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Steve and Rocky Roy

The Day the Music Shack Died

By David King
photos by john whipple

After nearly 40 years of business, one of the Capital Region’s most-loved independent record stores folds under the weight of changes in the music industry


I 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.

“Are 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?

“It’s 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, 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.

“There 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.”

“I 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.

“I’ve 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.

Metroland’s 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.”

Roy 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 music retailers.

“If 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.”

“I 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 fall apart.

“We 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 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 in frustration.

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.

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