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Closing The Colony: A Visit To Times Square's Shuttering Sheet Music Outpost

Closing The Colony: A Visit To Times Square's Shuttering Sheet Music Outpost
M.V. Jantzen/Flickr

In some ways, the Friday before last looked like business as usual at Colony Records, the venerable Theater District music-and-sheet-music retailer that recently announced its impending closing after 64 years of operation. At the counter, Warren Tesoro, an employee for 25 years, asked a middle-aged woman if she knew that the CD of Porgy and Bess she's buying is the karaoke version. (She did.) In the sheet music section, the largest in the country, a young Brooklyn-looking couple sight-sang a few lines of "The Ballad of John Henry"—the 19th century work-song about the humanity's futile struggle against technology—from a folk song collection before adding it to their stack. A few aisles away, Damian Wille, a musical theater student visiting from Appleton, Wisconsin, stocked up on vocal scores from recent Broadway shows: Shrek, Catch Me If You Can, Billy Elliot. At home, this music is "not easily" available: "I even looked for Shrek online, and I couldn't find it ... It sucks that it's closing."

Wille isn't the only one who thinks so. The day before, an employee of Academy Records—a vinyl-and-CD survivor with Manhattan and Brooklyn branches—had tipped the bad news to the blog Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, which confirmed it with the store's owners. Within 24 hours, the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Post had printed or posted news items about the closure. By afternoon, the word was literally on the street: even a woman collecting for homeless families on the sidewalk outside the store interrupted her spiel to say, "It's closing in three weeks." (Reports of the actual last day have varied.) Inside, co-proprietor Richard Turk fielded questions from a video crew and condolences from visitors like fellow retail vet Leon Geary, a dapper septuagenarian who worked at the Sam Goody chain's long-shuttered flagship store on 49th Street "from 1957 to 1981." Ken Jacowitz, a former Strand employee who comes in regularly to check out the store's collection of Beatles memorabilia, said, "I never really thought about leaving New York until I read about this today."

They were mourning more than an individual store: Colony—officially "Colony Record and Radio Center"—is one of the last and most visible links to midtown Manhattan's decade-spanning dominance of the American popular music industry. Originally located at 52nd and Broadway, the store was founded by Sidney Turk and Harold "Nappy" Grossbardt, the fathers of the current owners, in 1948. In John Broven's Record Makers and Breakers, interviewee Modern Recordings co-founder Joe Bihari says, "There were a lot of records sold on Broadway. In the Times Square area, it seemed like there were record stores, one right after another: Colony Records and the jazz stores." The surrounding blocks were also home to numerous labels, agents, and promoters. According to Ken Emerson's Magic All the Time, the Brill Building already housed ninety music publishers in 1958, several years before its name became associated with the girl-group hits penned or produced by Phil Spector, Jerry Goffin and Carole King, and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. (Actually, many of the younger crew worked out of the nearby but less iconic 1650 Broadway.)

Even before moving to its current location in the Brill Building in the early 1970s, Colony's location made it an insider hangout, an industry player, and a testing ground for new releases. Benny Goodman was an early customer, and when his brothers Gene and Harry went into publishing as Regent Music, they would make direct sales of songs like Lionel Hampton's "Flying Home" to Colony—and Sam Ash and Manny's—and by walking them over from their Brill Building office, according to Broven. The editors of Cash Box, a rock-and-roll era challenger to Billboard, traded the store a subscription for a weekly conversation about what and wasn't selling. At the newer location, says Richard Turk, the store had "a counter of open turntables... and we'd have 45s and albums blasting away. People would come in and ask for whatever song, and we'd play them that and then we'd try to play them 10 other songs we think they'd like."

A more established Broadway crowd also frequented the store, thanks in part to its 2 a.m. closing time. "When Golden Boy [a 1964 musical starring Sammy Davis Jr.] was at the Winter Garden, Sammy would be in every night, bringing somebody in to listen to something he was working on," says Turk. "He was a staple at Colony. The Rat Pack all were, because they were at Gilly's, which was at 52nd and 8th." This may explain the prominent placement of the store's oddest showbiz collectable: a never-opened seasoning envelope for "Sammy's 'Just Right' Chili."

 

More than its celebrity clientele and record business connections, Colony's continued emphasis on printed music is what makes it unique. Most musical instrument stores sell some sheet music, and New York still has other dedicated retailers, though most focus on classical scores. The breadth and depth of Colony's stock is something else again, as the titles in the Broadway display window indicate: Three Chord Songs for Accordion, The Blossom Dearie Songbook, album folios by Florence & the Machine and Black Label Society, Fingerpicking Delights in Open Tunings, Bohdran: Beyond the Basics. Three single-song sheets from 1920s editions of the Ziegfeld Follies hint at the thousands of vintage items in the racks.

This is also what ties the store to one of New York's most important roles in the commercialization of popular music. Most of us now think of sheet music, if at all, as something ancillary to "music" itself—that is, recordings—but before the advent of the gramophone (and the player piano), the use of notation was the only means by which music, classical or otherwise, could be preserved, mechanically reproduced, and disseminated; that is, sold. The first important engravers (as music printers were often called) to specialize in popular song set up shop in New York in the 1880s and 1990s. Originally centered around Union Square, what came to be known as "Tin Pan Alley"—always a state of mind, more than an address—followed the theater district uptown by stages. (If Tin Pan Alley has a physical location today, it's Nashville—or Stockholm.)

In the wake of Charles K. Harris's "After the Ball," the first million-selling song-sheet, New York publishers—far more than performers—drove the direction of popular music, much as record labels would later. Aggressive "song-plugging" depended on convincing, or simply bribing, popular vaudevillians to add a just-published number to their act, but the money for songwriters and publishers came from selling the music itself—star performances were essentially advertisements for the commercially printed version, marketed for the home and amateur player. Sheet music's primacy as a measure of a song's popularity and profitability began to decline in the 1930s, with the combined rise of radio and records. In 1958, a Variety columnist reluctantly admitted that "the publishing phase of the music business is now primarily an appendage to the disk, the all-powerful boss of the music biz." Though all the early rock and roll hits were published, the fact that many of the songs originated outside of New York may have upset the old guard more than anything Elvis did on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Despite its diminished importance, sheet music has never entirely disappeared, partly because of its educational and professional utility. Some genres are still unthinkable without it: most of us can't really learn Sondheim by ear. And even today, nearly every pop, country, or R&B chart hit, especially one by an artist associated with one of the still-extant major publishers, is also issued in printed form. (Can you score a score of "Call Me Maybe" at Colony? Definitely.) Most such arrangements are after-the-fact transcriptions-for-hire made with little input from the writer or recording artist. But a few pop musicians cater to fans who want to play their songs as well as hear them. The printed editions of The Dresden Dolls' albums are semi-personalized, with Amanda Palmer's copious handwritten notes on interpretation in the margins of the professionally prepared scores. And Beck's upcoming Song Reader is a twenty-song, sheet-music-only "album," to be released through McSweeney's, without accompanying sound recordings. (This is less quixotic than it seems: recall that Beck's dad is a studio orchestral arranger, whom you can bet notated the string parts on Sea Change.)

Song Reader is not a physical book but a tablet app, and that's the rub for a brick-and-mortar holdout like Colony. Warren Tesuro, who has seen the store outlive HMV, Tower Records, and the Virgin Megastore, says that he saw the record side of the business begin to dry up "when the internet got more advanced, when people got away from the dialup and got cable modems." The extent to which sales—and other acquisitions—of recorded music have moved online is by now a familiar story, but the same is increasingly true of sheet music. "You'll be able to print it at home, it looks like that's the way it's going," says Tesuro, but "you won't be able to peruse it, or see a book or a cover or other songs... It looks like people won't be coming out of their houses." A great deal of public domain music in library collections is now available in facsimile online, while many songs under copyright—from "The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin' Along" to "Single Ladies"—are already available as legally licensed, pay-per-download files from services like Sheet Music Plus and Musicnotes. (I've used Musicnotes in a pinch: the transcriptions are the same ones you'd find in a book, and the key-transposition feature can be useful, but the readability of the music depends on the quality of one's printer.) And that's not to mention the notational equivalent of bootlegging: the fan-compiled, often inaccurate chord charts and transcriptions aggregated by the thousands on A-Z Guitar Tabs and similar sites.

While it's true that Colony is being John Henry-ed out of not one but two niches by the digital age, it also appears that Stonehenge Properties, the Brill Building's current owner, isn't helping. Some early reports suggested that rent was not an issue, but Colony co-owner Michael Grossbardt told the New York Post that it is being raised from $1 million to $5 million a month—tantamount to eviction for any individual business. The day after its first post about the store's fate, Jeremiah's Vanishing New York tracked down Stonehenge's dismayingly unimaginative rendering of the imagined future of this "prime retail space," intended to attract "both big box and smaller retailers" to 1619 Broadway. Colony regular Ken Jacowitz says the mock-up "looks like anything that's about eight blocks that way," nodding in the direction of Times Square.

Perhaps lamenting the demise of any business, or any way of doing business, amounts to closing one's eyes to the flux at the heart of capitalism, all the more so when New York real estate is involved. Still, this is an ignoble end for an institution that has weathered more changes than most. Even the store's chunky brass treble-clef door handles spoke to the owners' intentions to stick around for a while, and their personal investment in what they were selling. For my part, I'll miss the store as a tangible reminder of a time when so many memorable songs (and more forgotten ones) were written, published, recorded, and distributed within the same few blocks, but also for practical reasons, as a working musician. In the early 2000s, I found my copy of The Brecht-Eisler Songbooks there while visiting New York on tour, and later used it to learn and record the Marxist dramatists' 1928 anti-war "Song of the Soldier." And just a few months ago, when I was asked to supply incidental music for a reading of Vladmir Mayakovsky's The Bedbug on short notice, I headed to Colony and came out twenty minutes later with an untranslated copy of the traditional Russian song "O Chechornya" and a piano/vocal score of "Bad Romance." They're more similar than you'd think, at least on paper.

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