Bad timing – could this be the hidden threat to the MI industry?

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Bad timing - could this be the hidden threat to the MI industry?

Three recent conversations about the future of MI retail set me thinking. The first was with Simon Gilson, co-owner of the mighty PMT. Simon is pretty forthright in his views and no one can doubt his ability as a retailer, nor his long experience in this troubled sector. And let’s not beat about the bush – MI retail in the UK is in trouble. Recent estimates have put the number of functioning music shops in this country down in the eight hundreds and some pundits say that this will drop as low as three or even two hundred within the foreseeable future. But why?
Simon Gilson’s thought provoking comment was about the urgent need for music shops to be thoroughly modern and professional and he was particularly scathing about the run down nature of the traditional ‘fag ends on the floor’ variety. While he is undoubtedly right when he says that today’s customers won’t put up with the worst of the past, I think he and like-minded retailers have more or less slain that dragon (though a few still somehow hang around, I accept). Mostly gone are the days where an assistant was more interested in showing you his Steve Vai impersonation than smiling indulgently while you put sticky fingerprints on his shiny new product. Also mercifully in the past are the days of that old refrain: ‘Piss off, son. No you can’t get that one down off the wall, ‘cos you can’t afford it.’
I get the impression that most music shops today are actually quite good and, in fact, a damned sight better than some of their rivals from other sectors. Let’s look at a few comparisons. Have you been into a mobile phone shop lately? I’m not talking about the backstreet emporia that seem like fronts for drug empires or money laundering enterprises, but the mainstream ones. I can’t think of any music shop I have encountered as bad as some of these in terms of ill-informed or just lazy staff. Similarly, have you tried to buy a car? It’s all too easy find car showrooms staffed with twenty somethings in spray-on polyester suits, more interested in their iPhones than talking to you and, if you do finally pass the scrutiny of the girl on the reception desk, find yourself confronted with a ‘salesman’ who, while he can’t tell you whether the car you are considering has a chain cam drive or a belt, but can run rings round Carol Vorderman’s spreadsheet when it comes to ‘gap insurance’, or the latest PCP scam, which is likely to be all he either knows or cares about.
Meanwhile, let’s not even start on the supermarket chains that were so busy congratulating themselves on how wonderful they were that they let Aldi and Lidl in through the back door and who don’t seem capable of going six months without a new food safety scandal.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I would suggest that, in comparison, the average British music shop in 2017 is a shining star in terms of acumen, product knowledge, service and skill.
So while Simon Gilson was right I think, by and large, music shops in the UK have improved almost out of recognition, an improvement in which he and some of his competitors have played a significant part.
The second thought provoking conversation concerned death-by-Internet, also often regarded as the biggest enemy traditional retail faces. I’ve never understood why, even in these days of much improved quality control, a guitarist would buy a new guitar without trying it first, but over the years I have just had to shrug and accept that this is simply down to me being old school. Customers do it and for many, it seems to work. What they don’t get, of course, is the benefit of the shop assistant’s knowledge and experience, nor the ability to try before they buy. In any case, on the same day as I spoke with Simon Gilson, I also spoke with a UK guitar distributor, a man who handles a two or three middle ranking brands, none of which is a ‘must have’, so who is a pretty good barometer of the trade as a consequence. Asked how business has been these past couple of months, he was surprisingly upbeat – and in particular how it was sales to bricks and mortar music shops that were doing well, as opposed to online retailers who, he felt, were holding steady. So have we finally reached a sort of steady state, where there are enough buyers who still value a personal experience to keep the traditional trade afloat?
So, humour me please: if music shops are now pretty good and the ones who have survived the depredations of Amazon and the like are still seeing customers who value what they have to offer, why the predictions of yet more culling?
The answer may be from an almost invisible express train rushing our way. Paul McManus at the MIA, who was the first to point this out to me, tells of the numbers of music shop owners approaching retirement and currently hoping to sell their businesses. Apparently, it’s high. Very high.
This seems very believable and it doesn’t affect music retailers alone. Look at the ages of some of the key figures in the distributor side of the industry. Many came into the business propelled by the music booms of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. True, businesses are always led by what in the gorilla world they call silverbacks, and that thirty year window wouldn’t matter today had the ’90s, the noughties and the (heaven help us) the twenty years since, produced similar intakes but that’s the problem: they haven’t. I’ve argued before that this is the real cause of the decline the industry has suffered in instrument sales in recent years – far more so than recession. If today’s prevailing music (mostly rap and barely warmed-over ’80s guitar rock) doesn’t encourage youngsters to play, it also doesn’t draw them into this side of the business either.
If the numbers being discussed are right it looks as if what actually might decimate Britain’s music shops – and their suppliers too – is not that they are bad at retail (most aren’t), nor that they will all be slain by Amazon and the like (the good ones will survive), but that the baby boomers who own them are currently eyeing-up a retirement spent happily not worrying how much they owe Fender or the VATman, and that there aren’t too many itching to follow in their footsteps.
That ticking sound? It may not be death watch beetle at the back of the shop. It could be a demographic time-bomb.