Ben Jones still sells plenty of CDs at the Better Days Records in Lyles Mall at 26th and Broadway, but what he’s really selling is an expertise in R&B, soul, jazz, and hip-hop.
Walk in the store and you’ll see aisles and aisles of CDs for sale. This is where you can find Ben or one of his long-time employees and ask any question about music, and they’ll likely know the answer.
“I wanted to have a music store for music lovers, not necessarily for the pop culture, what’s happening now,” he says. “I knew back then to have a niche market, from day one, not try to compete with the world. Just compete with myself in helping people understand the luxury of having music in their lives.”
Jones knew early on that music would be at the center of his life. He and some friends started a record store near the Western Kentucky University campus while he was a student. When he graduated and moved to Louisville, he opened Better Days Records in 1982 in the Highlands.
Those were more prosperous times for record stores, and by 1995 Jones opened his West End location. Meanwhile, the buying public had moved from albums to cassettes to CDs, but as the 2000s progressed, more and more music was being sold online. Stores across America struggled, and even Louisville’s largest independent store, Ear X-tacy, closed in 2011.
Jones said he has “roughed the storm.”
“Once people discovered that my store in itself was an urban culture store and could compete, then my average age group of music lovers turned out to be 30-75,” he says. “They didn’t want to search, dig in the crates – they wanted to ask a knowledgeable staff member if they were looking for something in the urban world. Let’s go to someone who lived it, who has grown up with Al Green, from Jimmy Reed to James Brown.”
Going on four decades in the music business, Jones can answer those questions and more. He still operates a store in the Highlands, where the clientele is looking for more eclectic music and is more likely to buy vinyl albums. A musician himself, Jones plays keyboard and drums, primarily in church.
“The secret is that music lovers go after music lovers,” he said. “The niche market, by being a businessman, I’ll take the 1 or 2 or 3 percent of this massive industry. I’m not looking for all of it. I can share the wealth with everybody. I’m looking for that small percentage.
“People ask me about the Internet, I’m not interested. That’s another business.”
He says Better Days is among the largest urban record stores in the United States, and while the aisles at his West End store are packed with CDs from artists like Marvin Gaye, Steve Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire, Jones said a lot of new rap music includes samples from older songs.
“Kids want to find out where that original song came from on the new rap record. They come to me and I say, ‘Oh that’s actually a James Brown sample, or even a Marvin Gaye, the O’Jays.’ They want to find out where the original music came from.”
Jones acknowledges that his two stores serve distinctly different markets, and he’s found success in both by focusing on his different customers’ love of music.
“Part of the success is understanding, being a black man in the industry, two different cultures, and not making a bad thing out of it,” he says. “Make it a great thing, and provide Louisville with two great markets.”