Michael Ludlam had been thinking of opening a used-record store for a couple of years, but when a storefront went up for rent at South 27th Street and Minnesota Avenue, he wasn’t sure he was quite ready to start a business.
No matter. The location was too good to pass up.
“I felt I had to jump on it when it was available,” he said.
So there he was Tuesday, inside the empty space that was recently vacated by For the Funk of It, talking about his plans for Smiling Dog Records. The building, at 2702 Minnesota Ave., is thought to be the oldest surviving building in Billings.
Ludlam’s not sure when he’ll be able to open—having a security system is his first concern, and he was meeting Tuesday with a security business rep—but he has lots of ideas for his store.
For the Funk of It moves
For the Funk of It, which recently moved out of the store now occupied by Smiling Dog Records, is owned by Tammy and Melody Fletcher and sells mostly repurposed furniture and home furnishings.
It moved a few doors south to 14 S. 27th St., into a much larger space. The Fletchers are also planning to open a coffee shop in their new location. You can follow them on Facebook.
The core of it will be used records, which he has been amassing for years. But he also plans to sell some CDs and eight-track and cassette tapes, as well as some vintage turntables, reel-to-reel machines and other stereo equipment.
He also wants to have a section of new records by local bands, which will be sold with no markup, and to host acoustic shows to promote new releases by local bands. Depending on how well the store does, he’d also consider expanding into a vacant storefront just south of his space, using it exclusively as a performance venue.
He also envisions having touring bands stop in to do pre-concert promotions or short performances at the store.
“I really like this space,” Ludlam said. “I like that the Railyard and the Pub Station are this close.” Both of those venues host lots of touring bands, making a visit to Smiling Dog Records quick and easy.
For that matter, Ludlam said, pointing up 27th Street, many of the big bands that play at the MetraPark arena stay at the Crowne Plaza, just across the railroad tracks from his store.
“I’d love to get them to wander over here,” he said.
Ludlam has been surrounded by music his whole life. He said his grandmother taught music at Yellowstone Elementary School at Mammoth, and his mother fronted a number of Billings-based country bands. Most everybody else in the family played music, too, so every family gathering was an occasion for a big jam.
Ludlam is a songwriter whose main instrument is piano, and he played bass for many cover bands over the years. He said he went through the Maytech sound engineering program and worked as a radio DJ in Spokane. He also worked as a stagehand at the old Fox Theater in downtown Billings and managed a lighting company for a time.
He had always been a record collector, he said, but got serious about it four or five years ago, after buying a high-quality vintage turntable. A couple of years after that, when he started thinking of opening a store, he really got serious. He began buying whole record collections at garage sales and estate sales and he began consciously buying records in a wide variety of genres.
“It becomes like a treasure hunt,” he said. He often doesn’t know what he’s got until he hauls collections home and finds the time to go through what he’s purchased. At the moment he has six boxes of jazz records that he hasn’t opened yet. He wouldn’t even estimate how many records he has.
“I’ve got a little bit of everything,” he said. “And if I don’t have it I can get it.”
He has a fair number of real collector’s items, including a copy of David Bowie’s debut 1967 album, unopened, still in the shrink-wrap. He’s owned it for years and doesn’t even remember where he bought it.
Ludlam said the future looks good for vinyl. More and more bands are putting their music on vinyl, and he recently read that record sales are up 52 percent since 2013.
The appeal of analog recordings is the warm sound that digital just can’t replicate. Ludlam said reel-to-reel recordings are still the best of the analog technologies, but vinyl records are nearly as warm and much easier to use.
“You pick out an album from 1959 and put it on and it still sounds amazing,” he said. “I love that.”
Details: Ludlam is still waiting to hear from the state of Montana on whether he has full rights to the Smiling Dog Records name. He’ll put up a website as soon as he hears from the state. In the meantime, you can find Smiling Dog Records on Facebook.