We’re now three weeks into Covid-19 lockdown and Australians are doing their best to adapt to a new way of life. The flattening of the curve means that there’s reason for cautious optimism. Permitted to trade, most musical instrument stores are not only open but many are experiencing an unexpected period of growth. This is in stark contrast to the lives of our friends around the world, who are battling a diabolical number of virus cases and deaths and in many countries retail has totally shutdown. In the USA things are particularly bad with some music wholesalers re-tooling their equipment to produce medical gear rather than instruments. Ernie Ball Music Man is using their strap making facility to produce cloth face masks. D’Addario’s drum division is turning drum heads into face shields. Froggy’s Fog, a theatrical fog producer in America has switched to making hand sanitizer and sanitizer bases. Thankfully in Australia our health system is well placed to cope with the current demand and we haven’t needed to resort to such measures yet and hopefully never will.
While Australian music stores are still able to trade, they are nevertheless learning to be flexible and remodel the way they do business in a significant way. Those who were set up well for e-commerce pre-Covid-19 are flourishing, those who lagged behind are learning quickly to get their online services up to scratch to deal with demand and the new trading conditions. To date many stores are still accepting floor traffic albeit under very strict conditions. Marcello Grassi, co-owner at Eastgate Music in Kew is taking the health advice very seriously.
“We have a very big operating centre, a big space so we could potentially have a lot of people in but we don’t,” says Marcello. “We allow no more than about eight. There are hospital-grade sanitisers all over the store. We have covid -19 trading terms on the doors, on cabinets and near instruments. Obviously things like microphone testing are out of the question during this period. We also have the store carefully marked so that people are 2 metres apart when they are at the counters and we ask everyone very carefully to practice social distancing. Prior to the store opening, every computer, every phone, every door handle is sanitised with a hospital-grade bacterial disinfectant.”
Macron Music has stores in Melbourne and Sydney and while store owner Anthony Ursino still sees “bulletproof’ young people coming in wanting to hang out and jam, he also imposes strict instore guidelines. “One of our main concerns is making sure our staff are safe so we’re making sure customers keep their distance and we’re reducing the number of people in the store.” he says. “We’re saying you are welcome to come in and get stuff but we are not really open for aimless browsing and jamming but really, the majority of our time is spent online, we are very busy with that.”
Rich Piper of Piper’s Wollongong Music Centre is having a bit of fun with it. “We’ve got those Colonial Leather Bio Hazard guitar straps up. They are either side of our counter, a couple of metres inside the front door, so customers have a bit of a laugh at that. People can come in and access the accessories, guitar strings and picks, straps etc but to come into the store further, it’s a bit of an invitation-only thing and we make sure everyone sanitizes.”
Another retailer made the early call to close the doors to foot traffic a few weeks ago. “We closed the doors just as they started talking about a lockdown, so we went early,” he says. “People that have social media reach and regular EDMs, that can reach out are doing ok. We have seen an uptake.”
Despite the increased measures to produce a safe environment for customers to shop in, almost universally people are shopping via phone or online and stores are doing whatever it takes to deliver the goods and keep their loyal clientele satisfied. “We do encourage online sales,” says Eastgate’s Marcello. “We don’t ask any sensitive questions, we just say if you would like to pick it up instore fine, but don’t feel like you have to get out of the car to come into the store. You are very welcome to call us and we can greet you outside, we can load your car. We can do whatever you want that is required. If you want us to wear a mask and gloves when we meet you in the car park, not a problem.”
Rich Piper in Wollongong is one of the many stores who were well set up for online trading anyway. “We’ve always had the webstore there but there’s bundles of that going on now,” he tells us. “People are thinking, well this is how we need to go shopping now and that’s what they are doing. Someone might say can you just deliver this to me and I’ll do it personally because it is local but I’ll do it with gloves and mask on. It’s all contactless and prepaid. Our couriers have got bundles of work too, they come in every day and pick up a stack.”
Macron has also invested in its time wisely by improving their online service, not just for the current conditions for the future too. “I think we will come out of this quite strongly because of the way we are poised as an online retailer” Anthony Ursino tells me. “Because it has been less busy instore we have been able to catch up on things that we were putting in place anyway with our online service.”
As you’d expect customers are snapping up gear that can keep them amused while in lockdown, whether that be podcasting, livestream or recording gear or even a new instrument to learn. Another circumstance of the imposed isolation time is that customers are purchasing the items they’ve long had their eyes on. While so many musicians are struggling pay the rent or put food on the table, those who haven’t been as financially effected are finally getting around to buying their dream instrument. “Rather than I always wanted to learn to play guitar, it’s more like; I’ve always wanted that particular guitar,” says Anthony. “I had a guy last week who was wanting to buy a Maton for three years and thought, it’s a great time to do it now.”
Brett from Musician’s Oasis in Kingaroy, Queensland is seeing more of the first timer market. “It’s definitely not anything in brass and woodwind,” he says straight up, referring to the health problems related to the trying out of instruments that you blow into. “It’s more keyboards and guitars, things that they can learn at home and need less help to actually learn to play. It’s probably a bigger part of our market anyway. We do brass and woodwind, school instruments but we generally do more guitars and things. We have had a few who haven’t played before they come in and talk about taking up guitar. We have sold a few digital pianos to people who know they are going to be home and want something to play. They’re easy to get up and running.”
For specialty retailers such as piano stores, things are a little different. Online activity is also up but compared to the retailers dealing in multiple product ranges, there are limits to what they can do. As seen on the ABC recently Jenny Ko, owner of Gospel Pianos in Ryde, NSW stated that while acoustic piano sales were down, their digital piano sales had almost doubled. “It hasn’t really overtaken … selling acoustic pianos but at least it is helping us along the way,” she recently told the ABC.
Michael Cleves told us that his group of stores, which include the Australian Piano Warehouses tells a similar story, with loads of digital pianos selling to go with some softness in the mid range upright acoustic piano market with Grand pianos holding up. “As always with acoustic pianos, you’ve got to do the extra. In general MI, entry level gear has been huge in March, we’ve been very busy at Billy Hydes and Kosmic Music as well as in Dale Cleves stores. “we are seeing a lot of product sold to new customers during this period, and that’s a positive”
“Acoustics are quieter but digital pianos are quite busy and portable organs too, the little Hammonds, we’ve been busy with those,” says Bernie Capicchiano, owner of Bernies Musicland in Ringwood, Victoria. “Most are looking for home entertainment, so we are getting comments like … we always wanted to have the time to play, now we do or we are locked up and need our music.”
Bernie was also quick to point out what happened during the great depression and believes there’s a comparable sentiment out in the community during this covid-19 period too. “During the great depression there was a great demand for pianolas. People stayed at home and sat around the pianolas singing. That was between 1915 and 1935, there was a 20 year run of pianolas. People still needed their music. We are lucky at the store here in that we have plenty of space and not jammed into one little showroom, we could have up to 28 people in here comfortably distanced. We have put signs up saying what the capacity of each area of the store is, so people are still welcome to come in and shop safely.”
Like every other store Bernie is learning to adapt. As a retailer who is very active with instore masterclasses and demos, he’s had to now consider the online options. “We are setting up zoom for the classes, masterclasses, with streaming but I think it is very confusing with retail as to how many people you can have in at something like a masterclass. People probably aren’t sure if they are allowed to go out to a music store or not so it would be good to get that message out that music stores are definitely open … we are here to help.”
In such a tough retail environment it seems that those who can ‘read the room’ are making the most out of the situation. The stores who already had a strong online presence and the ones who are learning on the fly to cope and going the extra yard for their customers are the retailers who will be in a better position at the other end of this tricky situation. One of the main pieces of information music retailers are wanting to impart is that the majority of them are open. It’s not illegal to shop at your local instrument store and it’s up to you how you choose to do that, whether it be in person (if their doors are still open to traffic), on the phone or online, plus delivery of goods can be arranged in many different ways. Most stores are open and willing to help you in any way possible and despite the unfortunate situation we all find ourselves in, there is still an air of positivity out there in music retail land.
“We are going to come out of this with a better online service and hopefully a lot more customers have been made happy in the meantime and will continue to shop with us,” says Macron’s Anthony Ursino.
And leaving the last word to Eastgate Music’s Marcello, “I’m staying enthusiastic, optimistic and learning to adapt and I think that’s all any of us can do.”
Story by Greg Phillips