Saturday, November 5, 2011

Chapter Seventeen: "'Music from 'The Elder'' - The Death of Ear X-tacy."

On Tuesday, November 1, 2011, while at my day time job, my morning was brought down by a headline that Ear X-tacy, Louisville’s most recognized independent music store, had closed its doors. Forever.

Ear X-tacy has represented a lot of things to a lot of people over the years, here in Louisville and beyond. Opened in 1985 by John Timmons, the store grew as a backbone of the local music scene here, and a place to find, as with all independent music stores across the USA, the records and, eventually, the CDs, you could not get anywhere else. Ear X-tacy grew over the years, moving to five different locations in the River City (four of them in the Highlands area on Bardstown Rd), always promoting and supporting local and independent music.

 Timmons began the store as a mail order label from his apartment, then decided to expand it into a retail store, eventually taking root on Bardstown Rd, where it remained, at differing locations until November 1. Like many independent music stores, it inspired, aided and maintained several generations of fans and bands, as well as introduced diversity in the market with the types of music it stocked, or was willing to order. Some people don’t realize that before the Internet, it was difficult to obtain music that was harder to find; a store like Ear X-tacy was one of the only ways. And they provided that service well.

I had my own personal connection with the store. Somewhere around 1986, I began to get rides with my parents on Saturdays to the Highlands to purchase music and comics. Ear X-tacy, at that time, was located next to another Louisville landmark, The Great Escape. It was a much smaller incarnation, and wonderful. For me, at 13, the two were as far as I needed to really travel. I spent hours browsing both stores, looking at comics and music, eavesdropping on older, cooler, Louisvillians, discussing books, records, comics, movies and ideas I had never heard of or read. Both of those stores definitely had a high shape on my personality and life as teenager, and led me to discover things I never would have known if I had just based my opinions and artistic intake on television or mainstream magazines.

It became a weekly event. I would often get dropped off in the early afternoon, spend my time running between those two shops and the earlier incarnation of Electric Ladyland. Being too shy to engage too often with fellow patrons and/or folks working the counter, I picked up ideas and knowledge about various groups, authors, artists, or hell: ART. By 3pm or so, my parents would have tired of occupying themselves, and we would head back to the desolate lay of the land in Fern Creek, where I would plop belly-down on my bed and read my spoils while blacking out Suburbia with whatever new LPs I had purchased. It was a perfumed life of vinyl and Marvel heroes on a weekend; one I have thought often of as being so inspirational on me. Those stores meant the world to me. I was no good at the baseball I played; but I was good at reading The Incredible Hulk and Alpha Flight and air-guitaring to Def Leppard, the Cars and Ace Frehley.

And I still have most of the records I purchased from them back then.

My significant memory is becoming a fan of KISS at the age of 13 in 1986. I was on a hell-bent decision to become a completist, and collect everything they had ever recorded. The dudes at Ear X-tacy, once they realized this, encouraged me. When I understood there was a record called “Music from ‘The Elder’” that was out-of-print at the time, I knew the only place to talk to someone was Ear X-Tacy. They ordered that, and a copy of “KISS Killers” (at the time difficult to locate), on vinyl, from some unknown holder in Europe. I still have both now, being two LPs I consider treasures of my meek vinyl library. When I picked the vinyl up, whoever was working the counter commented on how awesome it was I had ordered them. “Cool. That’s great you’re into them that much and already checking this weirder stuff out.” That sentence probably ironed my will to continue seeking out my own music instead of just listening to whatever was thrown at me.

I was just there on my bi-weekly visit to purchase the latest Tom Waits CD “Bad for Me,” and randomly found a Willie Nelson album I had been searching for years for called “Phases & Changes.”

When I moved back from Lexington in 2005, Ear X-tacy was located in the center of the Highlands, and had assumed a mega-store size. Ten thousand feet of vinyl, CDs, t-shirts, merchandise…it seemed a place that could not fail. It was considered to be one of the top independent record stores in the country, and rightfully so. The store held weekly live performances from bands, both local and touring, and was open ‘til midnight on the weekends. It was a beautiful thing. And I was proud it was a part of my hometown. Ear X-tacy had grown into an institution of the local music and arts scene.  

Six years and The Digital Age can change a lot.

Timmons publicly acknowledged the store’s financial struggles in both February and November of 2010. The advent of digital downloads have taken out retail stores, both independent and corporate, all over the country, for years now. In attempts to save the business and its contributions to the scene, Timmons relocated Ear X-tacy to a smaller location, further down the road, albeit in a space that had considerably less foot traffic.

The store closed abruptly on Saturday, October 29. The official announcement was made November 1.   

I’d like to follow that introduction up with this statement: The Louisville music scene, nor its “Buy Local” mentality, ain’t fucking dead like a flapping fish on the side of some corporate boat waiting to be fried in an oil vat full of Wal-Mart.

This is an ugly situation that could turn into a beautiful one. 

The amount of “hate” comments that come out of this surprise me. So many trolls that hang onto the list of Courier-Journal articles online really spill some ignorance. And my only guess is they are residents from outside the downtown area, pouring bland bizarreness having never shopped for anything other than Top 40 on Amazon and think that those who do are hippy teenagers. Why would a record/CD/music store matter? Shouldn’t it just accept and adapt and realize that NO ONE WANTS PHYSICAL MUSIC ANYMORE, nor do they want to travel and speak to people to buy it. That becomes the main argument.

The undiluted fact is: THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO WANT IT. I’m one. I still have not become a downloadable music fan. I have downloaded one song since iTunes has existed: “Amazing Grace” by the Hee Haw gang. And that was for my grandmother’s funeral because I did not have a good copy of it when she died and my mother really wanted it in case there was not another version available at the time. Other than that, I would rather listen to things on a physical recording; but I know I’m not in the majority.

Knowing that, I also know there are a lot of folks who are interested in having a record, meaning an LP, meaning acetate in their hands that sounds warmer and real and crackles. Music that has a physical presence. Look, I understand that to a lot of people, MP3s sound great, but as someone who has listened to vinyl, eight-tracks, cassettes, mini-cassettes, CDs, MP3s, and basically every format…VINLY WINS. Don’t believe me?: come to my place and we’ll listen to some.

But none of this matters. Accessibility and convenience have won in the 21st century. It’s something that has taken me a while to digest, but the actuality is true. And I can’t deny it, either. I love finding and listening to music quickly, because I want so much of it. When the Tom Waits CD was leaked a day early on Youtube, and people were posting the songs, I forced myself NOT to listen to them. I CRAVED the tunes, but decided to wait until I purchased the album. But I’m not 100% true on this front. That being said, once I did find something I craved, a record store is where I’d go to get it.

But the idea of never having a store to walk or drive to and purchase the music scares me. And that’s where we are today. And that’s what the closing of Ear X-tacy represents. A future of mindless downloading. From digital clouds. Ick.

However, there are too many people who are willing to cast this turn of events into The End.

Yes, a mainstay of our community is gone. One that has been here for 26 years. According to many, this means the end of the Louisville music scene and the idea that Louisville no longer really focuses on the mentality that buying local is important. Bullshit.

Ear X-tacy died because of the music industry that exists now. Where once you had to go to a brick and mortar store to learn about the newest thing, or to get an idea of what was happening underground, there now exists information pouring all over the place online about bands. In no way am I saying this is better, but just the reality.   

Pick up any copy of Billboard magazine. It sucks, trust me. I’ve had to read it as part of my job. But there is nothing but reports of the ups and downs of every type of industry sales. CD, vinyl…all of it. Every marketing ploy being used by chains and independents across the world to make sense of the amoeba (no pun intended) that is the record and music retail industry is discussed. If you read that mag weekly (like I had to), it becomes pretty clear how daunting the task of keeping some of these businesses open really is. And I can just sum it up like this: The numbers suck. All sales are down. Everywhere, everything.  

Some of these issues and numbers were addressed on my pal and fellow local musician Kirk Kiefer’s blog.  The fall of Ear X-tacy sucks, but is understandable in the midst of the industry crumbling and reshaping. We’re dealing with insane shifting business models that owners of similar stores everywhere are scratching their heads at.

There are still several independent record stores left in Louisville: UndergroundSounds, Better Days, Please and Thank You, Book and Music Exchange, hell Great Escape and Electric Ladyland. We are not a collapsed community as far as buying music here is concerned.  

For me, it hits hard. This place has been a backbone to my record buying experience since my childhood, and I lament it harshly. Brick and mortar stores can represent the spine to a community, a town, a city. And is sucks it could not stay afloat. I work for Wild and Woolly, a video rental store that specializes in cult, underground, vintage and independent video, as well as the newest releases. For me, it’s one of the most precious institutions of Louisville and something I NEVER want to see die. EVER. When I first moved back here, I asked my brother immediately where it was and what I needed to do to sign up. But the digital downloads and things like bullshit Redboxes definitely cut into independent physical businesses. It’s a struggle that is happening across America.

There are naysayers that are convinced that this represents the death of local and independent businesses in Louisville, and other cities, to come. That was said a year ago with the closing of Skull Alley here, and in the 1990s when Cut Corner and the Wrocklage closed in Lexington.

But there is also an amazing groundswell of support that exists here and other places that I believe Louisville does well in its support of local music, local art, local business and local everything. There are the buggy-whip comparisons: that many of these places are done for because of a new age, new market, and that they represent a niche that is no longer needed. I definitely do not feel that way. Many people still want these things, and yeah, they need to get off their asses and show that support, but I believe in this town and others that they will still continue to exist.  The amount of local businesses that still continue to thrive with their clothing, food, film, etc., is pretty astounding. The monopolization of America, which goes back to some definite policies passed in the 1980s and 1990s, has taken a big bite out of independent business.

Finding a way to make these places stay is the challenge, but there are challenges connected to every independent business idea. And with the changes that have happened in the 21st century, new ideas will come about. I myself am not ready to just accept that to watch a good movie at home or buy a record I HAVE to download it or order it from Amazon.

Taking a negative approach and proclaiming that Louisville has failed is completely wrong, and I’ll debate that immediately. Yes, some people refuse to shop locally and only purchase online from major suppliers, ignoring the services and knowledge near them. That sucks. Others purchase independent music directly from the artists, and that’s awesome. Others make the effort to go to a store and see and talk to people, get recommendations, and are inspired by the environment contained within. Which is the magical component of these places. It makes our region, city, town, something unique. And keeps choice and diversity alive.

It still comes to the cliché: buy local. But it’s a cliché that is important. Don’t forget the other local businesses that provide you with books, food, movies, music and just plain inspiration.  Support them. You’ll miss them if they close up.

And thanks to Ear X-tacy.

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