Let me start off by saying that I myself am a small-business owner. Small businesses are the backbone of this country. Also, I started shopping at ear X-tacy when it was a hole in the wall next to the Great Escape on Bardstown Road back in the late 1980s/early 90s.
That being said….
I feel like I’m about to speak ill of the dead, but the laborious drum-roll via Facebook (“We greatly thank all of you for your concern. Unfortunately, we will be closed again today. We will have an official statement for you on Monday.”) that finally ended yesterday with the announcement that ear X-tacy, Louisville’s best known independent record store, was closing was hardly unexpected. There has been blood in the water for months, and it seemed almost inevitable.
Is it sad? Yes, of course. Many of us have fond memories of hunting down that import record that we just couldn’t find anywhere else, or, even better, didn’t know existed until we were flipping through the stacks. Is Louisville a less interesting place? Yes, of course. The closing of a business, especially one where people had their emotions invested, leave a hole that’s difficult to fill. Could you see this coming a mile away? Yes, of course you could. The world evolved, and ear X-tacy didn’t.
This wasn’t a case of “the man shut us down.” This was a case of having a business model that refused to change in a changing economic landscape. Or, in other words, sticking with the “buggy-whip” state of mind.
The digital revolution has been difficult for certain industries, and none more than independent music stores. Competition from the big-box stores, razor-thin profit margins, and the ability of their customers to research hard-to-find items from their Web browsers (and then instantly download that material, and maybe even pay for it) are all obstacles that the stores have to overcome. How to do that is a huge question that owners have been struggling with for years.
In an “evolve or die” business landscape, ear X-tacy did not evolve, and so it died. That sounds harsh, I know, but that’s the reality we live in. A business has to provide goods or services for their customers at a price those customers are willing to pay. For a long time, ear X-tacy survived on catering to a customer base that was willing to pay more for what they could get cheaper elsewhere because of the aforementioned emotional ties, the “buy local” mindset and a staff that could steer people in the right direction. You can only depend on this, however, for so long, and the store stayed too long at that particular party.
And this was the mistake that ear X-tacy’s owner John Timmons made, and why I can’t feel particularly sorry for him — for the employees, absolutely, but not for him. This was not a new problem. Anyone with a passing interest in the music industry has seen this coming down the road for more than a decade. When the iTunes store launched, that should have been the same signal that the buggy whip manufacturers got when they saw the first Model-T roll down the street. Time to diversify. Time to find another path. Time to evolve.
ear X-tacy, however, didn’t evolve. Instead, Timmons decided that customer loyalty would see his business through for the foreseeable future, betting that cost, convenience and the emerging digital lifestyle wouldn’t stand a chance against that loyalty. Yesterday, Timmons (and Louisville) lost that bet.
When the sand started shifting, instead of steering the boat towards deeper waters, Timmons plead via local media, YouTube and other outlets for customers to buy from his store. Twice. And then a benefit concert in December, 2010. Y’know, when you need to hold a benefit concert for your for-profit business, that’s market forces telling you something.
One of the benefits for having a store like ear X-tacy was that local artists had a venue and outlet for their work. The bad business practices of the store, however, made this problematic, as well. In an article in LEO on Nov. 24, 2010, Timmons admitted that local bands didn’t always get paid on time for their CD sales, which were made on a consignment basis:
“Every day, I have to evaluate just how much cash we have to pay out to consignment sales. When times were good, we were much more timely. As business has tightened up, it comes down to paying the rent, keeping the lights on and doors open. When we have available cash, (consignment manager Sean Bailey) gets payment to the artist. I figure it’s better to be a slow-pay than a no-pay. ear X has never not paid an artist for sales. I will see to it that everyone gets paid. Major-label payments take a backseat to paying Louisville artists. Again, I’ll take full blame for the slow pay. Sean does the best job he can, given cash flow and me signing the checks.”
So, in essence, local bands (rarely an affluent sector of the society) made interest-free loans to ear X-tacy so it could keep it’s lights on. The reality that the band’s portion of the consignment sale wasn’t his to play with didn’t seem to bother Timmons. Again, another symptom of a bad business model, and a red-flag that something needed to be changed sooner than later.
The thing is, the music community is evolving, and for those willing to stay up with it, new doors open for the doors that close. Bands, thanks to the Internet, social media and other venues can now get in front of people not just locally, but nationally and globally. Record labels don’t have the stranglehold on the music industry that they once had; independent labels, and enterprising bands can forge their own ways now. And getting a record deal isn’t the only way to get your music out to the masses. Thanks to digital distribution methods, if you want it bad enough, you can get your music out there. Will there be fewer “megastars,” living the fabled rock ‘n roll lifestyle? Probably. Will there be more people making music for a living, doing what they love and finding their audience that, while not massive, is big enough. Definitely.
So, where does that leave businesses like ear X-tacy? That’s a good question. I don’t have the answer to the question. It’s something that each business has to answer for themselves, taking into account their unique strengths and weaknesses. ear X-tacy had a brand recognition second to none in this area, and a well-deserved one at that. For years, they were epicenter for local music. It was only in the past couple of years that the armor began to tarnish, and a struggling business turned into a flailing business. I can’t help but think that it wasn’t inevitable. I can’t help but think that there was an answer. We’ll never know.
When the end came, when the community-supported business that so many people invested their emotional capital into was finally, irrevocably finished, one last mistake was made. Instead of holding what could have been a wake, to give the people — who had continued to shop there long after it made economic sense to stop — some closure and a last longing good-bye, the doors were just closed on Saturday. No notice. Just closed without explanation. Alan Rhody, a singer-songwriter who was to have played that day, showed up with his bass player to a darkened, locked store. A trip from Nashville was wasted, and let’s not forget, Rhody is a small-business owner in the independent music scene, as well. Some heads-up would have been nice for him, I’m sure. He left, hoping to reschedule. That was not to be. He said he hoped it wasn’t a serious illness or something that had closed the store. Nope. Just a bad business plan — or lack of a business plan, to be more accurate.
The store’s Facebook page is filled with people reminiscing about the good times they have had over the past 27 years with ear X-tacy. The bands they’d discovered. The friends they’d made. The in-store performances by both local acts and national players. The store was more than a place of business to these people, and I would count myself among them. For a time, the store was a treat in a time in my life where it was a gateway to a bigger world. The world, however, finally caught up to ear X-tacy, and we are poorer for the loss.