Corey Smith: Label the Singer a Success on His Own Terms

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009

CHARLOTTE -- "Hi, I'm Corey," the self-made, $4 million musician says, extending his hand.

"I know!" the fan in the backward baseball cap says to Corey Smith. "Me and my friends listen to your songs all the time."

They shake and pose for an iPhone picture, and then the fan raises his Miller Lite can -- the ultimate expression of approbation among people who wear backward baseball caps.

Smith smiles, and then repeats his introductory ritual, over and over, until he's pressed flesh with every one of the roughly three dozen fans who've come to the pre-concert meet-and-greet.

It's an amusing approach, for nobody seems to know who Corey Smith is -- except for the fans who do.

While he's not exactly invisible on the national radar, he's not easy to find, either: 9:30 club executives, who make it their business to monitor rising stars, hadn't even heard of Corey Smith before his booking agent inquired about scheduling a show there last year. (Smith wound up drawing 693 people to the D.C. rock club in December -- a strong showing for a first-time headliner at the 1,200-capacity venue; he returns to the 9:30 club for another concert on Wednesday.)

Smith's ruminative, biographical, sorta-country songs -- about drinking, Dixie, God, girls and the good old days (not necessarily in that order) -- aren't played on the radio. He is never booked to perform his music on TV, and his name never shows up on any of the Billboard charts.

His life story -- small-town boy from Jefferson, Ga. (about an hour north of Atlanta), who taught high school social studies and moonlighted as a musician before deciding to become a full-time, professional singer-songwriter at age 28 -- isn't regularly recounted in the media. In fact, Smith doesn't even have a publicist.

Nor does he have a record label funding, marketing or promoting his recordings, on which Smith comes across something like a Southern-fried Jack Johnson, or maybe Dave Matthews with a country-music jones.

Smith, who turns 32 this month, has nonetheless become a star in his own, independent corner of the popular music galaxy. He's a do-it-yourselfer who is really doing it: Last year, he grossed roughly $4 million through sales of tickets, merchandise, CDs and MP3s. That figure wouldn't necessarily register in pop's big leagues -- a single, sold-out Kenny Chesney concert at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field last month accounted for $4.4 million in ticket sales, according to Billboard Boxscore.

But $4 million is a significant amount of revenue for an emerging artist whose success has been built organically, through constant touring (especially in college towns, particularly in the Southeast), viral buzz and a business philosophy that's predicated on the belief that the best way to sell an artist is to give people easy access to him and his art.

Go to, and you'll find 19 free MP3s, including some of Smith's most popular songs -- youthful reminiscences "Twenty-One," "If I Could Do It Again" and "Carolina" among them.

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