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Hittin’ the Notes: Music Businesses Remain Vital in Digital Age

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Bill’s Music, probably the best-known business on Frederick Road in Catonsville, has been in business for an impressive 53 years.

That stretch of street, which was officially named by former Gov. Parris Glendening as “Music City, Maryland,” is still retailing instruments, selling equipment and offering lessons, and remains the hub of the duly noted area that features seven music businesses.

The various challenges of digital technology, from using it to make today’s sounds to the sale of equipment needed to do so, have threatened the creation of music as previous generations have known it. However, the Music Row businesses — which also include Ann & Steve’s Music, the Baltimore Brass Co., Appalachian Bluegrass, Guitar Exchange, Trax on Wax and The Piano Man — seem to range from healthy to thriving in an overall market that has expanded.

Brian Higgins, son of founder Bill Higgins and general manager at Bill’s, and others in the business, keep holding their own. “We’re a full-line store,” he said. “We carry everything, for everyone from beginners to members of established bands that need a public address system and perhaps to build a studio.

“Our biggest challenge, bigger than competing with Guitar Center,” said Higgins, “is competing with the online market,” and sites like eBay and Sweetwater. “We have to give people a reason to get off the couch and into the car and come see what we have.”

Those Six Strings

A store like Bill’s, which encompasses 35,000 square feet, needs differentiators. For instance, “about 40% of our instruments are used. That can be a very good thing,” Higgins said. “Customers often want a piece of equipment that they think was built better [and maybe even domestically], rather than what’s new.”

Another differentiator is offering lessons, and Bill’s instructs 400 students (and potential customers for its 15 salespeople) each week. They learn from two dozen on-staff teachers, some of whom have been teaching there for decades. There are also four full-time repair personnel, including Ron Cook, who has worked at the store since day one.

Even given its variety, there’s one instrument that Bill’s sells and teaches how to play more than any other.

“That’s the guitar,” said Higgins, while noting an article that ran in the Washington Post last June that was headlined, “Death of the Electric Guitar” — the demise of which, he feels, was “greatly exaggerated” (according to www.musictrades.com, overall guitar sales for 2016 reached 2,630,950, up 6.4% from the previous year, and the highest in the last decade).

“We have to compete with eBay, Amazon, etc., and we don’t sell as many as we used to; not out of the front door, anyway. But guitars are still our best seller,” Higgins said, adding, “We’re part of the online party, too, with our eBay store,” which listed about 358 guitars at press time.

“All told, we have about 2,000 guitars in stock, which is more than most places on the East Coast. There are few places like Bill’s Music anywhere.”

Along the Row

Other stakeholders along Music Row (which also used to include Record & Tape Traders) describe a somewhat diverse and competitive, yet vibrant and cordial, scene — though there isn’t much of a unified effort to promote it.

Ann Quinn and Steve Ocone, of Ann & Steve’s Music, repair woodwinds on adjacent Bloomsbury Avenue, and have done so in Catonsville since 1999.

“We’re a destination,” said Ocone, “and most of our business is from word-of-mouth. There can be some competition between our Music Row shops, but we refer business to each other, too.”

As for the marketing of Music Row, aside from a large building mural that greets drivers as they enter Frederick Road from the Beltway heading west, there are some bike racks built in the form of musical notes, “but we don’t really work together to promote it.”
What they do, as Higgins also noted, is present concerts.

“In the summer, we have concerts in the parking lot on Music Row, in the Lurman Woodland Theatre by Catonsville High School and at the [Catonsville] Presbyterian Church. But,” Ocone said, “we don’t place joint ads. I just do specific placements in key places, like with the Columbia Orchestra. And we still have enough business to go around.”

Ocone said most of Ann & Steve’s business comes from Howard County (where Bill’s Music once briefly operated a second location on Route 40). “Plenty of [Howard residents] drive through Frederick Road. We get work from around the region, too.”

While Ocone doesn’t play much, Quinn performs in the Columbia Orchestra. “We stay ingratiated in the Columbia and Catonsville music scenes. I like to support music in the local high schools, too,” Ocone said, “even if it doesn’t necessarily attract new customers.”

Another Music Row destination is the Baltimore Brass Co., owned by Howard County resident David Fedderly, who teaches at the University of Maryland College Park. He echoed Ocone’s observations about the local market.

“There’s some competition,” said Fedderly, “but we all have our own niches and we often refer customers to each other. For instance, we don’t rent instruments very often, but are happy to tell customers that Bill’s does.”

What’s important to understand, he said, is that music is “a service business, and you have to know your products. We’re considered a professional shop, and that means employing classically-trained musicians who can make suggestions and make repairs. Also, our employees don’t sell on commission. They’re here to advise people.”
Like Ann & Steve’s, Baltimore Brass, Fedderly said, serves a market that’s only so big. “There aren’t that many tuba retailers or repair shops, and we have so much inventory that we’ve had people fly in from Europe to do business here.”

Getting Schooled

While Music Row is a big draw, there’s plenty going on elsewhere in the area, too. For instance, Mike’s Music has been in business in Ellicott City’s Montgomery Station during a decade that has included two expansions.

“We’re a lesson-based store” for a variety of instruments, said Haley Gordon, co-owner. “That’s how we pay our rent,” with the help of 42 instructors that have access to 24 soundproof lesson rooms, plus a group room for combos, ensembles and rock bands.

Unlike Bill’s, Mike’s added instruments and equipment as a secondary offering “so students,” many of whom are marketed from the time they enter Howard County’s public schools, “don’t need to shop around.

“Every fall I give the students in all Howard County schools, with which we partner, about 12,000 folders with our logo and information,” said Gordon. “Some of the kids come in for the rentals from Menchey Music, our affiliate. Then they can buy through Menchey, which has a repair shop, or through us.”

As for Menchey, the eight-store, Hanover, Pa.-based company opened at The Village of Waugh Chapel about a year ago.

“Our core business is school music,” said Joel Menchey, president. “Every decision we make is based on opportunities in that market. It’s very strong in Maryland, and particularly in Anne Arundel County, where we’ve dabbled for years. We opened at Waugh Chapel because there is no representation there.”

Menchey has been operating in Baltimore County for 60 years and has had a store in Timonium for 11 years, “but our main business is renting instruments in markets like Ellicott City and Frederick, where we don’t have stores and work with businesses like Mike’s.”
Menchey also commented on the listening habits of today’s younger demographic.

“Clearly, electronic music has found its place, and it’s growing,” he said. “Interest in playing classic rock is decreasing, but country music is trending up. So, I don’t think the number of players of any instrument are dropping, since our revenues have gone up every year for the last five.”

Such facts are undoubtedly why Guitar Center, which operates more than 200 stores (including a location in Glen Burnie), recently opened its fifth Maryland store at the Town Centre Laurel. Like Bill’s and others, the store sells guitars from around $100 to a few thousand dollars, as well as equipment and vintage gear.

Adam Hunter, general manager of the Laurel store, acknowledged that the popularity of digital music has led to the chain selling “everything needed to contribute to making music electronically,” he said, while adding that aficionados of that market might “even get into regular music, because the electronic mode was a gateway.

“Bear in mind that the electronic musicians need synthesizers, beat machines and ProTools [a popular mixing] boards, so they need at least some equipment,” he said. “It’s all about finding your sound.”

As for customers who prefer traditional instruments, Guitar Center gives “lots of lessons, too,” Hunter said. “We just opened in September, but we already have seven instructors and more than 100 students.”

Reaching the Kids

As for Guitar Center opening in an area that has been served mostly by small retailers, Hunter thinks everyone can coexist. “I don’t think we’re hurting any of the smaller stores. Most times, they’re selling something we don’t focus on, anyway,” he said, adding, “and new guitar players are born every day.”

And most of those small retailers seem to keep moving right along. At the National Association of Music Merchants convention three years ago, Bill’s Music was saluted for having been in business for a half-century.

“Only about 20 stores in the U.S.” have enjoyed such a run, Higgins said. “At one time, Washington Music Center [of Silver Spring, which turns 60 this year] was our main competition.”

These days, Higgins is concentrating on keeping the old-schoolers happy, as well as giving kids who may have first experienced music online reasons to visit Bill’s.

“We plan on being here at least another 50 years, but we have to keep offering better service and more options,” he said. “You’ve got to be on your game.”

 

In Tune With His First Love

Despite the popularity of digital sounds and hip-hop, as well as murmurs about the “death” of rock music, industrious sorts can still make some nice extra cash, and perhaps a solid (maybe, in time, lucrative) living, by setting up shop to build, repair and sell guitars.

Such efforts more than paid off with Maryland’s own guitar guru/hustler-made-good, Paul Reed Smith. On that note, meet Glen Burnie’s Dave Treude.

His life-long love of stringed instruments was spurred anew about two years ago by Treude’s fiancée, who encouraged him to set up the modest, yet well-equipped, Treude Guitar Shop at their home.

“The majority of what I’ve sold so far are cigar box guitars, and cigar box and standard ukuleles, which are a little unusual compared to what you’d find at Bill’s,” etc., he said. Other projects have included building several “Partscasters,” repairing and refinishing miscellaneous guitars for customers, and even building two themed electric guitars: a Nintendo NES game system and a Star Wars Millennium Falcon, from what he terms “donor” guitars.

Treude is also set up to do any type of guitar work, from paint and customizations to setups and electrical repair, in his shop (saving some work for a computerized CNC milling machine that a friend provides).

In 2017, Treude built and repaired upwards of 35 stringed instruments that have sold for from $100 and up. What does he love best? Reclaiming old cigar boxes and turning them into stringed instruments “and whatever other projects I can get my hands on,” he said. “It’s very rewarding.”