades. While his industry has faced immense challenges in the digital age, Levin has successfully navigated the prevailing ill winds and managed to help others in the process.
Levin is, most prominently, the co-founder of Record Store Day, an annual event now in its fourth year that will be celebrated this Saturday (April 16) at more than 1,000 record stores nationwide and across the globe. He is also president of the Alliance of Independent Media Stores, a trade association representing other independent record stores. And he is the proprietor of Criminal Records, a store that's been a part of the bedrock of Atlanta's Little Five Points neighborhood since 1991.
Billboard.biz caught up with Levin by phone where he was in his the attic office of Criminal Records to get his take on Record Store Day, the state of independent music retail and why these days everyone from Russian presidents to porn stars are buying vinyl.
Billboard: What's the state of Record Store day this year?
Eric Levin: Things are pretty off the charts! I'm absolutely stunned by the level of artist participation this year and all the record industry has offered up this year -- I'm not complaining. There's great stuff we're selling, artists that have come out to support the event -- and not just the Foo Fighters at Fingerprints in Long Beach (Calif.) and Regina Spektor at Other Music in New York City. I have the dB's reuniting at my store and there's probably going to be a special guest. We also have British Sea Power and Holly Golightly. But there's so many other artists Chuck D will be at Grimey's in Nashville, My Morning Jacket will be in Lexington (Ky.) (Full list here.)
Janelle Monae live at Levin's Criminal Records during 2010's Record Store Day (Photo: Robin Henson)
What are this year's numbers?
There are over 300 releases -- both exclusive and non-exclusives as well as some surprise releases like the White Stripes, which we didn't know was coming. We're estimating a million-plus people will be involved. We have a booth at Coachella through Zia, a Music Monitor Network store. There's supposedly people already in line around the block at Fingerprints to see the Foo Fighters -- they may have to move the show outside.
How many stores are participating this year?
We have over 700 stores that have signed the pledge.
What's the pledge?
The pledge says in no uncertain terms, "don't be a dick" -- be cool, don't fuck your customers, don't sell on eBay, don't overcharge.
How many stores are involved beyond the 700 who signed the pledge?
We don't have a count on it. Your local dusty grooves record shop can be as involved as much as a larger independent record story like Amoeba. But pledge stores are really throwing their arms around this. My city has three pledge stores but there are nine participating.
Are any big chains or box stores participating?
No, it's only indies by our rule set -- 70% of the ownership must be in the same state that the store resides in, it follows the same rules ABA booksellers go by. We have networks of stores like the Music Monitor with stores like Gallery of Sound and Bull Moose, but they're all independently owned.
How's Record Store Day doing internationally?
It's pure insanity. We now have counterparts in every country from Israel to Russia. Russian president Medvedev is into it -- he collects records. Spencer Hickman is our counterpat in the U.K. He founded Rough Trade Records and is opening a store in Brooklyn.
Any other special items this year?
The artist Frank Kozik made a special edition vinyl collectable toy called RPM of which he made four different versions. He made 5,000 of them and they all sold out
Frank Kozik's RPM holding a piece of Record Stored Day wax.
How's Alliance of Independent Media Stores (AIMS) doing this year?
We're doing okay. We lost some stores this year -- two went out of business: 52.5 Records in Charleston, S.C., and Vinyl Fever in Tampa (Fla.). We also lost Sonic Boom in Seattle -- he's doing well and didn't really need AIMS anymore.
How many stores do you have now?
We have 21 members, but when Record Store Day is over my No. 1 job is adding new stores, I want to get up to 30. Record stores are actually starting to open up -- vinyl record stores! There are some really, really killer stores like Origami, Academy, Harvest in Ashville, Lunchbox, Sake in Chicago.
How are your other Record Store Day partners CIMS and Music Monitor doing?
We're all expanding. I started out trying to join CIMS and Don Van Cleave helped me set up AIMS. Our stores are a little scrappier and a little punkier. We sell marketing, do listening posts at record stores and work politically on behalf of all record stores.
One of the most exciting things this year was being invited to speak about Record Store Day with Michael Bunnell of CIMS at an Advocates for Independent Retail meeting. There were all these hardware and bike stores -- it was really exciting. Everyone wanted do hear about Record Store Day. We're meeting regularly now and we got to meet with members of Congress to talk about things like sales tax fairness and artist rights.
What other issues are you pursuing?
We're doing a lot with shop local first initiatives; that's really happening now. Folks are realizing that shopping on Amazon or iTunes isn't going to help your local community. Amazon or iTunes is not going to help your school district, fix your potholes or support your little league team. I understand they're convenient, but you don't have to buy all your books and music there.
What are the big Record Store trends this year?
The story is sill vinyl, the resurgence is still happening. For AIMS vinyl is outselling CDs when given a level playing field in terms of pricing and availability. A lot of our vinyl will have digital convenience codes or even a CD. Ninety-percent of Record Store Day vinyl will have digital convenience so you can still participate and own a record collection without even owning a record player.
Which special releases are you excited about for Record Store Day?
The dB's made their own 7". British Sea Power made a U.K.-only 7" and we got 40 of those for the U.K. My Morning Jacket will be in Lexington hanging around CD Central. They released picture discs of their last three albums which they're signing. And they made 600 white labels of a new song they're giving away.
I want to buy this Numero Group album and there's a Light in the Attic release of the Black Angels first two EPs that's an Record Store Day exclusive on white vinyl.
What's the message you want to leave people about Record Store Day.
I don't think now's the time to concentrate on what's sold, or this product or what's on eBay. I just care about this awesome party I'm gonna have on Saturday -- the dB's are playing my store! Go see Regina Spektor or Jerry Lee Lewis at Jack White's Third Man Records Store in Nashville or Chuck D at Grimey's.
I just saw some news story today about porn stars even being into Record Store Day.
That I didn't know.