Fix This

by Dan Daley • in
  • September 2018
• Created: August 31, 2018

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During the late and most decidedly unlamented Great Recession, automobile dealers found themselves taking it especially hard on the chin. Over the course of what is now semi-officially known the Automotive Industry Crisis of 2008–2010 (yep, you can look it up), the Big Three U.S. car makers and Japan’s Toyota and Nissan experienced sizable double-digit dips in sales at a time when most sedans were returning a margin of ~3 percent in good times. The ROI was better on SUVs, but what was the point when no one had any money to buy them anyway?

Auto dealerships make their vig on three pillars: the sales of the cars themselves, which as seen, wasn’t all that much anyway and only occurred once or twice a decade for most customers; the financing of those cars, which had been a sweet deal until interest rates came crashing down after 2009; and fixing those same cars.

That last proved to be the best solution for recurring revenue, and it got quite a few dealers through the roughest of rough patches since the 1929 Dodge hit the showrooms. Know who else made out well during that stretch? AutoZone, which grew at nearly 10 percent as consumers decided to start doing their own repairs.

With discussion around the next recession already getting lively – and the consensus among economists is that we’re way overdue for the next one – it’s a good time to look at how instrument repair and maintenance can help a retailer’s bottom line, certainly in the good times but especially when things start going south.

By The Numbers

It’s a difficult category to get a handle on. Some MI retailers have repair personnel on staff, but most seem to have varying degrees of relationships with freelancers, some of whom might work from the store or else from their own homes, itinerantly visiting shops in their areas. Not surprisingly, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has included a category for them in its employment surveys (it also tracks hippotherapists – the practice of riding horses as a form of therapy for children and adults who experience disabilities – and professional bridesmaids. Go figure), although it’s limited to those who are W-2 employees, which likely reveals only a fraction of the actual market. The numbers are muddled a bit more by the fact that the category (#49-9063 in BLS parlance) also includes instrument tuners, presumably inclusive of members of the Piano Technician’s Guild. Still, even that limited look indicates there are 8,240 musical-instrument repairpersons on the books, either at stores or on staff at dedicated repair facilities (including, presumably, those run by manufacturers) and luthiers and others who have incorporated and pay themselves a salary.

The number suggests a robust market for repairs, making it all the more important that retailers take notice. Word of mouth is the single biggest marketing resource

for instrument repairs, but as the category becomes more competitive, certifications can help boost business, especially in sectors like band instruments, where school boards like to see diplomas on walls. Those certifications are available through the National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians, the Guild of American Luthiers, and the International Double Reed Society. It’s also a possible interesting left turn for some of your music students, just like audio engineering has been. It takes a particular personality to pursue repairs. offers a look into a typical day of a semi-anonymous repairer named “John,” who actually does provide some interesting insights: “I think there’s probably a good portion of [repair specialists] who are probably kind of loners or curmudgeons as they get older,” he says. I wouldn’t let that deter the mechanically minded, however.

Instrument repair is also enough of a twist on music to attract the attention of local general-interest press and business journals. For instance, the New York Times ran a great piece on Perry Ritter’s midtown Manhattan saxophone repair clinic, doting on its jazzy clientele, intricate, precision repair work, and Ritter’s penchant for sax-themed Calderesque mobiles (And what in the photo looks like a Sparrow air-to-air missile – Ritter is apparently a model rocketeer).

The bottom line is, instrument repair is a recurring- revenue center when it’s done correctly, and it’s the sort of add on that gets a business noticed. Because unlike the car dealership’s repair shop, which can’t wait to hit you up for $150 for an oil change, customers do find comfort in knowing that if they take a chance on tweaking their instrument this way or that and going just a fret or two too far, they can bring it back to someone who can not only fix it but empathize with that need to “make it mine.”

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