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Surviving the Game 

The only remaining music store in NorthTown Mall doesn’t sell Taylor Swift.

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He compliments their hair, their coats, their kicks, their caps. He gets them to smile, make eye contact. Acknowledge. Then he asks what kind of music they like. Regardless of the answer, he has something he thinks they’d like to listen to. “All right, let me show you something real quick.”

Genesis Veronon’s hustle would be at home on the street corners of most American cities, where artists, hungry for a break, step away from Facebook and ReverbNation to peddle their albums and mixtapes person-to-person in front of bodegas and at public markets.

Veronon isn’t a street corner hustler, though.

The 36-year-old owns a record store (a kiosk, really) in NorthTown Mall. His Insyders Entertainment moved 7,000 units in 2010. Veronon doesn’t carry platinum sellers — no Taylor Swift, no Eminem — so his sales aren’t driven by name recognition. It’s all independent artists and labels, with an emphasis on local talent.

Looking at the mall directory, there are some big names missing. Sam Goody is long gone. FYE too. SunCoast is in the process of closing.

Those bastions of the Compact Disc age have fled NorthTown, just as they have left malls across America.

Insyders Entertainment is literally the last music store standing.

Jenee Halstead is big in the Netherlands, and she’s getting noticed in the UK. The Spokane native and current Bostonian has toured and networked for the better part of a decade since graduating from Gonzaga in 1998, grinding her way to niche followings nearly everywhere that has a yen for roots and Americana music. And yet her music sells especially well in Spokane.

Halstead’s fan base is spread over thousands of miles, and when she talks about who buys her albums, she talks in terms of broad geographic areas and huge online stores. Halstead says the European market, where her 2008 album The River Grace recently gained a distribution deal, sells more than anywhere else, especially within the Netherlands, where she toured last April to exuberant audiences.

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Halstead says the third-most successful outlet for her music is iTunes, where people can easily pick and choose single tracks from the album to buy. Further down, but still high-selling, is her adopted home of Boston.

Below Europe but above iTunes, she says, “Genesis’ kiosk is probably second in line.”

Halstead is only one artist, but it’s telling that Veronon’s shop is better at selling her work than the Internet — and second only to an entire continent.

As for a reason, Halstead can only speculate: “Why am I doing so well in the Netherlands? And in Spokane and in Boston? I don’t know, other than that there are people [in those places] who are pushing for me.”

Lately, there’s a good chance that, when someone pushes Halstead’s music, it’s Aaron Manuel Beltran. He isn’t an employee of Insyders — he’s a rapper from Houston who spits under the moniker Preemo.

He’s been hanging out at Insyders, though, for the last two months — moving up here with little more than a book bag full of clothes and CDs.

It’s not a permanent move. He’ll be back in Texas to play South by Southwest in early March. But he wants to push his latest record, Concrete Dreams, on the West Coast.

Preemo is in Spokane because, even compared to Houston — where he was the subject of a massive profile in Houston Press and where Concrete Dreams was put on top ten lists above Scarface and Devin the Dude — he sells best at NorthTown.

Compared with L.A., too, where he’s recently been getting blog buzz (including from the Los Angeles Times’ Jeff Weiss), and with the Internet, where About.com just named him a rapper to watch for 2011. Insyders Entertainment sells more Preemo.

Preemo first met Veronon in ’97 after moving here with his then-wife while she was stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base. He and Veronon have remained close. Today he’s sleeping on Veronon’s couch and, in addition to slinging his own record at the kiosk (he’s sold 300 copies since Thanksgiving), he’s bought into the whole concept.

He says there’s nothing like “seeing the expression on people’s faces change from, ‘Why are you wasting my time?’ to ‘How much does this cost?’” When Preemo approaches shoppers and asks them what kind of music they listen to, if they say rap, he’ll cue up Concrete Dreams. If they say folk, he’ll put on The River Grace.

He doesn’t get a cut of Halstead’s sales, but he believes in her work the way that Veronon believes in his. “This girl is an incredible artist,” he tells me.

More importantly, “I believe in the business model,” he says, of making connections first before making sales.

When chatting up mallgoers, Veronon is fond of says things like: “We’re the only kiosk in the world selling only independent artists.”

With more than 47,000 malls and strip malls in America (by Veronon’s count), that’s probably an unprovable statement (though he says he’s done research).

It’s clear, though, that what’s happening here is unique.

Halstead cites conventional wisdom that indie artists feel the need to sell on the Internet, but “unless you’re a staff pick, CD Baby is just another place you sell. [Insyders] is special.”

Veronon believes that if there was a place like Insyders in every big town in America, independent artists would be able to make a bigger impact regionally than they can on the Internet.

In the hour we talk, Veronon speaks to more than 20 people. It’s high-energy work. Veronon says Insyders’ sales dropped in 2010 (to $80,000, down from $100,000) “after losing my best salesman.”

The model is intensely personal, and for it to work, the person selling has to love the music almost as much as the artist himself.

It’s a hustle, after all. “We don’t get carny here,” Veronon says, “but dog, I’m on it.”

Insyders Entertainment • 4750 N. Division (in NorthTown Mall) • Open daily, 10 am-9 pm • 484-2228

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