Getting More Than You Pay For

While the Internet has made it easier than ever to find low-cost gear, there are a variety of services that retailers provide beyond competitive pricing.
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WHILE THE Internet has made it easier than ever to find low-cost gear, there are a variety of services that retailers provide beyond competitive pricing. Thanks to the ever-increasing complexity of the products involved in modern music making, musicians and engineers often need advice on specific products, how to integrate them into a system, and, in some cases, how to use them. Consequently, you need more than just a convenient and inexpensive place to shop when it’s time to expand your setup.

Sweetwater’s Mitch Gallagher (right) interviews artist BT for a seminar in the company’s state-of-the-art theater. How do you know what to look for in a music store and who to trust for advice? Let’s look at the types of so-called value-added services that top-notch retailers offer, in order to demonstrate how some of the more successful companies take care of business.

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Hands On Many retailers combine the classic brick-and-mortar storefront with an online component, as well as with more traditional mail-order and phone sales. Well-known companies like Sam Ash Music (, West LA Music (, and Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center ( grew from being neighborhood shops in New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., respectively, into world-renowned retailers because they’ve expanded their services as customer expectations evolved with communication technology. Yet they still have a well-stocked showroom when you need it. “I think a lot gets lost when you just look at something online and take that as the word,” explains Adam Levin of Washington Music Center. “A lot of people still like to get their hands on something and give it a try, rather than just reading specs and numbers online. We’re here so somebody can understand what they’re getting into, and we’re going to show them how to use it and not leave them in the dark.”

Probably the biggest reason musicians visit an actual music store is to try something. Consequently, the pressure is on for locations to provide a representative number of products, while having knowledgeable staff ready to answer questions. Although most stores do this with their guitar, bass, keyboard, and drum inventory, a number of retailers have worked hard to create this experience within the challenging pro-audio categories. For example, B&H ( has a room dedicated to mics and preamps. “We have 60 large-diaphragm condensers and 26 preamps that are all connected through a bantam patchbay,” explains John Pace, B&H’s pro-audio sales manager. “You can listen to any microphone with any mic preamp that you choose. The bantam patchbay introduces no coloration to the signal-path at all, and the room has just enough liveness that you can gauge the nuances of each mic.” Click the Microphone Room link on the B&H website to get a look.

The Full Compass dealership in Madison, WI, includes a 1,000-square-foot studio. Similarly, Guitar Center ( stores have custom displays that let customers A/B computer-technology products. “In every store, we have a display station that holds 22 to 24 controllers—keyboard and non-keyboard—connected to an iMac loaded with every virtual instrument on the market,” explains Bill Wrightson, SVP of Technology Merchandise for Guitar Center Inc. (GCI). “The customer can go through an easy, self-guided tour of how each controller interfaces with the software. We’ve done something similar on the DJ side, with four or five leading controllers hooked up to a single computer that has the major DJ software packages. This allows a customer to have the same visceral experience that you get by taking a guitar off the wall and plugging it into an amp, but with computer-based products.”

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Vintage King ( takes the process a step further by allowing artists and studios to audition products in their own production environments. “Most of the gear we sell is available for demonstration,” says Jeff Ehrenberg, Vintage King’s director of West Coast sales. “People can try them out in their studio—microphones, compressors, reverbs, whatever—and use them for a couple of days, do a mix with them and see what works, and then make an educated decision. Wherever we have reps in the field—New York City, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, L.A.—we’ll come by the studio and help set it up. Any other area, we’ll ship the gear, or if it’s a design job, we’ll fly a representative out.”

GC Pro, the “outside sales” division of GCI, has a similar approach. “Our sales staff is out in the community calling on recording studios, post-production houses, house-of-worship accounts, and live-sound venues to see what they need,” explains vice president Rick Plushner. “We can provide products to our customers for demo purposes so they can try things out before they purchase. And they can come into the offices and have demos done within the store itself. We’re kind of a boutique-style brick-and-mortar group. We offer all the advantages of working with a big company, but we make it very personalized.”

A recording studio at Sweetwater headquarters.Customer Service Not surprisingly, every company I talked to emphasized that customer service was its biggest strength. And though it may not be a big deal if you are simply looking for picks or strings, service is very important when you’re ready to lay out serious cash on something complex. At that point, you’ll want a salesperson that understands your specific interests.

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“Each of our stores has its own microsite with a comprehensive profile of each person working in that branch,” explains GCI’s Wrightson. “That way you can find the right salesperson for your needs before you visit your local store.” Besides the Guitar Center stores themselves, GCI controls nearly 100 stores under the Music and Arts ( name for band and orchestral instruments, Woodwind and Brasswind (, and online retailers and

No matter how you shop—phone, email, or direct—look for a music store that values the old-fashioned shopping experience of building a relationship between the customer and salesperson. “It can’t be overstated how important it is to have someone who knows what your goals are and what you want to achieve, what gear you already have, and what you want to change about the gear,” says Mitch Gallagher, editorial director at Sweetwater ( “The people we have on the phone are not just order-takers, but are qualified service consultants. They recommend products based on real-world experience and education in the products that we carry. They go through constant training—we have twice-weekly meetings where manufacturers come in and train us on their products. We also have Sweetwater University, a 13-week program that everybody here goes through, covering recording technology, guitars, bass, drums, synthesizers—everything we carry.”

Vintage King’s Jeffrey Ehrenberg in the VKLA Critical Listening Room, in front of the Quadratic Pipe Array Wall.It’s shouldn’t be surprising that salespeople from companies like Sweetwater, B&H, Vintage King, and Full Compass ( are seasoned audio professionals. Successful retailers understand that its sales engineers need to know how the products are used, through real-world experience, on top of the education they get about specific items. Rather than simply trying to make a sale, this level of sales engineer can provide information about system configuration or design that you may have overlooked.

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A great sales rep will assemble a package deal that fits your budget and your needs. If you have unusual or specific requirements, ask if the retailer will put together a custom deal that includes a price break based on the size of the purchase. Many of the retailers in this story have institutional and government accounts, so they’re savvy about putting together custom orders.

Of course, retailers also want to capture you as a long-term customer, so their services don’t just end with the purchase. “Our salespeople take care of the customer both before and after the sale,” says Jonathan Lipp, CEO of Full Compass. “You receive the quality of a traditional retailer even if you order over the phone.”

“In our business plan, we looked at high-end retail stores such as Mercedes Benz,” notes Ehrenberg, “because we want to off er that level of concierge-type service. Not only before the sale with the demo, but after the sale. A ‘Worry-Free Warranty’ is our phrase for it.”

Continuing Education Because pro-audio technology is constantly changing, look for educational services from retailers. Many dealers produce online or email newsletters in which they alert their customers about events and educational items, such as product videos, clinics, and workshops.

“We frequently have workshops and seminars here,” notes Gallagher. “We have a 250- seat theater designed by Russ Berger, that has astounding acoustics. It has a big stage, a full lighting rig, and four different sound systems, ranging from a big P.A.-style system down to a headphone available for every seat. Often an artist will do a performance in the morning for our sales engineers where they talk about the products they’ve been using, and then they’ll do a seminar for the public in the evening.” In addition, the company offers instrumental lessons— individual and group—like you would find in your neighborhood music store, as well as multi-week production classes utilizing its three recording studios.

“We also have Gearfest every June,” adds Gallagher. “It’s an annual two-day event where roughly 200 manufacturers show their products. There are clinics and workshops all day, and inside the building we have a couple of halls where we also have workshops for recording, mixing, mastering, and guitar.” Sweetwater also offers a variety of online educational content, from Gallagher’s informative “Sweetwater Minute” video series to the company’s Expert Center, which includes demo videos, the extensive Glossary and Tech Tip lists (both of which are updated daily), and informative Buyers’ Guides.

Guitar Center offers weekly classes coordinated throughout its chain of stores. “In May 2011, we launched the “Recording Made Easy” classes and workshops in conjunction with Apple Computer,” says Wrightson. “They’re free classes conducted every Saturday in every store from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. It’s a 4-week curriculum based on GarageBand, aimed at the customer who is new to recording.”

Beyond Gear You might be surprised to find that some retailers offer many services beyond gear sales. For example, Sweetwater Productions offers general recording, transfer, and mastering services.

While it doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar presence, retail upstart Hello Music ( offers daily specials that span most gear categories and include services such as recording, mixing, and mastering, using well-known engineers and top studios.

“We refer to Hello Music as a ‘do-it-yourself empowerment platform for musicians,’” says CEO Rick Camino. “We look at the artist’s entire value chain. We have a 360-degree view of musicians and try to come up with offers that cover the array of things that they might need. For example, in addition to instruments and home-recording gear, we’re brokering studio time for about 50 cents on the dollar by guaranteeing studios a certain amount of units sold through Hello Music. We’ve brokered entertainment space on Delta Airlines—unless you’re on a major label, you can’t get access to any of the media on Delta Airlines globally. But through Hello Music you can buy yourself a slot on our radio station, with overhead video promotion as well as in-magazine promotion for your album.”

Besides composing and performing, Gino Robair writes about and teaches music technology. He also has a manicuring license with the State of California.