Two sides of the same coin – big vs small music retailers

It comes up all the time.

Like two warring factions battling for the soul and spirit of retail and true musicianship.

Where should you buy your gear?

In the one corner we have the company that has become synonymous, in the minds of many, with the evil empire of big box, soulless retail: Guitar Center.

In the other corner we have the independent shops who many champion as the only place where true musicians who care about their craft will shop.

Both have their supporters and loyal followers and both have their critics.

Full disclosure: I worked at Guitar Center, with a fair amount of success, for several years. I still have friends who work there and I also have spent years frequenting indie shops and have a good friend who runs the Guitar Sanctuary in McKinney, Texas. I’ve also purchased gear from pretty every type of retailer in business. I tend to buy from people not from companies so I spend a lot of time finding great sales guys who can match me with what I need as opposed to shopping at the same place every single time…and my gear purchases tend to run the gauntlet in terms of variety so not any one place tends to have everything I need or want.

Let me dispel the overarching myth: Guitar Center is not as horrible as many want to say, indie shops are not the hallowed ground that many describe them as…both have their good points and bad.

One of the things Guitar Center has always done well with is allowing people the opportunity to access an incredible variety of equipment. You can walk into a GC and touch anything, plug into anything and make up your minds. There are great salespeople there who actually do know their business and can help you decide what you need.

On the other side, GC has always struggled with the balance between providing such unfettered access and protecting their equipment against in-store wear and tear. As an employee I constantly ran into situations where high dollar acoustics were so badly scratched that when my premium-minded customers came in I had nothing to really offer them except some “used-but-new” guitars.

By the same token, providing this kind of access created customers by establishing a very welcoming environment. They would by their 500 dollar guitar from us because we let them play the 5000 dollar guitars.

Indie shops have less capital to work with and as such have to protect their investments in order to maximize sale prices AND ensure perceived and real value of fine instruments is shielded from abuse. It’s hard to talk about how beautiful a hand-crafted, rare-wood guitar is when it looks like it’s been on the road with a punk band for 10 years.

As a semi-professional musician myself, and a bit of a gear nerd, I’ve been amazed at how many times I’ve been denied the opportunity to even touch a guitar while visiting independent shops just because I wasn’t deemed worthy. Guess what? They didn’t get my business…in fact, I’ve never stepped foot in those stores again. There’s only so many times you can treat me like crap before I say, “forget it.”

But…there is something be said for these types of shops serving as gate keepers of sorts. They protect the inherent value and beauty and spirit of very fine instruments and they take this responsibility very seriously.

By the same token, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into Guitar Center to find a high-end, otherwise gorgeous acoustic guitar with rusted strings, out of tune and scratches all over it.

So what’s the point?

I think GC and independent shops are two sides of the same token who are trying to achieve slightly different goals within the same wide market. I love bits of both and frequent both.

Independent shops have a freedom that Guitar Center tends to lack because a store like The Guitar Sanctuary can take some risks with a one-off custom piece or they can stock handcrafted short run brands that can’t feed Guitar Center’s need for production quantities.

Guitar Center can provide access because a few scratches here and there can be more easily absorbed because of the sheer scope of transactions they do.

I encourage people not to lock themselves so tightly into one box or the other when it comes to retailer loyalty because there are positives to both and really, if you find that one good sales guy he’s going to take care of you no matter where he works.

I love visiting good independent shops because it seems like I always come out of there blown away by some of those regional builders that you just won’t find in a Guitar Center.

If you have the opportunity, check out the Guitar Sanctuary. They’re doing things that really make the community better as a whole. They’re not just selling gear, they’re improving the music scene and cultivating young talent by providing songwriter showcases, lessons and performance opportunities. They carry some of the most unique and beautiful instruments you’ll ever see and they do so with a joy and pride not often seen. There are no hipster egos, no holier-than-thou attitudes…just a passion for gear and for music.

But…on the other hand..have you been in a Guitar Center lately? Go visit Guitar Center North Houston.

They have a gorgeous new floor plan, offer set-ups and guidance, have a beautiful selection of all your favorite brands and a few surprises. Corporate leadership has worked very hard to provide individual stores some freedom when it comes to tailoring their selection to their local community.

Also, don’t forget about great promotions and programs they have for songwriters and instrumentalists. These are great opportunities for people to get their names out to a huge audience.

Extremes are seldom productive. Extreme opinions are seldom accurate or well-informed. Things are seldom as great or awful as folks make them out to be on the internet.

Bottom line – find a great shop that treats you like you deserve to be treated and treat them like they deserve to be treated. Support them and get involved…don’t let cynics and snobs dictate your own opinions. You just might surprised at what you discover.

Anyway – visit Guitar Sanctuary here and visit Guitar Center North Houston right here.

Tis all for today…



More thoughts on Prince

It’s been a few weeks now.

Honestly, I’m still sad.

I keep thinking about this man, in pain, suffering from a massive addiction, alone in an elevator clutching a pill jar and dropping dead.

It’s tragic…regardless of who it is. No one should die like that…in such painful solitude….and not just the solitude of physically being alone in an elevator or room but the emotional and psychological isolation that chronic pain and addiction so often bring.

While the news cycle has pretty much moved on, there is still a regular trickle of headlines…the inmate claiming Prince was his dad, the strange details of the doctor Prince’s people called in and his son who found him dead.

Now I read that Prince’s primary physician has gone off the grid. No one at his office can confirm his whereabouts and he hasn’t been home in about a week. The theory is that this doctor may have been writing scripts to Prince under multiple names…or that perhaps he was just one of many doctors Prince was using to get enough pain killers to feed his addiction.

There’s the sickness of his sister and half-siblings ready to pick the bones.

Minnesota is trying to push legislation to protect future artists from having their legacies cashed in on by surviving relatives and of course Congress is batting about 19 bills to address opiate addiction and abuse in our country.

Meanwhile, many of us wait for the inevitable: the coroner’s report where we’ll be tortured with details about how he hadn’t eaten in god knows how long, partially digested pills in his stomach, weight loss etc etc.

It’s just tragic…and again, not just tragic because it’s Prince…but because it’s a person. So many people die because what began as simple medication got out of hand and our medical system and the patient’s support system failed to help them.

The fact that this happened to Prince, an otherwise clean-living, ambitious, intelligent, hyper-focused workaholic makes it all the more evident that this is not about junkies scoring to get high for the fun of it.

Unfortunately, much like with Robin Williams’ death, not much will happen.

The media turned a shade of purple for a few days, MTV went back to playing videos for an evening, Prince was a meme on Facebook for about a week and Purple Rain was covered by pretty much everyone…but has anything changed?

Has this elusive beast people refer to as “awareness” been risen?

Doesn’t look that way.

I’m sad because Prince is gone. I’m sad because I admired him. Even when he made music that wasn’t to my taste I recognized it as the work of a true genius. I never saw him perform live and I never will.

I’m also frustrated because it was just so damn unnecessary and that too many people just chalk it up to “oh well, he was another celebrity junkie” and too many people put addiction into some little basket where they put other inconvenient situations that are too hard, too scary, too complicated for them to deal with.