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It’s Just a Stage You’re Going Through: MI retailers try their hand at hosting live performance spaces

by Dan Daley • in
  • Issue Articles
• Created: July 10, 2017

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Live music was worth $9.3 billion in 2015, and it’s expected to continue to be the music industry’s chief revenue generator going forward, reaching nearly $11.7 billion in 2020, according to PwC.

That’s better than three percent CAGR, which is better that you can get at the bank these days and far better than what the recorded-music segment has seen; CD sales (still the single-biggest music format) earned $1.5 billion in 2015, down 84 percent in a decade from $9.4 billion in 2006. And downloads, also once viewed as the industry’s savior, have now been falling for three consecutive years with no sign of recovery.

That’s been driving a number of trends in MI, including digital processing that allows fewer musicians to sound like more on stage, such as harmony and choral processors like the Digitech VLHM and Boss VE-5 Vocal Performer. Bit it’s also putting new value on strategy that some MI retailers have been employing for some time: dedicated performance stages for live music within the store.

Rick’s World

A longtime proponent of the idea is Rick Santos, president of Rick’s Music World in Raynham, Massachusetts. Santos decided to put a stage into the store they opened in 2001 there and says, “It has made all the difference in the world to us.” Santos uses a pair of Bose L1 portable PA systems for sound, in part because they help avoid feedback issues. The stage also has four microphones, keyboards, DI boxes for guitars, an array of foot pedals and an electronic drum set, which allows the store manager to keep the volume under control. The stage can be ready to rock at a moment’s notice, which it sometimes does if Santos or another employee hears a particularly inspired player banging away on an instrument on the shop floor.

Santos says he’s experimented with a variety of scenarios for the stage area, including an open-mic night that’s been a success, and a café environment that’s sold everything from packaged snacks to homemade cookies and soups. But the idea has always been centered around the idea that the stage is there to engage both customers and the community.

“Live music has become huge, and it’s a great way to be connected to the community,” he declares. It also supports Santos’ emphasis on the store as a music education center; new students see it aspirationally, a goal for themselves, while parents view it as a palpable outcome of what they pay for. In that sense, says Santos, there’s no way to precisely determine an ROI on the stage. “If I had to look at it on a cost-per-square-foot basis, it might not seem to make sense,” he says. “But as part of a larger strategy, it’s been a huge success. It sets us apart.”

Getting A Promotion

Paul Tobias, owner of Tobias Music in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove, has had similar good outcomes from the separate performance space he installed in the space next door to his store when they expanded three years ago. He had similar expectations for the stage, as a community focal point and as for something students could aspire to, but it also acts as a direct revenue generator when rented out for private events, something possible

because it’s in a separate space from the shop, which became available when the adjacent ballet studio closed. It’s also used as a commercial venue; Tobias has booked shows in the venue, which seats between 75 and 100, featuring acoustic guitar luminaries, like Adrian Legg and hometown heroine and NAMM Show legend Muriel Anderson, reinforcing the store’s focus on high-end acoustic instruments.

“Our family could always throw some pretty wicked parties, but concert promoting is something new to us,” he says, noting that some performers can command as much as $30 per ticket.

“But top-flight talent also reinforces our emphasis on high-end guitars.” (That’s also why he says he’s shied away from open-mic nights so far, though that’s not completely off the table.) Most if not all of any ticket revenue generally goes to the performers, which makes the store a regular stop for many well-known guitar names. Tobias likens the performance space, which he says cost less than $10,000 to build out, to the house concerts that have become a staple of many touring singles and duos. It’s made the stage almost self-liquidating financially – Tobias notes that during intermissions at two shows in the past he sold two high-end acoustic guitars – but asserts that wasn’t the goal. ‘We’re an upscale shop and having great guitar players in her performing on a regular basis tells customers what we’re all about,” he says.


At a time when more retail stores are implementing performance areas, nuance becomes more important. The @4410 is the performance space that’s accessed by passing through Contemporary Music Center’s store in Haymarket, Virginia and heading into the building’s basement. There, performers ranging from participants in CMC’s rock camps to local guitar heroes perform in a 1,300-square-foot space that’s drawn its esthetic from actual clubs, including the nearby venues Cellar Door and Blues Alley, and the Station Inn and The Bluebird in Nashville. Weathered wood and an antiqued floor finish give it a lived-in look and systems like JBL speakers and a Soundcraft FOH console provide a professional polish to the sound.

Authenticity is key to making the stage work for the store, asserts Menzie Pittman, owner and director of education at the 2016 NAMM Dealer of the Year. “The last thing we wanted was a recital hall with folding chairs,” he says. “I grew up in Georgetown watching guys like Danny Gatton play in clubs. So we built this like a nightclub.”

Pittman says the performance area’s basement location, accessed through the store, is calculated to put its missions of sales and education foremost in visitor’s minds, whether they’re there to see a ticketed show or a student performance. But he emphasizes that they authenticity of the atmosphere in @4410 is critical to the overall success of the concept. “It’s the Disney model,” he says. “You want to believe you’re in an authentic environment, and you’re passing through the retail sales area. It’s a combination that works.”

They’re Just Cool

Some of the stages now found in virtually all Sam Ash store locations came with the assets the Long Island-based dealer acquired when it bought out the MARS’ brand in 1998. Now, COO Sammy Ash says he can’t imagine a store without a stage, and new ones are integrated with the stores’ education programs, such as those opened in Dallas three years ago and in San Diego last year. But while Sam Ash will use its in-store stages at times for student activities, Ash says they serve a useful purpose even when they’re quiet.

“There’s a coolness to having the stage there, even when no one’s performing on it,” he says. “It’s always there as a display for backline, for equipment. Things just look better on stage, under the lights.”

Sam Ash in-store stages have some common elements – any use modular platforms from IntelliStage and all conform to local code requirements, and every Wednesday everywhere is open mic night – but Sammy Ash says he encourages individual stores to create their own traditions for them that reflect the regions they serve. But in any event, the in-store stage will be a component of all of the chain’s locations going forward. “They just look

so good,” he says.

There Can Be Issues

Stages haven’t been consistent winners for everyone, however. In 2005, Doug Ponier’s store in West Marietta, Georgia (one of two he owned in the area at one point) opened The Warehouse, a performance space adjacent to the Ponier Music store there. It began well but he encountered some hurdles, including a minor row (which he ultimately won) with local codes officials. However, various strategies couldn’t make the idea stick there. “When we started with the warehouse stage we would have teen bands play every Saturday and some Fridays,” he recalls. “We would average 50 to 100 kids per night, sometimes as many as 350. It just kind of slowly fizzled out. We tried all sorts of things: glow-in-the-dark paint/black-light parties, pajama parties, battle[s] of the bands, lowering the price of admission to $5 at the door, [but] we just couldn’t get the kids to come out anymore. I don’t know why. Kids just weren’t coming. The last couple of years, the only thing we were using our stage for were our semi-annual recitals.”

When Ponier combined the two stores into a single location, the one with the stage was closed. The consolidation boosted

business, but he says he was sorry to have to let the stage go. “I do miss having the stage, we need a place to do recitals,” he says. “But we found a nice church that hosted us for our spring recital.” Given the decade-plus-long decline in recorded-music sales and the continued growth of most forms of live music, retailers can expect that live-music performances will continue to be the driver for the music business and a growing focus of interest for customers in general and students, in particular. Finding ways to foster that trend in and around the store will be a good bet for some time to come.


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