have heard the rumor for months, but I don’t want to believe
it: “Music Shack is closing.” Usually, I stop at Music
Shack about once a week, but I’ve been putting off my
visits, unable to bring myself to find out for sure if
the rumor is true. Instead, I whine to friends. Some tell
me it is nonsense. Others tell me to “get a grip.” Still
others mock me, as usual, for actually buying CDs. “Why
do you waste money on that? Just download it.”
But it’s eating away at me, and finally, on a sunny April
afternoon, I decide I had better face facts. Once I arrive
at the store, however, I can’t bring myself to ask straight
out, at least not right away. Like a guilty dog, I slink
away from the counter and toward the racks of CDs.
I peruse the new-release rack, dance by the pop-rock section
and skip my fingers across the industrial and metal, and
then finally dig in around the vinyl section. The routine
isn’t the same as it had been when I first got into the
Music Shack habit: I’m not stepping across the creaky
wood flooring of the store’s old location in Albany. I
haven’t had to beg my mother for a ride there like I did
as a teen. I’m not getting the CD of a band I had heard
at QE2, and I haven’t done yardwork to pay for it. I’m
not skipping college classes to be here. And, thankfully,
I’m no longer using the store’s metal-industrial T-shirt
rack as the exclusive source of my wardrobe. Nonetheless,
it still feels like the treat it always had been.
And then I hear it. “There is a study that says CDs will
be phased out completely by 2010,” owner Rocky Roy explains
to a regular customer whose face is turning an assortment
of unnatural shades of red. Shaken, I grab some moody
rock records (Neurosis and Interpol) in preparation for
a sulkfest, and head to the counter.
you all set?” Faced by a store clerk, I try to mask my
worry. “Do you have the new Zombi record?” I ask. “Z-O-M-B-I,
no E.” In typical Music Shack form, the clerk immediately
gets that I’m not looking for a Rob Zombie CD. She finds
the one I want, orders it on the computer, and calls over
her boss to OK the order.
Now Roy is in front of me, and I can’t hold back any longer.
“Are the rumors true?” I blurt out. Roy looks at me with
water in his eyes. “Yeah, I’m afraid so,” he says. “I
was just telling that guy over there, and it was almost
like I had told him his mother had died. I nearly had
him in tears.”
The question comes to me: Who killed Music Shack?
been a mixture of sadness and anger,” continues Roy. “Some
people have gotten really angry with me for closing, and
I understand that.” I’m not angry at Roy. I know who to
blame for the store’s impending closure. The answer pops
into my head almost as soon as I ask myself the question.
I killed Music Shack—and you prob-ably did too.
But we didn’t do it unaided. We had lots of help from
the Internet and corporate America.
According to Roy, it wasn’t just one thing. It wasn’t
just Napster, or SoulSeek, or Amazon.com, or Best Buy
or Wal-Mart. It wasn’t the price of CDs, the location
of the store, iPods, or the lack of true music fans as
opposed to Top 40 buyers. It was all of them combined.
And it isn’t just Music Shack that is suffering for it.
Mr. Bill’s CDs in Latham closed on May 1, Borders Books
and Music has drastically reduced its CD sections, and
larger CD chains around the country are seeing reduced
profits and having to close stores. “Over the last two
months,” says Roy, “I have heard at least one record store
per week in Chicago, Boston, L.A. and New York, stores
that have been around for 20 to 40 years, are closing
down. So it’s not exclusive to this area.”
However, hearing that Music Shack—a store that has existed
in Troy and Albany for nearly 40 years, that fed DJs,
that broke new styles of music, that has long been a fixture
in the Capital Region—is coming to an end has made many
of its patrons realize just how much things in the music
industry have changed.
will never be anything like Music Shack again,” says Dan
Neet, lead singer of the Clay People and onetime Music
Shack employee. “There was more under the Shack umbrella
than just a couple guys ordering music. There was a team
of people who were into different styles of sound from
hiphop, trance, punk, industrial, and those people helped
stock the store.”
Roy says some customers have expressed serious interest
in buying the store. But the music business is not something
Roy would wish on many people. “If someone walked in who
had just won the lottery, I would say sure, and hand them
my keys,” he says. “But someone who works hard for their
money. . . . There is just no future in this business.”
got to admit it has been getting a lot tougher. The walk-in
clientele is not as good as it has been,” says Kim 13
of Albany record shop Last Vestige. She notes that the
store’s Internet presence has helped keep things steady.
However, she says that sales of vinyl, the format that
launched Last Vestige, are as strong as ever. In fact,
she says the store has been actively increasing its vinyl
stock to keep up with the decline in CD sales. “It started
as a record store and it may wind up as a record store,”
says Kim. “If we lose CDs, we may not have as many employees,
but it won’t crush the business.” But Music Shack and
Last Vestige have different focuses, with Vestige aiming
more at the collector and Music Shack focusing on a wider
swath of music buyers.
Roy says it’s not my fault. I didn’t kill his store. “Serious
music buyers are not killing the music business,” he insists.
“That’s a distinction that has to be made here. Over the
last five years I’ve been in discussions with regular
customers over the Napster thing. They say, ‘Yeah, I still
buy music.’ I tell them, ‘You are still a serious music
buyer.’ Unfortunately, those serious music buyers are
maybe 20 percent to 25 percent, at most, of the market.
The mass market [buyers] are not serious. They will cop
it for free, they don’t know the lyrics, they don’t care
who is involved in the project. They are the ones, if
they are tapping their toe today, that is all that matters.”
He says, “With the big ‘free’ sign over the music industry,
people were just running through the door, except for
the collectors—they aren’t the problem. They download,
but they are in here buying stuff, too. The packaging,
the lyrics, the information, it actually means something
to them.” Rocky is letting me off the hook. He might be
ready to absolve me, but I’m not.
For every music collector, record collector, appreciator
of album covers and lover of lyric sheets, there is a
careless bandit, an unemotional music drone, the one who
downloads music willy-nilly, regardless of taste, ignoring
the band’s history or influences, oblivious to the group’s
importance and pedigree or lack thereof. These buyers
are the ones who are giving Memorex, Dynex and Verbatim
a boost in the piggy bank. They are the ones you see scooping
the jumbo CD carrying cases off the shelves at Wal-Mart
to fill with ugly, scribbled-on discs. They are the people
who don’t recognize the album covers or know the track
names of their favorite bands.
Kim says it’s hard to imagine that no one will care about
the packaging of music if distribution goes completely
digital. She says it’s hard to imagine music being stripped
down to files, void of art and any sort of physical presentation
without anyone caring, “That seems really cold to me,”
she says. But it is those people, the book fillers, the
Sharpie-marker album-title writers, the digital “music
collection” hoarders, the no-taste havers, who tell me
that eventually things will get to that point. Roy says
that as the technology of digital distribution gets better,
he expects the digital album files to be accompanied by
thorough packaging notes, including lyrics and album covers.
He worries that as these things get better, more people
will be drawn to downloading. “There are people who love
going through the ceremony of appreciating the whole CD,
checking out the liner notes,” says Neet. “But it is coming
to an end.”
As ugly as bootlegging or downloading might be, I haven’t
been able to resist its call. I hear about a new album
that is going to be released and I want it yesterday,
not in three months. I burn CDs. Yes, I generally go and
buy the ones I like, but a lot of music that I would have
tried out by buying, I download instead.
Roy says that he wasn’t sure for a while how things like
Napster would affect his business. Although he says there
was an immediate decline in sales, he thought perhaps
things would work out. “As soon as they started suing
people, business went back up,” he asserts. However, Roy
notes that lawsuits against music pirates have not been
as publicized as they were in the past, and now the music
industry seems to be embracing digital distribution. Roy
says it quickly became clear to him that the floodgates
were permanently open. “I thought if people are bootlegging
copies of Windows XP, if Microsoft can’t protect itself
from piracy, how can the music industry do it?”
A 2004 article in Wired titled “Re cord Stores:
We’re Fine, Thanks” reported how some independent record-store
owners felt that downloading was creating a buzz around
artists, driving people into stores and “helping their
bottom lines.” Paul Epstein, an owner of Twist & Shout,
a record store in Arizona, was quoted as saying, “File
sharing is a danger, but it really turns a lot of kids
on to music.” That buzz created by Internet downloads
may exist in other places, but Roy says there is simply
something different about Albany.
noticed the mix of people around here . . .” he begins.
“And I don’t mean this in a demeaning way, although it
could be interpreted as such. There are a lot of drones
here. We have a state workforce that is drone city. The
college students, they go to what I refer to as drone
manufacturing plants: the state campus and RPI. They want
to be the next big cog in the wheel.” Roy says that while
Albany has a base of creative people, there aren’t enough
of them to sustain a successful indie-music scene.
Then there is that whole readers’ poll thing. The one
where the readers of Metroland voted FYE, a major
mall chain, as best music store in the area. The poll
where Music Shack didn’t even make the top three.
Even if people are discovering new music by downloading
it and then going out to buy it, that does not necessarily
mean Music Shack is the store that is benefiting.
Roy insists that generations of kids have overlooked Music
Shack because the college kids who come up from Long Island
and New York are so used to shopping in malls they don’t
know how to break out of the box; they aren’t sure what
the function of an independent record store is.
Jan 1, 2004, article “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” about Music
Shack’s move from downtown Albany to Colonie, ended thusly:
“But don’t think that means they’ll have to push the new
Britney album in Colonie. ‘I refuse,’ Roy said. ‘If it
gets to that point I’m out of the business!’”
According to Roy, he and his brother Steve have not sold
out during their time in Colonie. They haven’t had to
pander to the lowest common denominator, although he says
he did some things he wouldn’t try again, like doing a
radio promotion for a Godsmack album.
Roy says that while the move to Colonie lost him about
20 percent of his business, if that business were still
there it would only have delayed the inevitable.
If moving had drawbacks, it took the owners away from
the indignity of having customers who purchased CDs returning
within hours for a refund, because “the shop down the
street was selling copies for two or three dollars and
they didn’t care if it was bootleg or not.” However, Roy
notes, since the store’s move into the suburbs, shoplifting
has greatly increased.
So while music is being distributed for free among friends
with CD burners or sold bootleg on the streets, corporations
are using CDs as carrot sticks to lure customers in, knowing
once they are there they will be enticed by high-ticket
items or other paraphernalia. “Best Buy uses its own CD
department as a loss leader,” says Roy. “They sell at
or below cost.” Companies like Best Buy use CDs to draw
customers in and get them to walk by plasma-screen TVs
and surround-sound systems.
I’m not blaming anyone here. As I’ve said, I’m just as
guilty as the next guy. I bought that Bloc Party CD for
$7.99 at Best Buy. It’s hard to resist $10-or-less CDs
from indie bands who really have no business being in
Best Buy. “We had places like Best Buy come in, and unfortunately
they skimmed away the cream,” Roy says. “We would like
to survive on independent music, the ‘good music,’ but
we need all of it, so we took a hit in that direction.”
says the thing that hurts him the most about seeing bands
like Cat Power being sold in Best Buy way below prices
he could offer, is that he feels he helped a lot of bands
like that get there. “We promote bands we like in our
store. We say, ‘Hey, you should check this out!,’ and
people do, and after a while those bands get a lot of
scans through SoundScan and they go to the major chains
and say, ‘Hey, look at all the scans we have.’”
Over in Massachusetts, the Boston-based music-store chain
Newbury Comics seems to be thriving. However, as Roy points
out, they also sell action figures, comic books, DVDs
and other merchandise. Roy says that on a recent conference
call among Northeastern independent music stores and a
label, the label inquired about sales. “Everyone almost
responded in unison: ‘Dismal,’ except for Newbury Comics.
I don’t even consider them an independent anymore.” He
notes that at least one Newbury Comics location has closed
within the last year. With 25 stores in four different
states, it is hard to consider them independent. But their
business strategy may be the future for a number of independent
you’re not dependent exclusively on profits from music
and you have action figures, candy and stuff, you can
survive,” Roy sayss. “I’ve had a lot of vendors in trying
to talk me into selling everything from candy to pornography.
I’m like, ‘Listen, I want to sell music! That’s all I
want to sell. I’m not gonna be the local smut dealer.
I’d rather get out of the business.’ That’s the state
the business is in.”
Roy notes that chains like Coconuts now have softcore
porn sections. “FYE has been reinventing itself. It has
a burning station. It has yet to become clear if it will
be profitable. In the meantime, they are selling Xboxes.
. . . They aren’t relying on music.”
could keep you all day,” Roy laughs as he looks around
the store. There is one more thing he wants to tell me,
though, about the ties his father forged in the record
industry and how he has recently watched some of them
have been doing business direct with all the major labels
over the past 36 years, rather than going to a secondary
distributor. We had a good working relationship for all
those years since my father got us open, and then Sony
BMG decided it is no longer going to sell to record stores
direct anymore.” Roy says that although Sony BMG does
not provide them with all of their important CDs, it has
made getting things on time a bit difficult. He explains
that because of the secondary distributor, the store has
had to delay getting other orders to make sure it receives
the new Tool album on Tuesday, which Roy says the store
absolutely has to have in stock.
Roy says that there will not be a huge going-out-of-business
sale, that financially it makes more sense for the proprietors
to sell their stock on Amazon.com after quietly closing
in June. Roy says he probably will move with his wife
to San Diego, where he is unsure what is in store for
him. “I have no idea what I want to do,” he sighs. “I’ve
been doing this for 27 years. We’ve been open for 36.
After doing this for 27 of those years it is hard to really
think in terms of what else I could do. I’m not a corporate-type
person. It would be hard to imagine me putting on a suit
and tie. . . . Anyone can wear a costume,” he chuckles
I thank him and leave, feeling as though perhaps it is
not all my fault, that there is nothing I could have done.
I think about how I will be back on Tuesday to pick up
the new Tool CD. I buckle up and turn the ignition key,
and the stuttering chords of the second track on the new,
unreleased Tool album rip through my car speakers. I fumble
with the controls, trying to silence the music that is
trumpeting my guilt, my culpability, to the world.