SEA LEVEL RECORDS: GET USED TO DISAPPOINTMENT
Todd Clifford was the co-owner and operator of Echo Park’s Sea Level Records store for five years. Earlier this month, he announced he would be closing the store. He speaks now after locking up for the night.
What was the most popular record in the history of Sea Level?
I was just gonna do that list. My guess would be Silversun Pickup’s Carnavas. They’re local but it’s been incredibly huge for us.
Did Carnavas send you on an island vacation?
I got to go to Rochester once. Carnavas—where will it take you? Rochester.
Who steals from Sea Level and what do they steal?
I’ve caught like two—one I physically tackled. It felt really good. He had the CD and I had his backpack, and we both kind of did the hold-it-out thing. But apparently he’s never seen that on TV because I never let go of his backpack and so I got the CD and his backpack. And there was nothing in it—why did he want it back? The 15-year-old kids are stealing Sum 41 and the Beatles. Kids love to steal the Beatles.
Are you nostalgic about shoplifting now that everyone just steals records off the Internet?
Yeah, the good old days of stealing in person—when there’s a face to the steal.
What was your best customer-relations moment?
One of my first weeks open—my parents were in town visiting and somebody took a dump on my car. I got out to my car after work, like, ‘What’s that?’ I’d never had human poop on my bumper. My family was real excited about me opening a record store there. ‘Wow, this is what you do? Good job.’
But only one shit incident in five years.
The bathrooms have been relatively unscathed. There’s a lot of glitter in there.
But that didn’t come out of a human body.
I hope not.
What do you hope Sea Level did best?
It probably wasn’t our selection. Our motto was ‘SEA LEVEL: GET USED TO DISAPPOINTMENT.’ It was probably the personal attention. We’d personally tackle you. Sylvia and myself—when regulars came in, we knew who they were and what they’d want, so literally they’d walk in and they wouldn’t have to ask for anything. The personal touch.
What are record stores supposed to do now?
What worked for us was to be very specific in what we were carrying—for lack of a better word, straight-up indie rock. From seeing other record stores, apparently the key is to carry toys and knick-knacks and other stuff—that seems to be where it’s going. We couldn’t carry everything—we couldn’t compete with Amoeba and Tower at the time. So we did one thing and did it well. Know who is around you and who shops and cater to them.
What was the biggest surprise of Sea Level’s lifespan?
Not having a real employee after five years! And the attention outside of L.A. Some of the labels I’d talk to—it’d be like, ‘Really? You know who I am?’
I’ve seen your color commentary in Spin and L.A. Times.
As my friends will attest, I am what is known as a ‘media whore.’ ‘Want me in something? Sure! Can we get a picture? Even better!’ This is my first cover except for Silverlake Press—they did a big article on the gentrification of Echo Park and there was a big picture of me.
You’re the official gentrifier?
I was the face of it.
What does it mean to the gentrification of Echo Park that you’re closing up shop?
I think they’re doing just fine. From what I can tell about the rents—it seems all the landlords read the press and they’ve kind of stunted the growth. There are a whole lot of empty places that have been empty for a while. But the taco truck is still there.
A measure of a community’s health?
If it’s a good taco truck, it’s a good neighborhood.
What’s the most important thing you learned about the human race by working at a record store for five years?
Half are incredibly nice and awesome and the other half are complete lunatics. The older people seem to be crazier. They’ve had more time to perfect it.
How do you think the Internet really changed the music industry? How did Amoeba affect local record stores?
All the Internet did—the people who get music for free would not have bought it. They got it just because it was free. But lots of people can hear things they wouldn’t hear because radio is so bad. I think the Internet helped. The Internet is the best radio station there is. The other thing that really hurt the industry is they abandoned the single. Everyone got fed up paying $14 and $15 and then $16 and $18 for an album full of bad songs when they only wanted the one good song. Because of that, they went to the Internet for free songs. As for Amoeba, like any indie, they’re fantastic. The ones that are bad are the Best Buys, where it’s cheaper to buy new releases from them instead of from my distributors. The last White Stripes and Beck—I got 21 copies at Best Buy the week it came out. From the distributor, it was $13, and at Best Buy, my cost was $10 and change.
Who inherits Sea Level’s responsibilities?
Kind of gotta be Amoeba, I guess. Hopefully someone I know or don’t know will find a new space and try and give it a go. I’ll help out as long as I don’t have to be responsible for anything. As long as I can walk away when I need to. That was tough—I thought Sea Level should be here, but it took me six months to realize that I didn’t have to be the one to do it. I’ve had a couple of people ask how much it would take to save it. It’s less that and more my sanity.
When did you realize you had to leave Sea Level?
Two things really got me. A lot of good customers would come in and in my head, I’d be like, ‘Just buy it and get out!’ And the thing I’d always had was customer relations. So that was one sign. And then when I’d get up and be like, ‘I don’t wanna go to work today.’ I went on tour for like two months as a test—to see if I got refreshed—and I got back and fifteen minutes into my first day back, I was like, ‘Ah, I hate this place.’ So I either failed the test or passed with flying colors.
You don’t think its natural to hate your job?
I always say to my friends, ‘If it’s fun, they wouldn’t call it a job.’ But owning a record store—you’re supposed to hate it to an extent, but there’s gotta be a balance. Though I fully agree you should hate your job to an extent.
Now that you’ve got your life back, what will you do?
That’s the terrifying and exciting part. I have no real idea! Probably tour a little bit to a decent amount. If not, I’m looking strangely forward to a real job with weekends and paychecks and this crazy thing people have—insurance?
Did you ever hurt yourself?
I hope this doesn’t get to my parents. But I broke my collarbone playing softball two-and-a-half years ago. And I had to pay for that. It’s been over five years without insurance.
I respect a daredevil.
‘Respectable,’ ‘dumbass’—it’s a really thin line.
VISIT SEA LEVEL RECORDS AT 1716 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. SEA LEVEL RECORDS’ LAST DAY IS JUNE 25. SALES PRICES HAVE STARTED AND WILL BE GETTING LOWER. THE SEA LEVEL RECORDS’ GOING AWAY DANCE PARTY IS FRI., JUNE 22, WITH DIVISION DAY AND THE SWITCH PLUS DJs TODD, SYLVIA, NIKKI, MAGIC MARCOS AND KEVIN BRONSON AT SAFARI SAM’S, 5214 SUNSET BLVD., HOLLYWOOD. 9 PM / $5-$7 / ALL AGES. WWW.SEALEVELECHOPARK.COM.