Published April 7th, 2021 at 10:00 AM
With the celestial jukebox a constant companion in our earbuds, who would actually pay to gather in one place and communally listen to recorded music?
Plenty of Kansas Citians, it turns out.
So many that a group of passionate local record people has coalesced around a plan to establish the Center for Recorded Music, a temple of sorts to the vinyl art form, with the Listyning Room for serious contemplation at its heart.
Their vision is for a combination nightclub, museum and ultra hi-fi stereo system, featuring a curated playlist with theme nights and visiting speakers, all held by a nonprofit corporation and supported by membership dues.
That such a thing could be contemplated is a statement about the value these 21st century mid-Americans have placed on camaraderie and the visceral sensation of sound moving the air in a room – things the celestial jukebox, for all its omnipresence, simply does not offer.
Indeed, supporters say the center is specifically designed as an antidote to the atomizing effect that the latest music-delivery technology – streaming – has had on a personal level as well as on musicians’ work at the concept-album level. They say the center could be members’ third place – after home and work – when life returns to pre-pandemic normalcy.
“It’s as much about the community we’re building as it is the facility,” founder Kelsyn Rooks said. “It’s more about giving people a place to come and share this incredible musical journey that we’re all on, and give them tools that individually they probably can’t afford. The average person can’t afford a $150,000 stereo system. But here they can listen to it five nights a week, and ultimately even seven.”
While the Center for Recorded Music project is the brainchild of 47-year-old Rooks, it echoes the influence of his late father, Music Exchange proprietor Ron Rooks (1952-2006), and the legions of Kansas City record collectors who came before and after him.
For old-timers, there’s even a whiff of Milton’s album-lined Main Street jazz lair about the Center for Recorded Music/Listyning Room. Board member and prospective general manager Teddy Dibble was a pallbearer at the funeral for Milton Morris.
But to make it, the center will have to reach a new generation of recorded-music lovers, and Rooks and his supporters are anxious to test their concept in the much-anticipated post-pandemic environment. They announced a public launch on social media today.
Kelsyn Rooks had a five-year track record of success, often selling out two shows to each of his monthly classic-album listening sessions at Waldo Pizza.
Rooks and his supporters were preparing to parlay that into a for-profit Listyning Room venture – they were zeroing in on a building — when COVID-19 shut everything down in March 2020. Listyning Room, like the Listyn KC series before it, are trademark-friendly plays on Rooks’ first name.
In retrospect, he said, it’s a good thing it didn’t get off the ground back then.
“We would have been in debt with construction loans in the middle of COVID,” Rooks said, “and it probably would have killed the concept.”
Instead, the group used the pandemic year to get their house in order as a non-profit entity and gather even more support for the long haul.
Perhaps a good analog for how they hope to proceed is the Theater League, only instead of presenting Broadway musicals, the Center for Recorded Music might present a ticketed talk by a legendary record producer or engineer.
On a regular night, it would function something like a Tokyo hi-fi record bar, with food and drink and records — maybe even some that members bring in — spinning. Monday might be reggae night, like at the old Grand Emporium. Displays of recorded sound technology throughout the decades could add a daytime educational component.
And while there is as yet no Listyning Room where big-eared Kansas Citians can go, the vaccine rollout gives Rooks enough hope to make a public splash and look forward to a day when fans, perhaps with a vax passport, can gather once again to hear the needle drop on a killer LP. Backers hope to open the facility in early 2022.
Growing up, Kelsyn Rooks rebelled against his hippie parents by becoming a technologist.
“I don’t want to throw around the word prodigy, but I was taking programming classes at community college as early as 7, 8, 9 years old,” he said. “I was writing software pretty much from the get-go. I had an internship at DST during high school, writing financial-analysis software.
“I spent years as a programmer and then years managing teams of programmers. Today I’m a director in the office of the CTO at Nokia, mostly focused on large-scale networking and private wireless and 5G technologies. Obviously, that has been a very good path for taking care of my family.”
Meanwhile, and especially after his father died in 2006, Kelsyn Rooks began to take a greater interest in music. He established Blackbird Home Theater, a home-theater and home-automation company that backed into the music itself through the technology side.
“By 2014 or 2015, vinyl records were hot again,” Rooks said, and his love of stereo equipment was being combined with a newfound “passion for the actual media and the musical experience.”
He was starting to think of sharing his passions with the public when he learned about Classic Album Sundays, the creation of DJ/writer Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy, and signed on as its Kansas City outpost.
While it was a success from the start, consistently attracting crowds of 70 to Waldo Pizza’s Tap Room to hear LPs like “Dark Side of the Moon” and “Pet Sounds” placed into context and played on a state-of-the-art system, Rooks soon balked at the strictures placed on him by the group.
After taking a break in 2017 to attend to his child’s health, Rooks came back in 2018 on his own, as Listyn KC.
“It just exploded,” Rooks said. “It got to that point because I could control more of my own marketing, how we showed up on social media, when I promoted things, what I chose to play for the month. And when I say took off, I mean by the time we get to 2020 and COVID, shows were selling out in five minutes from the time I posted 75 tickets online.”
Selling out double shows and running a waitlist 30 or 40 people long proved the business case, so Rooks, Dibble and others got to work on expanding the concept.
“We started off with this really small idea of let’s find another space that we can have the equipment set up all the time. We can do shows more often. And maybe we’ll get it catered,” Rooks said.
That has blossomed out into a combination of social club and educational enterprise.
“We thought for a long time about the idea of it,” Rooks said. “Is it a for-profit music bar that serves drinks and food, but you can go and listen to records? Is this a social club-slash-private club kind of concept? During 2020 and COVID, I got to this moment where I said: ‘Look, it’s not about profit for me. It’s never going to be my full-time job. I want to make this accessible and available to as many people as possible’.”
While Dibble, a video artist and former Penny Lane record store employee, has 2,000 followers of his YouTube channel Eat. Sleep. Vinyl, where he discusses records, he sees the Center for Recorded Music/Listyning Room as fulfilling some functions no website can.
“We want this to be a community situation for people who love music, who love recorded music, and who will experience it in a way that they normally could not by virtue of the equipment that we’re going to have,” Dibble said.
“It harkens back to my earlier days of record collecting and music discovery. The primary thing was word of mouth. That’s how you learned stuff. You’d pick up some stuff from the radio. You’d pick up some things from publications. But word of mouth was the most reliable. Friends’ older brothers were a huge source.
“I see this as a modern extension of that, where we can have people gathered together in a very relaxed way — sometimes highly informal and sometimes formal.”
A year from now, once the organizers find a 10,000- to 12,000-square-foot space (they’re looking in the Midtown-Crossroads area) and people feel comfortable gathering again indoors, Dibble can imagine the scenario.
“Let’s say it’s a Wednesday roots music night, and we’re open from 5 to 11 p.m.,” Dibble said. “There will be some dedicated listening time where we will not be encouraging people to talk amongst each other, but more to listen.
“But around that will be more casual spinning — not in a DJ kind of way, but just letting people hear that type of music during that evening. Over time, we’ll get people to understand that when it’s called the Listyning Room, the intention is to listen, and there will be other spaces where you can go and listen in and chit-chat.”
It all sounds good to Roger Banbury, a retired marketing writer for Metropolitan Community Colleges, who has attended several Listyn KC shows.
“I’ve listened to some records for 50 years, but when you hear them on that system, you hear things you never heard before,” he said. “Kelsyn is the perfect host and DJ and curator. With that and a great beer selection and good food, what more can you ask for?”
Rick Hellman is the founder of the Kansas City Rock History Project.