Ravi on Record – Music & Sound Retailer Magazine

Ravi's column ran for three years.  All 36 are posted below in reverse chronological order (the most recent and final column, first).

Mixed Emotions

October 2007 - Even though my column in MandSR debuted just three years ago, this industry has dominated much of my life. I have not only bought mountains of gear, but also taken hundreds and taught thousands of guitar lessons at my hometown music retailer, conducted product clinics and teacher seminars in many of your stores around the country, formed relationships with manufacturers who build exceptional products that benefit both consumers and retailers, and worked closely with NAMM and other musical instrument/education oriented non-profit organizations. Your passion has fueled my articles and my life-I have even flirted with the idea of someday opening a store or designing my own guitar line!

However, there are also many retailers who fight change and become counterproductively bitter, manufacturers that disrespect the dealers that "built" their brands, substandard products infiltrating the market place, and consumers who don't value good service and quality. This ugliness has made me less romantic about the industry, and at times less inclined to pick up the guitar and play. I never thought that being an industry analyst would impair my enjoyment as a musician, but I am sure that many of you can relate.

My "analytical" journey began when I first saw major guitar brands in mass-market chains. It seemed so frustratingly inappropriate that I wrote to the then editor of this magazine expressing my viewpoint. After several exchanges, he offered me a monthly column. What an opportunity to make a difference!

While my "voice" often represents the perspective of independent retailers, my real concern is the ultimate impact on the consumer-the budding musician. I have lived many childhood dreams as a professional musician and want every kid to have that opportunity. If quality products dominate the marketplace and "mom and pop" sells them, "junior" has a fighting chance. Tossing a boxed guitar into a shopping cart doesn't encourage respect for the talent, discipline, and patience required to be a musician.

However, after two and a half years my editor asked me to write from the customer's point of view. I agreed that it made sense given that I am a life-long "customer" of this industry. It isn't that I don't still want to be a voice for the independent retailer, but I have come to believe that the critical step in fighting what often seems like a losing battle is to focus on earning the trust-the "DNA" of loyalty-of those already coming through your door. Waiving a finger (any one you choose!) at manufacturers, big boxes, low-ball consumers, and cyber-Uncle Sam doesn't cut it. You need to know what shoppers are thinking while browsing. So early this year, I started speaking from my own purchasing experiences, as well as incorporating those of my students and your customers with whom I speak while on the road doing clinics. Granted, the regular use of the word "I" in my articles makes me the personification of many unflattering consumer attributes, but that is the price of trying to make my column as personal as the lives of your individual customers.

It hasn't been a smooth transition. The magazine has received angry letters-one was even vulgar-from retailers who are offended by the representation (and perceived validation) of consumers' perspective. Believe me, I too find consumer disposition offensive. However, it is suicidal to ignore the reality.

Unfortunately, those letters combined with reader surveys and my expressing viewpoints that angered some manufacturers has cost me my column. While freedom of speech and freedom of the press may be constitutional rights, they have little relevance when it comes down to business. It has been with a great sense of responsibility to you, not this magazine, that I have written each and every word. Criticizing advertisers certainly creates a conflict for any publication, and while I believe that this contributed to the decision to silence my voice, very rarely have I seen my column edited for the sake of financial relationships. That says a lot about the integrity of this magazine, and I am proud to have been a part of this team.

Thank you for the encouragement that you have given me along the way. Your feedback, whether critical or complimentary, has been helpful and rewarding. Ironically, the greatest reward came just a few days before I received my "pink slip." Dave Wilson of Phillips Music in Lawton OK spontaneously stood up at my recent Summer NAMM University session and addressed the audience: "As a direct result of reading Ravi's articles and implementing his ideas, our retail sales have really grown and lesson income increased by 40%. His tips are right on." Thanks Dave…that makes it all worth it!

While I will no longer be part of your mail each month, I invite you to keep in touch with me and hope to visit with you on the road while conducting clinics and seminars. I plan to continue presenting educational sessions at NAMM, so please drop by. This industry is lucky to have a representative organization comprised of many passionate people. Give them your support and they will accomplish great things to benefit your business.

In these final words, I want you to know that virtually every column has been written with a mental image of two stores: Connecticut Music in Stamford CT and Greenwich Music in Greenwich CT. They are the reason why I care about independent retailers, and I owe much of my own success-personal and professional-to them. These stores, while opposite in many ways, exemplify the best of what this industry has to offer. Thank you to the Roberts and the Smiths for always being there for me, and hopefully through this column I have in someway been there for you.

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

Rose Colored Glasses

September 2007 - It may not be official, but any betting man would put his money on NAMM moving the summer show out of Austin and probably back to Nashville. Therefore, one must conclude that the "live music capital of the world" was anything but a success story. However, first-time attendees would never have guessed. Almost every exhibitor sincerely felt that they had quality time with key customers due to the smaller size of the show. Most buyers reciprocated the positive sentiment. Ultimately, most came with low expectations and few left pleasantly surprised or unpleasantly disappointed. Those unable to see the bright side, and there seemed to be plenty, stayed home.

It was hard to ignore emptier hotel lobbies and quicker than usual elevators, and not everyone was wearing their rose-colored glasses outside the convention center. One major manufacturer expressed strong criticism after the show closed. "NAMM made a huge mistake moving the show out of Nashville. It will take years to recover what they have lost, even if they go back in 2008." Early Monday morning, I shared an airport shuttle with three manufacturer representatives who also had negative things to say. "Hey look, someone is taking an order! Oh wait a minute, he's just making a dinner reservation." Overall, the three of them concluded that NAMM should bag the summer show because it's a waste of everybody's time and money.

I was the odd man out and quietly listened to their comments. Had the sun risen, I might have mustered up the energy to debate. They seemed unappreciative of NAMM and perhaps were simply oblivious to everything that a NAMM show has to offer. Egos and lack of business structure in this industry (most of us are musicians after all) prevent many from recognizing personal and professional growth opportunities. Granted, writing orders is instant gratification and short-term confirmation of a return on the investment, but deals are sealed all year long. We probably don't need a summer show for that. However, anyone who can but chooses not to take advantage of the all day long educational sessions is foolish, especially when one isn't busy writing orders!

While NAMM U is generally geared toward retailers, the information can be applied to anyone's position in the industry. We are all buyers and sellers in some way. Moreover, having a better understanding of the state and future of the industry is surely advantageous. I've seen Harvey Levy of Levy's Leathers, Chuck Surack of Sweetwater, and veteran independent representative Piers Munro at sessions. If they can learn something, surely the rest of us can too. Manufacturers, representatives, and retailers can benefit well beyond measure, especially if they require employees to attend a minimum number of sessions. No one knows it all, so why not spend time learning more about it?

This summer's sessions were clearly centered around putting a positive face on the industry. The Town Hall couldn't have been more opposite than last year. What was a forum where retailers could express their feelings about supplier business practices became a light hearted "show and tell." Dealers shared their most innovative and successful business building ideas. It took me by surprise when I first sat down since I missed the introduction. I was expecting a vociferous exchange like last year, but instead observed an episode of the Waltons. Could the industry have solved all of its problems in a year? Doubt it. I imagine that the FTC investigation forced NAMM to sweep any disgruntled banter under the carpet and structure their sessions in a manner that "pushed" the dialogue to be positive. It's unfortunate that they were unable to build on last year's session. The industry needs such a forum to express frustration and address problems. However, to NAMM U's credit, the "positive" content was refreshing and still very productive.

I greatly valued the quality time that the small show afforded. Just being able to stroll through aisles and admire gear made me appreciate how lucky I am to be a musician. Who else gets to play with so many magical toys? My highlight was Digitech's Vocalist Live 4, which hasn't yet been released. How cool is it to have vocal harmonies generated by your voice but harmonically structured based on your guitar progressions, and for under $500? I can't wait to get one! On the education front, Piano Wizard found a way to bridge the gap between videogames and music education, and hopefully it will prevent future budding musicians from exchanging instruments for joysticks. Thanks to NAMM U's "Best in Show," I discovered Peavey's Online Custom Shop-what an awesome way for any guitarist to truly personalize his instrument, and starting at such a low price point, there is a huge novelty attraction as well.

NAMM parties are always a highlight, and the Tascam party (co-sponsored by Reverend Guitars and others) at Stubbs was a blast. The Unknown Hinson was tearing it up on guitar. I missed the earlier acts because I was partying with Roland/Boss at the Speakeasy listening to one of my favorites, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter. Earlier that evening, I had the privilege of attending a small party at the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus where Vernon Reid of Living Colour and the legendary Buddy Miles were jamming. Quite a Saturday night indeed!

I certainly don't want the summer show to disappear. Not only is it a wonderful celebration of music making and technology, but a tremendous opportunity to learn more about our industry. I'm grateful to NAMM for all their efforts in helping our industry thrive. At the end of the day, the only difference between a good and bad show is attendance. So next time, everyone come and we'll all take that success to the bank!

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

The Taming of the Shrewd

August 2007 - Someone is trying to sell me something almost every time I turn around, and I'm beginning to resent it! Billboards block landscapes, sports arenas bear Fortune 500 company names, professional basketball points are squeezed in between sponsor promotions, and gas station pumps talk to me (I'll bet they break off those little trigger locks on the nozzles just to keep us in front of the miniature television screens). It's rare that I can even use a urinal without facing an ad!

Now it's happening in my own living room. Tivo, DVR, and other commercial skipping enablers have left television networks scrambling to cross-promote shows and bring in ad revenue through alternative methods. Last season, ABC's Dancin' with the Stars and talk show host Jimmy Kimmel traded plugs and appeared on each other's shows weekly, and Stars' contestant Billy Ray Cyrus regularly promoted Hannah Montana, which just happens to be on Disney-ABC's parent company. As if we wouldn't notice!

Then there is product placement in television and films. Companies pay big bucks for this prime cross-marketing opportunity. I watched the film Music and Lyrics recently and every time Hugh Grant sat at the piano, "Baldwin" was within the boundaries of my screen. Of course, Grant picked up a few Gibson guitars as well. While this was painfully obvious to me, it was also logical and unobtrusive given the scenario of the film.

However, I feel like I'm being manipulated when products appear to be forced into programming. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition recently featured a sick 12 year-old girl whose family could not afford a suitable home considering the emotional and financial drain caused by the large hole in her heart-a "pre-existing" condition according to the insurance company, and therefore not covered. I didn't actually see or hear her play guitar on the show, but she had an acoustic on which Ty Pennington, the show's host, played part of a song while she sang. This scene flowed well enough in the storyline, but the blurred logo on the headstock ("First Act" to the trained eye) made me curious. Initially, I assumed that First Act didn't want to pony up the big bucks for placement. However, that alone wouldn't necessarily lead to a blurred logo unless it was a strong-arm tactic by the network. Moreover, given that First Act is aggressive in cross-marketing (Volkswagen comes to mind), the only logical explanation was that a competitor had exclusive rights.

Sure enough, the little girl's room in the new house was stocked with Gibson guitars-the logo proudly displayed in multiple places for the camera's eye to catch. There was even a Gibson poster on the wall! It felt like an infomercial for a moment, especially when Ty thanked Gibson on air. Certainly not a "soft sell," but one has to hand it to Henry for being aggressive and bold in promoting his brand. On a more personal note, it bugs me that most "mom and pops" won't benefit-the major exception being Guitar Center's new mom and pop, Bain Capital. I just hope that the little girl actually plays and that it wasn't purely "placing" a product.

So maybe I have become a cynic when it comes to marketing, but I am surely not alone. Consumers are targeted all day long with shrewd advertising tactics, resulting in increased overall skepticism about marketing claims and decreased trust in anyone trying to close a deal. Even on a local level, standard practices start to feel manipulative. For example, "regular" versus "our" price is pretty much a "cat out of the bag," especially since the Internet exposes such charades. No one pays list price and everyone knows it, so "our" price should just be the price…period. A sporting goods chain store had some exercise equipment on "sale." I asked the salesman how long the sale would last and he said that it was going on indefinitely (the phrase "if it doesn't make sense, it isn't true" came to mind). I pressed further and he confessed that it was actually the regular price but that they just marked it with a "sale" tag. I bought the same thing elsewhere for even less…and it wasn't "on sale." My wife and I recently stayed at a nice hotel for our anniversary and with smiles and congratulations they upgraded us to the "concierge" floor. However, no "concierge" amenities (evening cocktails, breakfast, newspaper, etc.) were available to us because we booked using a AAA rate. There is nothing like an empty gift to make a customer happy!

Perhaps my tone is starting to resemble that of Andy Rooney (and by the way, I'm not a couch potato despite all these TV references!), but whatever happened to simply doing honest, straight-forward business? I look forward to the day when I can inherently trust the majority of people in sales. Until then, I will rely on return and price-match policies to secure almost any purchase I make. If at least one of those isn't offered, I'm probably not buying. One way for retailers to reduce the cost of price matching is to refund the difference in the form of useful high-margin accessories. The consumer gets the same dollar value in goods, but the retailer only loses his cost. If I pay more than I have to for a guitar, I would be equally happy with receiving the difference in strings.

Ultimately, I blame consumer mentality for most of the daily difficulties that "service" oriented retailers face. However, consumers didn't cause their mentality; a lack of sales integrity did. Therefore, it's up to you-advertisers and salespeople-to reverse the consumer predisposition by treating them with respect. Only then will consumers pay you back at your register…again and again.

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

MI Sommelier

July 2007 - Like fine wines, quality musical instruments have a multitude of unique characteristics that cater to consumers' individual tastes and preferences. Moreover, the traits of two identical bottles-or guitars-can vary depending on how they are cared for and presented. One cannot simply rely on products such as these to sell themselves.

My wife recently accepted a job as a sommelier at an upscale Italian wine bar that is opening next month. Between now and then, she must learn as much as she can about the country's wines in order to properly advise both casual enthusiasts and high tax bracket connoisseurs. This includes personally sampling and evaluating each vintage (she will represent over a hundred different labels), understanding their distinctive complexities, and learning to translate customers' Napa Valley and Bordeaux tastes into lesser-known but equally impressive Italian wines. To earn customers' confidence before they even read the wine list, she will learn to speak some of the language with an authentic accent. Finally, by pairing wines with the perfect hors d'oeuvres, the customer experience will be euphoric and memorable, inspiring future desires and commanding loyalty. Why don't music stores display specific guitars paired with particular amps, along with tantalizing explanations as to why these combinations are perfect matches? Customers might want to also buy the amps that make their desired guitars "bold, full bodied, and linger in the ear."

It seems that those who sell musical instruments, which can last a lifetime, are not as well-trained or convincing as the ones selling bottles of "vino," which usually disappear within an hour. A passion for music and knack for ringing up purchases on the cash register is not enough. Empathy is essential, especially when consumers are unsure. I want to speak to a photographer when buying a camera and a golfer when looking for clubs. I am always surprised-and disappointed-when a waiter tells me that he has not tried a dish on the menu. Short of a serious food allergy, there is no excuse. Likewise, a guitar player behind the counter should know how to demo keyboards if he is expected to sell them. He is a musician after all!

However, demonstrating gear is still only pulling the cork out of the bottle. Anyone can do that. To successfully create long-term musical instrument customers, it takes an MI sommelier! He must inspire customers' desires with knowledge, interpret their needs with compassion, and satisfy them with expertise.

One of the best things that I did for my guitar students was to take a few golf lessons. I was unpleasantly reminded of how difficult it is to be a student and how much I depend on the patience and proper guidance of a good instructor. Additionally, I very much valued his offering positive reinforcement as my swing improved. He gave me the desire to practice and the confidence to conquer. The whole experience reminded me of William Hurt in the movie The Doctor, where he played an arrogant insensitive physician who was diagnosed with throat cancer. As a patient, he was subjected to the humilities and vulnerabilities of being so helpless. He recovered, and the experience transformed him into a compassionate practitioner, making him a much better doctor.

Customers are fed up with music store salespeople who talk over their heads and make them feel inferior, or simply demonstrate a lack of interest in satisfying their needs. For musicians selling gear, it is easy to fall into a comfort zone and focus on one's own interests rather than those of customers. I cringe when a salesman tries to reassure me by saying "I like it." Unless I have established that our interests and tastes align-which could happen if he is jamming when I enter-I couldn't care less about his personal opinion. I need to know if I am going to like it, and only a salesman who takes the time to understand me can be convincing.

Sales training should include periodic real world experiences in unfamiliar and potentially uncomfortable purchasing situations. Hurt's character required that of his medical students, having them spend time as patients in order to better understand the needs of their "customers." Why not have musical instrument salespeople go out and shop for skis, investigate planting a garden, or try to buy anything that they know little or nothing about but might be of some interest? They should note their feelings during the experience and assess why the salesperson failed (or succeeded) at closing the deal.

The surest way to lose sales is to misunderstand consumers. Unfortunately, big box style salesmanship has conditioned me, and I am sure many others as well, to assume that you will give incomplete or downright wrong information. I have an increasingly low tolerance for incompetent service and it does not take long for me to lose interest in buying something if a salesperson tries to cover his ignorance with sloppy guesswork. If you do not know, just say so…and then go find out! I am not expecting seamless knowledge, but I want a salesperson that cares enough about my needs to do everything that he can to answer my questions accurately. Otherwise, I would prefer to shop online.

No store can be all things to all consumers, so choosing who you wish to serve should dictate your inventory and salesmanship approach. There are certainly people who settle for wine in a box and guitars in a pack. They will not appreciate your expertise, nor will they reward it. Did you originally open your doors for them? Unless you are Sam Walton, I doubt it. So, why fight for their indiscriminating business? Serve everyone with the expertise and conviction of a sommelier, and let boxes sell boxes!
Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

The Hang

June 2007 - In my interview with bassist Will Lee (also in this issue), he defines the music store's role in a musician's life like this: "A music store to a musician can be a place of wonder that sparks the imagination, a source of inspiration to anyone who can dream of 'stretching out' into new directions." When he said this to me, I mentally revisited the hundred or so music stores that I have visited over the past couple of years and quickly concluded that the operative word in Will's statement is "can." Unfortunately, only a handful of independent retailers have inspired me beyond the thrill that was generated by the product that I came in to buy. Rarely do I stumble on a unique instrument or interesting gadget that begs me to pick it up, and most store environments have failed to generate a notable sense of excitement or opportunity.

As much as I quickly become annoyed by the excessive aural stimulation imposed on one at Guitar Center, the constant activity sends me dreaming of sonic and creative possibilities every time I enter. There are always people playing music (well okay, sometimes it sounds more like noise, but let's not be picky) and generating a vibe that seduces one with that dream of "stretching out." Large stores with instruments displayed from floor to ceiling present tremendous opportunities. However, small stores busting at the seams with personality will befriend most musicians for the long haul. What kind of personality? Not just a cool paint job or floor plan; I am talking about the one that comes from the people inside!
Musician Magnet
The strongest magnet repeatedly pulling musicians into a specific music store is fellow musicians. Most of us have a band mentality and savor the opportunity to revel in our artistic glory amongst those who share our passion. Plus, we love to talk about our favorite gear. "The hang" is a driving force behind the desires of many musicians to be in this business.

Whether it is interaction with artistically inclined employees or just knowing that other players are hanging out inside, intimate music stores become an attractive destination rather than a necessary errand. I don't meet exciting or interesting people at Guitar Center (it is hard to have meaningful conversations over the CD player on top of PA announcements on top of people strumming "Smoke on the Water"), but I do at mom and pop's. It must be the relaxed environment that makes one feel more at home, surrounded by friends, and free of sales pressure. Encouraging musicians to hang out on a comfy couch (maybe Shure will donate blue ones to their dealers!) while sipping some fresh brewed coffee will endear local musicians to a store. A room full of musicians will send the message that this store is the place to be.
Aural Inspiration
However, sitting around and generating "coffee talk" is only part of the equation. It is the act of creating music that really spawns both the desire to achieve and the confidence to conquer. When I took guitar lessons at a small and dingy local store (which has now evolved into "Greenwich Music" with an extensive showroom and music school), Rob, the salesman behind the counter, regularly jammed up a storm when he wasn't tending to customers. I listened to him weekly while waiting for my teacher to finish up with his previous student. Rob created a thirst for my teacher to quench. I will never forget his rock 'n' roll appearance and the bright yellow ESP guitar-the package resembled, or perhaps even contributed to my dreams. He was a rock star in my mind, especially since he could play every AC/DC song that I requested. I am not sure that my teacher had the whole catalogue down!

Having sales staff explore, or as in Rob's case unintentionally demonstrate, gear whenever they are not helping customers is a valuable sales tool. By doing so, employees gain first hand knowledge of the products. Moreover, if a customer witnesses a salesperson's passion and proficiency as a musician, his confidence in that salesman will instantly be elevated-a player simply has more credibility than a "salesman."

Since the demo generally makes the sale, inspiring customers to take an instrument or a piece of equipment for a test drive is essential. Even those annoying customers who consistently try but never buy can pave the way for deeper pockets to tinker. While an empty and quiet store may be ideal for auditioning, I am much more likely to want to try something in a place where others are comfortably exploring gear. Like Will, I am shy about trying out gear while others are listening. An environment that doesn't make me stand out is definitely more inviting.

I am very grateful for retailers where I can comfortably hang out without ever feeling that I am wearing out my welcome. Music stores are the nucleus of local music communities, and my favorites keep me abreast of the latest in music technology as well as the beat of the local scene. I honor those relationships by sending them referrals and promoting their businesses whenever I can, and I know that they will take care of my friends, students, and acquaintances with the same level of service that they give me.

Music retailers are not like other stores that provide life's everyday staples. Banks, post offices, and pharmacies are chores, but music stores are indeed places where dreams can be created. By providing an environment that caters to "the hang," more dreams will be born, nurtured, and shared. More dreams…more gear.

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

Customer Service Makeover

May 2007 - I believe in the value of personal customer service, but ultimately each consumer determines its worth for himself. Many of us choose to avoid human contact by purchasing travel online, banking electronically, and using self-service checkout aisles at supermarkets…and, why shouldn't we? One generally saves time and/or money. I would happily bypass the majority of retail employees and customer service representatives that I encounter. Sometimes I feel like I should be offered a discount just for putting up with them. Many are slow and the amount of wrong information that they spew gives me every reason to jump online. Moreover, the convenience of shopping from home 24/7 and having goods delivered to one's doorstep is undeniable.

Pricing Service
If retailers expect to be paid a premium for personal service, the quality must justify the price. Otherwise, brick and mortar stores are nothing more than stalled cars on the entrance ramp to the information superhighway. I recently bought a pair of sunglasses from a specialty shop. Other than playing middleman between the display case and me, the salesman was pretty uninvolved. I tried on a pair of "Maui Jim" shades. My wife insisted that I buy them since they made me look "sexy and cool" (more than usual, that is). Despite my enhanced status, I wasn't comfortable spending $261 (after tax) on sunglasses, especially since I hadn't shopped around. However, the 30 day return policy gave me an out if needed. Sold!

I "Googled" the same model the following day and immediately found them for $199 with free 2 day shipping and of course, no sales tax. That's 24% less! The salesman's service didn't "earn" the difference. I actually learned more about my new glasses from the online retailer's Web page. However, the opportunity to arouse my wife-or at least try on the shades before purchasing-had value. So did the store's six month protection policy-they would replace my damaged glasses at half the price, even if I stepped on them. Were these perks worth an extra $62 (31%)? I mathematically concluded that the protection policy was not-two pairs would cost $400 online and $390 at the store-and arbitrarily decided that being able to try them on was worth an extra 10%, which equals approximately $31 (half the difference) after also tacking on sales tax. I called the store and asked if they had a price-match policy. They didn't, but the saleswoman volunteered that purchasing sunglasses off the Internet is risky because they often arrive broken. I wasn't buying that, so she broke my silence by inviting me to return the glasses. I told her that I valued their service and would happily split the difference. She didn't know how to process that (mentally speaking) and suggested again that I bring back the glasses. So, I did just that after receiving my online order two days later-in perfect condition I might add-and my wife's new and improved husband took her out for sushi with the savings!

Regardless of who wins a sale, repeat business is always at stake. Even if I had chosen to keep the original pair, I could easily have decided to never again shop at "that overpriced store." However, I'll begin my next quest there hoping to find the perfect pair, and if the price is right, I'll happily give them the business and let them keep it. Why? Because I cannot accurately assess my sex appeal online!
Facilitating Self-Service
Products that require test drives earn brick and mortar retailers a place in consumers' hearts. However, creating obstacles between products and cash registers is a fast road to heartbreak. Unless a salesman has comprehensive product knowledge enabling him to provide solid advice tailored to each customer's needs, his input often amounts to interference. Nothing extinguishes credibility like an "expert" cracking an owner's manual or reading a box. I would prefer a music store with "fitting rooms" for me to "try on" gear in depth. After all, creating a user-friendly self-service environment is a form of customer service. A few cubicles or vacant teaching studios would work. Perhaps customers could rent the space half-hourly for a nominal fee that would be returned to them in store credit. That would offset minor price discrepancies and discourage "moochers" from using local services and purchasing in cyber-land to save a couple of bucks. One could even feature different products weekly (a better option for complex setups) and customers could get a discount by sealing the deal during the promotional period. Place a sign by the gear that says, "Thank you for doing business with us so that we can provide you with hands-on product experience"-it's better to remind the customer so that the value isn't overlooked. For beginners, provide a fact sheet listing technical differences (and why they matter) between your products and some found in mass-merchant superstores. If customers take it to a mass-merchant, they will likely feel more confident buying from you.

There is no "middle of the road" when providing and pricing service. Anything short of truly enabling is worthless and potentially hazardous to a business's health. Whole Foods and Ikea provide styles of customer service that keep their own customers coming back. The former charges a premium and offers tasty samples and customer attention from knowledgeable and friendly floor staff; the latter has discount prices and arms customers with a map so that they can navigate the floor on their own while reading product descriptions and filling out forms (it's as easy as ordering sushi). Both are very successful. The Internet throws its hat in the ring with the "sales tax discount," so be sure to thank your customers for supporting local schools and roads every time you collect for the government.

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

My Bottom Line

April 2007 - Starting in the late 1980's, I began "fearing" music stores. Fresh out of high school, I had already acquired my desired guitars, amps, and entry-level recording gear. However, the friendly faces at the local music store could no longer satisfy my growing studio needs. Left with few choices, I ventured into the less personal, more intimidating world of chain retailers. With high pressure commissioned salesman interrupted by more phone calls than they could handle, the experience was unnerving. Not only was I skeptical about product recommendations and price tags, but condescending salesman left me feeling belittled and insecure in my ability to play in the big leagues. Consequently, subscriptions to Electronic Musician and Mix magazines served as salesman and 1-800-4-SAM-ASH closed deals. UPS became a regular Santa Clause and I no longer faced the unwelcoming world of modern music stores.
Lifelong customers
Many independent retailers don't sell music software, studio gear, or keyboards. I understand that high volume stores and low overhead online merchants ("sans" sales tax) prevent fair competition on less "personal" items, but the consequence doesn't serve potential long-term customers. One cannot be all things to all people, but those who provide most things for most people offer significant value in convenience. The desire for studio gear ultimately drove me from "mom and pop" to a one-stop shop for almost everything.

For experienced musicians, in-store product education takes a backseat to fulfillment. There comes a point where we've already used the gear that we want to own, or at the very least, have fantasized about it, researched the specifications, and read all the reviews-yes, I have "fantasized" about electronics! We're not talking vacuum cleaners here. Musical equipment gives voice to our creative ideas, and we want the fastest (and cheapest) path to expression.

I'd like to believe that music stores provide me with valuable information, but rarely do I meet a salesman who knows more than I do about the gear that I want. Additionally, they generally aren't familiar with competing brands that they don't sell, but I am. I do like initially seeing products in a showroom, but then I also want someone to give me answers (not just hand me a manual, as some have done in the past). I once learned a lot at Guitar Center about a Line 6 POD versus a Digitech GNX, and bought the latter on the spot. On another occasion, I tried to get information on a Yamaha AW4416 workstation but the "product specialist" didn't have time-he offered to make an appointment, but asked me to call him the following week to schedule. Meanwhile, I resorted to Web sites and closed the deal by the phone from the comfort of my home. Sweetwater's knowledgeable salesman and accommodating return policy did the trick.
The competitive edge
That doesn't mean that Sweetwater or Guitar Center are one-stop answers to all my musical prayers. I occasionally go to small music stores hoping to discover cutting-edge products and unique used gear. However, I've been to nearly a hundred independent retailers in the past year (consulting, conducting clinics/seminars, etc.) and have come up short. Winter NAMM's Hall E is filled with cool, inexpensive stuff like RKS's compact folding guitar stand, yet I rarely see such gems anywhere other than in the dungeons of Anaheim. How about a Graph Tech countertop display showing products that improve customers' existing guitars? The likelihood of stumbling on something novel would encourage me to come in for what I need and leave with even more!

Granted, you don't have to stay on the cutting-edge to justify your existence. Connecticut Music in Stamford CT once called to let me know about a used Gibson MK35 acoustic guitar that had just come in. I bought it within hours and returned later that week to buy a '52 Reissue Telecaster that I had strummed on my earlier visit. Another time, a music store employee in Yonkers NY called me to say that he had an "incredible sounding" used pair of Westlake monitors (he knew that I was looking). Those sonic beauties have graced my studio for over a decade, along with an Audio Technica condenser microphone and a Fostex headphone set that I bought there the following week. In both cases, the store solicited the sale by appealing to my needs, and my appreciation for them inspired me to purchase more items on a leap of faith.
The point of no return
It's easy to get the best deal with the convenience of online shopping. When I know what I want and don't need to see/hear it first, I begin at Sweetwater and then click around. If Sweetwater is in the ball park, I'll buy from them since my past experience has been stellar and their return policy is reassuring. However, if I need to try out something first, I'll price it online and then head to a showroom armed to negotiate (I'm willing to support schools and roads by paying sales tax on top, and the convenience of taking it home today also has value). If the salesman talks me into a different product, I'll buy it if there is a reasonable return policy (aside from the obvious benefit, accepting returns demonstrates confidence in one's ability to qualify customers, unless one doesn't try, in which case it serves as a self-service insurance plan). Otherwise, I'll first research prices and specifications online, and if the showroom's tag is close and everything the salesman told me was accurate, I'll go back and pay their price.

Ultimately, Sam Ash's latest magazine ad hits the mark: "Most orders shipped free; guaranteed lowest prices; 45 day money back guarantee; up to 12 months no payments, no interest." What else could anyone ask for?
Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

An Industry in Harmony

March 2007 - The 2007 winter NAMM show produced many positive vibes. Perhaps the Christmas season surpassing expectations injected optimism into the New Year. Whatever the catalyst, the industry is actively and aggressively working to move ahead. Forward thinking is seemingly dominating backward finger-pointing.

The "Breakfast Sessions" have always been a highlight for me, and this year was no exception (although it is ironic that NAMM has frequent sound problems every year-better sound checks and microphone technique training are in order).

Nathan Chan, the 13 year-old cellist featured in HBO's The Music in Me documentary, kicked off Thursday's session. Next, NAMM President Joe Lamond presented the "Music for Life" award to former Arkansas Governor (now Presidential candidate) Mike Huckabee. Then, an esteemed panel comprised of Paul Reed Smith, Henry Steinway, Bob Taylor, and Brook Mays' Bill Everitt shared their favorite mistakes. Everitt noted his major one (surely not his "favorite") which became the underlying theme throughout the convention: "If I had only said three simple words, 'In my opinion.'"

Friday's session broke a thousand in attendance and delivered solid education on profitability, but Saturday's "Pretty Good for a Girl" was a little disappointing. Alan Friedman is always an entertaining moderator. However, between his funny antics and longwinded speeches from the dais, not enough useful information emerged. Women in our industry can be better targeted and served, and more definitive explanations on Mars vs. Venus in the musical instruments world would have been better. Next year, how about a mixed panel debating gender-based marketing strategies?

Sunday's "Best in Show" kicked off with Rico Loop, who has entertained NAMM audiences previously by mastering the Boss Loop Station. The panelist selected products were interesting and relevant to retailers' needs, and I especially appreciated retailer Pete Gamber's "rampage" demanding that retailers take some responsibility and action for the state of our industry rather than simply pointing fingers at NAMM and manufacturers.

I also tackled some unusual territory this year. The Independent Music Retail Association (IMRA) founders meeting evoked a very positive effort to unite independents and help shape the industry. A non-adversarial relationship with NAMM and manufacturers topped their agenda, and this could very well be the necessary attitude for success.

The Support Music Coalition conference call was also fascinating. The handful of people present (and several on the phone) explored ways to preserve and promote arts education through government. I applaud NAMM for coordinating these regular meetings and proudly shared the room with fellow arts education advocates including Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee; CEO of Americans for the Arts, Bob Lync; senior policy strategist for Nelson Mullins, Leo Coco; and Direct Impact counsel, Vlad Cartright. In response to NAMM representative Sandra Jordan's question of whether the 7 million people represented by Support Music could really make a difference, Huckabee responded, "If 7 million people gave $25, you would elect the next President." I don't know if that is his road map to the White House, but he certainly made an effective point!

Many "new and improved" booths graced the floor. Martin Guitars offered more interior space with exterior performance area bordering the aisles. Sennheiser propped themselves (as well as performing endorsers including yours truly) up on a classy white stage, putting their high quality products on a pedestal-not to mention a few gazing visitors flat on their faces. Schecter drew big Sunday crowds by broadcasting the NFC championship football game "big screen" style on the exterior of their booth. NAMM University Idea Center's redesigned layout offered more seats and improved technology for attendees. As a speaker, I found it easier to interact with the larger audience.

I also spent more time than usual in the dungeon of surprises, Hall E. The Barker Bass-an upright electric sporting super-model curves-offers a solution for bassists suffering from wrist ailments (i.e., carpal tunnel syndrome) and prevention for those who don't…yet. Box Guitars redefines the term "double-wide" with two parallel guitars on one 24-fret neck, permitting virtually unlimited tuning combinations in a compact design-tapping galore for masters like Stanley Jordan. RKS is painting the landscape for the next generation of guitars. Ravi K. Sawhney (another Ravi!) and guitar legend Dave Mason push traditionalists into modern sexiness and ergonomics with top-quality instruments-their "Kama-Sutra" guitar held court in the booth. These are the most comfortable guitars that I have played, and the Californian-made beauties start at $499 (MAP) with dealer friendly margins!

NAMM parties did not disappoint. Sennheiser owned Friday night with their "sold-out" Robert Randolph/Ok Go show at the House of Blues-I was declared the absolute last person to be admitted. Tony Levin and Todd Rundgren tore it up at the Clarion (my ears are still ringing), and Keb' Mo seduced Shure dealers and "blue couch" potatoes at the Hilton. On Saturday, Muriel Anderson's All Star Guitar Night-raising funds for the Music for Life Alliance-showcased incredible talents. Monte Montgomery and Willy Porter incorporated uncanny guitar chops into their singer/songwriter styles. Gil Parris and Frank Vignola wowed us with instrumental virtuosity. Johnny Highland (with Paul Reed Smith-the man-by his side) put it into sixth gear with blazing solos, and Dick Dale and his fifteen year old son Jimmy entertained family style with humor and synchronized "surf guitar" licks.

With almost 85,000 attendees at the show, the industry is clearly well-connected. Bringing everyone together twice each year has tremendous value, and beyond the tradeshow, NAMM's market development programs are essential. The organization will always have its critics, but a strong, united, and influential membership is the best way to make progress. If less than 2% of the population can "cheaply" elect the next President, those navigating the convention floor can together accomplish a great deal in the musical instruments industry.

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

Guitars Galore

February 2007 - After a tough year for the guitar industry, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter significant "six string" presence this past holiday season. I don't remember another time when I have stumbled on so many guitars. It all happened while visiting my mother over Christmas.

The first morning, I surfed cable and landed on Home Shopping Network's "Esteban." I had seen clips before but never the "full monty." While watching, I logged online to learn more about this man in black. Stephen Paul, named "Esteban" by Andres Segovia (who finally agreed to teach him after years of pursuit), turned to infomercials to sell his music after recovering from a car accident leaving him unable to play for ten years (apparently he is also blind in one eye from a childhood baseball accident). The guitar line and "Learn from a Legend" DVD series followed.

The infomercial was smothered with every ounce of sales polish that one can endure-all wrapped up in a too good to be true package. "For less than fifty dollars," as Esteban's cheery sidekick explains ($199.80 broken into four installments…plus $18.95 shipping and handling), one gets an acoustic guitar, hard-shell case, strap, picks and strings, "a powerful amp, so you have two guitars in one and can play rock 'n' roll" says Esteban, and the five DVDs. "An $800 value," they say. Someone interested in a no-pressure economical way to play guitar could surely be seduced.

Later that morning, I went to Bed Bath and Beyond to buy a coffeemaker (mom still drinks "instant"). Three Gibson/Baldwin Talent guitars-a small-size acoustic ($59), a full-size acoustic ($79), and an electric with an amp ($129)-met me at the entrance. Previously, such displays annoyed me because our industry's most famous names were allowing themselves to be poorly represented. However, having been awake for only two hours (I hadn't even had coffee yet!) and already bombarded by the idea of playing guitar, the industry analyst in me felt pleased.

I hung around observing customer interactions with the display. Families shopping together generally split up-parents went to "bed" or "bath" while junior went "beyond." A pre-teen brother and sister each strapped on guitars and played "rock star" (it is no wonder why strings were missing). I asked Grandpa, who was with me in the "audience," if his grandchildren had previously expressed interest in playing. He said that they had not, but that "maybe they'll get a guitar for Christmas." A man walked by and strummed the strings. "I always wanted to play guitar," he said to his wife. Others read the descriptions on the boxes stacked behind and then moved on. I asked the checkout clerk about sales. "People are buying them, usually as a gift," she said. "It's the first year we've sold them, so we won't really know how well they are doing until we get the returns."

I also discovered RedOctane's "Guitar Hero II" videogame later that week. With kids often turning to Nintendo and X-box instead of guitars and drums, this might just bridge that gap. Strap on a controller shaped like a Gibson SG (Gibson models are featured throughout the game-got to hand it to Henry!) and get ready to rock-no musical knowledge required. It is about "living the dream," although practice mode, multi-user mode (virtual band), and a need for coordination throw in a dose of reality. As players complete concerts featuring classic and current rock songs, careers advance and virtual money is earned to spend on gear, behind the scenes videos, different characters, etc. (maybe Guitar Hero III will factor in hotel, food, and rehab costs). Could this inspire musical careers and push some gamers back into reality? I think so, and hopefully they will have surpassed mass-merchant mentality and shop where real musicians shop-music stores!

With music programs in public schools dwindling, mass-merchants are clearly helpful in terms of inspiring people to play music and facilitating the first step. Otherwise, these potential "stars" may never be born, or even conceived, and they could represent a significant segment of the future market. If along the way "big boxes" snatch a few entry-level sales from "mom and pop," that may just be the price of exposure-a not so expensive form of advertising. When I found out how much it would cost me to get a "spin" on a major-market radio station (payola lives on, despite what they say), letting people download a couple of my songs for free seemed like an extremely inexpensive proposition. Granted, Best Buy, being an electronics and media store, potentially appears as a legitimate seller of musical instruments and therefore customers may presume that they are getting music store quality. However, a guitar from Bed Bath and Beyond? Get real!

Yet, we must not blur the boundaries. I recently witnessed one of our own carelessly misleading a consumer right into the hands of mass-merchants. The salesman told a kid and his mother that they should buy a Gibson simply because "Gibson is the best." This family (who left the music store in less than five minutes) is probably happy to know that Bed Bath and Beyond only sells "the best."

While the quality of instruments sold through mass-merchants may make one queasy, big business breaking into our industry is a healthy sign. Musical instrument retailers must capture the new market that these giants are creating, but not by competing for their "shopping cart" customers. Instead, focus on quality beginner to intermediate music lessons and reel in multiple instrument upgrades by having teachers educate students and parents about music and equipment. Soon, you will be converting bargain first-time buyers into life-long musical investors-the 20% of customers who bring in 80% of the revenue.

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

An Army of Souls

January 2007 - About once a year I write a column on music lessons. The business of teaching music needs to be addressed, discussed, and improved continuously. It is not only crucial to the survival of independent music stores, but also for the welfare of our society. Frankly, not enough can be written or said on the subject, so this month I am doing both. Fellow NAMM Show attendees: Please join me for an invigorating discussion on Saturday January 20th at 2:30pm in the Idea Center.

The recording industry gloats about statistics indicating that more people use music today than ever before. Indeed, this correctly suggests that the opportunity for musicians to make middle-class livings is fertile. However, no one pursues a career as a musician to make "a living." We go after the dream but are often forced to accept the reality-that is the price of being an artist. Moreover, if the general public is "using" music rather than "appreciating" it, the mystique of musicianship dissipates. I didn't get into this business hoping to one day write a "ring tone," did you? This PR blunder kills the dream with practicality, and combined with society becoming more complacent about music, it is increasingly difficult to recruit and maintain music students.

In addition to guitar clinics, I conduct seminars for teachers at music stores throughout the country. These carefully navigated discussions inspire positive and proactive attitudes toward being better teachers with greater store, community, and industry consciousness. Since I taught for over ten years at an independent music store and have also toured/performed at the highest level, I find myself in a unique position to relate to fellow teachers and their dreams while simultaneously sharing my own knowledge of consumerism, the needs of our industry, and the state of society. In addition to creating a team spirit amongst teachers and sales associates, these dynamic discussions reveal universal obstacles faced by music educators. One common theme is losing students to sports or other extracurricular activities (I played sports and music growing up-there were still only 24 hours in day). Music frequently plays "second fiddle" because as an industry we often fail to create perceived value or provide actual value in the experience of learning to play an instrument.

Lessons given in stores are more important to our industry than those given in homes. It is easy to see how well-structured in-store lesson programs are significant contributors to independent retailers' bottom lines. Regular exposure of inventory to students doesn't hurt either. However, it is perhaps more important to recognize that teaching music is not solely about serving the interests of individuals, but also about promoting community access to the arts. Putting a "storefront" on music making is paramount. Retailers must promote the value of learning music beyond those who are simply seeking a teacher, and they must price lessons high enough to support the claim. This will also positively impact teachers (they will be more valued) and trickle down to everyone else.

Store music teachers must be proactive in soliciting and maintaining students. When I taught at Greenwich Music in Greenwich CT, I often spent my breaks in the showroom trying out guitars and talking with customers who were exploring inventory. Simply asking them what they thought of a particular instrument frequently spawned conversation. I probably closed some sales and certainly earned new students. However, I never did this to seal deals. It is just part of my personality to enjoy spending time with those who share similar passions and interests. This is true of most musicians (most of us play in bands and enjoy "the hang") and one must help music educators get in touch with those basic instincts. Hours upon hours in a quasi sound-proof room listening to unintentionally atonal music is enough to distract anyone from their love of music!

Maintaining students is ultimately the most important task of a teacher. While music may not be for everyone, it can be fun for most. Any teacher with a high turnover rate is doing something wrong. I used to cringe whenever one of my "babysitting gigs" walked through the door for a lesson, and often hoped that he or she would quit. After seeing enough of those kids on Ritalin (no, I'm not jumping on couches with Tom Cruise), I considered those sessions as golden opportunities to change lives for the better-turning kids onto tunes instead of tranquilizers.

Let's face it, social skills are plummeting while typing technique skyrockets. Consider the growing problem of child obesity in proportion to the number of hours spent in front of computers "socializing." Kids must get together more often…for real! If junior loves his lessons, he will share his enthusiasm for music with friends (perhaps via instant message). While some retailers offer programs enabling students to play together, not every store has the space. However, teachers can still work together by introducing their students (and students' parents) to one another. More bands will form, more instruments will sell, more lessons will be taught, and more harmony will be enjoyed by all. The bottom line is that beyond the bottom line, there are many reasons to promote learning music.

The key is to create a team mentality amongst teachers. Despite the difficulties that store owners and managers often have in cultivating this atmosphere, music teachers already possess the passion to create and the desire to share. They just need refocusing. Combine that with collective goals and along comes a sense of responsibility (or to put it more palatably, "opportunity") to help lessons and retail thrive. Music teachers are the soldiers of our industry making strong emotional connections everyday. With proper guidance, they will become a "band of brothers," an "army of souls."
Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

'Tis The Season to be Jolly

December 2006 - Christmas is here! Parents and spouses rush into your store buying musical instruments, spending whatever it takes to make loved ones happy and launch them toward a lifetime of musical euphoria. Everyone knows that you are the place to buy quality instruments. Consumers trust your expertise and value it by purchasing from you. No one sits at home in front of a cozy fire pointing and clicking since they can come to you and pay sales tax, contributing to the maintenance of their own state. Moreover, each customer will sign up for lessons (you can't get that in public schools anymore) and continue studying music at your store indefinitely. Yup, 'tis the season to be jolly!

Did the Grinch steal your Christmas? If the above isn't happening to you, don't fret, you're probably not alone. Holiday expectations were "skeptical" across the board. With a controversial war (did somebody say "invasion?"), a questionable economy, gas prices that should end obesity, and people searching for the cheapest form of "distractment," most music stores are somewhere between "doom and gloom" and "getting by."

Consumerism today makes many independent retailers want to roll over and play dead. However, those who will prevail are survivalists armed with attitude and advertising that commands attention. It's worthless (literally) to compete by offering more (and more) for less. In the race to zero profit, one simultaneously challenges the competition to devalue products and services faster, all in a bid for the lowest common denominator consumer.

Caution to those reading on: I'm in a bad mood. The Scrooge in me is tired of "the market is what it is; listen to your customers; the customer is always right;" etc. I'm also tired of "so-and-so's MAP is too low; they shouldn't sell their products online or in big box stores; unreasonable buy-ins;" etc. I understand gripes about Internet sales tax and mismanaged suppliers (Dan Vedda spelled that out beautifully in October). However, to many other complaints, I say "bah humbug!" For example, I support MAP, but it's just a manufacturer policy to heal their dealers' self-inflicted wounds. Ultimately, retailers far too often shoot themselves in the foot. Stop buying from the big mean manufacturers who screw you. You don't have to. There is no shortage of competitive products from manufacturers with fair practices. Ask George Hines, a very successful retailer who understands this and professed it at a NAMM Breakfast Session. The power of the checkbook hits them where it hurts. If you want to survive, change your attitude. That is the first step to getting the "meanie mannies" to change theirs.

The same goes for customers-they need an education and a "perceived value" adjustment. If you want to attract more lessons, offer high quality education and charge more-somewhere between sports and academic tutoring. For years, I kept raising my rates to weed out students and lighten my load. It worked and it didn't. I rid myself of babysitting gigs but acquired more serious students than I could accommodate. Cost reflects value. Do you want to convert video gamers and instant messengers into music students? Then promote the value of learning music and charge accordingly. Parents will take greater interest, wonder into the store more frequently, and invest in more profitable instruments (the "investment in lessons versus investment in equipment" equation).

Instead of trying to close sales by throwing in "everything but the kitchen sink," show customers that you are committed to earning their business. Advertise a free set of strings, sticks, reeds, etc. not only with instrument purchases, but also when you fail to make the sale-"The Fail to Make the Sale Challenge." If you spend time "selling" to customers who don't buy on the spot, tell them that they will still get the free gift even if they buy a competing product (a brand that you do not sell but is in the same price range) elsewhere-a "thank you" for the opportunity to earn their business. Take their name and note the products that you demonstrated. Tell them that they must bring in the receipt within fifteen days of purchase to receive the free goods. What does this accomplish? 1) It demonstrates how confident you are in your products and services. 2) You have the first opportunity to make the sale and educate each customer on your products and services, sighting quality differences between your "pre-screened" inventory and products infiltrating the indiscriminate marketplace. 3) If you fail to make the sale, you have a chance to see those customers again, find out why you failed (knowledge is power), and earn their business on something else-they may still be within their return period if they bought at a chain or big box, giving you a second chance to make the sale after the fact. Make it fun so that customers won't feel guilty or pressured, and you can laugh with them even if they shopped elsewhere. It's about relationships, so give them a warm fuzzy feeling.

The key is to make your customer service inspire confidence and good will.
Unsure salesmen send customers running; convincing ones have customers paying a premium. It's about selling value. Believe in your products and truly understand them. Your own conviction will permeate the customers.

Finally, while retailers complain about customers' "nickel and diming" and lack of loyalty or appreciation, dealers often treat suppliers/manufacturers in a similar fashion. Suppliers/manufacturers then pass it on to their subcontractors. It's a perverse form of "trickle down economics." Everyone wants the best short-term deal but doesn't consider long-term value. Whatever happened to treating others the way you would like them to treat you? As Gandhi once said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

Taking It To The Streets

November 2006 - The Internet hasn't obliterated the need for human interaction, but it has masked the desire. When I was a kid, those who didn't go out and play in the street were "weird." Today the "weird" kids are playing in the street while "normal" ones hangout online. Even musicians-many of whom entered this business for "the hang"-have surrendered to affordable technology and sacrificed creative synergy by working alone in home studios and uploading "final" productions to the world.

However, I believe that we miss routine human relations without realizing it. Certainly ATMs and Stamps.com facilitate some of life's most pedestrian tasks, but certain activities should naturally inspire the desire for human interaction. Creating music is fun and meant to be communal, and the excitement of exploring and obtaining the gear that gives a voice to one's artistic imagination is enhanced when shared with like-minded people. I have more in common with the people in local music stores-staff and fellow patrons-than in almost any other arena. Visiting Connecticut Music in Stamford CT-where I bought many guitars including my first-is mandatory (actually therapeutic) for me whenever I head north to see family and friends. Furthermore, hanging around independent music stores across the country while on tour effortlessly spawns new friendships.

With "You've Got Mail" as the new "Good Morning" for millions, it is increasingly important for businesses that depend on face-to-face interaction to seek out those opportunities. It is not enough to prevent existing customers from hitting the "information superhighway." One has to penetrate the field and actively steal potential customers from the mouse by meeting them face-to-face and seducing them with personality, enthusiasm, and professionalism. "Horn drives" and similar events at local schools are ideal to secure rental contracts with busy parents. However, to target serious musicians-the industry's middle-class who has drive, resources, and a commitment to investing in their careers-one cannot beat the positive energy environment of music business conferences and festivals.

These multi-day events are popping up everywhere, and manufacturers such as Sennheiser, Bose, and Taylor are seizing the opportunity to connect with potential product users. I regularly engage manufacturers to specifically sponsor my seminars at such events. Greg Bennett Guitars sponsored my opening lecture at this year's Atlantis in Atlanta. Martin Guitars sponsored my presence on panels at both Cutting Edge in New Orleans and the Independent Music Conference in Philadelphia several years ago, as did Brian Moore Guitars at NEMO in Boston.

"While many manufacturers traditionally target larger tradeshow and conference events, they miss the value of Dfest," says Angie DeVour, founder and COO/CFO of Diversafest in Tulsa, OK. "Most folks who actually buy their products don't attend larger events because of high travel costs, badge costs, etc. Because we focus on independent and emerging artists, the bulk of our attendees are independent musicians, independent studio owners, and music enthusiasts. This is a chance to demo products directly to consumers who use them. It can be especially effective to demo new products and see how real musicians respond."

I sat on panels and conducted my "Instant Guitarification" clinic at Dfest this year, and Bose was omnipresent. They provided state-of-the-art sound reinforcement for panels, clinics, and at some outside venues hosting the festival's band performances.

"The Live Music Technology Group (LMTG) at Bose is interested in connecting with musicians who perform at small to medium sized venues-up to 300 or possibly 500 capacity-because this is where the L1 system is designed to be used, and because this venue size demographic fits the vast majority of performing musicians," says Mark Chipeur, Senior Market Representative for LMTG, Bose Corporation. "I made a unilateral decision on behalf of Bose to support Dfest because many of the musicians in attendance fit this demographic. In 2006, I also supported the Folk Alliance Conference in Austin and the Monterey Jazz Festival."

There are likely even greater returns if local music stores are in the loop. Of the 2000 panel and 75000 festival attendees at last year's Atlantis Music Conference and Festival, about 45% were from the Metropolitan area. At Dfest, 15000 attendees (1000 attending panels) were from Tulsa and 56% from Oklahoma-I brought in Firey Brothers (the local Greg Bennett Guitars dealer) to sponsor my clinic. With a growing number of independent retailers having a Web presence, it is priceless to shake hands with potential local customers as well as regional/national ones who could wind up on the other end of the mouse.

"A local instrument store benefits from sponsoring and exhibiting at Atlantis because the clientele they seek are our exact demographics: artists in multiple genres that have enough interest in furthering their careers to attend an educational, networking event in the interest of gaining the knowledge they need to be successful," says Mark Willis, owner/partner of Atlantis. "They gravitate to the music store and musical instrument displays for these very same reasons."

DeVour adds, "There is a budding musician waiting to emerge from nearly every festival attendee, and with the excitement and inspiration that so many feel after attending Dfest-when just regular folks decide it is time to buy a new guitar and take up guitar lessons, or keyboard, drums, trumpet, or fiddle-they are going to be inclined to go to the store whose brand they saw over and over as a sponsor of Dfest."

Perhaps a co-op arrangement between a manufacturer and their local dealer would be the most beneficial for everyone. If the manufacturer bought the sponsorship and the local dealer manned the booth, brand exposure would remain prominent while simultaneously building lasting personal relationships between buyers and sellers. That is after all the key to creating long-term customers.

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

Endorse This!

October 2006 - Endorsement deals have been prevalent in our industry for a long time. With rock stars living the dreams of amateurs, most "wannabes" fantasize about the possibility that playing the same instruments just might produce similar results. Companies in many industries align themselves with celebrities in order to capitalize on "star power," and those in the limelight savor the fruits of free or discounted product and added exposure. However, the staying power of "chart toppers" has diminished and less visible artists consume iPods via iTunes. With more music reaching more people through more channels, it may take more endorsement deals today to achieve the impact of yesterday.

"The conventional wisdom is that advertising and endorsers work, and we subscribe to the conventional wisdom," says Harvey Levy, vice president of Levy's Leathers Ltd. "The president of Coca Cola was once asked if he thought all of his advertising was a waste of money. He allowed that probably 50% was a waste. He just didn't know which 50%. I look at endorsements as part of our advertising budget, and our ability to track the effectiveness of endorsers is as difficult as trying to determine the effectiveness of advertising in general."

Sennheiser's artist relations manager Kristy Jo Winkler adds, "It's not easy pinpointing who will have staying power, but we can get a feel for how an artist's career is going based on conversations with their engineers and crew or management, as well as the partnerships they have already formulated with other companies outside of the music industry. If you're unsigned and unknown and you're a band or engineer that is working 225 shows a year, doing steady promotion, and can show us that you're 'talking nice' about our equipment, we can begin talking and start building a relationship to create trust and credibility. Ultimately, we want all of our artists to become huge stars. Most music manufacturers are not the size of Coca-Cola or Nokia and do not have millions of dollars of advertising budget to spend. So, when millions of people watch the various awards shows and the Super Bowl, and there's an artist on stage we work with using our microphones, we get something we can't afford to buy-mass exposure."

Harvey Levy paid me a great compliment at NAMM in Austin. "I was just telling someone the other day that you are an artist who really understands what manufacturers want." That's both flattering and comforting since I always strive to bring the most value that I can to my business relationships. However, there are many artists who just don't get it, which hurts their own reputations and our industry in general. A fellow musician from a major touring band recently came over to my studio and commented, "You actually play your endorsements! Most guys I know store their endorsements and take what they really like out on the gig." I've heard manufacturers complain about their ability to enforce MAP online due to artists selling their free or discounted new gear for profit on eBay via "Buy It Now." Moreover, I know artists who have sold new gear to students and friends as a favor; they aren't necessarily profiting from the sale, but they are taking business away from local music stores.

Such behavior astounds me. I only solicit deals with manufacturers who want an active long-term relationship for mutual benefit, conduct their business with integrity, and create products that genuinely contribute to my career and artistry-those that were already part of my stage and would continue to be regardless of the professional relationship. When companies solicit me, I make sure that I can use their non-competing products with the same conviction as those that I discovered on my own. Once armed with a complete understanding of their marketing goals and strategy, I'll happily walk down the aisle. Why compromise my integrity and reputation by shopping around for the best endorsement deal on equipment that I'd prefer not to use? I'm in the business of making music, not peddling gear. If I can simultaneously promote products that I truly value, then there are added benefits for everyone.

The problem stems from most artists believing that they are "endorsed" by a manufacturer rather than "endorsing" a product in exchange for sponsorship. Therefore, they feel entitled to the support since the prevailing notion is that they have already earned it. I actually find it more flattering to be "endorsing" than "being endorsed"-it demonstrates that my opinion is valued. To reinforce the structure of the relationship, perhaps endorsement deals should dictate the language to be used publicly-Artist's Name "professionally endorses" Manufacturer's Name. More often than not, the roles are reversed on artist Web sites and press kits. If an artist truly understands that his endorsement is a public declaration of his own feelings and commitment toward a product, he might think twice about undermining his credibility.

With a proper understanding, deals could be engineered to directly benefit dealers on a local or regional level. Why not target in-house music teachers? They are the single biggest influence on students' purchasing decisions. AC/DC's Angus Young made me want to play guitar, but his SG took a back seat to my teacher's Stratocaster. I had the same influence over my students. An application process establishing certain criteria and an agreement to use certain products in lessons could result in free or discounted gear to teachers from their favorite manufacturer(s)-as long as those products are sold through the dealer where they teach. This could even work well as an agreement between teachers and stores.

Endorsement deals can yield great benefits at every level. The trick is to understand the market, the purpose, and the relationship. Artists, manufacturers, dealers, consumers...everybody wins!

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

Pleasantly surprised!

September 2006 - From officials to manufacturers to the most independent of retailers, positive vibes about NAMM's summer show in Austin prevailed. Enough gear-goggled "Nammsters" traversed the floor to create a "worthwhile" atmosphere. "We saw a number of local dealers we wouldn't ordinarily have met" said Karl Kussmaul of Sony Pro Audio. Scott Wunschel of Nady Systems added, "We came to Austin with a regional show mentality and left with much more than a local result, developing new international business that was never much of a summer show plan."

Retailers also seemed pleased, from nearby Sam Gibbs Music in Wichita Falls Texas to distant Union Music in Worcester Massachusetts. Moreover, everyone appeared to value the midyear gathering. "For there not to be a summer show would be symptomatic of a faltering industry," affirmed Linda Smith of Greenwich Music in Greenwich Connecticut. "And Austin is good."

Perhaps upbeat attitudes sprouted from bottomed-out expectations. Most anticipated dismal attendance. The free beer ran out at opening night's The Hang, indicating that even NAMM thought "small." Once the booze ran out, the crowd wasn't far behind.
Off to the races
If NAMM outgrew Nashville, it's now small enough to go back, although Nashville's maiden voyage was only a third the size of Austin's. Products ranged from the novice's crutch to the professional's delight, but one could cover the floor in a day. I discovered self-tuning guitar machine heads for those who can't tune by ear (or use a tuner, apparently). Who wants to hear guitar players who can't learn to tune? Isn't that part of ear training? Conversely, Sony's PCM-D1 portable recorder-using high quality condenser microphones and recording beyond CD quality-reminds us that iPod's must not be the standard by which musicians create their art. Nothing beats truly great sound; let's inspire the world to appreciate it!

Local reps Cowser-Lee capitalized on the significant regional presence. Dealers received "passports" on which they could earn five stamps by visiting each of Cowser-Lee's manufacturers-Samick, Gator, Sony, Casio, and Show Solutions. Completed passports were drawn for prizes. Each manufacturer contributed something, and Cowser-Lee shelled out for the grand prize-a cruise!
Bacon n' eggs
Friday's NAMM U "Breakfast Session" began with an emotional guitar presentation to terminally ill child Trent Brumblow, whose dream to attend NAMM was granted by Make-A-Wish Foundation. This was a necessary reminder of how privileged we are to facilitate the artistic dreams of others.

Joe Lamond's insightful "State of the Industry" followed. I enjoyed manufacturer Mathias Von Heydekampf of Telex Communications metaphoric explanation of how "the demo makes the sale." Like cappuccino over coffee, one must raise the quality standards of consumers through demos, letting them "taste" better products for which they will be willing to stand in line and pay more. However, Sterling Ball "spontaneously" intruding to share his opinions after the floor had been turned over to retailers was a slap in the little guy's face. The manufacturers had already been heard, and this "extension" resulted in the retailers' eventually beginning with "I know we're behind so I'll talk quickly." They are the face of our industry-the liaisons between products and people. No one influences and encounters the "state" of our industry more than retailers. They need to be heard.
Saturday's "Town Hall Meeting" was more condescending toward retailers. This was their opportunity to address critical issues and receive explanations from "the other side." Yet, most answers focused on faults and responsibilities of retailers rather than how the industry could unite on these contentious subjects. "It really fell short of saying what's on people's minds," remarked Smith. "Major issues such as tiered pricing should have been addressed, as well as further justification for manufacturers going into big box stores."

Bill Mendello, CEO of Fender, explained their choice to do business with mass-merchants, but left many retailers reaching for the knife twisting in their backs. "The decision is, what do we think is best for us and the industry? Our research shows that 90% of the people in the US have never stepped into a music store, and we believe that some of these people who have not stepped into a music store may have the inclination to want to play a musical instrument. We believe that mass-merchants attract that other 90%." He also claimed, "The average Fender buyer goes on to buy 14 guitars in his lifetime" (suggesting that independents get 13 sales from the untapped 90%).

What's the likelihood that mass-market consumers will upgrade at independent stores? They'll probably go from Costco to Guitar Center or the "tax-less" Internet. The independents' foothold is with entry-level customers, and therefore Fender is pulling the rug from under those who pioneered their brand. Granted, they attempt to keep independents involved with free strings or lesson coupons redeemable at their stores. However, Smith wonders, "Has anyone done a survey to see how many coupons have actually been redeemed?"

I'd like to see a structured debate between panels of retailers and manufacturers, moderated and timed. Questions could be advanced so that complete answers are delivered efficiently. Spontaneous rebuttals would seal any holes. One could draw conclusions on MAP, the "Big Box" reality, Internet policies, etc.

NAMM struggles with their members feeling poorly represented, hence the rise of Aimm, faimm, and other retailer associations. Sure, NAMM is "in bed" with manufacturers whose booths fund the show. However, that revenue is used to grow the market and provide member services. In some respects, NAMM is a funnel through which manufacturers contribute to the survival of retailers. That's not a bad thing, and the more the industry supports NAMM, the more NAMM can support the industry. Do independents need their own association? "Nay" I say. Instead, empower and influence the one you've got!

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

Musical Lifestyles

August 2006 - The musical instruments industry is on a mission to make creating music part of everyone's lifestyle. In an effort to grow the market, manufacturers strategically place products in the backgrounds of films, TV shows, magazine shoots, and commercials. Cross promotions with companies including Xerox and Hewlett Packard can be seen on TV, at airports, and in other public arenas. The presence of instruments in Average Joe's daily activities should raise his awareness and hopefully inspire participation. In conjunction with the campaign, decent (and not so decent) Asian manufactured instruments are accessible to just about everyone. If the repeated suggestion to make music intercepts enough Xbox bound teenagers, we're on the right track!

However, it's not all "peachy keen." Making music part of everyone's lifestyle also extinguishes the aura surrounding one's ability to create music. By promoting it as something that anyone can do, the commitment to developing one's talent is less seducing, and those requiring instant gratification (and who isn't these days, although some prefer to call it "A.D.D.") are bound to be disenchanted. I recently had a talented student shift his focus to martial arts. "There is nothing special about being able to play guitar," he asserted. "Every kid in school is playing an instrument." Plus, his parents wanted him to develop a "unique" skill set for college applications.

Frankly, it sounds like just about anyone is making music today. Exceptional factory presets and computer generated beats will turn the talent-less into self-proclaimed "musicians" and "producers." Add a creative publicist to the mix and their concoctions surf the airwaves, further diminishing the publicly perceived standard of musicianship. Even the Grammy Awards have become somewhat of an industry embarrassment.

Catering to the lowest common denominator doesn't always work. Take the airline industry for example. Discount tickets and ruthless competition following airline deregulation in 1978 has shrunk margins resulting in poor service, unfairly treated employees, questionable safety, and ultimately a lower quality of customer-yesterday's loyal jetsetters wore jackets and ties while today's bottom feeding frequent flyers sport tank tops and flip flops. Once upon a time, flying was special. Now it's the equivalent of a Greyhound bus with wings. Consequently, frustrated customers who can afford to fly turn to the roads instead.

We are creating a similar scenario by becoming a discount business and "de-specializing" the process of becoming a musician. The mass appeal approach has paved the way for Linens 'n Things, Target, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart to provide musical instruments of questionable quality without any guidance. The industry is targeting Average Joe who prefers to shop the faceless Internet or big box retailer rather than a potentially intimidating music store. Adding insult to injury, schools are omitting music programs and teenagers hang out "cyberly" instead of getting together and forming bands. Genuine enthusiasm for making music is fading, and the repercussions show up on both sides of the counter. Musical instruments may be an industry in decline.

A college professor specializing in international education gratuitously responded to my two-part column about First Act and Wal-Mart. He tracks pop culture to get a shorthand view of global perception, and argued that customers prefer to buy instruments online and in mass-market retailers because traditional music stores are intimidating, condescending, and rarely provide the basic services that I claimed they do.

"Last year I shopped most of the music stores in my state with $100 bill in my pocket with the intent to spend it all anywhere on anything that a salesperson could convince me on," he said. "The lack of customer service and unfriendly atmosphere ran me out of all of them, without spending a penny. Music stores treat customers like they are impositions, not customers. The lack of musical involvement in our culture is related to music stores and their lame effort in servicing customers, not Wal-Mart and not First Act!"

Indeed, some customers may actually be an imposition given current consumer mentality of demanding more for less in exchange for no loyalty! However, if that frustration is universally projected onto everyone who walks in the door, retailers must take some responsibility for digging their own graves. If consumers can no longer find inspiration or convenience at the local music store, there may be no reason to come in at all. Like the traveler who opts for the road instead of the skies, he will still ultimately reach his destination.

I have certainly heard others complain about independent retailers as well, and have had disappointing experiences of my own-sales associates saying they would be right with me but then forgot, guitars on racks with the grimiest of strings, etc. At times I have been very disappointed with the lack of "set-up" of instruments that my own students purchased at local stores. Granted, this is only a percentage of customers and dealers, but a few bad apples…as the saying goes. It will take unilateral pride and passion to justify the existence of the independent retailer in today's consumer climate.

"Music as a lifestyle" offers benefits in terms of broadening the market and exposing musical opportunities, but there needs to be a balance. People pay more for exclusive experiences and are willing to invest more for greater return. So, why hand out musicianship with a generic attitude at a disposable price? Creating music must be sold as something worthy of commitment and investment. As the world becomes more global, society seems to become more artistically and culturally oblivious. One must showcase the dream, provide the inspiration, and participate in customers' artistic development-all at the local community level. Music stores are galleries of artistic euphoria and personal opportunity. Let's project that image into the world. Isn't that why you opened your doors in the first place?

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

Objects of Desire

July 2006 - As one who studies our industry, I must be aware of the latest trends and technology in the music community. Furthermore, as a professional musician I need to know about the hottest gear to help me execute my craft. I have a wonderful opportunity to visit music stores across the country while on my Instant Guitarification clinic tours. Consequently, I come across lots of gear-some I own, some I know, and some I yearn to discover-but often find that I am more knowledgeable than the salesmen about products that interest me. Granted, most music stores are thinly staffed. One cannot expect sales associates to stay on top of the rapidly developing technology packed into every computerized gizmo that is "state of the art" today but obsolete tomorrow. Conversely, if complete and accurate information is not obtainable from a music store, why leave the house in the first place? The Internet will provide the facts, so why not start-and possibly finish-online? One word: Inspiration.

Customers want their eyes opened and time saved if they are going to make the effort to visit a music store. People are busier than ever, and targeted product recommendations that enhance their artistic productivity are paramount. For those who don't have hours to read trades, look at ads, surf endlessly on the Web, or buy something at Guitar Center and explore it for 30 days (only to find that it doesn't fit their needs and must be returned), the local music store should be the most efficient source of musical inspiration and personalized product recommendations.

This is where "mom and pop" can leave the "shareholders" choking in the dust. It's important to understand the products that one sells, but it is potentially more important to understand your customer-not just his immediate needs. Why? The 80/20 rule of marketing: 80% of your business comes from 20% of your customers. Trying to be all things to all people doesn't work unless one is peddling for peanuts in the Wal-mart world. Guitar Center is an excellent product education and fulfillment store. I am frequently impressed by the well-informed department oriented employees, as long as I let them know exactly what I want. However, with so many products and customers, getting to know the clientele beyond their immediate needs is unrealistic. I rarely discover anything interesting at Guitar Center (the noisy and impersonal environment isn't conducive), but can often find the item that I request.

Until about fifteen years ago, I regularly visited my local music store, perused the inventory, and explored the unknown. They knew me well (I was a local college kid) and always drew my attention to items that they thought would peak my interests-not with dollar signs in their eyes, but simply pure pleasure in nurturing my musical growth. Sometimes they would gratuitously call me about something that had just arrived. I bought at least three guitars, a couple of processors, and an amp or two (plus many more strings, straps, etc.) that I otherwise may never have discovered. These tools were instrumental (pun intended) in my musical development. Moreover, whenever I felt like I was in a tonal rut, that store was my "one stop inspiration shop."

However, for the next ten years I avoided music stores entirely. Guitar Center and Sam Ash were germinating and I found them unfriendly-once they noticed me they would talk down to me. The independent stores diverged. Some tried to compete by stocking something for everyone and thus lacked product knowledge. Others only sold what the chains did not, resulting in an insufficient selection. I started doing my own product research through trades and catalogs, and Santa Claus put on his brown suit and delivered merchandise to my doorstep all year round.

Most professionals know what they want and prefer to shop where they know it is in stock. It's not surprising that so many mention Guitar Center as their music store of choice in the "Toy Store" column, especially since GC is very good at stroking celebrity egos. When I lived in New Orleans, I was treated like a star every time I walked into Guitar Center (my Martin Guitar ad was displayed throughout the store). There was no shortage of employees taking care of me, and the manager usually came out to say hello. However, humble settings are often more inviting. "Mom and Pop" can make a star feel at home and "Average Joe" feel like a star.

As computer chips shrink and owners manuals grow, manufacturers need to do more to help dealers effectively represent their products. Inspire dealers to represent the line, but ultimately let them choose what to stock. They will be better representatives if they focus on products that best serve their markets. Provide them with a product demonstration DVD-perhaps five minutes of sales tips for employees and ten minutes of demonstration for customers, per product. This should not be available direct to the public; the idea is to keep customers in the store with the equipment. Every dealer should invest two hundred bucks in a DVD/TV combo (or two) for customer education. Discs could play in rotation and on demand.

Inspiring the needs of the core 20% of customers is imperative. One must understand their dreams, desires, and goals; and then lead the way. Dealers are not financial advisors. Too many sales associates go right to the bottom of the food chain, probably in the hopes of securing an immediate sale over the competition. Instead, ignite their dreams by showing the most desirable solution to their needs, regardless of price. Then, back track if necessary and offer less expensive alternatives-an intermediate step toward obtaining their ultimate "object of desire."

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

Act 2 (part 2 of 2)

June 2006 - Last month I told you about the "First Act Challenge." The gentleman at First Act's NAMM booth suggested that I buy a guitar at Wal-mart to dispel any notion that First Act may be turning off potential musicians (rather than giving birth to them) due to product quality. The company firmly believes that they are creating musicians out of mass-market shoppers whose interest in guitar is sparked upon seeing very affordable options at Wal-mart, Target, Linens and Things, etc. This article is not intended to be a product review. My goal is to determine if the $75 guitar-which I purchased on the same receipt as paper towels, coffee filters, and other household items…go figure-will ultimately inspire musical interest and foster musical growth.

Once home with the retro looking bright red ME501, I was anxious to take it for a spin. Upon first strum, all strings were slightly flat except for the "G"-almost two whole tones sharp. Fortunately, the package includes a "Quick Start Guide" offering several methods for tuning. However, it presumes that the first-timer has a sense of pitch. In reality, most beginners do not. Furthermore, I suspect those diving into the world of music via Wal-mart may be more "out of tune" than most. Even after several lessons it can be difficult to hear which direction one must turn the peg, especially when it is significantly flat or sharp like this "G" string. There is a good chance that the string will break during the process. Then what? Will the "Quick Start Guide" also tell you how to change the strings? As a matter of fact it does.

I tuned up and began examining the neck. It was chunky but straight, and relatively easy to play given the very low action. However, the guitar continuously went out of tune. Since I am likely the first human to have touched it since it landed on US shores, the strings needed to be stretched (the directions did not tell me that). That solved the problem except for the "B" string which continued to detune slightly-most likely a slipping peg. Over the course of a week, the low action became too low. A neck/action adjustment would fix the buzzing, and the "Quick Start Guide" does explain how to regulate the action and truss rod (yes, this guitar has a truss rod).

It would be irrelevant to compare this to a professional instrument given the price point and target market. However, First Act claims that Paul Westerberg of The Replacements bought one at Wal-mart while shopping for shaving cream and loved it so much that he used it (the guitar, and possibly the shaving cream as well) on tour. I honestly cannot figure out that one. Nevertheless, I have my very first "six string"-a Cort which cost my parents a little more than $75 twenty years ago-and this seems like a more suitable comparison. The ME501 excelled in every way (although I personally prefer the appearance of my Cort). The First Act played better and while the pickups are nondescript, they are suitably clean. I brought it to a student of mine who was unimpressed, but he volunteered that it outplayed his first guitar as well.

Ultimately, if my Cort inspired me to play, this First Act could do the same for others. However, because of the required maintenance, the presence of a friend or relative with guitar experience would be required-no one should spend $40 for a professional "set-up" in order to make a $75 guitar playable. I believe that a novice in my shoes would rather return the product to Wal-mart. Conversely, if the guitar had been purchased in a music store, the dealer would have educated the customer on the instrument as well as explain where it falls in the "food chain." Moreover, the guitar would have been tuned before it left the store, and the dealer would have been available to resolve any action and tuning problems. What would Wal-mart do for me?

I boxed up the guitar and took it back to the store. "The guitar is out of tune," I told the customer service person. Before I knew it, she scanned the box and handed me a receipt showing a $75 (plus tax) refund on my credit card. There was no conversation at all since this was all that they could offer.

"Does this just go back on the shelf?" I asked. "No," she said. "It goes back to the factory so they can fix it, and then they will ship it out again." What a great deal for UPS! So, what would a typical Wal-mart guitar purchaser do next? Would he go to a music store or buy a video game? I would bet that someone who never knew that they wanted a guitar until they saw it at Wal-mart would trade-in this experience for a less cumbersome video game.

If Wal-mart/First Act creates quitters out of those who otherwise would not have tried, then "no harm no foul." However, I am concerned about those who are interested and decided to test the waters with a cheap option. Ultimately, only time will tell. First Act reports significant sales, and if overall guitar sales are increasing proportionately, then First Act is providing our entire industry a very valuable service. Now they are breaking into the MI channel, opening brand showrooms, and promoting a custom shop that is luring high profile endorsements. It is a smart company with big plans, significant resources, and a strong commitment to what they do. As for the competition, they ought to roll up their sleeves and figure out a way to educate up-and-coming musicians on where to find Act 2.

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

Act 1 (part 1 of 2)

May 2006 - One of my winter NAMM missions was to learn about the company that many believe compromises the guitar industry-First Act. The manufacturer dominates the selling of guitars through mass-market chains. They are snagging entry level customers from traditional music instrument retailers-or-perhaps they have simply captured a market that Moms and Pops didn't want but now wish they had. These mass-market capitalists saw an opportunity that our own industry warriors overlooked. However, the product quality has ignited debate about the ultimate impact of their existence.

To be or not to be?
Ever since First Act hit the scene, traditional dealers have complained. "Customers are coming in with Wal-mart guitars that don't play and are not even fixable. Then I'm the bad guy because I won't, or can't, fix a guitar that they shouldn't have bought in the first place!" If this is the experience for a first time guitar buyer, that potential musician will probably remain "potential" while turning to video games instead.

"The fundamental purpose of First Act is to promote and deliver the opportunity to play music to everybody who wants it," states the company's Web site quoting Bernard Chiu, Chairman of the Board. "This is the dream I will fulfill, and the mantra that our people all live and work by everyday."

Certainly some of our industry bigwigs (Fender, Epiphone, Samick, etc.) deliver that opportunity "to everybody who wants it," and they do it better than anyone else through knowledgeable music dealers. However, promoting the opportunity in mass-market arenas may indeed inspire those who never knew that they wanted it. Regardless, if the instrument ultimately frustrates rather than encourages, a guitar was sold at the cost of a lifetime of music (not to mention musical purchases).

NAMM booth #4268
I had never actually touched a First Act guitar but had seen them through plastic windows in cardboard boxes stacked at Wal-mart. A young long-haired fellow was working the company's booth. As I perused the guitars, he smiled and asked me to let him know if I needed anything. Then, an older corporate-ish gentleman passed by and offered his help. "I'm interested in learning more about the line," I said. "I write for the Music and Sound Retailer. I'm one of the people in this industry that has given you a hard time." (I suppose I wouldn't make a good MI Spy!)

We discussed how the company was founded by mass-market veterans rather than professional guitar players or builders, and that First Act now must breach the professional market in order to give credibility to the brand (which they are attempting to do with custom-shop models, high profile endorsements, and a music store line). I conveyed that many of us in the industry feel that potential musicians are better served buying "dream making" tools in venues that provide a high level of product education and service. He certainly didn't disagree, but maintained that he unequivocally believes that First Act in Wal-mart is uncovering potential musicians who otherwise would not be interested. I countered, "Okay, but isn't it possible that the quality is turning people off rather than encouraging them to pursue music?" Then he punched me-kidding! "The only way to judge is for you to go to Wal-mart and buy one for yourself," he said. "If I send you one, there is no proof that what I send you is representative of what the average customer purchases in the store."

Scratching the itch
Recently, a credit card company sent me a $10 gift card to Wal-mart as a "thanks" for subscribing to some service to which I don't remember subscribing. This reminded me of the "First Act Challenge," so my wife and I ventured off to our "local" Wal-mart (I am one of the few who live over an hour away from a Wal-mart). We filled our cart with paper towels, coffee filters, and a paperback novel. We didn't see any guitars until we approached the cashier. There it was: a bright red First Act electric guitar on the exiting side of the checkout lanes. There was only one model available (ME501 "Custom Single Cutaway Body"), offering no opportunity to compare features. However, this $159.92 guitar was "rolled back" to only $98. It certainly seemed like a great deal.

I asked customer service for some information and was told to inquire in the "Vision Center." Why would eye glasses and guitars share a department? I entered the Vision Center and stood patiently in line with visually impaired fellow shoppers. I asked for some information and the eyeglass specialist replied, "I don't know anything about them other than that you need an amplifier and a cord." It reminded me of a time when I asked a Wal-mart employee how to use a steam cleaner and he replied "You plug it in." Anyone contemplating a guitar purchase would have to gamble, but there was little to lose given the 30 day return policy.

I placed the guitar in the cart with the paper towels, coffee filters, etc. It rang up as $75! "Why, since it was marked at $98?" I asked the cashier. She didn't know (or particularly care). I was so pleased to save the extra $23-and bewildered by purchasing a guitar and coffee filters on the same receipt-that I completely forgot to use my gift card!

On the drive home I debated whether I wanted First Act to shine or flounder. If they shine, the public's perceived value of guitars and consequently the perceived value of playing guitar could decline. If they flounder, than many a star may never be born. What could I expect for $75? What should I expect? Stay tuned for the second act next month.

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.


April 2006 - Now that you have paid your annual debt to Uncle Sam, did you remember to include the "sales and use" tax due for online purchases? Sure, we think we save a few bucks clicking instead of schlepping, but unless we settle up every April, Uncle Sam (or one of his fifty nephews and nieces) may come knocking.

"Currently, consumers are legally required to pay a corresponding use tax on online purchases when the seller does not collect the sales tax," states www.e-fairness.org-a coalition advocating fairness for businesses and consumers. "Many consumers do not understand their use tax responsibility, and compliance with use tax requirements is very low. Therefore, millions of Americans that shop on the Internet or through catalogs are in violation of the law."

Perhaps this is the message to convey to brick and mortar browsers who ultimately buy online. A little education can go a long way. I know people who regularly copied CDs until I asked, "Would you go to Tower Records and walk out with one under your jacket?" Granted, people feel guiltier about taking money from "starving artists" than the government. Yet, it won't hurt to remind customers who bargain with "sales tax" that unless they report online purchases and pay the owed tax (plus the accountant who puts it all together), they are breaking the law.

Opposing i-pinions
Internet sales tax is a big buzz in our industry, as is criticism of our "instant gratification" society. While online retailers have a "final price" advantage over most brick and mortar, traditional stores maintain the "instant gratification" advantage-as long as they are conveniently located with ample parking, have product in stock, and demonstrate stellar customer service.

"I don't think sales tax really makes the difference for most customers" says Jay Heath of Middletown Music, Middletown, Delaware. "I find over the top customer service to be the ultimate closer. Winning customers from the Internet and catalogs has been our objective from day one."

Don Edwards of Bronstein Music, San Francisco CA, has a different point of view. "The lack of sales tax online has a tremendous impact. I no longer sell synthesizers because customers can and do buy them online for 8.5% less." Indeed, a synthesizer has less individuality than a guitar. Edwards continues, "A customer came in last Saturday to buy a flight case for his new synthesizer. I asked him where he bought the synth and he sheepishly admitted 'online.' When I asked him why he chose not to buy it from a local dealer, he answered 'sales tax.'"

Why such different opinions? For starters, Delaware is one of five states without sales tax (Alaska, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon are the others). Therefore, one could also argue that retailers in those states share the unfair advantage. They may lose fewer customers to the Internet and even draw customers from across the state line (who may ultimately pay more in gas than they save on tax). However, Heath balances that equation. "The fact is commercial real estate, rents, and advertising are all higher here than in neighboring states. This is all driven by the 'tax-free' advantage."

Catalogs have offered tax free shopping for a long time, but the Internet has surely increased "out of state" purchases. Moreover, "free shipping" is the ultimate mouse trap. How do online retailers offer such incentive? They have to if they want to compete in cyber-land-customers expect it. "We leverage the economics of the Internet to offer you enormous savings over anything we have seen," states Music123.com, a prominent music retailer on the Internet. That must mean less overhead, volume purchasing discounts, and volume shipping discounts. Furthermore, certain manufacturers have been known to drop ship orders, and perhaps some still do.

Googling over guitars
Shopping often begins on the Internet, even if one is simply searching for a local dealer. Google "Schecter" and the first thing one sees is: "Schecter at Music123.com. 1000s of guitars in stock, free shipping, 45 day returns." Click and "the Internet's most comprehensive music super store" offers a tax free price on a guitar with which the consumer will venture into his local store, armed and ready to negotiate. This is a double whammy because the online retailer arms the customer but probably loses the sale, and "mom and pop" services the customer making virtually no profit-unless, of course, the manufacturer enforces a responsible MAP yielding reasonable margins.

"Customers want to see and touch it first," remarks Edwards. "Then they tell us how they value personal service and want to buy from us…as long as we match the online price." Ultimately, Bronstein has to sell at 8.5% below MAP to close that deal, service included! Otherwise, they are just a showroom for the "virtual" competition.

Dick Cheney
Manufacturers shaking hands with retailers cross competing over different mediums could backfire, and drop shipping is shooting one's friend in the face. If unfair Internet competition persuades brick and mortar stores to stop carrying certain products, online retailers may struggle to sell those items that consumers can no longer experience locally. "I try to buy smart and only carry products that offer an even playing field to smaller independent dealers such as myself," says Heath. "If I can't compete with the catalogs, boxes, and the Internet, I'll simply get behind an alternate product."

Until there is sales tax reform, a change in product distribution, or a different consumer mentality (don't hold your breath), traditional retailers must focus on services that will always be needed, not simply "valued." "There are two things one can't get online," says Edwards, "music lessons and repairs. Accessories is definitely one of the keys, but you need a happenin' school to sell a lot of them."

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.


March 2006 - Like many of us, I survived a very full schedule in Anaheim! Between "All Star Guitar Night," NAMM University, and the booths of companies that I endorse as a performer, I was fortunate to speak with many of you and gain a broader perspective of the trade show and the impact that it has on our industry. Thanks for stopping me in the booths, aisles, lobbies and elevators. I greatly appreciate your comments, insight, and encouragement.

The NAMM Show is always filled with great prospects. Opportunities present themselves frequently if one is prepared to recognize and capitalize on them. As Evan Skopp, VP of Sales and Marketing for Seymour Duncan/Baseline Pickups, eloquently surmised, "NAMM is more than just meeting with USA dealers: it's about forging and strengthening business relationships with existing dealers, international distributors, OEM customers, end users, vendors, the press, artists, and, perhaps most importantly, potential customers. Plus, it gives us the opportunity to let all those relationships benefit from the face-to-face contact. There's something infinitely more 'human' about a handshake and a smile that you just can't duplicate with a mere pdf attached to an e-mail."

NAMM University is worth the trip alone. I have presented seminars at the past three shows and attendance has consistently been impressive. Sharing information is the best way to strengthen our industry. Even though there is so much "Nammification" competing for one's time, educating ourselves about issues and potential solutions empowers us to run our businesses and impact our industry and communities more effectively.

"NAMM really stepped up to the plate for the record breaking free breakfast 'Big Issues' event," agrees Johnny Thompson, speaking on behalf of the California independent retailers association, Music For Everyone. "This is going to pay off big time in the education about these issues and the beginning of NAMM's proactive stance in dealing with the tough issues of our time. NAMM stood up for the entire industry in their effort to help create more trade between suppliers, sellers and consumers."

Patrick Cummings, president of iGuitar Inc., is also a big proponent of NAMM University but feels that more can be done to put our industry on the cutting edge. "One area that is lacking is training dealers to modernize their guitar department with computers and guitar related software," he says. "Tim Ryan, CEO of M-Audio, said 'the computer is becoming the center of the universe for musicians,' and I agree. There is tremendous 'ad-on' revenue for retailers that sell computer based products to guitarists; it cannot be ignored." Cummings would also like to see free wireless access to all exhibitors at the shows. Perhaps that would help bring web presence and interactive technologies to the forefront.

After hours
All Star Guitar Night, Acoustic Café, and PRS and Sennheiser parties boasted phenomenal talent and superb entertainment. "We see and hear so many great musicians reminding us that NAMM Music Convention is about the music as well as the business," says Thompson. Skopp concurs, "The evening parties give us a chance to meet with our business partners in a relaxed setting, plus we get a chance to listen to great music-which is the tie that binds all of us in this industry, at least on some level."

However, evening events can be a bit daunting after long hours on the trade floor. Too many attendees "crash" in their hotel rooms trying to escape the volume barrage in public forums. "Maybe we're getting old, but after eight hours of extreme intensity on the show floor, the last think we need is more of the same blaring loudness in every hotel lobby," remarks Dick Boak of CF Martin Guitars. Perhaps if NAMM gave everyone a sonic "time out" between day and evening activities, the talent-filled concerts would be appreciated by more "Nammsters."

In the books
Many manufacturers reported increased NAMM traffic and sales over previous years. "We saw the main difference in international attendance," said Stefanie Reichert, VP Marketing for Sennheiser USA. "Many more global Sennheiser customers came to this year's show. NAMM has become a truly international event."

Others feel that it would be more cost effective to bring dealers to company headquarters for a focused product education, eliminating the competition from neighboring booths. However, like a musician trying to grow a following in a crowded bar with big screen TVs and "sex-starved" singles looking to feed their cravings, the setting becomes a barometer of one's ability to steal attention from the competition.

"Much of the displays are the same as last year, but there are always products and suppliers that I am not familiar with," says Thompson. "I always find important new additions to our inventory." From the manufacturer's side, Boak adds, "Exhibiting at NAMM is critical to our business. It is our vehicle to introduce our new ideas to the musical community and it is where we write the majority of our advance orders for the year. To convey this amount of energy, product and information individually to our dealers would be inefficient and ineffective."

Winter 2006 is in the books. Perhaps the current problem with the summer shows is our own skepticism about moving to new cities. While one cannot ignore a struggling economy and increased competition for consumer attention, embracing Austin could push fourth quarter figures above 2005's. NAMM is not effective without industry support. From the smallest dealer to the largest manufacturer, just showing up helps unite our industry. Together, we can prevent musically detached businesses from taking our beloved bull by the horns. Moreover, we can transform our industry from "discount" to "added value." See you in Austin, which according to the Texans is "the live music capital of the world!"

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

Lasting Impressions

February 2006 - The desire to play an instrument is often inspired by artists with whom one identifies. AC/DC was my initial source of inspiration and guitarist Angus Young represented the energy and showmanship that lured me toward the instrument (evident in my Junior High School videos where I traversed the stage like a chicken on steroids). However, I favored the Fender Stratocaster-the "other" guitar that big rock stars played-over Young's Gibson. While Fenders and Gibsons were out of my parents' price range, a "Strat" style Cort (around $100) fit the bill. I was thrilled with it because it paved the way to a "professional" brand. As my tastes broadened to Clapton, Cray, and Stevie Ray, I wanted a real "Strat" more than ever. However, my teacher was selling his 1970's Les Paul Custom (it was too heavy for him following a car accident) so I bought it for $600. I finally played what the pros played, and an American Standard Stratocaster came next. Over the next decade, I only bought Fenders and Gibsons. Ironically, I don't own either brand today.

First Impression
While shopping at Best Buy a few days ago, I heard guitar strums competing with blaring TVs from the "Home Theater" department. My ears lead me to a disgraceful display of two Fender "Starcasters" and two Gibson/Baldwin "Signature" models-an SG and a Les Paul. To the left, the boxed inventory laid flat on top of one another, each carton with a large plastic window revealing the enclosed guitar. It was like buying a toy truck at Kmart. GHS strings, Shure and Audio Technica microphones, and a tuner hung behind. The display guitars sat gingerly on cheap stands, and both Fenders were missing high "E" strings. The plastic wrap over the pick guards were filthy and one was severely peeling off. Each product (they were not presented in a manner worthy of the term "instrument") sold for around $175. I felt genuinely sad to see these legendary brands-my childhood dreams-reduced to a "Tonka Toy." Furthermore, parents can toss them into shopping carts while running errands with junior in tow. "I'll get you a 'Fender' if you stop hitting your sister!"

Inquiring Minds
While specialty music stores also sell inexpensive Squires and Epiphones, most possess the knowledge and integrity to educate customers about the product. I flagged down a Best Buy salesman and asked him to explain the differences between Fenders and Gibsons. He was stumped. I pursued the investigation and commented that the Fenders had a narrow "thingy near the metal" (single coil in the bridge position) and the Gibsons had wider "thingys" (humbuckers). He agreed. So, I also mentioned that the Fenders had five strings while the Gibsons had six. He counted them and confirmed that this was indeed a difference, but added that he was not sure that it was supposed to be that way. I asked for a more knowledgeable salesman so he suggested that I inquire in "Music" (CDs). After ten minutes of searching there for knowledge, I gave up.

The cashier asked me if I found everything I needed. "I couldn't get any help with electric guitars," I responded. So she phoned the folks in "Home Theater."

"Is there someone who can help a customer with 'gwitars?'" she asked. The person on the other end could not understand what she was talking about. "Gwitars, I said. Gwitars!" She was then transferred to the "Music" department. Of course, I already knew that was futile. "We might make a sale if someone can help this customer!" she yelled into the phone. They transferred her to "Media" where someone was finally willing to help. She handed me the phone so I asked my question. He responded, "I was the guy helping you earlier. If no one in the 'Music' department could help, then we just can't help you."

Changing Lanes
Unfortunately, I find this experience typical of "big box" customer service. However, what disappoints me is not the retailer (I don't expect more), but the representation of our industry's most famous brands-the ones we see most in movies and on TV. If I were "Average Joe" trying to buy junior a guitar at Best Buy, I would probably end up with a video game instead. Manufacturers understandably need to explore new retail channels as Internet and mass market become a larger part of the retail landscape. However, to increase the public's interest in playing music, there must be pride and integrity in how "playing music" is presented. It is not the same as "playing the radio" or "playing a video game" and should not be sold in the same context. Musicians "create" music, requiring talent, practice, and commitment. This should be marketed as something valuable and worthy of investment. Why not empower independent stores-who care about the products-to reach broader markets through co-op advertising, dealer events/clinics, MAPS with profitable margins, in-store product training, and countless other vehicles?

Earning and owning quality brand name instruments instills pride, value, and commitment to my musical studies, recordings, and performances. Fender and Gibson are benchmarks for guitarists and manufacturers. Those "standards" should be cherished and maintained. How can we expect the public to value instruments when our own industry appears to neglect them? If we present musicianship as something worth "earning" (and I don't mean by not physically beating one's sibling), "investing in," and "cultivating," perhaps arts education would once again be valued by schools and society overall. That would help create long-term multiple musical instrument investors rather than one-time disposable product purchasers. Anything "long-term" seems counterintuitive to today's corporate "quarterly report" mentality, and increasing mergers and acquisitions widen the distance between CEOs and communities. However, a self-sustaining industry must cultivate the cultural interests that feed it.

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

Teaching Values

January 2006 - Music lessons need to be valued more by everyone. I often speak about the importance of reprogramming consumers' perception of instrument value, but perhaps this is even more critical. If learning to play music required greater financial investment and the industry pushed for it to be specialized rather than part of everyone's lifestyle, the perceived value of music in and of itself would likely rise. Those stealing songs (illegally downloading and burning CDs) and photocopying sheet music might give a second thought to copyright. Public schools slashing arts programs from budgets-sending the message that music is not important-might encounter added pressure to reconsider their position. Who knows, maybe we would hear better music on the radio!

Independent music retailers must seize the opportunity and accept the responsibility to provide music education by offering lessons and charging appropriately. It upsets me that many retailers practically "give" lessons away. Music instruction should cost at least as much as athletic trainers and academic tutors. Playing sports may build team spirit, discipline, and social skills-as does playing in a band-but learning music also develops critical thinking (Jessica Simpson notwithstanding). This additional ability procures achievement in every other subject, yet is not cultivated in today's "force it in rather than pull it out" teaching methods in schools.

If neighboring stores cooperatively increased the cost of music lessons, they would create better musical experiences and more successful human beings while also raising their own bottom line. Relative to a higher cost of music education, it would be easier to sell more expensive instruments yielding wider margins. Slacking teachers who talk more than teach could be replaced by more dedicated counterparts, and students who forget their books week after week would disappear. Parents would require junior to make a stronger commitment rather than simply occupying him with cheap music lessons while mom gets a manicure. Many years ago, I commented to a colleague that I felt like an expensive babysitter. He retorted, "We're not that expensive, even for babysitters!" Sure enough, our store raised its prices and the babysitting decreased. Remarkably, the number of overall students continued to rise.

However, quality music education must not be cost prohibitive to those who could benefit the most. If one raises the price, one should also establish a balance, such as offering "scholarships" to those on food stamps. This could be financed by "gifts" from wealthier students or local philanthropists, or by automatically donating a dollar from each lesson to the fund. I'm no commie but Karl Marx had a few good ideas! At least musically there would be "no child left behind."

Most of my teaching today is done through university lectures and guitar clinics (www.InstantGuitarification.com) at independent retailers around the country. However, I taught in a small but growing store for about ten years-the same place where I began my quest eight years earlier to become AC/DC's Angus Young (school boy uniform not included). During those eighteen years, I learned a great deal about the importance of music stores to a community, and in particular, the impact of good teachers. Even today, I learn much about local lesson programs while on the road. Disappointingly, the need for higher teaching standards is overwhelming.

Performance schedules of private teachers understandably take precedence over their commitment to students-I don't know of many musicians who dreamed of teaching at "Ma and Pa's Music." However, this negatively affects the student (who is also a "customer") and the store. Inconsistent lessons result in fragmented knowledge, and frequent absences result in frustrated customers. One advantage of teaching amongst several instructors is the ability to provide substitutes. While some students may have qualms, it is better for them than skipping a week-as long as lessons are well structured by the regular teacher and carried out properly by the substitute. Furthermore, it greatly facilitates scheduling and accounting by eliminating make-ups and refunds.

Teachers and sales associates also need to work together. The business relationship between lessons and retail is a fundamental part of the independent music retailer business model. Some stores encourage (perhaps require) teachers to use the inventory during lessons, but many instructors oppose being "used" this way and feel it is not their job to sell instruments. However, it seems sensible to me. If instructors want to have a place to teach, they need to be team players. Moreover, many teachers' instruments exceed the quality and price appropriate for most students, and repeated exposure inspires kids to spend hard-earned mowing, shoveling, and paper route money on professional level gear. They would likely overspend on instruments that do not appropriately fit their developing needs and tastes. By playing instruments during lessons that are most appropriate for students (I often switched guitars based on the individual student), one also educates them on the tools of the trade that best serve their interests.

Teachers should also encourage students to buy music books rather than writing out songs for them, and require that they purchase blank chord charts and manuscript instead of wasting time drawing lines and boxes on blank pages. Retailers must inform teachers of the tools available, and invite them to influence inventory in terms of stocking what their students need. Lessons and retail equal more as a whole than the sum of their parts.

Our industry must not allow itself to reduce the public's perceived value of music education as we repeatedly have with instruments. Lessons are the saving grace for many stores in this Internet bargain hunting economy. The logistics of studying music locally still works in the independent retailers' favor. Therefore, before we see "how low one can go," let's offer better teaching programs at a price that instills value and commands respect.

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

What's My Line?

December 2005 - I am expecting to be overwhelmed once again by the number of guitar lines on display next month at NAMM. With so many mergers and acquisitions plus increased manufacturing overseas, it is difficult to distinguish one from another. While many string brands have come from only a handful of factories for years, this "identity crisis" now extends to the instrument. Nevertheless, a keen eye (and hopefully an ear or two) can uncover gems that equal more as a whole than the sum of their parts.

Line up
Independent dealers must focus on brands not sold in big boxes, chains, or catalogs. Trying to be all things to all people is ultimately a losing battle. A new student of mine-16 years old working after school to pay his musical instrument debts-recently dropped two grand on an Ibanez JEM from our catalog "friend." He had never played or seen it first hand, despite having a dealer around the corner. I hope he understood the value of local retailers once I spent half his lesson adjusting the neck and intonation just to get it to play. Now he is focused on a Carvin amp (only sold direct) with which he has no personal experience. Why? Steve Vai! He does not want to run the risk of being talked out of sounding "Flex-Able," although I frequently remind him that practice is a "Vai-able" option.

The biggest risk is taking no risk at all. I would like to see independent dealers pioneering underdog brands that boast quality components and craftsmanship. Asian manufacturing surpasses expectations, offering more "bang for the buck" than ever before. I understand the pressure to draw consumers with major lines, but large "buy ins" and miniscule margins result in dealers' resources being too heavily invested for the good of the consumer. Showrooms are monopolized and warehouse conditions may be less than ideal.

In the recording industry, music lovers fall victim to larger stores with massive displays that actually offer fewer titles-no wonder downloading is so popular. One is surrounded by Britney showing off her "money maker" (granted, things could be worse)! Despite co-op advertising dollars and "free goods" assisting the retailer with unloading units (which ultimately comes out of the artist's pocket), big record corporations are slowly losing market share to independent labels refusing to be gobbled up. I think we will also see this happen in music instrument retail, and smart manufacturers will successfully navigate that course. Independent dealers will probably always outnumber chains, and by protecting them with exclusive lines, profitable MAPs, and good customer service (the dealer is the customer), one will achieve gradual but long term solid product branding. Additionally, stores must brand themselves on product value and customer service (the consumer is the customer) regardless of the lines they carry.

Ad-ing Lines
Product advertising at the dealer level is smart business. However, anyone promoting big name brands mostly serves chain retailers and catalogs. They can hang the same guitar for cheaper (albeit 20 feet in the air which requires a chiropractor for both the customer and guitar once brought back down to earth) and tack on enticing return policies. Since most consumers see no harm in burning "Mom and Pop" for information and then dropping their dollars in shareholders' pockets, why be a tool for the competition?

Advertising dollars smartly spent on underdog lines is a better investment. One advantage of having many brands to choose from is that two local dealers can tap into the same market sector with different but competitive products. If I had my own little shop, I would invite local and regional competitors over one evening-perhaps baiting them with wine and cheese-to discuss how to improve business and better serve our mutual market. Together, we could buy local television and radio spots promoting the underdog lines that we carry collectively and the benefits of personal attention. This would make us a stronger force against big boxes, chains, catalogs, and the Internet. We would play on the same team competing for customers and cross referring as necessary, but ultimately seizing every opportunity to draw attention to our own inventories. Consumers might actually start to buy based on value rather than brand name and price…as long as we teach the customer (who is not "always right" by the way) what value really is!

Line Dancing
One can still acquire expensive "buy in" lines through trade-ins or on consignment to sell as used or "previously owned" (like a Mercedes Benz with 100,000 miles on it). Customers' brand name inquiries could then be answered with one of a kind brand name answers. Once they are in your store, your entire inventory is fair game. However, for consumers determined to buy labels as cheaply as possible with 30 days to wind back the clock, I would keep printed directions to the closest chain retailer under my counter. On the back, I would suggest questions to ask when buying an instrument. What happens to gear returned within 30 days? How long has the instrument been hanging 20 feet in the air where the heat rises? Who actually manufactures this product sold under that name? Are instruments checked and set up upon store delivery and rechecked and set up again before the customer takes them home? What is involved in getting warranty service? Etc.

These are tough times for the little guy. However, Wal-mart's consumer satisfaction index remains low despite its remarkable revenue. It is only a question of time before consumers begin to rediscover true value, and our job is to demonstrate it. Focusing your business and defining your customer will provide those shoppers with an attractive alternative. So, ask yourself while perusing NAMM next month, "What's my line?"

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

Home for the Holidays

November 2005 - Many students purchase instruments from retailers other than where they take their lessons. Even with competitive or lower "in house" prices, the illusion that bigger is better and cheaper prevails. Since big boxes get volume discounts and online retailers and catalogs usually offer free shipping and no sales tax, it is easy to understand the basis for such preconceptions. The value of service frequently goes unrecognized by time-taxed customers who simply want the largest selection and lowest prices under one roof. Furthermore, 30 day "no questions asked" return policies create the illusion of customer service, even though this means that "new" instruments may come with a month's worth of someone else's use (or abuse)-no questions asked!

Consumers may assume that regardless of where they purchase their instruments, free service is available where they take lessons. After all, that is the long standing personal and financial relationship. Perhaps a sense of entitlement overshadows feelings of guilt; perhaps there is no guilt at all. For everyone's benefit, it is important to bring these drifters home for the holidays, especially while naughty kids are being nice and Santa Clauses check shopping lists twice.

Selling Service
With aggressive marketing campaigns strategically placing products in television shows and films, combined with vast amounts of information available online, yesterday's service businesses have become today's fulfillment centers. However, like responsible physicians treating self-diagnosed patients in search of specific prescriptions, conscientious retailers must stamp out preconceptions, properly diagnose customers' needs, and prescribe appropriate remedies.

Theoretically, anyone can compete on price, but selection is more difficult. However, a carefully chosen inventory saves everyone time and money. I much prefer to shop at stores that sell products for me as opposed to "something for everyone." Liberal return policies offer perceived value, but eliminating the need or desire to return items altogether is priceless. That is customer service that cannot be bought online!

"Customers value our service when we have the opportunity to demonstrate it," says Melissa Loggins, owner of Music Authority in Cumming GA. "When someone buys their first guitar from us, they almost always buy their second from us as well."

Music Authority offers the ultimate in service, especially around the holidays. "I give my home and cell phone numbers to customers planning a Christmas surprise," says Loggins. "If they need help assembling a drum set under the tree, they can call me at 1:00AM on Christmas Eve."

Clinics are also a great way to ring in the holiday season…ca-ching! Entertaining and informative "in store" experiences assemble captive audiences open to recognizing the value of products and services. During my clinics, I stress that the product is only half of the "good deal." The other half is the service that only comes from retailers who truly care about their customers.

Capturing the Upgrade
It is essential to be aware of customers' interests and inclinations, and retailers should talk privately with parents around the holidays, perhaps during their child's lesson, to get a sense of any gift-giving intentions. "Sometimes we don't even know that they are looking, and then students show up for lessons with new instruments bought elsewhere," says Loggins. "However, if we know that a student is looking to upgrade, we can intercept and generally get the sale."

Incentives to buy "in house" must be enticing and well-targeted to the whole family. Parents ultimately control the bank, but even pre-teens are becoming shrewd brokers. Kids are increasingly aware of their ability to persuade mom and dad by demonstrating good value, although they often tend to disregard consumer ethics. "I am amazed to overhear twelve year olds advising their parents to save a few dollars by purchasing online or through a catalog," says Loggins. "Yet, those same kids come in here and bang on our drums all day."

Even if price tags rise slightly above the competition, student discounts can keep customers regular (you know what I mean…no prunes needed). For example, Music Authority distributes holiday savings cards providing exclusive discounts to students. Various deals are available for the entire season, both before and after Christmas, enabling gift-givers as well as receivers to benefit from the savings. They also send out "single purchase" savings cards to students during their birthday months.

Expanding the Sales Force
Teacher recommendations are possibly the single biggest influence in student instrument purchases. Store owners and managers must coordinate with teachers on inventory. While retailers may not be able to carry the exact brands preferred by instructors, similar models or configurations are generally available within multiple lines, such as a Strat style body with a humbucker in the bridge.

Music Authority places instruments in every studio and requires their instructors to teach using products that they sell. "They understand that if we don't survive, they don't have a place to teach," Loggins emphasizes. "Teachers can choose any products, as long as we have a reasonable inventory, and keep them in their studios for six months. Then we will sell those items at a discount and once again outfit their studios. That way our teachers' preferences are always incorporated."

Manufacturers could also strike endorsement deals directly with teachers. By awarding below dealer cost discounts to qualifying instructors (perhaps those with more than two years of dedicated teaching at an authorized dealer) in exchange for exclusive use during lessons, manufacturers would increase their exposure over the competition and dealers would keep more sales in house. Furthermore, teachers would likely use and promote these products outside the teaching studio as well.

Few wake up on Christmas morning contemplating price points, but everyone sleeps better knowing that they got a good deal. Christmas is the season for giving, and providing your customers with a flawless purchasing experience is possibly the greatest gift of all.

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music, conducting product clinics, and lecturing on the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

After School Employees

October 2005 - These days, I am pleasantly surprised whenever I walk into a store or restaurant and the salesperson or waiter/waitress demonstrates a degree of knowledge and competence. It is unfortunate that this seems to be the exception rather than the norm. One shouldn't have to pay for service; it ought to be part of the purchasing experience. Yet, with the popularity of big box stores, self-service check outs, and airport e-ticket kiosks, service now comes at a premium. Most airlines impose a surcharge when making reservations with human beings, as do computer and software companies for telephone support, and ATMs and the post office's online "Click-N-Ship" are preferred options for time-deprived consumers. I often find myself avoiding human contact (or incompetence) whenever possible, to the point where irritating automated telephone menus are favorable over outsourced human labor in India that often isn't grasping my needs-and I'm half Indian! How ironic that human interaction has become both expensive and disposable at the same time.

If the majority of retail experiences conditions customers to be totally self reliant, service oriented industries like ours have to exemplify the value of service. I have to hand it to Guitar Center, as for the most part their sales force is well trained and informed. Sure, there are many independents that also make the grade, but without the employee benefits package to offer, one rarely gets the pick of the litter.

Young at heart
"After School" employees are probably the most dreaded encounter during a consumer's daily errands. The acne plagued teenager behind the cash register generally lacks initiative and life experience, and cannot relate to the average customer. How does a 17 year old recommend a movie or CD to a 45 year old when their tastes are (hopefully) very different? How does a teenager working in a sports store sympathize with middle aged men trying to find exercise apparatus that won't pain their aching backs? Kids working in drug stores, grocery stores, or similar establishments are usually doing it for the paycheck or at the insistence of their parents (as opposed to interest in the job, climbing the company ladder, or having a passion for the product). They are primarily focused on meeting up with their "first loves" after work. Our industry is fortunate in this regard because there are plenty of teenagers looking for employment whose first love is playing music. Ultimately, one must hire personnel that possess similar interests to customers and an enthusiasm for the products.

I watched "Finding Neverland" this week-the film about playwright James Matthew Barrie who penned Peter Pan. He had this clever idea of planting 25 children sporadically amongst the audience, which otherwise consisted of older snobby theater-goers anticipating a more "serious" play. Barrie foresaw that the younger energy would help each surrounding adult find the child within himself, enabling everyone to relate to the magic of Peter Pan.

It occurred to me that this type of "energy transfer" could inspire musical instrument purchases. Who would relate to your customers better than a passionate, hormonally charged teenager? After all, the majority of music store patrons are kids, parents shopping for their kids, or mid-life crises tapping into childhood dreams. If there is any venue where high school kids could be ultimate salespeople, it is a music instrument retailer.

Shirley Cate, owner of Beanstalk Music in McCalla Alabama, agrees. "They exude an enthusiasm that cannot be artificially created. Their passion for music overrides a lack in sales experience."

Cate hired eighteen year old Timothy Naugher about eight months ago as her sole employee. "Tim's youth is an asset in the respect that he relates very well with most of the guitarists who come in," says Cate. "Even the older players enjoy his tips and helpful hints."

Certainly a degree of professionalism must be adopted in order to run a store, but it is important not to stamp out youthful fire with bureaucratic business practices. "I'm able to turn things over to him almost completely, feeling assured that he will treat the customers with the same personal attention that I try to provide," says Cate. "If he has questions, he knows I'm only a phone call away."

For Naugher, it doesn't get any better. "It's definitely the best job I could have," he says. "I could get something that paid a little bit better, but then I probably wouldn't love my job. I have flexible hours, get to form relationships with other musicians, and help people with anything they don't know about guitars. Best of all, I get paid to try out guitars!"

A nurturing experience
The music industry is better learned in the field than in the classroom. Furthermore, retail experience teaches many valuable business and life skills. Working in an independent dealer can pave the way for a thriving career in the arts, and more importantly, help cultivate a successful human being.

"Most of my friends work at a car wash," states Naugher. "But I've learned about setting up guitars, received tips on playing, and debated on which are the best guitars, amps, picks, strings, effects, etc. Plus, no matter how much I practice, some senior citizen will come into Beanstalk and play twenty-times better than I [Author's note: Funny, no matter how much I practice, I know there is a nine year old out there who can play circles around me…perspective is everything!]. I discovered how hard it is for an independent company to actually make it in the market. The main thing that I've learned though is that you have to have a strong passion for music, a strong will not to give up, and know your product in order to run an independent music business."

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music and, as a consultant, lecturing on ethics and marketing in the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

An Indy Industry

September 2005 - July marked the first time that I had been to Indianapolis while being virtually unaware of auto racing (with the exception of a photo op with Chris Martin of CF Martin and Co and his Indy 500 special edition guitar). Summer NAMM joined forces with the Midwest Music Summit and dominated the city for a very musical weekend. The merging of these conferences represents an important relationship that has always existed, but rarely converged in a convention environment (certainly not to this degree). Musical instruments, recording, and performing are part of the same industry, and it is important that both sides meet on common ground to experience each other's products and talents, all in an effort to create more music makers who ultimately write, record, and perform music worthy of our ears.

While participants had mixed reports, my experience was great. I delivered a couple of NAMM University lectures called "Making the Most of In-Store Clinics" (soon to be seen in a Retailer "Business and Marketing" column), spoke at the Midwest Music Summit on "Marketing and Promotion," reunited over dinner with the owners of Greenwich Music (Greenwich, CT)-the independent retailer where I once taught guitar for over ten years, and then capped off the weekend by performing at a regular NAMM highlight, Muriel Anderson's "All Star Guitar Night." This event benefits Music for Life Alliance, who unites and strengthens the efforts of individuals and organizations actively supporting music education for children who may not otherwise be able to experience the educational, psychological, and social benefits of making music.

Indy or not Indy
It was good to see many of my manufacturing and retailing friends in Indianapolis. However, I am disappointed that some staple companies like Yamaha, Korg, and Marshall stayed home. I understand the need to cut costs (especially when few corporations these days think beyond quarterly reports), but it is also important to back the trade show, which also means supporting dealers and our industry in general. Companies like Digitech and Sennheiser scaled back considerably, but nevertheless made the trip and proudly displayed their products.

There was no shortage of positive feedback as well. John Hawkins, vice president of MI division of SMC (Samick) said that while the dealer attendance was not as strong as it was in Nashville, SMC would support NAMM to make Indy, Austin, or a return to Nashville show a success. Chris Martin, CEO of CF Martin and Co., told me that he was pleasantly surprised to discover how close Indianapolis was to so many other cities, enabling many of his reps to drive to the show in less than five hours. Amp guru James Brown of Kustom Amps (who in part sponsored "All Star Guitar Night," helping us all sound good on stage) felt that some of the major companies pulling out gave underdogs a better chance to be noticed and write heartier orders.

Taxing Mornings
Like in Anaheim, 8:30am was worth waking up for. NAMM University breakfast sessions were well attended, educational, inspirational, and entertaining. On Saturday, Alan Friedman and Allen Greenberg went head to head (who knew that CPAs have this much fun?) exploring the realities of our industry. This session triggered something in my mind that could prove to be of great value in my own personal missions, but more importantly, in combating some of our industry's heaviest obstacles. Greenberg made a brief comment in regard to another point he was making: "You can deduct excess inventory at cost if you donate it-check with your tax advisor for the specific rules."

My wheels started churning, as it instantly inspired an equation that could reverse price deflation and grow the market. Given the excess inventory that stores acquire in order to satisfy certain manufacturer buy-in requirements, costly warehousing is often necessary. Unfortunately, Ebay provides a less expensive alternative by allowing retailers to quickly unload excess inventory at cost (via "Buy It Now") to avoid paying for storage altogether. I say "unfortunately" because while the solution may help cash flow, it ultimately lowers the public's perceived value of the product and what they are willing to pay for it. Ultimately, the industry competes against itself at the smallest margins. If we were to remove this self-destructive method of doing business from Ebay and instead donate excess inventory to schools, homeless children shelters, or organizations under the Music for Life Alliance (who can oversee the distribution and application of donated instruments), then retailers could deduct the cost of those instruments from their taxes while simultaneously encouraging and enabling more people to learn music. This will make more music makers and therefore increase the market for musical instruments. Everybody wins!

Just to be sure that my formula made sense, I bounced this off Friedman and Greenberg after their session. They both agreed that it is a really good idea, keeping in mind that deducting cost has a smaller cash value than selling for cost. However, in the big picture, it may indeed be the difference between staying in business and closing the doors forever.

I look forward to Anaheim and to "invading" Austin with all the wonderful things that this industry has to offer. It's undeniable that everyone's "bullish" predictions expressed on NAMM panels fires up the largest manufacturers and smallest independent retailers. The trick is to carry that momentum home and sustain it in our own business microcosms. Each month, I hope to help achieve that with this column. I too am optimistic, but we can't sit back and wait for it to happen. Each of us needs to grab our bull by the horns and steer it in the right direction. We cannot rely on anyone else. It truly is an Indy Industry.

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music and, as a consultant, lecturing on ethics and marketing in the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

Happy Anniversary!

August 2005 -This issue marks the one year anniversary of "Pure Profit." I hope my rants, raves, and suggestions have been and continue to be of value to you. Thank you for reading each month, and I'm especially grateful to those of you who have written to me with comments and reactions.

Last night my wife and I watched a wonderful movie called "The Notebook." It's one of those tear-jerkers that inspire self reflection and conversation, especially between life partners. We found ourselves revaluing what we have and reevaluating what we want-from ourselves, each other, and society. Perhaps most importantly, we analyzed the way we spend our time and how much of it we commit to the things that are truly most worthy.

Knowing that I had planned to embark this morning on a new year of musical instrument retail analysis, I posed the question: "Do I really care about the musical instrument retail industry?" The answer is "No"-at least not from a professional point of view. I already possess the gear that I need and acquire most of what I want through professional relationships with manufacturers. No longer do I teach in music stores, and I only carry a handful of private students who will get the product education that they need as long as I am their teacher, regardless of whether they ultimately purchase locally, online, or at Wal-Mart. In no way does my livelihood depend on the success of your store or products.

So why do I dedicate this time to conceiving and writing articles for a trade magazine? Because what I do deeply care about is the society in which I live, both currently and in the future. Furthermore, most of my passions are invested in and nourished by the arts. Ultimately, musical instruments play a vital role in cultural advancement.

May I Help You?
Like most Americans, a significant amount of my time and money is spent on retail transactions. In a country of consumers, the local shop is possibly one's earliest exposure to the imagery and reality of a society. Children shopping with their parents witness loved ones browsing desired items and being helped ("May I help you?") by strangers. Smiles are bountiful (hopefully) and everything leads up to a mutually pleasing transaction-a swap of product for currency (although the example is compromised when swiping a credit card). Finally, these once strangers now bonded by mutual interests exchange pleasantries, good wishes, and invitations to meet again. Ignorance truly is bliss; naivety of youth projects eternal happiness…and then one grows up!

The sincerity in routine salesmanship as described above is instantly elevated when one owns the business and genuinely loves the products for sale. What is more gratifying than serving someone else's deep interests and passions? This energy is ultimately experienced (consciously and unconsciously) on both sides of the counter. The seller loves his job while the buyer is seeing a world of dreams and opportunities unfold in front of him. I'm not interested in dealing with a world full of "Plan B's." I want to live in a world where everyone loves how they spend their time. Money comes and goes, but time is gone forever.

Bill Robinson of SMC-the company that markets Greg Bennett Guitars exclusively through independent retailers-commented at a sales representatives' dinner that I recently attended, "We are so lucky to sell products that we are passionate about. Just imagine, we could be in the 'screw' business selling nuts and bolts!" (Granted, most artists think everyone in the music industry is in the "screw business," but that's another story.)

Spreading the Love
The independent music retailer is a great example of product, passion, and cultural advancement existing under one roof. Just by opening your doors, an important artistic outreach program is established locally. Independent stores bring global products to consumers in a comfortable, community-minded setting. Mass-marketers do not understand that (nor do they care to) and neither do shareholders.

The first time I walked into a music store as a prospective buyer, beautiful products combined with genuine passion and enthusiasm from the sales force were abundant, and incomparable to anything that I had experienced in other categories of retailers. Perhaps it was the culmination of those elements that launched me on the path of musicianship. Nevertheless, I began to avoid music stores several years later; especially once I moved away from the non-biological "Mom-and-Pop" who paved my musical path. I found the noise level of mega-stores to be irritating and the overall decline of service and product expertise frustrating. Furthermore, the larger inventories demonstrated a lack of product discretion and dealer pride. Conversely, today one cannot rely on small independents having a wide enough selection since many are limited to product lines with affordable "buy ins." For the educated consumer, the Internet eliminates many of these industry created obstacles. As Patrick Cummings, president of Brian Moore Guitars, once told me, "We have to remove all the obstacles between the product and the cash register."

We must never lose sight of why we embark on labors of love in the first place. As a musical instrument manufacturer or retailer, is it to sell products you love? Perhaps it is to nurture and service the artistically inclined community. Whatever the reasons, revisit them frequently and stay true to the course. There are certainly easier ways to make a buck. One must not lose track of the dream, the mission, or the opportunity.

I'll get back to keeping the doors open in next month's issue. For now, let us revel in the glory of making great music, cultivating the arts, fulfilling childhood dreams, and above all, positively advancing culture and society. Happy Anniversary!

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music and, as a consultant, lecturing on ethics and marketing in the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

Putting Your Business on the MAP

July 2005 - Perhaps the best way to stabilize music instrument retail is to eliminate MSRPs and put everyone and everything on the MAP. "Minimum Advertised Price" applied universally would prevent further margin shrinking (how low can we go?) and create competition based on value instead of dollars. Customer service would improve and the publicly perceived value of musical instruments would rise-leading to greater dealer appreciation, customer loyalty, and increased profits.

Coming Together
Unifying an industry of entrepreneurs is no easy task. I once tried to get fellow local bands to agree to not play hometown clubs for less than $500/night, and only with written contracts. Most agreed, and surely this would have led to greener pastures (pun intended). However, the best band in town-playing a mix of sophisticated originals and unique renditions of covers-regularly undercut the market that I was trying to create. They were so good and eager to play that it became impossible for any of us to make a reasonable income performing locally. Once they disbanded, club owners conditioned to getting greatness for almost nothing expected the rest of us to comply. What resulted was an onslaught of mediocre cover bands (those of us with talent and integrity moved on to better paying territories) performing to new audiences who had no appreciation for music as a focal point. Several years later, there was no worthwhile local music scene at all. The moral of the story: If we don't keep each other in business, the industry suffers and everyone sets sail on the Titanic.

NAMM brings artists, retailers, and manufacturers together twice a year, but that sense of unity evaporates once everyone returns to the comfort (or turmoil) of his own business environment. Joe Lamond, president of NAMM, recounted a fable at the winter show equating incentive with success.

A fox is chasing a rabbit. Surely the fox is stronger and faster, making him the obvious projected winner. However, one must not be too quick to judge. The fox chases his dinner; the rabbit runs for his life.

Okay, the rabbit has greater incentive. However, how many Peter Cottontails would it take to "outfox" a fox?

Doing the Math
MAP is the fastest route to ending price deflation and increasing profit percentages. Granted, what ultimately matters is profit dollars, not percentages. If all manufacturers eliminate hefty purchase order requirements and establish margins that eliminate having to sell twice as much today to achieve the profits of yesterday, smaller retailers won't need additional warehouses. Bigger percentages, less expenses…you do the math. Manufacturers benefit from profitable dealers that can better service their customers. The quest for revenue rather than earnings marks the downfall of many big businesses in America. Our industry must learn from those failures and do better. Instead of creating a market that fits the model, create a model that fits the market!

With MAPs, chains would no longer undercut independents, but volume buyers could still benefit from wholesale bulk discounts, thus creating an even greater margin while maintaining perceived value at the cash register. If Guitar Center can compete on service, wider margins combined with customer loyalty would cover higher operating costs. Independents could maintain market share by keeping customers satisfied, and even grow by focusing on the personal customer attention that only smaller venders can provide.

Wal-Mart is a different ballgame. Mass-market manufacturers play on the same low price, low margin, high volume team as their retailers. Season ticket holders gaze from the cheap seats. I have heard musical instrument manufacturers defend selling through mass-market chains by claiming that it benefits independent dealers. It certainly could inspire musical interest amongst the lowest common Joe (and hopefully Jane too), but sales are also lured away from "Mom-and-Pop." Without industry-wide MAPs, independents lose on price and customers lose on quality.

Unfortunately, mass-market brands, models, and quality differ from those in specialty stores. MAPs won't crossover. They may ultimately lose market influence to brands like First Act-a company created by mass-market merchandisers, not musicians or industry veterans. "First Act is led by a team of proven entrepreneurs who apply their extensive knowledge of mass merchant retail channels to the multi-billion dollar music category," states the company's Web site. Had Fender been the Wal-Mart product, they could guide "penny-wise pound-foolish" consumers to recognizing that the "guitar in the box" is only a first step to musicianship. Perhaps that would have benefited independent dealers. Instead, First Act's Web site reads, "Rewarding for advanced musicians, yet easy for beginners, First Act products bring you great sound quality and craftsmanship." Whether or not this claim is true today, what stops them from validating it tomorrow once they have cultivated the crop? They now have a showroom in Manhattan and build professional artist relationships and "custom shop" instruments. They could corner a multi-tiered market under one brand through the world's largest retailer, literally knocking everyone else off the MAP.

Raising the Bar
Consumers need to be told that music is foremost an art form, not a pastime. Manufacturers, retailers, and artists must lead this campaign together. Stores should encourage teachers and local musicians to help the next generation (and their parents) recognize the value in paying higher prices for better quality, as should professional artist endorsements.

Offering a "free lesson with any guitar purchase" isn't sold at Wal-Mart, and just might lure the customer. With dealers pocketing at least fifty points on an instrument sale (assuming MAPs are smartly set and respected), paying a teacher for a private lesson is a small investment with big payoff potential for all parties. Whether one has teachers on staff or refers inquiries to local instructors, strike a deal that is beneficial to the store, teacher, and "junior" getting his first guitar for Christmas.

While the devious can circumnavigate the MAPs, our industry should not maintain a "starving artist" mentality. No one needs to sell junk or sacrifice profits. Regulated prices will lead everyone in the right direction.

Ravi (raviunites.com) tours the country performing original music and, as a consultant, lecturing on ethics and marketing in the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.


June 2005 - The most important brand that emanates from a retailer's walls is one that defines the purchasing experience. I know that my local music store carries the most popular brands. More importantly, I know they have what I need-regardless of the brand name-and that they'll back it up with service I can trust. A business needs to stand for something beyond the product names it sells; think of it as a "brand identity."

The Internet broadens a consumer's local options and the days of "selling" on showroom floors are dwindling. With so much information, comparison shopping, reviews, and purchasing opportunities online, it's increasingly difficult to prove the value of the in-store experience. Fortunately, non-computer-driven instruments-like guitars-equal more as a whole than the sum of their parts. A NAMM panelist contrasted instruments to bed sheets, sighting that you cannot simply determine quality and suitability by counting the threads. Hence, local retailers still maintain the advantage by disseminating correct information and matching the right product with the customer's needs. In this day and age, that is the brand identity to promote.

Branding is a huge part of the larger music industry. Madonna and Bruce Springsteen worked long and hard to become "The Material Girl" and "The Boss." It takes a strong, unwavering long-term commitment to the heart and soul of one's niche. In some cases, the integrity in making that commitment creates a niche in itself, as most people still recognize sincerity even if they fail to value it at the cash register.

The store name makes the first impression. A former student of mine began his search for a teacher through the yellow pages. He found our two local music stores and called the one named after the state rather than the competition, which was named after the town. "It just sounded bigger" he told me. "I figured they would know more teachers." Ironically, the town's namesake has a significant "in-house" teaching program, while the "state" store refers inquiries to a handful of teachers.

There are several store names that I will never forget: Strings Attached-I know what they sell and they probably do it with a sense of humor; Loser's Music-the name will stick with me, but I don't want to be seen inside; Guitar Center-no doubt about what they stock, although the name doesn't truly encompass the scope of their inventory; and Guitar Cabin-sounds like a cozy version of Guitar Center (without the keyboard and drum departments).

Forming an Identity
Contrary to the earlier example of my student, naming a store after the town instead of the state might create a stronger identity if the town has an aura of its own. Tennessee Music doesn't express as much as Nashville Music, but on the other hand, MO Music has a fun double entendre with which St. Louis Music will never compete. Of course, NO Music (for New Orleans) might turn away more customers than Louisiana Music, which exudes a vibe all of its own.

Bob Baker (www.bob-baker.com), a fellow music industry lecturer/consultant, wrote an inspiring and insightful book on branding called Poor Richard's Branding Yourself Online (Top Floor Publications; 2001). This book motivated me to do some branding of my own by starting www.CultureofIntegrity.org and www.ArtisticIntegrity.org. Baker's techniques apply to the brick and mortar world as well, helping one develop a "BIS" (Brand Identity Statement).

"Regardless of what your general area of expertise is, you must focus on a particular slice of the pie and make certain your name is attached to it," writes Baker. "Think of this concept as Nitro (your name) and Glycerin (your specialty). Either ingredient alone is powerless. Put them together and you have an explosive combination."

Larry's Musical Madness in Hickory, N.C. seems to exemplify Baker's recommendation. The name gives a personal touch while also suggesting that the crazy artist within each of us can find his muse within Larry's walls.

Personality Please
Many stores are simply named after their owner, but unless he's able to project his personality into the advertising-most New Yorkers remember Crazy Eddie-it's hard to establish a brand identity. Crazy Eddie's prices were supposedly "insane," although I'm not convinced that people wanted to be screamed at while choosing a TV. Nevertheless, if one can walk into a store and actually "strike a chord" with the person who has the pride (or guts) to put his name behind everything he sells, that can endear a customer for life.

Branding goes well beyond the preconceived message. As Sterling Ball, son of Ernie Ball and CEO of the company, said during a NAMM panel event, "Every time I pull up in front of Guitar Center, there are four guys with mullets smoking out front. And you wonder why mom doesn't go in there!" His point is valid. Not only does this reduce sales help inside, but it brands our industry in a less than rosy color. Furthermore, it discourages parents chauffeuring little league rockers from patronizing the store and nurturing their child's musical aspirations. "The mental perceptions that exist inside the minds of people who make up your target audience are just as important as your ideas about how you'd like to be perceived," writes Baker.

Most of us entered the music business with a passion for music and enthusiasm for our industry. Incorporate these emotions into the experience you give your customers and you will connect with their own rock-star dreams and artistic inclinations. All business owners should spend more time in patrons' shoes than polishing their own. Evaluate what inspires a sale and wear it on your sleeve…and on your marquee.

One cannot successfully be all things to all people. However, you can know your products and your customers. Nothing speaks louder than word of mouth. Provide these walking and talking billboards with an experience that they will want to share with friends. Don't focus on offering the lowest possible price. Offer the greatest possible value and you'll have the brand that everyone in town is talking about.

Ravi tours the country performing original music and, as a consultant, lecturing on ethics and marketing in the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography was published by Simon and Schuster.

Paving Your Information Superdriveway

May 2005 -While the Internet creates competition in almost every industry, we are fortunate that one cannot yet download a guitar-and I don't see that happening anytime soon. However, nothing prevents today's consumers from signing online, googling "Stratocaster," and finding a slew of online vendors selling guitars at competitive prices. Mass merchants may attract newbies, but the Internet lures potential and existing clientele from a local retailer's driveway to the "Information Superhighway."

"When eBay started out, it was a forum where one could sell an item to another person in an auction type environment," says Mike Roberts of Connecticut Music-a family owned and operated store in Stamford, CT. "Now, eBay is full of retailers using it as another method to unload inventory with a 'Buy Now' option that takes the entire auction process out of the equation. There was something much more honest about the original concept of eBay being a place where we looked for things we couldn't find anywhere else."

Most consumers first visit "mom-and-pop" for a test drive, and while they are there, tap the proverbial parents for information and advice before closing the deal elsewhere. Since expertise and customer service frequently fall short of inspiring loyalty, one cannot always fault consumers for succumbing to the ease of online shopping and prepackaged bundles. Ultimately, local retailers must seize this opportunity to demonstrate the value of bricks and mortar.

I recently visited a major chain store to explore digital workstations. After clumsily answering a few of my questions, it was obvious that the assistant manager "assisting" me didn't know the products well enough to sell to a pro-although he might successfully turn novices into unsatisfied customers! He fabricated specifications, fumbled with buttons, and thumbed through product manuals attempting to quench my lingering thirst.

Eventually frustration set in, so I requested product literature. "If I carried literature for everything I sold, I would be a book store rather than an instrument dealer," he retorted. "Check the manufacturers' Web sites. You'll get more info there than from any piece of paper."

That certainly "took the wind out of his 'sale!'" Why send me home to sign online where there is more competition than on Manhattan's 48th street? Once I'm in my PJs and armed with a mouse, I'm likely to surf the Web for the best deal.

However, Roberts agrees that the industry does a terrific job with Web sites. "I find out more useful information there than anywhere else and always encourage my customers to visit the manufacturer sites for the most updated information."

When customers can test drive an instrument and have 100 percent of their questions instantly answered, more deals close locally. Product literature educates both the sales force and customers. If manufacturer Web sites provide the cheapest and most effective way to disseminate up-to-date information, every store should turn the cyber-foe into a cyber-friend. The industry could greatly benefit by manufacturers providing dealers with exclusive online access to information beyond advertisements and product reviews. This would increase showroom floor traffic while strengthening dealer loyalty. Stores should have a customer computer terminal with limited Web access and a printer. Or, at the very least, sales associates should have online access to instantly view and print product information.

Local retailers can also promote online with Web sites geared toward inventory information rather than processing transactions. This would reduce further devaluing of the industry with lowest common denominator forms of capitalism. "Although we post a small amount of used gear for sale on our site, I prefer not to sell via the Internet," says Roberts. "I post the used gear more for my local customers to see what has come in, and when I get an inquiry from out of the local area, I always encourage them to check out their local dealers first before making a purchase over the Internet"

NAMM creates helpful programs that blend the Internet and "in store" promotions. The Music Edge is a wonderful resource that gathers teens online and encourages them to park their parents' cars (and wallets) in the local music store's "driveway." Through national campaigns like "Fastest Drummer Contest," NAMM provides retailers with all the tools to create a customer playground. The Retail Tool Kit (available at www.themusicedge.com) provides a drum pad, trigger, "Drumometer" (stroke counter), and the formula for hosting successful community events. The accompanying CD-Rom contains customizable ads, posters, score sheets, and press release templates; and the DVD includes suggestions, testimonials, and a video promotion loop. Furthermore, they track the competition online, melding national cyber glory with local human interaction. As the guidebook states, "The sense of community you create will pay dividends at the cash register long after the prizes have been awarded."

Another advantage that bricks and mortar has over clicks and portals is the ability to "set-up" instruments immediately following the sale. Shipping is not a recipe for pristine instruments. Good dealers give them a once over pre-display and again post-purchase. "We inspect every guitar when it comes in from the manufacturer and every guitar is setup to the customer's specifications before it leaves the store," says Roberts.

Customers should gladly wait 15 minutes, or even return later, to pick up their new freshly-strung and properly-adjusted instrument (like one does for a bicycle). If they can't be bothered, provide a "free adjustment and string change" coupon to be redeemed once the instrument "settles in." That isn't sold at Wal-Mart and certainly can't be downloaded.

"What we offer a customer that the Internet will never be able to offer is taking the time to make sure the customer makes the correct purchase," says Roberts. "It's the most important thing you can do as a merchant."

Ravi tours the country performing original music and, as a consultant, lecturing on ethics and marketing in the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography was published by Simon and Schuster.

Come Together, Right Now...

April 2005 - After a hiatus of several years, I returned to the big show in January. NAMM was highly charged like I had remembered it - enough to make the most focused mind exhibit symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Crowds circulated through aisles like starving artists at an "all you can eat" buffet, stopping at every booth for a taste.

This year was different for me in that I was "exhibiting" rather than running around like a chicken with its head cut off (I have never actually seen this phenomenon, but so the expression goes). I showcased my "Instant Guitarification" clinics at the Greg Bennett Guitars/SMC booth, performed on Sennheiser's stage, and lectured about "Manufacturing and Selling Dreams" at the NAMM University Idea Center. I also found time to traverse the floor in search of old friends and new gear.

It was immediately obvious that the world does not need another guitar line, especially since much of what is on the market is indistinguishable from its competition. However, the most adventurous could sort through all the oysters and eventually find a few pearls. Brian Moore pushes technology with high-quality electric guitars capable of delivering digital audio directly into home computers via built-in USB ports. SMC jumps out with a unique marketing strategy, making the very affordable Greg Bennett Guitars exclusively available to independent retailers with "dealer friendly" MAP prices and no MSRPs, creating unparalleled value to retailers and their customers. Martin guitars is turning up the volume with "Aura" electronics by Fishman, blending traditional piezo with phenomenal microphone sound models. Granted, you may think that I am biased since I have professional relationships with these companies. However, they are forward thinkers and role models for our industry. That is why I proudly endorse them.

Despite the wide array of gear and gadgets, nothing impressed me more than NAMM University's "Breakfast Sessions." Late evenings of exceptional performances at Thursday's Sennheiser party, Friday's Acoustic Café (featuring the California Guitar Trio with bassist Tony Levin and Yes vocalist Jon Anderson, followed by Kaki King and others), and Saturday's Muriel Anderson's All Star Guitar Night certainly made getting up for the 8am seminars a morning person's nightmare. However, once I reached the ballroom from my bedroom (luckily both were at the Hilton), adrenaline took over.

Friday and Saturday morning, I searched for a seat amongst hundreds of others who had beaten me to the breakfast buffet. Mark Woods Rock Orchestra wowed the audience with their electric violins on Friday, and acoustic guitarist Eric Roche stunned the crowd on Saturday. These performances were a better "pick me up" than Starbuck's strongest brew, setting the pace for the rest of the day.

The discussions immediately followed, beginning shortly after 8:30am. I have participated in panels at many music business conferences (both on the dais and in the audience), and while most are fun and educational, these were a cut above. Witty and well-spoken moderators, extremely qualified panelists, and highly-organized talks with Power Point presentations made for an invigorating morning mental exercise.

Friday's panel, entitled "The Increasingly Changing Demographics of Your Customers: Where Do We Go from Here?" focused on marketing to older Americans. The panel included manufacturers and retailers who are proactive in tackling this growing demographic. I am not a proponent of refocusing the industry toward "playing music as a lifestyle," but I cannot imagine a better or healthier way to spend one's golden years. I suppose golf caters to weekend enthusiasts as well as full-time professionals, so why shouldn't playing an instrument? Perhaps keyboards that generate accompaniment should be targeted at seniors rather than up-and-comers. They provide instant enjoyment and a sense of accomplishment, but overly intuitive technology compromises potentially creative young minds. We should keep the industry's primary focus on students and professionals, as they live and inspire dreams, ultimately keeping the multi-billion dollar music industry alive. Musicianship is not a pastime; it is an experience that lasts a lifetime.

Saturday's panel, called "Manufacturers Are from Mars, Retailers Are from Venus," dealt with ways for these industry players to better understand one another. Opposing panelists paired off and engaged in role play, adopting the real life roles of their counterparts. This exercise was interesting in terms of discovering both points of view - a common exercise used in marriage counseling. While many of the issues were predictable and not exclusive to the musical instruments industry, it was encouraging to see "both sides" working together. I will never understand why some manufacturers "stick it" to their loyal dealers by imposing outrageous buy-ins while offering minimum support and protection. Nor will I ever appreciate dealers who sell below MAP or accept competitor's coupons. However, these educational sessions remind everyone, hopefully, that we all play on the same side with the same objective - to bring quality music to the masses.

When I was 14, I worked as an entry-level mechanic at a Fuji bicycle dealer - the only job I ever held outside of music. There was one other Fuji dealer in town. My boss and his "rival" had a healthy relationship, frequently shuttling inventory and spare parts back and forth to help each other service their customers' needs. Both stores carried many of the same models at the same prices. The competition ultimately came down to providing the best purchasing experience and follow up service. Neither dealer tried to undercut the other, yet both prospered until my boss retired and sold to someone with a more aggressive vision of capitalism. A few years later, our store was history.

Admittedly, times have changed. There is a different consumer mentality and more corporate and Internet competition. Local independent dealers must work together more than ever to demonstrate value and service the market with pride and integrity. Even distant "shareholders" should harmonize with the locals to help keep our industry healthy. With NAMM at the core encouraging positive business relationships, can't we all just get along?

Ravi tours the country performing original music and, as a consultant, lecturing on ethics and marketing in the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography was published by Simon and Schuster.

Old McDonald

March 2005 - My parents always made it possible for me to acquire the instruments and studio gear that I wanted, but they never made it easy. Gifts were given only on Christmas and birthdays. Loans had to be repaid. Above all, commitment to the art form was required before any financial investment was made. As I negotiated leaving college early and using leftover funds to upgrade my studio, my father insisted that I assemble a business plan; only then did he help me put it into action. Consequently, I owned a variety of nice guitars and a sophisticated home recording facility by the age of twenty. I repaid my debts and regularly upgraded equipment by taking on recording clients, guitar students, and band gigs every weekend.

Times have changed. "Baby-boomers" and "Generation Xers" are overly eager to please their children materially. Good parenting is graded according to the Jones'—as far as keeping junior busy and well outfitted. As a result, teenagers and their parents parade around town today with a sense of entitlement. We live in the age of Internet bargain hunting and instant gratification, expecting immediate returns from minimal investments. "No pain, no complain."

The music instrument industry, like many others, has become "Mcdonaldized" while catering to this consumer mentality. Whether it is Guitar Center or a local "mom and pop," the golden arches has no boundaries. Just about everyone fishes for the lowest common denominator, pushing identical items at competitive prices with price-matching guarantees. Tack on low interest rates and a liberal return policy, and you have God's gift to the Generation X consumer (not to mention the downfall of healthy capitalism)!

Musical instruments may be moving into Wal-Mart, but Wal-Mart is moving into independent music retailers. They "distribute" merchandise to end-users. Music instrument stores, on the other hand, supposedly "sell" merchandise—ultimately creating the value of being in business. However, a prospective guitarist voyaging into any music store for the first time will invariably be pointed to a "Strat Pack" (or something competitive from non-Fender dealers). Fender's version is a colorful cardboard box containing an Indonesian made Squire Stratocaster, a small practice amp, and the appropriate accoutrements; all for around $279.

That is my childhood dream in a box, mass-marketed within a budget that almost anyone can afford—I feel so special! Rising stars don't have to think, listen, learn, or acquire any musical instrument knowledge while paving the road to an artistic journey. All decisions have been made by the manufacturer except color, of which there are limited options. Why even leave the house anymore? I would rather shop online; competitive prices, rarely any tax, and free shipping promotions are only a few mouse clicks away.

Admittedly, the "Strat Pack" is convenient for the new generation consumer, but when did becoming an artist revolve around convenience? "If it were easy everybody would do it" rings truer today than ever before. The world doesn't need more guitar players; we need more musicians. Making music requires more investment than simply purchasing gear (unless one is an up-and-coming "producer," as outstanding factory presets and over intuitive sequencers level the creative playing field…like a tornado).

I recently ventured into a major chain near Los Angeles. The first thing that caught my eye was a fire engine red guitar—not because it was attractive, but because there were about fifty of these generic, store-brand babies hanging on a rack like cheap suits. Wall to wall monotony at only $79 a piece! $300 guitars "feel" expensive after this bargain barrage near the front door. This kind of marketing conditions the customer to think cheap, want cheap, and settle for nothing but cheap—all before plucking a single string.

The salesman told me that the $79 jobs are "toys geared towards Grandma who wants to buy junior a guitar for his birthday." Grandma is probably not reading up on humbuckers versus single coil pickups, most likely has not heard of Hoobastank or Slipknot, and social security payments may be running tight these days. So, cheap guitars make everyone happy, right? Junior will be until a few weeks later when he quits his musical adventure because his warped toy disguised as a guitar doesn't inspire or foster musical growth and collects more dust than dings.

Is this what we mean by pricing instruments to be accessible? Cheap instruments deny access to sustained interest in making music. How can one expect strong commitments to learning music if disposable instruments purchased with disposable income dominate the music student market?

That being said, a $79 guitar has its place in the market, as do slick package deals. My very first "six string" fell into this price category, albeit over twenty years ago. However, I navigated through higher priced, more inspiring options before finding one that suited my parents' birthday budget and my rock star needs. Additionally, I learned about distortion, tremolo, and other sonic considerations while auditioning different entry-level amplifiers. Once we settled on the relatively inexpensive investment, the purchasing experience prepared us for what my instrument wasn't and educated us on what my next one could be. That process inspired goals, commitment, and a long term outlook on my future in music.

The "de-Mcdonaldization" of our industry is essential. Independent retailers must pioneer lines and educate their customers on value of owning quality instruments. The "Strat Pack" may be right for some, but an introduction to purchasing a "dream tool" should not begin (and likely end) with a cardboard box. Carrying quality lines that lack name recognition and focusing on inventory that the chains and big boxes can't or won't sell creates golden opportunities to compete in the marketplace. Customers will recognize the value of service when shown desirable products that they otherwise would not find. Draw them in with household names and turn them on with the industry's hidden treasures. I have said it before: music retail was founded upon serving the arts. Let's make product education the greatest value in our business.
Ravi tours the country performing original music and, as a consultant, lecturing on ethics and marketing in the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography was published by Simon and Schuster.

Let's Get Clinical

February 2005 - As technology advances, the overall quality of goods and services appears to decline. Perhaps this is due to the latest gadgetry being designed for "do it yourselfers." As a result, professional services are in less demand, tools of the trade are often "consumer" rather than "industrial" quality, and mediocre results become the standard for which we settle.

In a culture where we shop airfares and diagnose diseases online, the Internet arms consumers with more pre-sale information than ever before. Consequently, retailers must not only educate, but re-educate customers to extinguish false notions and wrong conclusions. This complicates a job that already must overcome the predisposition that all sales people are Jessie James in disguise. However, it does require sales associates to become experts in their field, which is a very good thing! I was in a Radio Shack recently and asked the "after school" employee for a stereo phone plug. He handed me a mono one and became agitated as I taught him how to visually differentiate between the two. I spared him the embarrassment of teaching him how to read the packaging (perhaps kids don't even know what "mono" means in this age of Surround Sound)!

Today, an increasingly large number of musicians write and record songs, and then replicate CDs or distribute digitally online, all in the comfort of their pajamas. The days of studio outsourcing are dwindling. Therefore, it is increasingly important to the stability and longevity of artistic integrity, let alone cultural advancement and a financially stable music industry, to offer the best instruments and product education to those who are most creative. Otherwise, technology creates the music instead of facilitating the talent. Most workstations (sequencer/sampler/synthesizer) are so user-intuitive that the "talent-less and gift-less" can produce better than "tolerable" results while well-trained musicians are tempted (sometimes obligated) to cut corners. If those manufacturing and selling instruments don't inspire and educate artists on how to travel beyond factory presets, who will? A poorly translated owner's manual? Or some tech support guy in India who calls himself "Jimmy?"

Many instrument manufacturers sponsor "in store" clinics, which are crucial to shaping the future of music. Well orchestrated events increase interest in the arts, inspire local talent, and yield long-term results for dealers. Attendees learn everything about featured products and discover a plethora of related items that expand their musical pallets. Retailers earn the respect of their local music community, broaden their customer base, and move a great deal of inventory—and I don't mean to make room for the audience! Professional clinics create loyal and informed customers, and also educate the sales force on products and how to effectively sell them to customers.

I work hard to make each of my own clinics fun, informative, and inspiring. The audiences are involved, which instills more information than just jamming and talking at them. We discuss the featured products and product category. Naturally, I want everyone to recognize the quality and value of a guitar line, for example, that I am ultimately promoting. However, as long as I have shared my knowledge and experience, I trust attendees to ultimately make the right choices for themselves. Most importantly, I hope that each person leaves having learned something about guitars (how they are made, tonal characteristics, integration with other instruments, making smart purchasing decisions, etc.). For the dealer, I aim to increase guitar sales and overall revenue from accessories, amplifiers, and other inventory.

Like anything of value, successful clinics require investment. Manufacturers shoulder much of the expense (the clinician, promotional materials, etc.), but dealers must actively promote to their local market to maximize the return.

Greg Bennett, former vice president of Guitar Center who now designs and markets the guitar line bearing his name, has seen benefits from all sides. "The value of hosting clinics reaches well beyond the events themselves," he says. "It gives dealers a reason for major media campaigns, including local newspapers, radio, and television. Refreshments, product giveaways, and other similar incentives also generate better attendance, but while good turnouts are important, one should never fail to recognize the value from the advertising opportunities alone."

This is indeed the time for a media blitz, as clinics are community events for the musically inclined, not just the musically accomplished. Assemble press kits including the clinician's bio and photo, clinic agenda, product literature, store background, and event specifics. Clinicians should be available for interviews. A charitable angle also adds value. Not only is one investing in a good cause, but it generates more media attention. Product giveaways are great, but consider a raffle with a nominal ticket price and 100% of the proceeds benefiting a local charity. Neighboring restaurants might provide complimentary hors d'oeuvres in exchange for cross promotion. Include "Refreshments provided by XYZ" in all advertising. Musicians are always eager to check out gear, but nothing beckons louder than free food. The hungriest might even venture next door for dinner. Perhaps the clinic could even take place at a local café or pub just prior to "happy hour." Whatever it is, make it a multidimensional community event! As long as people have a good time, the groundwork is laid for the future. Good clinicians command repeat performances just like any other performer, and returns are maximized by presenting the event annually.

Local independent dealers must provide product education even if and when Pro Tools is displayed next to modeling amps and in-ear monitors in aisle 11 at Wal-mart. The average Joe is becoming a "Jack of all trades," and these "masters of none" need expert guidance before diving into the arts. Furthermore, we professional musicians are eager to learn about the latest creations designed especially for us, and rely on retailers to show us how they work. At the end of the day, manufacturers, retailers, clinicians, and artists all share the same objective - to deliver quality music to the masses. Clinics are a golden opportunity to bring the team together and forge ahead in creating the music of the future.
Ravi tours the country performing original music and, as a consultant, lecturing on ethics and marketing in the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography was published by Simon and Schuster.

Listen Up

January 2005 - I gained a real appreciation for silence when I moved from the city to the country. Fortunately, the occasional cricket and rustling of leaves provide a release from what otherwise might be eerie nothingness. However, compared to the urban hum that sets the threshold above air conditioners and subway rumbles, my daily existence now operates a few notches lower on the decibel meter. Relative silence is subjective and ultimately comes down to one's acute awareness of every sound. Not only has country living increased my consciousness of singing birds and whistling wind, but ringing ears is now part of my daily soundscape.

During my middle and high school years, I jammed through the largest and loudest amplifiers I could find, playing at volumes that literally shook the house. I went to stadium concerts where fluid actually flowed from my ear (thank you, Metallica). Years later, as the guitarist of Hanson, the sound of 20,000 screaming 14-year-old girls (we referred to it as a "squeakuency") overpowered floor monitors, amplifiers, and crashing cymbals nightly. Fortunately, I became more attentive to my ears and took precautions as my career climbed the decibel meter. Otherwise, a little tinnitus might be the least of my problems today.

The most valuable investment musicians can make is in protecting their hearing. "The maintenance of a musician's hearing should be more important than the maintenance of his or her instrument," states Michael Santucci, MS, CCC-A, in the Medical Problems of Performing Artists (Published by Hanley and Belfus, Inc., Philadelphia, PA © 1990). "An instrument can be upgraded or replaced, but we are given only one set of ears!"

At the 2004 NEMO Music Conference in Boston, Shure co-sponsored free hearing screenings in cooperation with the MusiCares Foundation and the World Council on Hearing Health. I was lecturing at the conference and could not resist the opportunity to have my own hearing evaluated for free. My test yielded essentially perfect results, showing high sensitivity to tones at various frequencies ranging from 500hz-8khz. However, I still live with constant ringing, and I'll bet that many city slickers have yet to discover their own internal "ring tones." By the time they do, their test numbers might not be as favorable as mine.

Foam ear plugs will never satisfy the serious performer since the attenuated frequencies are disproportionate. Save the sponges for the audience. All venues should provide little beer-bottle (or can) shaped plugs free of charge, manufactured and paid for by advertisers on the packaging-can you hear me beer and liquor companies? Or, how about ear plug dispensers next to the condom machines in the restrooms.

Musicians need exposure to the right tools and education for long-term rocking and rolling. High quality ear plugs, decibel meters, and resources on hearing loss should be available from every music instrument retailer. Music teachers should also address the risks of hearing loss with their students. Moreover, today's technology provides the most favorable protection devices for musicians: In Ear Monitors. These gems are now designed and priced for musicians of all levels.

Local retailers coordinating with community health clinics to provide free hearing screening twice a year (like going to the dentist) would generate floor traffic and inspire musicians to take preventative action. These events would be ideal for running in ear monitor clinics demonstrating the flexibility and ease of use. Many musicians are intimidated by the technology, as was I until I discovered the Sennheiser Evolution 300 IEM with Future Sonics' universal ear pieces. I now monitor at significantly lower volumes with far greater clarity than I ever did listening to standard floor wedges or the house PA system.

With informative, pre-wired displays in all stores carrying "in ear" systems, one can quickly recognize the benefits and possible applications. A simple setup composed of a small mixer, sequencer, or CD player with backing tracks, keyboard or guitar and amp modeler, vocal microphone, and a couple of room microphones will emulate a typical rig. An endless supply of foam cushions provided by the manufacturer would allow perusing customers to audition the product anytime in a safe and sanitary manner. Complete the station with a signal-flow diagram showing how musicians can insert the technology into their own rigs (dividing line level signals as needed with basic XLR splitters inserted between a personal monitor rig and the house PA system), weekend warriors and professionals alike will be wondering why they hadn't invested sooner.

I have come to realize that hearing is like money, and one has to decide where and when to spend it. Frequently, I now use ear plugs when I go out to hear bands in rock clubs-mostly because of the influx of mediocrity bellowing from many stages. When I hear something that I really like, I will usually swipe the "auditory credit card" and subject my naked ears to the pulsating speakers in an effort to get the full effect. However, I am becoming well adjusted to wearing protection and now recognize that good music sounds better at attenuated volumes. Therefore, after a few minutes of sonic onslaught, I generally re-plug. Even airplanes are expensive. Wearing plugs during flights will earn musicians the most valuable frequent flyer miles in the sky.

"The view that hearing loss is an inevitable physical disability associated with being a musician is incorrect," Santucci writes. "Advances in technology and the demand for more sophisticated devices now afford musicians viable choices to effectively protect their hearing with the least amount of compromise."

Regrettably, most musicians believe "it will never happen to me," yet many I know suffer some degree of hearing loss. This kind of ignorance, or arrogance, is far too costly in the long run since, once the damage is done, there really is no turning back. More attention must be drawn towards hearing loss amongst musicians. Otherwise, look out Arnold Schoenberg, atonal music may take on a whole new meaning!
Ravi tours the country performing original music and, as a consultant, lecturing on ethics and marketing in the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography was published by Simon and Schuster.

Pa Rum Pum Pum Pum

December 2004 - "Band and Orchestra" school programs fill unacceptable voids in children's lives, as today's Internet lifestyle creates a social illusion in a reality of solitude. Enrollment in these classes is crucial, not only for the child's development, but also to maintain music in public school curriculums.

In the dreams of rock n' roll wannabes, trumpets and violins lurk in the shadows of guitars and drums. Yet, we who march onto stages facing thousands of screaming fans often begin our journeys honking and squeaking through school funded music programs, as do many of our classical and jazz counterparts. Even students ultimately choosing careers outside of professional music greatly benefit. One harmonizes in every sense, developing an appreciation for music while creating unity as a collective of individuals. Exploring different instruments and combining them into a single orchestral voice can be likened to people of different races finding complementary traits and working together to create a harmonious world. The lessons are abundant and potentially more accessible than those extracted from playing team sports.

"There are few direct correlations between sports and intelligence, however, there are now quite a few direct correlations between the study of music and intelligence," says Tony Bancroft, a middle school band teacher in El Segundo, CA and author of Growing Your Musician: A Practical Guide for Band and Orchestra Parents (published 2004, The National Association for Music Education). In this valuable resource, Bancroft sites "improved problem-solving skills" and "result-oriented behavior" as examples.

I never excelled in school sports, and those of us picked last by "team leaders" in mandatory gym class often find less humiliating and safer (barring the occasional trip over an instrument) team experience in elective band or orchestra class. Research proves that music makes you smarter, so why isn't "Band and Orchestra" also obligatory? After school lessons and early morning practices instill a high level of commitment and discipline. Performances inspire confidence and offer a sense of accomplishment - not unlike the big weekend game, except that there are no losers (apart from everyone in the band as far as the football jocks are concerned).

My brother played clarinet in his high school marching band, and I, nine years younger, coveted that opportunity. Was it the marching, drums beating, crowds cheering, or uniforms that hooked me? It was all of that (yes, even the uniforms), including the one-armed quarterback who grabbed his trumpet at half-time and marched right back onto the field (he's now a professional musician).

My big break arrived in fourth grade, one year following my brother's graduation. I inherited his plastic Bundy and off to auditions I went. Since woodwinds weren't the most popular (drums were the "coolest"), I made "Concert Band" just by showing up and squeaking. I cherished my post and developed a reputation over the next couple of years as "the puddle-less clarinetist"—not a drop of spit on the floor to wipe up. Granted, I rarely blew a note during concerts, but my fingerings were perfect and no one noticed my sonic absence. Thus, I gravitated toward guitar and graduated public high school proudly picking and strumming in our award winning "Jazz Ensemble."

I excelled in jazz band due to outside lessons. What I learnt privately was applied and significantly enhanced in school rehearsals (reading music in time with fellow musicians was not a requirement for jamming in my basement). Plus, the humiliation of being reprimanded in front of peers was a great incentive to master the material!

Students that are fortunate enough to have music programs in school should take advantage of them. In addition to the aforementioned benefits, their future educational options may depend on it. "Many top colleges want high quality students who participate in the arts and are active community leaders" confirms Bancroft. Therefore, it's essential that both the instruments and education are stellar.

Retailers must not create obstacles, as flustered parents may consequentially deprive their children of this wonderful opportunity. Alternatively, encouraging and facilitating the entire experience will make long term customers out of experimenting families. Providing school music teachers with preprinted, multiple choice (to insure that it complies with availability) questionnaires depicting exactly what each student requires (instruments, accessories, books, etc.) streamlines the process. Students will arrive ready to rent or purchase with the essential information in hand. Only perfectly maintained instruments should be distributed along with the appropriate accoutrements. Extra reeds for trumpets - a major faux pas!

Offering quality instruments and flexible rental agreements is vital to the child's artistic development. Kids should easily be able to upgrade or switch instruments mid-semester in order to find their musical voice. A "rent-to-own" option and reasonable purchase prices are also imperative. "Families should dedicate themselves to success the moment they enroll in a music program" says Bancroft. "I suggest all parents purchase or rent-to-own immediately depending on their financial situation." Furthermore, Santa Claus is coming to town and he doesn't do rentals!

For most beginners, a horn is a horn and a violin is full, three-quarter, or half size. While this may be the only criteria concerning first timers, retailers should peruse next month's NAMM convention with an eye (and ear) for quality - not just durability, but inspiring tone and fluid action. Purchasing instruments to sell or rent is an investment in the arts, human development, and customer satisfaction.

"Beginning musicians and their parents have faced an onslaught of cheap overseas instruments," says Bancroft. "Parents need to understand that saving a few dollars on a 'cheap' instrument will almost surely cost them down the road. I always ask my kids, would you want your parents to buy you a used pair of shoes? How about a new pair of shoes without laces?"

Good band or orchestra experiences often lead to further private study. Creating incentives for parents to augment school music programs (such as discounted rental rates for those enrolled in private lessons) is a win-win situation. Bancroft concurs: "If every child had private lessons, the world would be a different place!"
Ravi tours the country performing original music and, as a consultant, lecturing on ethics and marketing in the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography was published by Simon and Schuster.

Sex Sells

November 2004 - Advertising can either talk about products or try to get into the hearts and minds of consumers. The most successful campaigns cater to human primal impulses to seal the deal. While targeted sensibilities vary depending on the product, one approach provides blanket coverage—sexy bodies. Whether it's a car, drink, or perfume standing between the consumer and the cash register, sex sells.

In the pop music industry, sex is part of the package. Drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll will forever be the brand identity statement of the business. Therefore, it's unnecessary to incorporate blatant sexual overtones into musical instrument marketing, even though record company media promotions frequently cross the line with excessive sexual content.

Guitars are sexy by themselves, arousing the libido with eye-catching attributes and the potential for euphoric aural experiences. By association, guitar players are sexy because they bring those characteristics to life. Eddie Van Halen has earned the respect of many musicians, and simultaneously he has created fantasies in the minds of young guitar players and women around the world. Would Ed the insurance salesman be as inspiring?

Today, playing an instrument faces tremendous competition from videogames, the internet, and other virtual stimulants. Unfortunately, "guitar gods" like Van Halen, Hendrix, and Clapton only come around every 15 or 20 years, giving budding musicians ample time to drift toward other enticing activities. So, how do we keep the sex drives alive during the off years? Do we need more rock 'n' roll icons or a Guitar Player swimsuit edition?

"Sexy advertising helps sell sexy products," says Dean B. Zelinsky, founder of Dean Guitars-whose marketing focuses on hormones rather than harmonies. He admits that his "Dean Girls" offends more than a few. "People have told me that they will never buy a Dean because of our ads. But, if it weren't for our ads, there might not be a Dean to buy." Zelinsky maintains that 98 percent of guitar magazine readership is male, greatly offsetting the number of women who might be offended.

These busty girls in scantily clad outfits work the NAMM show floor. The company also dresses up guitars by strapping them on dressed-down women in the ad pages of magazines. Is Dean Guitars that desperate for some lovin'?

They were when they first hit the market in 1977. Standing in the shadows of Fender-then owned by corporate broadcast media giant CBS-and Gibson—then owned by ECL/Norlin (an Ecuadorian company with primary interests in concrete and beer)—Dean had to take chances just to get in the game. Designing an ad campaign that related to the customer rather than focusing on the product was their strategy.

"There was a generation gap between guitar players and the 'suits' running the big companies," says Zelinsky. "We put imagery in our advertising so that the 14-to-28 year old, predominantly male market would say, 'Wow, these guys think like me!'"

Perhaps our subconscious connects a gorgeous female figure with a beautifully figured maple top. Or maybe these images consciously keep us from turning the page, stroking our imaginations just long enough to read the text. Either way, sexy bodies put Dean Guitars on the map.

I know several professional musicians who admittedly started playing guitar as teenagers solely to attract girls. Ultimately, they found true love in the music, but most young strummers probably soon gave up their Stratocasters for other objects of pleasure.

Adolescent hormones are typically highly charged, but while many of my friends plastered super models across every inch of bedroom drywall, the "TandA" that turned me on the most was "talent and attitude." I had album covers and posters of my favorite bands hanging from every wall. Their songs and persona instigated my strongest teenage desires. Furthermore, playing and creating music was, and often still is, the ultimate sensual experience (sorry dear).

Had I been thumbing through guitar magazines and Dean ads as a teenager, I would have either had the best of both worlds or lost my focus somewhere in between. Yet, music trade magazines and NAMM shows are not typically the birthplace of long-term musical journeys. These forums appeal to knowledgeable players and industry insiders, although one can find fervent teenagers hanging outside the convention centers eagerly trying to obtain a second hand badge—and I doubt it's just to get a glimpse of the "Dean Girls."

Brian Moore Guitars also "thinks outside the frets." Past marketing campaigns include targeting sports and leisure enthusiasts by placing ads in athletic publications. Their technologically advanced, computer compatible instruments have always been powerful tools for professionals, but they are now expanding their market with the more affordable "iGuitar" line. Patrick Cummings, president of Brian Moore, conducted seminars this past September at the "Digital Lifestyle Expo" in New York City, hoping to integrate the guitar as a component of lifestyles that include digital photography, video, and music. These instruments may also be the all-important bridge between internet-focused teens and guitar playing, particularly with Brian Moore's sales pitch that says the "i" stands for "fun."

Dean continues to maintain their sexual identity by planting ads in Maxim. "We're a sexy, racy company," Zelinsky contends. "Our ads represent that, as does our product." However, like Brian Moore, they are now emphasizing lifestyle. The new campaign portrays attractive women with guitars in everyday situations as opposed to shallow, "in your face" images.

Music instrument retail is a victim of the larger music industry's shortcomings when it comes to marketing. Manufacturers and retailers cannot create "guitar gods," and sexually charged ads are losing their luster in the marketplace. Instead, one must seduce newcomers with the aura of the artistry and provide them with the finest musical tools and education available. If done well, they will become aroused. Perhaps the greatest "turn on" is walking into a music store and hearing a phenomenal player on the showroom floor. Selling the urge that's inspired by the instrument is what ultimately seals the deal.

Ravi tours the country performing original music and, as a consultant, lecturing on ethics and marketing in the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography was published by Simon and Schuster.

A Little Romance Goes A Long Way

October 2004 -My guitar teacher once told me that the instrument is just a tool. He likened it to a mechanic's wrench-the right one will get the job done, but the mechanic must first know how to fix the car. I interpreted this to mean that talent and technique make the music; the guitar is simply a voice of expression.

Consequently, I performed on moderately priced stock guitars (mostly Fender Stratocasters and Gibson Les Pauls—under $1,000) for many years, learning valuable skills getting the most out of mid-level instruments. Owning several permitted exploration of tonal varieties and stylistic influences. Having only one high-end guitar might have pushed me into a corner.

Once my career hit the big leagues, I wondered if I had outgrown my gear. I was playing some of the most glamorous gigs a musician could have (Madison Square Garden, The White House, David Letterman Show). As endorsement deals and manufacturer relationships came my way (along with a few extra bucks in my pocket), the opportunity arrived for finer instruments to grace my stage. One new "tool" in particular led me to go where I had never gone before.

When Dick Boak from C.F. Martin Guitar Company said he marked my name on a beautiful Martin D-42, "early on in its infancy," my expectations skyrocketed. UPS knocked two months later, and I was nothing short of enamored. The guitar, like all that emerge from the Pennsylvania factory, is a work of art in itself—a masterpiece, boasting tonal and physical splendor that inspires me beyond words.

Since that day, I have been writing and performing almost exclusively on acoustic guitar. Having established a career playing electric in bands where there is plenty of sonic fabric in which to hide, the nakedness of solo acoustic performance tested my talents and professionalism. Artistic boundaries broadened and creative juices flowed. I discovered new ways to express my music, developing a percussive finger style of playing that enabled me to incorporate band-like grooves. This new technique augmented my tonal arsenal on acoustic and electric guitar.

My appreciation has also grown for acoustic legends like James Taylor, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell. Contemporaries including Dave Matthews, John Mayer, and Keb Mo now lure my ear and inspire further study. I even went on the road opening for Suzanne Vega!

Would I have traveled this path were it not for the Martin D-42? I'll never know. Regardless, I am here today because of that guitar.

A musician's artistic sensibilities eventually push him to cross the line between "practical" and "passionate." Most accomplished players have adoring relationships with their instruments. Perhaps the most obvious example is B.B. King, who names every guitar that steals his heart "Lucille." He gives her unconditional respect—something we all hope for in our most precious relationships. However, contrary to traditional human unions, "instrumental monogamy" is not the norm.

"Picking up something other than my usual Strat or Tele, such as a Baritone or my L4, automatically puts me in a different zone" remarks Radiators guitarist Dave Malone. "I firmly believe that these machines have souls, and you can coax out the songs that are hiding in them."

Dave and I represent a small percentage of players who through professional affiliations have the luxury to discover these "souls" in the favorable environment of our home or personal studio. Most musicians have to depend on a retailer's showroom to find true love.

Ten years ago, I fell in love in the local family owned and operated music store where I had purchased all my gear to date. The personal environment, unchallenged by extraneous kick drums or PA systems blaring "customer holding for pro audio, line 3," invited me to peruse new inventory (I was only in the market for a box of strings). There she was—a blonde in a sexy "see through" top. Her sweet voice and silky feel seduced me. I simply had to have this Fender Telecaster 1952 Reissue. The relationship only lasted a few years (she wanted a commitment, I wanted to date others), but I found a freedom of expression that I had not previously uncovered. She permitted me to say what was on my mind and in my heart, never getting in the way.

Instrument retail stores should be the ultimate singles club, with knowledgeable sales associates as matchmakers. Today's "mega music centers" resemble something between an orchestra tuning up and sound check before a rock show. The setting is anything but romantic and doesn't even make me want to date. More intimate, quiet stores—free from commission-based salesmen pushing for a first kiss—are much more likely to inspire romance. No one likes to be smothered when courting. With the advanced amp modeling devices currently on the market, virtual privacy is attainable in every store. Customers can explore electronic instruments through headphones. However, sound proof listening rooms (such as those often designated for acoustic guitars) or even available teaching studios serve as superior auditioning environments.

Selling by price also undermines the intrinsic value of this relationship. I was shopping for a mattress recently, and one store chose not to display prices on their inventory. The owner swore that when shopping for the cradle in which one spends a third of his life, dollars should not influence the perception of comfort, even if it is ultimately the final purchasing decision. Perhaps higher-end musical instruments should be sold this way as well. If customers want to shop price, they can ask. However, baiting them with preconceived value will only inhibit the romantic possibilities. One can't put a price on love.

Ultimately, instruments are just tools. However, chemistry will emerge in the right relationship. Playing music is sensual—the more stimulation from an instrument, the more inspired the artist and his creations. One must listen to these "voices of expression." Given the chance, they often have something incredibly beautiful to say.

Ravi tours the country performing original music and, as a consultant, lecturing on ethics and marketing in the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

A School of Thought

September 2004 - It's September and the school year is in full swing. For many music stores, rentals and lessons are hitting annual highs. As school systems continue to cut music programs, local retailers offering private instruction are often the sole venue for cultivating the musical artists of tomorrow. Having studio space and not using it for lessons is a loss for the retailer and society. Even stores without studios can implement an organized system, dispatching teachers to homes while channeling monthly or semester payments and scheduling through the "school." Local music retailers can and should be the nucleus of music education in their communities.
My first few years of guitar lessons were at Greenwich Music in Connecticut—a small store at the time with four teachers juggling a few students in three shoebox studios. I went on to teach there for a decade and watched this small retailer transform into a serious music school boasting a significant retail showroom. Now hosting seven comfortable studios, Greenwich Music has an enrollment of 250 students studying under 25 professional teachers. According to owner Linda Smith, music lessons bring in one-third of her overall revenue. "At the very least, lessons pay the rent," she said. "Nowhere in the business is the margin as great as with lessons."
Guitar being the most requested instrument, I carried about 30 students per week (ages 10 through mid-life crisis) during my tenure. There was occasional babysitting, but that is an opportunity to expose the magic of music to less inclined students. I often met with supportive parents (or spouses) who shared in the enthusiasm—not just because they witnessed positive results musically, but also in overall well being. A couple of kids even abandoned Ritalin! Sometimes I had to solicit parental interaction to best serve the children—even if mom only granted me five minutes between her hair and nail appointments next door. However, with the ease of email, frequent updates became routine.
Parents' busy schedules make regimented weekly trips to the music store a convenience when junior breaks a string, needs to stock up on accessories, or is itching to hear the latest effect pedal. Granted, replacing a "high E" string twice a month is not going to launch your business into the Fortune 500; however, you can't beat having target clientele—already paying to be in your store—peruse the latest merchandise on market while waiting for their teachers (musicians notoriously save their sense of time for the music). Furthermore, Christmas and birthdays often come around twice a year given the high divorce rate, and who do all four parents turn to for gift ideas? Music teachers!
While competitive pricing on lessons and products (assuming that manufacturers will preserve local retailers and not succumb to unscrupulous wholesale price demands of mass-market chains) should earn the loyalty of every student, society's price-conscious preconceptions often overshadow reality.
"Despite the fact that we have students coming year after year, we are still competing with the big-box stores, the internet, and catalogs," said Smith. "It is very discouraging to see a student who has been with us for years walk in with a guitar from Sam Ash that we have hanging on the wall for less money."
Highly personal customer service that cares more about the student than his wallet will help, but perhaps complementary maintenance for instruments purchased by students would command additional consideration. Assuming all else is equal, what's more enticing than a year of seasonal adjustments without making special trips?
However, the real value in offering lessons is not in "net" profit but in "gross" contribution to the lives of aspiring musicians. In doing so, the immediate health of the community and the future quality of the industry are vastly improved. Music education means smarter kids today and better music tomorrow, period.
Local "music store teachers" often have little professional training as educators, and great players are not always great teachers. While a college degree in music education may be preferable, professional teaching experience should never be discounted. Knowledge and communication skills are paramount and can be evaluated over a resume and "coffee talk." Smith confirmed, "Nothing is more important than good teachers because they are the best form of word of mouth. If a student loves his teacher, he will tell his friends."
Those behind the counter also play active roles in student development. As an 11 year old waiting for my lessons with Ratso (yes, even his wife calls him that), I frequently listened to the long-haired salesman named Robbie strum my favorite AC/DC tunes upon request. It was inspiring, mostly because I wanted to be Angus Young (minus the schoolboy uniform). I felt like everyone at Greenwich Music cared about me, and most of them did. Ratso and Rob remain good friends of mine today.
If stores strike agreements with their teachers to conduct "after school" programs for underprivileged individuals, the gift to the community is even greater. Publicity for such programs is nothing to shy away from. Local press enthusiastically covers small business philanthropy. This free promotion may ultimately recoup any financial investment and, best of all, will inspire others to participate or initiate similar programs. It is a win-win situation.
While no one cringes during endless renditions of "Twinkle, Twinkle" more than I, student recitals are vitally important. "From an educational point of view, it is an essential tool in promoting self confidence, self esteem, and commitment to one's art," agreed Smith.
A concise program, with each performer playing a single piece and an entertaining emcee filling in the gaps, will turn a parental obligation into an enjoyable, well-oiled musical event that would make Henry Ford proud.

It takes a great deal of pride to run a quality school, and the savior for independent local music stores might just be in education. Music retail was founded upon serving the arts. Without cultivating true artists, the final product will no longer be worth serving.

Ravi tours the country performing original music and, as a consultant, lecturing on ethics and marketing in the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography is published by Simon and Schuster.

Dream Makers
Turning mass-market consumers into educated customers

August 2004 -The world is catering to the mass-market consumer, and recent trends in the music instrument manufacturing and retail business support that claim. While corporate acquisitions may demonstrate confidence in the industry, the result almost always creates a greater distance between company executives and product consumers, which is ultimately shortsighted for the future health and integrity of the business. Fender is now available at Costco, and Yamaha sells guitars at Wal-mart...isn't Wal-mart also currently the top seller of prerecorded music? Hmm...artist endorsed products and artist's CDs all sold under one roof...do you smell what I smell?

Britney at...Wal-mart! Bring the entire family, watch her perform, get a Britney songbook and go home with her latest CD—all free with the purchase of a guitar and a Pepsi! What could be better? Who needs music stores forcing tomorrow's pop stars to get a basic education about instruments by asking: "What kind of music do you like?"

Perhaps only entry level guitars are currently available at mass-market outlets, but how long will it be before the budding musician is asking the Wal-mart sales associate how a Wilkinson tremolo system compares to a Floyd Rose? I am sure the salesman (or saleswoman, depending on the outcome of the current class action sex discrimination lawsuit) will walk you through the differences. I looked at carpet steam cleaners recently and asked the Wal-mart employee how the cleaning process works. He said: "You plug it in and turn it on." What is even more distressing is the possibility that future "commercially successful" guitar players may not even care (or know) enough to ask!

Nobody can compete with Wal-mart, and nor should one want to. It's like (actually, it "is") the United States. It won't be beaten by the competition—there isn't any. The only way it will go out of business is by imploding from too much greed attempting to eliminate free market commercialism. Regardless, music retailers can protect themselves and create loyal customers by retailing with integrity.

Local involvement is key, and contributing to the cultural enrichment of the community will prevail over volume discounts as customer service continues to decline at the mass-market level. Opportunities to create or support much needed music programs in schools and other youth oriented institutions are plentiful. Such participation also conveys to kids and parents that their local music store exists to help cultivate artistic talent and service their needs. I'm not talking about trying to push electric guitars onto 10 year olds, but rather, arousing their artistic inclinations with accessibility to these "dream making" tools of our trade.

Perhaps the most amazing and influential moment of my childhood occurred at Connecticut Music in Stamford, CT (in the days when parents had time to take their kids to a music store), when I held an electric guitar for the first time, thinking that this tobacco sunburst beauty could one day be mine. Fortunately, Santa shopped locally that year. Now, a generation later, that $75 Cort guitar hangs front and center in my studio, original strings and all. Moreover, Connecticut Music remains in business today—a different location, but the same dad and three sons behind the counter! They remember my first chord as clearly as I do...I learned it from Joe Jr.

Manufacturers must protect smaller dealers and recognize that the future of instrument sales and brand loyalty lies in a quality product and an educated sales force. Walking into a mega-store with gear stacked from floor to ceiling can be intimidating. A knowledgeable sales associate will help navigate through the sonic sea, but too often one hears: "I'll have to check, I don't usually work in this department." With technology becoming more complex and customers having less time these days to tinker (we're all too busy being our own travel agents online), swift delivery of expertise is essential to closing the deal.

The Internet also poses challenges and opportunities for traditional retailers. Comparison shopping is easier than ever for the "penny wise" consumer, but like an incredible concert, nothing replaces the live show. Most people want to feel and hear an instrument before taking it home. However, a mediocre customer service performance will surely entice your audience to see who else is playing around the corner, and the number of instrument retailers on the other end of a mouse makes Manhattan's West 48th Street look barren. Online, the most personalized experience will beat the "cyber" competition. I have a friend at Sweetwater—I know about his kid, ex-wife, gigs, and vacations. Yet, I could pass him on the street without blinking an eye.

Art creation is a complicated business because true art is not created by the masses. The influx of non-musicians having professional careers in music may drive retail sales today, but what is it doing to the music industry as a whole? If we allow the entire business to reduce itself to the lowest common denominator, quality art will be further buried by mass-market music. Small stores like Greenwich Music in Connecticut and large manufacturers like Martin Guitars are demonstrating overall growth, but who are most of their customers? If it is professionals and students, great. I fear, however, that hobbyists are starting to climb the ranks. There is nothing wrong with music as a hobby, but do you want your industry to depend on disposable income? This doesn't mean that a jock shouldn't own a guitar, but let him go into a music store and learn about the tools with which music is created.

One can buy decent quality tennis equipment at most discount department stores. The sports business has catered to weekend warriors for years while also being a highly specialized professional industry. So, why shouldn't instrument retail follow suit? Because mediocrity has heavily infiltrated professional music. Society's artistic standards are being reduced to what is commercially promoted, and what is commercially promoted is what costs the least to produce. On the tennis court, you either win or lose.

Ravi tours the country performing original music and, as a consultant, lecturing on ethics and marketing in the music industry. With professional endorsements and business savvy, the former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has released two albums independently. His autobiography was published by Simon and Schuster.

Music Inc., The Customer Connection

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Music and Sound Retailer: "Ravi On Record" - read

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Music and Sound Retailer: Features

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AOPA Flight Training

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Electronic Musician, Music Business Insider

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Fédération Française d'ULM, France

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Midwest Flyer

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  • From Home To Hanson (cover story)

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Riff Journal

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"Ravi offers an essential journalistic link—the viewpoint of the musician, the customer, the retailer's reason to exist—and does it as well as anyone we've ever seen."
- Frank Alkyer, Publisher, Music Inc.