Bass Direct in Warwick is a retailer that has been supplying the bass players with the very best bass gear for well over 10 years now. It seemed like a good time for MIN to have a chat with owner Mark Stickley to ask him among other things about how wanting to buy a new bass led him creating one of the biggest bass-specific retailers in the UK with global online sales and a busy retail premises.
MIN: What made you decide to start Bass Direct?
MS:“I think it was a combination of several factors, the primary one being that I needed to get a five-string bass and there really wasn’t anywhere to buy one from! At that time the Bass Centre in London where I’d always bought from previously had closed its retail shop. We’d also had the Bass Centre in Birmingham and Musical Exchanges both of which always had a good range of basses and amplification but they had both gone too, the Bass Centre closing down and Musical Exchanges becoming Reverb. I think The Bass Gallery in Camden had been open since the early ‘90s, but they were pretty much the only ones. Because of this, players like myself were using online forums like ‘Basschat’ to buy and sell high-end gear. What dawned on me was that people were getting hold of products they couldn’t buy here in the UK, then buying and selling them to each other online without being able to try them in a shop environment first. So as much as anything, my incentive was to try and give bass players a sanctuary where they could come and try out and buy bass gear without resorting to meeting in car parks and handing over brown envelopes stuffed with cash!”
MIN: How did you go about choosing and sourcing stock?
MS:“Around the same time there was a guy who’d set up this little business importing Roscoe, Pedulla and Chris Martin Basses. With the closing of the few specialist shops like the Bass Centre he hadn’t been able to make a go of it, so he sold all his stock off through a retailer called Machinehead. I’d seen their advert for the Roscoe basses and thought wow! these look cool. I did a bit of research online and literally the next day on the Monday drove down to Hertfordshire. They’d flown out of the door and there were just four or five left. I tried them and managed to pick myself up one of the five strings and that was basically the start of my journey. At that time, I’d probably already been playing for twenty odd years but it was picking up that bass that made me realise that maybe the basses that were available in the UK weren’t as good as I’d thought they were. This was such an amazing instrument and I felt there and then that bass players needed to know about stuff like this.”
MIN: So did you take a look at what the Bass Centre in London had done previously as a template for such a specialised business?
MS:“No not at all. In fact, I didn’t really look at any business model. I contacted a few of the companies I’d got to know in the States and told them I was thinking of bringing a few their products over. I had the skills to build and design my own website, so that’s what I did – it was very simple, just based around the idea of bringing a few instruments over for a bit of fun, I certainly had no intention of building the business to where it is today. It was only really ever supposed to be a side line to my main job of being a full-time musician, I was also running a small PA company so this was just a little fill in!”
MIN: It sounds like online retailing was always intended to be an important part of the business.
MS: “Exactly. Back in the early ‘90s I’d worked in distribution for a company called MAD (Music and Audio Distribution Ltd.) who’s portfolio included brands like G&L and Warwick, so I’d already worked on the other side of the fence for a couple of years. This meant that as well as attending the big shows of the time like Frankfurt, I also was going around the music shops all over the country getting a feel for the business and seeing what was going on. There was nothing new in what I wanted to do with Bass Direct, in essence I was doing what Barry Moorhouse at The Bass centre in Wapping had done years before; go straight to the manufacturers for products and bringing them into the UK. The difference being that the products that I’d found, from companies like Roscoe, Nordstrand and Bergantino were things that no one had ever heard of over here. And unlike the guy who’d tried to start the distribution business by bringing over the Roscoe, Pedulla and Chris Martin basses and selling them into the retail businesses, what I did was basically sell them direct to the customers through Bass Direct. In the early days I was mostly selling five and six string basses because that’s what I personally had been using for years and I could see that there was a gap in the market for selling high quality extended range basses. I’d played Warwick five strings for some time but I felt that, in my opinion, this Roscoe bass that I’d bought was even better, ticking all of the boxes for me.”
MIN: You obviously had a good understanding of what bass players were looking for, but instruments from companies like Roscoe and Pedulla aren’t cheap. Was it a conscious decision early on to concentrate on the top end of the market for pro and semi pro players?
MS: “Not at all, but you have to remember that because of the dollar exchange rate at the time – about two dollars to the pound, I could buy a custom made Rosco five string for about the same price a MusicMan Stingray was selling for over here, so in that sense these really weren’t ‘high end’ basses. I’d seen Foderas and Alembics being sold for insane amounts whereas the Roscoes just seemed like exceptional value for money – I think they still are and Keith (Roscoe) is one of those makers who’s somewhat overlooked in this country. The prices have obviously gone up as a result mainly of exchange rates but they’re still a real bargain in my opinion.”
MIN: Do you find some bass players still see Fender as the gold standard?
MS:“Some do. And they’re great basses too. But part of what I’m trying to do here as much as anything is offer alternatives. Before Bass Direct most shops only really offered Fender and perhaps Ibanez and if you were lucky a (MusicMan) Stingray. In the last 10 years I’d say that the options in the high street music stores have diminished further still. I’ve heard people say that bass players are more open-minded but I’d have to disagree. At least now with the instruments I bring over there’s an incredible choice – what a fantastic time to be a bass player!”
MIN: Is bass still as popular as it always was, or do you sense a decline in the amount of people taking the instrument up?
MS:“That’s an interesting point. I think there’s an element of cynicism within the whole music industry these days. You hear people saying that there are no proper bands around anymore and things like that. I don’t really share that view and I think there are plenty of young people taking up bass. What’s changed is the amount of older people in their 40s, 50s, 60’s even 70s who have either gone back to the instrument or never stopped playing. It seems to me that these are often the people who are buying big ticket musical instruments. I was chatting to another retailer about the opening event for a new store and they said yes, there were plenty of younger people there but it was predominantly guys in their 40s and 50s!”
MIN: Do you think that’s why companies offer so many ‘reissue’ and vintage style basses?
MS:“Absolutely – and early on I was on a bit of a mission to enlighten customers to the benefits of cutting-edge instruments like Dingwalls and Roscoes; contemporary designs. That said, I obviously try to cater for every kind of player so we do sell plenty of reissues and traditional Precision and Jazz style but my main focus has always been to sell basses that are made with 21stcentury sensibility rather than instruments made as much as anything to tap into a sense of nostalgia for the 1950s.”
MIN: So how do you see the future of for bass guitars and musical instruments in general?
MS: “It’s interesting. I look at the Darkglass and Dingwall phenomena that I’ve been a big part of over the last few years. We were the first ever dealer for Darkglass and I’ve been the main dealer for Dingwall for years now. It’s interesting to me that products like these have become almost fashionable. Now you can buy Darkglass products anywhere. It’s the first time I’ve ever been part of a fashion movement! But that changes the perception of these products, they go from being niche and cool to almost a little bit mainstream and it’s important to remember that new products are coming on stream all the time as we move forward. That’s what online and specialist retailers can offer; a choice of instruments and amplification that’s been available for years as well as new products as they become available.”
MIN: So choice is the future?
MS:“If people ask me what the future for bass retailing is, I say ‘everything’ It’s like the fashion industry; there’s never been more choice and value and I believe that that to a large extent is driven by the internet and online sales. Roughly half of what we sell is online and of that probably half is to international customers. That’s why people buy from companies like Amazon, they expect (and get) a huge range of stuff, from the goods they set out to buy to things they didn’t even know about – but were there and available. Retail premises can still be successful and relevant by offering an environment and opportunity to try before you buy. That’s what we set out to achieve at Bass Direct from day one. If someone comes into the shop and wants a pre-CBS Precision and a six string Dingwall to cover all situations they can get it here. Where I think we’ve come up trumps is that we’ve also always championed the smaller businesses who are hugely passionate about what they do so that bass players can try and hear new products from these tiny companies and compare them to products from huge brands that are available anywhere.”
MIN:Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Mark.
MS:“My pleasure, thank you”