Barnes and Mullins

Barnes and Mullins

Bell’s Back – Interview with Milene Letertre Bell Music Ltd

No-one would argue that the Covid Pandemic has been more damaging to the music industry than most. Hundreds of thousands of musicians, and their attendant support services, were prevented from working, and the results for many companies have been catastrophic.

One such casualty was Bell Music Limited, one of the largest and most successful percussion instrument hire companies in the UK.

Founded in 1990, the company built an enviable reputation by amassing one of the largest, and most diverse collections of percussion instruments available, as well as its expansion and diversification into rehearsal studios, and of course its world-renowned retail shop.

Bell was a strong company from the start, but even the strongest were unable to withstand the decimation of Covid. With the government furlough scheme in a state of flux, and an unwillingness to risk making all his team redundant at the same time, founder Mike Perry shut the company down in August 2020, and the company finally ceased all operations in December that year.

Move forward to 2022, and a business arrangement between Bell and the London Symphony Orchestra gave the company access to the orchestra’s warehouse space, and Bell was able to start rebuilding its business once again.

MIN’s Andy Hughes talked to Bell’s Hire Manager Milene Letertre, who began by outlining the business model that was created, and still drives Bell Music Limited.

Why do orchestras hire percussion instruments, instead of just buying in a stock of pieces to use when needed?

Orchestras need to hire percussion instruments as and when they are required, it’s simply not practical in terms of storage, or cost effective, to own pieces that are only used occasionally. That is where Bell comes in – we have the largest selection of percussion instruments in the UK, and we can supply additional sets of instruments for specific projects.

Was the re-start a smooth operation?

Actually, the initial re-start was quite bumpy. We started a simple ‘pay as you hire’ system, and used WhatsApp to link customers requiring percussion instruments, with the clients who held them, and made sure everyone could access what they needed. The music industry is very supportive by nature, and everyone was keen to help everyone else, for the benefit of all.

Are you looking to push forward in other areas of your hire business?

Definitely. We want to reach out to band and group drummers, because we are developing our drum-kit hire business, and increasing or availability of backline and lighting for bands on tour. I think a lot of drummers knew our retail shop which was very famous.

The shop had to close, with the ending of the company at that time, are you looking to open it up again?

We don’t have current plans to re-enter the retail sector with a physical shop premises. I want them to be aware of our hire facilities for kits, and other requirements including backline, microphones, and lighting. We started really gearing up the marketing side of the business in February this year, once we had all the essential infrastructure sorted out and running correctly. We are busy updating all our social media systems, and reaching out to trade conferences and shows to ensure that we get our name back out there.

Is the business back to its pre-Covid levels, in terms of your client base, and overall business?

Not even close yet. Right now, we are probably where we were fifteen or twenty years ago, we still have a way to go. But that’s not a problem, there is space in the market for us to grow into again. We are going to focus on the hire side of the business as we re-build. We do not have plans for a retail outlet, and as far as the rehearsal studios, we will see about that further down the line.

Do you feel that you have learned any business lessons from the way in which the company has stopped, and re-started again?

Definitely. I do think that maybe the company was a little bit too big before. Now that we are a little smaller, I think we can develop our customer services levels even more, and the smaller structure will allow us to keep a slightly reduced client base, but offer them an even higher level of quality service and support. That has been the real positive in terms of our re-start, we have been able to look at where our strengths lie, and ensure that we concentrate on those area of the business.

Do you think Mike Perry always intended that the company would return?

Absolutely. Mike is a very focused and driven, and stubborn man. That is what has made him so successful as a businessman. We have the largest selection of percussion instruments for hire in the UK as I mentioned, and he never seriously considered selling any of it. He maintained everything in two warehouses, and just waited until the time was right to start things up again.

As the Manager of the Hire Division of the business, what are your plans moving forward?

We are going to be increasing our marketing presence, and we are looking at updating and expanding our percussion stock. There are new instruments, and upgraded models coming on stream, and we need to be able to provide the latest and best instruments to our client base, so that will be a major focus of the team right now.

Any more development plans coming onstream?

I am also looking into expanding our backline and support areas as well, including lighting, microphones, and so on, and see if we can increase our market share in those areas, as part of our overall drive to provide the most comprehensive hire service in the UK.

And finally, do you have a message for the music instrument community?

It’s wonderful to be back! I really hope that the drumming and percussion community who have suffered so badly during these difficult times, is going to build everything back, as we are doing. Fortunately, the drum community is close, and we are all doing our best to support each other, and move forward from here, and we can all do that together.


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