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Light in the Attic Finds Old Records and Releases Them Like They're New

Psych-folk troubadour Rodriguez
Psych-folk troubadour Rodriguez
Courtesy of Rodriguez

The offices of Light in the Attic live up to the label's name. Walk up the narrow stairwell of a nondescript Hollywood apartment building and you're immediately bathed by light-blue photons streaming through the second-floor window. Its cupboards are stuffed with pristine, vacuum-sealed vinyl, and its walls are adorned with framed pictures of ancient Appalachian banjo plucker Dock Boggs, a postcard from Anne Frank's house and a baseball squad from 1917.

This is the hub for one of the best reissue imprints worldwide, a label that has released records ranging from South Korean rock godfather Shin Joong Hyun to louche French legend Serge Gainsbourg to '70s Detroit psych-folk troubadour Rodriguez -- whose startling South African popularity is grist for the acclaimed documentary Searching for Sugar Man. (Light in the Attic assembled the film's soundtrack with Sony Legacy.)

Despite pressing esoteric fare, Light in the Attic is celebrating its 10th anniversary at a time when physical record sales are in a slow freefall. Yet the Seattle and L.A.-based label has stayed consistently profitable. In 2012 alone, it will release 17 LPs and six anniversary 7-inches and digital singles. The average sells roughly 10,000 units (split between vinyl, CD and digital), with the top seller, Karen Dalton's In My Time, doing 40,000 copies. All releases are impeccably curated and marketed beyond monkish collectors.

"We market every record like it's from a contemporary band. Serge Gainsbourg might be dead, but we're not going to treat him that way," says label co-founder Matt Sullivan, a boyish-looking 36-year-old with curly black hair and blue-gray eyes. Sullivan moved to L.A. several years ago because it offered more economic opportunity, but his Pacific Northwest roots show in his flannel shirt (Sullivan's partner, Josh Wright, still runs the Seattle office).

"It's not about spending $50,000 on marketing, it's about being strategic and creative," Sullivan says. "For our recent release, Donnie and Joe Emerson's Dreamin' Wild, we made a little documentary with interviews of the principals and a tour of the Washington farm studio that the group's father built for them."

Dreamin' Wild offers an archetypal example of Light in the Attic's success. Initially a self-released, late-'70s blue-eyed soul curio from two teenagers in white pantsuits, the record got a second life due to a small network of record collectors. Word spread to Sullivan, who tracked down the Emerson brothers and arranged a deal to release their ignored opus. Not only did Light in the Attic make a mini-doc to promote the album but it also commissioned liner notes with rare pictures, sketches and a meticulous biography.

That would be worthless if the product weren't superior. But Dreamin' Wild earned raves from tastemaking website Pitchfork and a multipage feature in the L.A. Times. The album's highlight, "Baby," was covered by avant-garde British electronic artists Hype Williams and L.A.'s Ariel Pink and Dam-Funk. Originally recorded for an upcoming Light in the Attic compilation, "Baby" wound up the first single for Ariel Pink's bizarro masterpiece, Mature Themes.

"No one's doing this to get rich. We're doing it because we wake up in the morning hoping to find records like Donnie and Joe Emerson's and help share them with the world," Sullivan says. "A lot of people say, 'Oh, it's a reissue, so who cares?' Rodriguez may have recorded 40 years ago, but what he's talking about is as relevant today as it was back then.

"I love contemporary music, but there are not a lot of records made today that can stand anywhere up against that."

Light in the Attic's 10th-anniversary concert is Friday, Sept. 28, at the El Rey Theatre.

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