Roger Marbeck: shouting out to the pessimists

by Ian Dando / 10 December, 2013
There is plenty of life in record stores yet, insists Roger Marbeck. Certainly, it seems, in his family’s one.
Roger Marbeck. Photo/David White

Earlier this year, it happened. Roger Marbeck and his son Logan bought back their iconic record store in Auckland’s Queens Arcade, which faced closure along with other stores in what became a chain after the family sold the retailer in 2006.

“If we’d let Marbecks be closed, there wouldn’t have been a classics shop in Auckland,” says Roger.

“The rural sector is starting to find us again,” he says. “Old stalwarts in their seventies, eighties and even nineties are coming in regularly. I couldn’t have done this alone, without [long-time employee] Mel Moratti. He also worked with my dad and has given me the classical continuity I needed.”

No sooner had they restored the place than they were expanding.

“Hi, Ian,” Roger emails. “We’re shifting into another bigger store. We’re crammed to the gunnels here. We’re expanding DVD stock by adding art house movies, foreign BBC docs and a few general ones to our opera, ballet and recital ones. We’re catering for the current resurgence in LPs.

“We have [staff member] Brent Cardy building up our specialist importing. He scans the world for any hard-to-find discs, not just classics and jazz. It can be pop or whatever. He will get it for you. That now accords with our official name, Marbecks Classical, Jazz and Specialist Imports.”

Roger is sceptical about new-age onliners and interneters’ claims they will reduce CD shops to corner dairies.

“Let me shout it out clearly to pessimists. Right now the future for CDs is rock solid for at least the next 10 years.

“They’d have us all reading ebooks, too, and turning bookshops into corner dairies. If you let the dust settle on this hype, they’ll find most of my generation will still pick up a book, drink a glass of wine and listen to a CD. It’s a comfort thing. It has a physicality and a sense of occasion.”

Roger is immensely proud of his lineage. “When [grandad] Alfred founded Marbecks 80 years ago, he used to sell only sheet music and instruments. You would select the piece you liked and take it to Alfie who would play it for you before you bought it. He was a brilliant sight-reader. At home, he and his wife, Eileen, had two baby grands in separate rooms. They would play inter-room ragtime duos. Alfie next went on to records, selling wax cylinders, then 78rpms.”

Roger recounts how his father, Murray, bought Marbecks’ first shipment of 78s from abroad. “The agent said they couldn’t accept the order, as they thought we couldn’t sell that many. The agent even insisted on payment up front. As soon as they arrived, Murray had them all sold in one day.”

The Marbeck's shop window. Photo/David White

Says Roger with pride, “My son Logan, who runs the website, makes this the fourth generation to work here. We built back the store in three weeks. He has over 400,000 titles on the website now. As for me, I joined the firm during the jazz resurgence, when it went gangbusters. Record-buying was at its peak then, with 14 shops in [Auckland’s] Queen St and Karangahape Rd alone.”

Eight years ago, Roger bought record distributor Ode from his friend Terence O’Neill-Joyce.

What a growth spurt ensued. Roger now distributes over 100 overseas labels totalling 70% of the country’s classical releases. That makes him New Zealand’s top wholesale distributor and top retailer of classical music by dint of the name Marbeck. He’s steering the two most powerful classical CD ships alone.

Any labels close to his heart?

“Like you, I rate Jordi Savall’s Alia Vox right up top,” he says. “I have also been an ECM aficionado since hearing my first copy of Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert. As a baroque lover, I admire a lot of the European labels like Naïve and Harmonia. The big UK labels of Hyperion and Chandos have not faltered once and still have many admirable releases each month.”

His range of fringe excites me. Today’s fringe becomes tomorrow’s mainstream. I see mainstream now as Monteverdi to Bartók. That leaves three areas of fringe: Savall’s specialty of 950AD-1750; postwar moderns; and world music. How are sales for these?

“The Savall era is very healthy and sells well,” he says. “But it’s the old adage of advertising – better to talk to 100 interested people than the scattergun approach across 1000.”

Postwar moderns are can be hard yakka. “Partly because you don’t hear much of it in live concerts here. Radio New Zealand Concert is doing a sterling job educating us in modern music, which rubs off on our sales. What an inspiration to us.”

As for world music, “Kiwis are great travellers. We have a curiosity for other countries’ music. I am fascinated to see the diversity of world music we are selling. We distribute World Circuit, famous for its Buena Vista Social Club, which still sells well. If tourism burgeons, so will world. It’s a potential winner.”

To me, the spearhead of world music is Savall. In the last year alone, he’s produced Armenian, Celtic, Syrian and four CDs of Balkan folkloric music, all pedigree. He outlaws such pollutants as crossover and kitsch.

Who are Roger’s local heroes? “The Atoll, Rattle and Morrison labels are at the forefront of recording our local talent by far,” he says. “It’s expensive, it’s challenging, but they do a superb world-class job and really do deserve knighthoods for the unseen work they do. We distribute all these and work with them. So there are a lot of people involved pushing the cultural bus along quietly.”

Roger and Logan reflect on their redemption of the Marbecks store with quiet satisfaction. “So, 80 years later, all the others have passed on and we’ve landed right back where we began, restoring the aura of our shop as a friendly meeting place for we classical music lovers.”

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