For the Record

“In the heat of a summer night
In the land of the dollar bill
When the town of Chicago died
And they talk about it still”

These lyrics from “The Night Chicago Died” still spin ‘round and ‘round in Joe Smith’s head just like the 45 he bought in 1974 for $1. He saw Paper Lace perform on American Bandstand and went wild with excitement. The next day his mom took him to a little shop in Mount Carmel, Ill. He bought the 45 with his allowance money and spun it unmercifully.

Smith first discovered his love for music at home. “My folks always were spinning records in the house, so my sister and I were exposed to quite a bit of music at a young age. It’s always been the driving force in my life,” says Smith.

As a teenager from Mount Carmel, Smith remembers going to the “big city” of Evansville to buy albums. His love for all things music led him to open his first Joe’s Records store in 2004 on Evansville’s West Side. In Mount Vernon, Ill., a fourth store opens in late April or early May 2010, a year in which experts predict 1 billion songs will be downloaded.

So how does a store selling vinyl records — and other assorted music-centric goods including posters and clothing — continue to thrive in the age of digital downloads? One reason, according to Smith, is that there are far too few actual stores in which to buy music. His team hopes to, at least on a regional level, remedy that situation.

In the last several years, vinyl sales have gone up. Nielsen SoundScan, a marketing and media information company, recorded a nationwide increase in vinyl sales in 2009. Good news for specialty shops like Joe’s Records: Smith reports a 1,500 percent increase in vinyl sales at his stores.

Smith, who describes himself as a “hard rock/heavy metal/classic rock kind of guy,” believes that record stores like his still have a niche and can make money. He admits that the market never will be what it once was but knows that there are avid customers who want to buy hard goods.

One problem that threatens stores like Smith’s is what he calls “media lowballers.” He believes that Internet retailers such as Amazon and big box stores such as Best Buy and Target hurt his business more than downloading. His solution: Expand to smaller markets where there is less competition. In his third location of Corydon, Ind., he’s finding people who are starved for music-buying culture. “We’re finding in the Corydon market that lots of people who used to buy a lot of music are rediscovering the music-buying culture. They just need a place to do it,” says Smith.

While old-school stores like Joe’s Records have made a resurgence across the country in recent years, music downloads have drastically altered the recording industry in the last decade. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), sales of full-length CDs have dropped from 83.2 percent (of all music sales) in 1999 to 77.8 percent in 2008, while digital downloads have increased 12.8 percent since 2001 (the first year of recorded research for digital downloads).

Though Joe’s Records carries vinyl albums (and plenty of them), Smith emphasizes that his store is a media and lifestyles store. His stores also offer posters, T-shirts, movies, stickers, and video games. Joe’s Records also runs a successful special order business and has a robust eBay presence. “Being an independent store, we can choose to do business with as many vendors as we like,” says Smith. “This gives us a distinct advantage as far as availability.”

Joe’s Records caters to a clientele as vast as the albums in the store. “It would take several hundred volumes to encompass the literally thousands of freaks, weirdos, maniacs, fanatics, and passionate dunderheads who make up our regular customer base,” Smith says. “The one thing they all have in common: We truly love each and every one of them. If you don’t have a base, you’re closed.”

And Smith knows this because he works in his stores on a daily basis. As of late, he has been spending most of his time in the new Corydon location, which opened last October. Smith also credits his wife, Jennifer, with much of his store’s success. “She’s amazing and quite frankly, without her in the mix, it wouldn’t mean anything to me,” says Smith. “My family is by far the most important facet of my life. Everything else is just window dressings.”

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