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Blue Collar's Short Look At The Small Music Store Industry
By Mick Polich - 08/01/2008 - 09:31 AM EDT

The small music store – any left out there in the vast techo-desert?

As per many institutions in this age, the small musical instrument retail shops are few and far between. Some seem to be making it, thriving actually, while others piddle and fade into the dust. Again sad, but who’s to argue with pricing and distribution channels (on-line)? Well, that’s the ol’ HUMAN element again – somebody QUALIFIED to show you what for, as they would say back home. I’ve certainly had success and have gotten a warm, personal service-type feeling from one mail-order/ on-line company (Sweetwater Music up in Indiana). And I’ve had no problems with such established biggies as Musician’s Friend for purchasing musical instruments thru.

Even Best Buy is getting in on the act – they announced last year that the company was converting sections of stores around the country to accommodate band and electronic musical instruments, and accessories in relation to said stuff. Yep, the Wal Martization of the music industry has been going on for quite some time, and shows no signs of pulling back on the reigns. Well, boo-hoo Cap’in Howdy, is this sad or what?

Nope, jest IS, peeples! As Gramps shakes his head in wonder as he watches the automobile cruise by the ol’ horse-and-buggy, it’s another sign o’ the times. But what’s wrong with this picture – anything? A good buddy of mine from the Corn State (Iowa, chillen) was down to visit, and we always discuss the state of the music industry since we’ve been both gainfully employed by it over half of our lives. The question arose for the Mega Stores: yeah, WE know what we want, and what questions to ask for product, being music folk, but what’s helping the general populace? Especially if you get some minimum wage dude, whose not quite wet behind the ears, trying to help you buy a Les Paul or recording gear?

Again, we deal with an issue of having the ‘human element’ involved in our decision-process of how we get separated from our hard-earned moolah!

Personally, I can honestly say that for my last three major gear purchases, I have NOT set foot in a music store. Oh for shame, Mr. P. – all your bluster about the “little store”, and the need to survive, blah, yadda, blah, yadda?? Well, a couple of factors here: in being somewhat of a ‘transient’ family over the last 14 years, it gets harder and harder (especially as the music business changes, and the big box stores move in to the areas we relocate to) to establish a relationship with ANY store. In Atlanta, I had some great relationships with a handful of stores, and that was mostly due to the fact that I was doing their repair work on amp gear, one, and two, the owners and employees were old industry pros that knew the business (and were just plain good people). Not to cut on Sam Ash or Guitar Center, but the base pay is so low, that only a certain ‘employee type’ will work the floors there – young and without a lot of experience.

Yassir, yassir, I was there me-sef years ago, and I can only say to these youngsters to save ya some time (and make you more money) is GROW UP – professionally and personally – QUICKLY(it’s a fast-paced world, homies!)! So now we’re in a very transient area where the nearest music store is 7 miles away – not bad – and the nearest Guitar Center is 20 miles away – alrighty! My problem is that, like most family kats, my schedule is my wife and kids, so after errands, cooking, cleaning, and home repair, my hang time consists of a cold brew by workbench in my garage – them music store days are over, for now. So like most busy suburban moms (A-HEM!!), catalog and on-line shopping makes it happen for the Mickster…..

I really haven’t helped the ‘small music store’ situation any, have I?

Well, unfortunately, it’s the way of the world – every time I check in back to the Iowa Motherland to Rieman Music, my ol’ gainful place of employment, there’s always some news about losing ground to Guitar Center or the on – line catalogs (the store made their footing in the band instrument retail market, so that’s been the mainstay). If we moved back, no question, I would help ‘em out, but see, that’s the problem: I know them like family, but now, Rieman’s is faced with the same transient, no-time-to-waste, people that are buying those homes in West Des Moines, Waukee, and Dallas Center per the same here in Southlake, Colleyville, and Grapevine!!!!  

A mix of professionals and non – professionals have always made the wheels turn for most music stores in general, big and small. Back in the day, Rieman Music built up virtually a six - store chain in central, north central, and south central Iowa from the early 1950’s to the present day. I’ve worked for a small music store before Rieman’s – Music Connection – so going to work for Paul Rieman and his family was a no-brainer back then. Health insurance, dental plan, 401K – back then, those were luxuries to a struggling musician (even if we weren’t thinking much past the next gig or studio date). Plus, Rieman’s paid for schooling (as long as it was work – related). Couldn’t have gotten the Bachelors degree with Mr. Rieman and Co., no way, sir….

We could probably fill up the Library Of Congress with dissertations on small business v.s. big business – most people don’t even really address the simple rules and desires of owning a business. One, if it’s good, it usually grows in a bigger business (unless you make a valid effort to stay small, like Dogfish Head). Secondly, all businesses are meant to be sold off at some point (sorry, Budweiser fans). In the world of economics, like the ocean food chain, you’ve got have big businesses and small businesses – got to, or certain balances don’t work. Well, aren’t you a Democrat now, Mr. P.? Yassuh, I is, BUT, having been on the other side of the fence, I’ve learned what I’ve learned, and it involves those simple rules that you learned in kindergarten (read the book, folks): be aware and share. Be aware of your community, the environment, customer service, don’t get fat and lazy on your own profit margin, and know your customers.

Well, I wish it were that simple for the Rieman Musics of the world to survive against the Guitar Centers, but it ain’t. But, I do believe, just as mom-and-pop record stores can circumvent the modern world and stay afloat, small music shops can do the same –perhaps not in the same fashion that they once did, but I do believe they can.

Support your local sheriff? Yep – here’s to the small music shops: keep on, keepin’ on!

POST SCRIPT: I stopped reading business books long ago – just had to move on, you know? But currently, amongst the 10 or so I’ve got going in the ol’ book pile, I’ve been reading a great one about and for small business by Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery: “Adventures In Entrepreneurship – Brewing Up A Business: from the founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery”. Check your local Barnes and Noble or Borders for a copy……

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