Steady Sounds owner and longtime Richmond music scene figure Marty Key is moving to another state, and with his departure, we must say goodbye to one of Richmond’s best record stores.
Richmond is not only losing an Arts District staple but a significant creative contributor to our community. Owned and operated by Marty Key since 2010, Steady Sounds, a vinyl store in Jackson Ward, has made the decision not to reopen its doors in June.
There are a lot of factors making things difficult for businesses in Richmond, especially along the Broad Street corridor. But Steady Sounds isn’t actually a victim of any of those. Key and his partner, Nicole Lang Key, are simply moving away.
“COVID is affecting everyone in different ways, but… I’m not directly closing because of it. It’s more because [Nicole] got another job. We have to move,” Key said. “I obviously can’t run the store while I’m… ten hours away.”
Key has been conducting business by appointment during the quarantine, and providing customers with masks who don’t have one. He officially closed his doors on the last Sunday in May after the store was damaged during the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
“It’s unfortunate, but I’m not upset,” Key said in a message shared to the store’s Instagram. “What I am upset about is that black folk can’t feel safe in this country.”
Steady Sounds leaving Richmond represents the end of an era for the city’s music scene. Key has been a key player in Richmond music since he arrived here in the early 90s. Moving to Richmond from Danville, Virginia to attend VCU, Key began his journey here as an arts student. His “pack rat” instincts existed before, but the city gave him an opportunity for his particular skill set to thrive.
“I like collecting things. As a kid, I collected comic books and baseball cards,” Key said. “My natural hoarding skills I’ve been developing since I was eight or nine applied to vinyl too. I got less into comic books and more into finding records.”
Exploring his interest in music not only by collecting but making it as well, Key played in multiple bands and worked at Plan 9 Records. His most high-profile gig was as bass player for Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, but he’s also played guitar, drums and bass for bands such as (Young) Pioneers, The Fresh-O-Matics, Bad Guy Reaction, Tralala and Direct from Hollywood Cemetery, whose singer dressed as a vampire. Playing in punk bands kept Key in touch with the world of vinyl records, even when the mainstream had lost interest.
“In the punk scene, vinyl never really died,” he said. “When vinyl sales started going down, punk bands still put out 7-inches, put out albums. That was mainly how you got their records. Either a demo tape or a 7-inch or 12-inch record. From that I started finding records.”
Once Steady Sounds opened in 2010, Key not only sold music but hosted it live, presenting DJ sets and in-store performances. Musicians such as Raekwon and Charles Bradley also had signings at the store.
Over the past 10 years, Key has seen the neighborhood transform. The most significant progression he’s noticed is the foot traffic through the area. When he first opened his doors, the only things on the block were galleries and restaurants, but that has definitely changed.
“It took a long time for people to start coming back downtown, beyond just the arts district, and realize there is actually retail down here,” Key said. “It took until a couple years ago before it started to breathe again.”
In 2014, the shop’s focus shifted, as it joined forces with Blue Bones, a vintage shop that has shared floor space with Steady Sounds’s vinyl records ever since. Blue Bones will remain in the space after Steady Sounds departs, but owner Lauren Healey-Flora acknowledges that it won’t be the same.
“Richmond is losing a great space where a lot of magic happened,” she said. “I feel lucky to have been a part of it. We’ll all continue to do what we love, just in a new way.”
As for Key, he’ll have to figure out how things look once he’s settled in a new place. But he can’t rule out the possibility of owning another record store someday.
“For now, I’m going to concentrate on selling online,” he said. “Maybe down the road, [I’ll] open up another location. Maybe a Steady Sounds in New England. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities.”
Top Photo via Steady Sounds/Instagram