Fully Stacked

An Ohio City entrepreneur forges an online music powerhouse.

Dave Stack: Whatever song you're looking for, he - knows the guy who's got it. - Walter  Novak
Dave Stack: Whatever song you're looking for, he knows the guy who's got it.
The international headquarters of MusicStack.com might surprise the 30,000 daily visitors who rely on the site to locate hard-to-find recordings. There's no cube farm, no time clock, no warehouse -- just a spare bedroom equipped with a desk set that's littered with paper piles, CD cases, and notes to self. Ground zero for Dave Stack's booming business is a stately Victorian home on an Ohio City street corner, a regular stop on Lolly the Trolley's route.

Today, Stack is particularly light on his feet. MusicStack just closed a record week, doubling its typical online music sales with 1,400 selections. "Go to MusicStack.com and type in a band -- the hardest band you can think of -- and you will find it," challenges Stack, a charming, 33-year-old Westlake native who punctuates each thought with a grin and asks as many questions as he answers.

He figures he'll win the wager. MusicStack's inventory -- actually the inventory of thousands of music shops around the country -- tops 14 million titles. There are CDs, vinyl, 8-tracks, MiniDiscs, and other items not shelved alongside the $9.99 best buys at big-box retailers -- 61 searchable formats in all.

"People who come to my site aren't looking for the latest Britney Spears," says Stack. That much is evident from the page's recent sales list, which flips every 15 minutes. Best-sellers on MusicStack are about as predictable as Cleveland weather: Today, it's Bob Dylan; tomorrow, it might be Miles Davis.

"It's sort of like being able to drive to all these little towns and go into their used record stores and yard sales," says Harold Jacobs, a 63-year-old Californian who searches MusicStack daily for records from the 1930s and '40s. One recent gem: a 1953 recording of the Jack Hylton Orchestra, a British dance band. "They have stuff that I should have bought years ago, and it isn't available anymore," Jacobs says.

MusicStack began in 1992 as a way to feed Stack's own music habit. As a computer-science/electrical-engineering student at Ohio State, he frequented the $3 bin at a Columbus record store and bought at least 100 CDs each week to resell on his site. Before long, his dorm room resembled a miniature record store. After college, he took a job with the West Coast start-up Buyitnow.com; that company didn't last, but MusicStack did. "I learned a lot about online retailing, essentially on someone else's dime," says the self-described "serial entrepreneur." "I learned what works and what doesn't, and I incorporated those things on MusicStack."

Back in Cleveland, he turned his focus to MusicStack full time. He built up a database of music sellers through web searches and trade catalogs. Today, a staff of three interns pores through a spreadsheet of 15,000 potential record stores Stack hopes to add to the site.

Damon Dixon, a South Carolinian who owns DixonMusic.com, has sold on MusicStack for six years. "It is an alternative service, just like tattooing or custom bikes," he says. "You can't go buy this stuff anywhere. This is very much and always has been an industry with a train-spotting attitude."

Of course, the concept was hardly Stack's own. What sets MusicStack apart from eBay and Amazon is Stack's quest to unify as many reputable sellers as possible, as well as his singular devotion to recorded music; its inventory is larger than the combined music inventories of the two giants. (EBay and Amazon don't release music-inventory lists, making a straight comparison of artists impossible. But a recent Rolling Stones search produced 185 results on Amazon, 2,705 on eBay, and 16,147 on MusicStack.)

"I think of things I'd like as a record buyer," Stack says. "I have one of the largest want-list services. If you can't find what you are looking for, you can post a want for it, and it goes out to hundreds of record stores."

Stack's newly patented inventory-uploading system posts listings on MusicStack.com in real time. Michael Mathena, co-owner of Parma-based Thursday's Golden Goodies (www.thursdays.com), hawks mostly vinyl through MusicStack; he can upload 21,000 selections in minutes each day. And the returns are lucrative: He pays Stack a 5 percent commission on sales and turns over 10 to 30 CDs daily, at prices averaging $6 to $7 each, with the occasional $300 for a rare find. Major online retailers, in contrast, typically require additional start-up costs and fees for credit-card sales, and take up to 15 percent commissions. "This site is pretty much up there [with the big online retailers], but it's not so big that you lose track of the people involved with it," Mathena says.

And unlike the major retailers, Stack isn't interested in branching into other media. "People ask why I don't do [movies] or video games. I could. But I want to do what I do well. I don't want to dilute it. I don't want to be all things to everyone."

If MusicStack's niche is no threat to Amazon or eBay, it is drawing interest from other dotcoms. In 2000, Stack signed a letter of intent with ComTech, a publicly traded company interested in buying the site, building its revenues, and selling it off to the tune of $1.5 million. "We signed the letter, and they created a press release, but they couldn't get the funding to pay me," he says. "It fell through, and I'm glad. Selling out for $1.5 million . . . there is more potential for the site the way it is growing now." Stack has developed a program that rewards sellers who bring business to the site. There's also a Store Builder option, with which potential new sellers can create personalized sites of their own. And a search-by-song-title feature is on the way.

A couple of months ago, an international bookseller came knocking. Stack told them he doesn't do books. And he still isn't making premature deals. He's not ready to sell off Musicstack just yet.

"Well, unless someone offered me a ridiculous amount of money . . .," he says playfully, sinking into his sofa and letting the notion soak in. "I'm holding on for now."

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