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Ben Jones

R.I.P.: What Does ear X-tacy's Demise Mean for Music Stores in the Highlands?

By Kevin Gibson

Ben Jones doesn't own a computer; he doesn't have an e-mail address or a Facebook profile. Instead of spending time "friending" people online, he spends much of his time cleaning up used records by hand.

Jones has been in the business of selling records, new and used, pretty much his entire adult life. He resisted compact discs for a while he is no early adopter of modern technology but finally gave in when the market dictated. Regardless, his Better Days Records stores have been serving music lovers in Louisville for nearly three decades, and doing so on an old-school budget and with a customer-first mentality.

Jones said he looks forward to continuing down that same path now that ear X-tacy the Highlands' signature record store for years has closed its doors. His recently re-opened Highlands location at 1765 Bardstown Road, he feels, stands to benefit as music lovers seek out a new place to buy music but that doesn't mean he will do anything differently.

Ben Jones

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Ben Jones Ben Jones

Ben Jones

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Ben Jones Ben Jones

Ben Jones

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Ben Jones Ben Jones

Ben Jones

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Ben Jones Ben Jones

BetterDays

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BetterDays BetterDays

Better Days

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Better Days Better Days

Better Days

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Better Days Better Days

Electric Ladyland

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Electric Ladyland Electric Ladyland

Highland Records

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Highland Records Highland Records

UndergroundSound1602

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UndergroundSound1602 UndergroundSound1602

Meanwhile, Underground Sounds, another music store in the Highlands, is still going strong after 16 years in business. Tony Nantz has worked at the store at 2003 Highland Avenue since its inception and is the best friend of owner Craig Rich.

"People are pretty loyal to independent record stores," Nantz said. "Now, people who can't shop at ear X-tacy and who have never set foot in here are coming in."

Other stores near the former site of ear X-tacy include Highlands Records and Electric Ladyland; the former deals exclusively in used vinyl, while the latter has evolved into more of a "head shop" with a bit of used vinyl in stock.

So, how will the remaining record stores survive if ear X-tacy, which had become a local institution of sorts, could not? Is this a sign of the economy? Is it the death-knell of the independent record store as more and more people download their music one song at a time from iTunes and Amazon?

What Went Wrong?

There was a public outcry of sorrow when ear X-tacy mysteriously closed its doors on Saturday, Oct. 29. Music nerds hung their heads; hipsters wept. People pontificated about the good times, recounting their experiences online about their first visits to the iconic store.

But apparently, not enough of these people were buying their music at Louisville's premier independent music store in its last years.

John Timmons' baby-turned-monster had an incredible run and experienced an unbelievable amount of growth and success. Heck, for a long while, even the bumper stickers were famous, leading to people creating their own slogans from the distinctive typewriter-font, ear X-tacy logo.

Musicians would come to Louisville to play a show, and made it a point to visit. Sometimes they played in the store themselves who would believe that the Foo Fighters would play at an independent store in Kentucky? Well, it happened. The store also played host to Red Hot Chili Peppers, Queens of the Stone Age and countless other bands, both national and local.

And that was part of the magic as well you could walk into ear X-tacy, tell the right person you wanted your band to play there or to put CDs on consignment, and it could be done. In addition, Timmons ran a label out of his store that helped local bands get their music pressed up and heard, and lent a bit of legitimacy to their product in the process. Timmons surely lost money on this endeavor, but he persevered.

Timmons really seemed to be a classic music nerd who was doing what he loved; after opening in the mid-1980s in a tiny spot off Poplar Level Road, the store moved to a location on Bardstown Road, not far from Taylorsville Road, where it really began to pick up steam. After a few successful years in that spot, it moved into the 10,000-square-foot spot at 1534 Bardstown Road that once housed a Pier One retail store and is now a Panera Bread restaurant.

But in 2008, amidst a crumbling economy, Timmons announced that ear X-tacy was in trouble and pleaded for the support of the public. Things seemed to pick up for a while as the music-buying community rallied around the struggling business, but finally, last year, the store moved to a smaller location at 2226 Bardstown Road to reduce overhead. What once was a focal point of the Highlands, suddenly was sharing a building with a boutique and a Kinko's.

Last November, just a few months after moving, Timmons again publicly said the store was in danger of closing and pleaded for support via a YouTube video. Apparently, not enough support was forthcoming.

So what ultimately killed ear X-tacy? One can speculate that the store simply ate itself the legend outgrew the actual product, which was in competition with iTunes and Amazon, and was losing ground in a tough economy.

There are also those who for years have complained that customer service was spotty. In addition, bands whose product was selling in the store began having a difficult time getting paid for those sales, and Timmons stated in a November 2010 LEO Weekly article that it was necessary to pay artists as funds were available.

What's left now? There were rumors immediately following the closure that ear X-tacy will reorganize and re-open, but a final closeout sale Nov. 26 and 27 seemed to quell that notion. And in Timmons' parting statement, he urged his former customers to patronize the other independent businesses in the Highlands.

Fortunately, as it turns out, there are actually a few of those who also sell music.

Better Days Ahead?

"Do I have good timing, or what?" Jones joked. Actually, his re-opening of Better Days Records in the Highlands just before ear X-tacy's closure was something of a coincidence in terms of timing. But the plan all along was to be in the Highlands.

While the West End arm of Better Days has been going strong since 1992, the east side version of the store has had its ups and downs. The original Frankfort Avenue location came into Jones' ownership in 1982 and moved to the Highlands, opening there in July of 1990. Jones remembers this because Graham Nash came into the store that first day and autographed an album for Jones. (Nash bought albums by Prince and Teddy Pendergrass, as well as buying a couple of his own albums, Jones said.)

But the huge space at the corner of Bardstown Road and Bonnycastle gave way to a smaller one across the street, and that location ended up closing in 2003.

Jones said he then took time to research the market and wait for the right opportunity to re-open. He did so this past summer just months before ear X-tacy left a record-store void that must be filled by someone.

But even though his Highlands store had to close, he knew the way to survive as an independent record store was to manage overhead and keep down costs for customers not to mention focus on customer service. He always planned to return with the same type of business plan.

Jones for one feels that overhead is part of what killed ear X-tacy. Indeed, there was so much new music being released every week that it was prohibitive to try and stock it all. Meanwhile, ear X-tacy also bought into mass media advertising, such as billboards and television, both of which are expensive and don't necessarily reach the right audience.

"I run an independent record store," Jones said. "I always felt the best success was to be an independent marketer. You can't be all things to all people music lovers will find music stores."

Jones said one of the aspects of selling music he strives for is keeping cost down for the customer, simply because there is so much competition. For a used CD, he does his best to keep the price around $5 whenever possible.

There's a very good reason for that: It's because eBay, Amazon, and sites like them have price points on certain types of music items.

"First, understand [the Internet] has hurt every business," Jones said. "But there is room for everyone if they change their thought process."

As such, Jones had his staff do research on sites that sell used music, and that's how he came up with the $5 price point goal a consumer may be able to buy the same CD on eBay for, say, three bucks, but they still have to pay $3 for shipping.

Some used CDs will be up to $9, but the principle is the same for instance, a Lynyrd Skynyrd or Beatles CD will always have value, assuming it is in good shape, and thus it will be higher online as well. That means it can be re-sold in the store at a competitive price. "You can't control a proven product," Jones said. "If you keep things under $9, you can compete with the world's largest online retailer."

Alternatively, there are no guarantees that a brand new album by last year's one-hit wonder (Michael Bublé, anyone?) will ever sell a single copy, so it's a financial risk to stock it as soon as it comes out. This also cuts down on debt, because you aren't in arrears to a distribution company for things that may or may not sell.

"We know exactly what's in our store," Jones said. "As long as I choose it, I am responsible for the debt I didn't create."

To that end, he pointed out that by purchasing used music from customers, it creates a give-and-take with those customers, which encourages repeat business. "You are actually meeting someone who wants to do business with you," he explained. "Everyone who walks in can become a wholesaler. It's the best way a music lover can recycle."

When asked about ear X-tacy and the attention it has drawn from the media, Jones has little to say. He believes that a lot of the attention the store received over the years was due in part to the money Timmons spent on advertising and donated to the Public Radio Partnership. Unfortunately, that didn't necessarily translate to sales.

As for Timmons' please for help from the community, Jones said, "I didn't think anything about that, because I wouldn't do it. I shut down, and nobody was there. Then again, I knew I was going to start over."

Jones doesn't bristle at the outpouring of support ear X-tacy has received on Facebook and message boards for instance, a Facebook page titled "Ear X-Tacy is Love" was launched in the hours after the store closed, and drew several hundred fans and pleas for the store to remain open but he does point out that his store has also been customer-focused and supportive of the local music scene.

Jones has his own label, Better Days Records, and said he has recently worked with Kimmet and Doug, Hog Operation and others to provide a platform for local releases. Better Days also offers low-cost CD reproduction that can help artists control inventory overhead by allowing them to order as few as just a handful of CDs at a time. And Jones stocks local product regularly.

"Nowadays, the customer experience means more than merchandise or anything else," Jones said. "We always said we were the music store for music lovers, and word of mouth is the key. How can something be the soundtrack of your life if someone doesn't play the first track for you?"

Still Underground?

"Our business has already improved," Nantz acknowledged, in regard to the recent ear X-tacy closure.

While Nantz is hopeful that the trend will continue to grow, he also bears no ill will toward ear X-tacy or the attention it garnered, even while Underground Sounds remained largely, well, underground.

"It's been a staple of the Highlands since they first opened," Nantz said of ear X-tacy. "People, when they get used to shopping at a certain place, that's just where they shop."

But his opinion is similar to that of Jones. Even while Underground Sounds has been in business for 16 years, Nantz said, "It hasn't been easy."

He said having a good variety of stock while not "taking on more than you can handle" financially is a delicate balance, to say the least.

Underground Sounds is probably more like ear X-tacy than Better Days because the stock includes quite a lot of newer merchandise, as well as obscure music that one could never find at, say, Best Buy. However, there also is lower-priced used merchandise both CD and vinyl -- similar to that at Better Days.

Nantz believes Underground Sounds has an advantage with its inventory. There is more new merchandise than at Better Days, and a number of obscure niches are served.

"People who shopped at ear X-tacy were pretty serious about music," he said. He believes those people will be able to find a lot of what they want at Underground Sounds. In fact, the clientele was growing in the 2000s the store actually expanded in 2006.

"Right away, it started to help, but then the economy went crazy," Nantz said. He said the plan is to advertise a bit more as business picks up, and try to raise the store's profile, but the store won't go overboard.

"You shouldn't spend what you don't have," Nantz said.

That said, the word of mouth has already begun to spread; Nantz noted that Underground Sounds has already hired a couple of former ear X-tacy employees, which should help attract former ear X-tacy customers.

And much like with Better Days, a continued commitment to customer experience is a big part of the business plan.

"That was half the reason I started hanging out here in high school," said store regular Gordon Jones, referring to the enjoyment he found in talking all things music with Rich. "But John Timmons? I never even saw that guy until the store started closing."

Electric Ladyland Keeps on Trucking

Electric Ladyland has occupied its current building at 2325 Bardstown Road for some 17 years, but the business has been open for well over 30. Interestingly, the space has been for sale for 10 years. The price? $1.3 million. And the staff comes with it, according to owner Lew White.

In any case, Ladyland still deals in used vinyl and CDs (and even cassettes), but White said he doesn't think the closing of ear X-tacy will have a dramatic effect on his business. He said there his been a slight uptick since the closing, but that all in all the economy has been hard on music sales in general.

"Last year we had five girls working here, and now we only have one," he said. "I would think that if anyone stands to benefit, it will be us, but I think even CDs are dying."

That's why Electric Ladyland stocks so many other items: posters, rugs, incense, collectibles … you name it. "Where else can you go for a good selection of bamboo wall art?" White said.

The place really does look like it got stuck in the 1970s, but it works. During a recent visit, there were three young adults, probably 15 or so, shopping for Hendrix and Beatles memorabilia. And White said he has never advertised.

"Our doors wear out," White said.

Highland Records Holds the Course

Bill Wright has been dealing records at his store, Highlands Records, since 1997. The space at 1617 Bardstown Road is small, to say the least, but vinyl records are flat and stack easily. And that's all he deals in.

"This is more of a collectibles store," he said, pointing out that ear X-tacy sold primarily new music, whereas he deals in hard-to-find, old records.

"Their closing won't affect me much," he said.

He acknowledged that the other stores in the area stand to gain, but cautioned that he would be surprised if the shelf life on any store selling primarily CDs has a long shelf life.

"You hardly find CDs anymore," he said. "People fiddle with their little mouse, and click on any damn song ever made."