It started with an unlikely partnership and an untested vision. When former petroleum engineer Barry Smith and community radio station impresario Jerry Brock joined forces 10 years ago to open Louisiana Music Factory, a retail record store focusing on Louisiana music, even their friends raised eyebrows over the new venture.
"We started with a very small private loan," remembers Smith, "and people close to us were skeptical that there wasn't enough business to go around, with Tower Records and the other established stores in the area."
A decade later, Louisiana Music Factory (210 Decatur St., 586-1094) now stands as one of the most respected independent record stores in the country, and a vital hub for the New Orleans and Louisiana music community. It stocks an unparalleled inventory of CDs and vinyl featuring indigenous music and local artists. Its Saturday afternoon live music in-store performances are a French Quarter mainstay. And that tradition hits new heights during the French Quarter Festival and Jazz Fest, when Louisiana Music Factory boasts a packed live performance schedule that helps turn the store into a mecca for music-hungry visitors.
To celebrate the store's 10th anniversary, a full lineup of stellar local talent is playing at Louisiana Music Factory this Saturday, Feb. 23. John Sinclair performs at 1 p.m.; Treme Brass Band hits at 2 p.m.; Anders Osborne takes the stage at 3 p.m.; Kermit Ruffins cooks at 4 p.m.; and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown caps the festivities with a set beginning at 5 p.m. If the event is anything like the store's joyous fifth anniversary celebration -- marked by an intimate, exuberant performance by Dave Bartholomew -- it'll be a day to remember. There will be one small change for the celebration, however; because of the anticipated crowd, Louisiana Music Factory won't be able to offer its standard complimentary Abita beer during the live music; instead Old Toons bar across the street has agreed to sell $1 Abita drafts. Smith never imagined having to make exceptions for overflow crowds in Louisiana Music Factory's infancy.
"It's beyond what I ever imagined," he says. "We spent a lot more time and money than originally expected getting the original store (located at 225 N. Peters St.) ready, and by the time we got through those expenses, we didn't have a lot to invest in inventory."
Louisiana Music Factory's early stock consisted only of two long CD bins -- with the CDs spread out as much as possible to make the bins appear full. As a fledgling enterprise, it faced the challenges of being a small, unproven business. "It was definitely a process of getting people to take you seriously," says Smith. "We were brand new, and for the initial orders, everybody wanted money up front, and all orders were C.O.D. It took a few months for people to even put us on their credit line. And it took several years before we started getting respect from record labels, as far as giving us advertising and promotional materials."
What the store lacked in established contacts, its owners made up for in knowledge, passion and determination. Louisiana music expert Brock was the co-founder of 90.7 WWOZ radio, and after leaving his petroleum engineer position, Smith worked for Tipitina's former booking agency and earned his master's degree in business from Loyola University. (Brock and Smith met while both were working at former retailer Record Ron's shop.) Their dedication paid off with steady growth and the encouragement of early supporters like Danny Barker, and led to the store's relocation to a much larger space in 1997. Musicians took note of Louisiana Music Factory's growing role in the music community, and now local artists frequently call Smith to play in-store performances.
"I'm flattered by the number of people who've played the store," he says. "The level of talent and names is pretty amazing, and it's hard to narrow down some of the incredible shows that we've had. It's always great to have Snooks (Eaglin) and Gatemouth, especially when they're doing the intimate solo sets that you wouldn't see when they play the clubs. The Wild Magnolias in full Mardi Gras Indian suits in the store was great. The Radiators played last year, too."
The store's reputation has also sparked visits from national musicians eager to sample local sounds. "Little Jimmy Scott came through last year, and that was quite an honor," says Smith. "David Byrne always comes in while he's in town, and Robert Plant and Jimmy Page have come in a couple of times -- once because they heard Snooks was playing."
Smith is now the sole owner of Louisiana Music Factory -- Grammy-award winning producer Brock left last year to pursue other opportunities -- and he looks forward to the challenges and rewards of the store's second decade. "I'd love to see the store keep growing," he says. "I plan on stocking an even bigger and deeper collection of R&B, jazz and soul."
- Louisiana Music Factory owner Barry Smith (left) with legendary jazz singer Jimmy Scott.