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Stepping Out In SoCal: San Diego MI Operations Benefit from an Active, Saturated Music Scene

Victoria Wasylak • Issue ArticlesJuly 2020 • June 30, 2020

There’s a reason why San Diego was once labeled “America’s Finest City.” Often hailed as the birthplace of California, the SoCal city is one of the most populous in the country, with a substantial music scene to match.

When compiling our annual market profile this summer, stores were understandably more reluctant to participate after being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic for months. As such, this year’s profile is a bit shorter than usual, but still offers a vibrant vision of San Diego. From a music scene packed with Norteño and Ranchero groups, to the area’s rich population of budding music students, San Diego is clearly one of America’s finest music cities, too.

Neil A. Kjos Music Company

Karl Kjos, Sales Manager

Situated at 4382 Jutland Drive, the Neil A. Kjos Music Company has been rooted in San Diego for decades, after relocating from their original home of Chicago, Illinois. Since the 1970s, the music publisher has witnessed the bloom of the San Diego music and arts community.

“We have a vibrant arts community in San Diego with not only talented dedicated musicians, music teachers, and music stores, but creative visual artists and designers as well,” shares Karl Kjos, sales manager. “Our local retail partners do an excellent job engaging students, schools, and musicians of all levels and we couldn’t be happier to be in an area that has so many great opportunities. Our local music community is not only an excellent business network for our publishing company, but also gives our team members an outlet to create and perform around San Diego.”

According to Karl, the most notable challenge of being located in San Diego is hefty shipping costs for mailing cross-country orders.

“Shipping and travel from San Diego can be a challenge, especially going across the country to the Northeast,” he explains. “We are constantly negotiating the best rates through our freight vendors, and work toward optimal logistics solutions for those whose shipments have a greater distance to travel.”

After quickly adapting to the challenges of operating in the era of COVID-19 this spring, Karl shares that the Kjos office is already running again, and that their warehouse is once again operating all full capacity (while maintaining state-mandated safety measures, of course). As a city, he says, San Diego acclimated to the new rules and restrictions quickly.

“Our hearts go out to everyone across the country and around the world, as we continue to work in the new reality constructed amid the COVID-19 crisis,” Karl says. “San Diego has reacted to the pandemic and new restrictions as well as can possibly be expected. As a company, we could see the rapidly changing situation at the beginning of March would likely require some type of closure. We moved quickly to ensure that our team was ready to start teleworking before the ‘stay-at-home’ edict was issued from the California state government. As guidelines and best practices were formulated, we promptly established procedures and plans that would allow our various teams to safely continue work. Our warehouse is now safely running at full capacity, and we were able to reopen our office while following city and state regulations.”

He adds: “We started out 2020 strong, and we’re not where we’d hoped to be at this time, but no one is. We all just have to push forward, be creative in all facets of our business, and work harder than ever to achieve our goals for the year.”

While Karl predicts that the city will experience more bumps as the pandemic continues, he’s confident that San Diego’s pros outweigh any disadvantages coming their way, citing the area’s wealth of growing populations.

“San Diego as a community will have a challenging period,” Karl says. “A lot of the local economy is based on tourism, which will likely have a slow recovery. On the positive side, we are a military city with several bases, we also have a large healthcare industry, and tech community which continues to grow. San Diego’s population increases each year with people moving to enjoy our beautiful weather and take advantage of our job market. We hope continued growth will create an even larger local music community for Kjos Music and our retail partners. In turn, that will further expand opportunities for students and teachers achieve excellence in music for years to come.”

Nick Rail Music

Cody Minder, Manager

Over at California-based MI chain Nick Rail Music, manager Cody Minder holds the fort at the Sabre Springs Parkway location in San Diego.

For Minder, the best part of his job as manager at Nick Rail Music is setting up children with their first-ever instruments, preparing them for a lifetime of music-making. Actually, business with local schools makes up a huge portion of the store’s responsibilities, thanks to the especially large number of students in the area.

“I see more schools adding music as both a mandatory requirement and an optional elective to students each year,” Minder says. “We have the opportunity to open so many doors for new students going into band and orchestra. We also have the added benefit of the San Diego Symphony. Not only do we have the San Diego scene, but also all of the other music programs and musicians that help feed into San Diego. Even with the current situation revolving around the Coronavirus pandemic, I believe that we will find a way to get back to our ‘musical norm’ and our music scene will continue to thrive. San Diego has so many schools with music programs that we get to work with and open the door for all of those students who are beginning music.”

If there’s anything that Nick Rail Music customers have in common, it’s the fact that many – if not most – of them have part of their music journey rooted in the store. Because San Diego is rich with venues and clubs of all kinds, including the San Diego Symphony, the inspiration to pick up an instrument abounds.

“There are plenty of venues all over San Diego that offer live music and gigging musicians in San Diego, who are part of who we cater to,” Minder adds. “Band directors and their students are a big chunk of what we service on the day to day, but we see customers of all ages and skill levels in the store. From those beginning students who are entering music for the first time, to high school students getting ready for college, and retired folks who are looking to keep themselves busy or just want to continue their music for the pure love of what they do.”

Still, even for an area rife with musicians, venues, and MI stores, Minder says the biggest challenge of operating a brick and mortar store right now is the popularity of online shopping, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. “So many consumers today with their busy schedules find it easier to shop online than come into the stores, and we have to be able to adapt to that trend, even more so with the growing uncertainty revolving around COVID-19,” he explains. “One way we’re working to keep the music going during these times is by offering curbside and contactless service to our customers.”

Similarly, with restrictions still in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the venues and schools that fueled so much of business for Nick Rail Music are currently shuttered. Still, the people of San Diego keep playing – even if it has to be from home. “With the current situation of COVID-19 a lot of things have been put on hold,” Minder says. “Schools are closed, venues have closed down, and performances have been cancelled. But, even with all of this people are still finding ways to keep music going. We see a lot of customers turning to music and we’re happy to be able to be there for them.”

“San Diego is a vast, dense area with so many opportunities for musicians from local gigs, the San Diego Symphony, or working in the retail industry,” Minder concludes. “We have many amazing music shops around. I’m glad to be able to be a part of it every day!”

Sam Ash

Brett Manjarrez, General Manager

According to Sam Ash San Diego general manager Brett Manjarrez, the city’s music community is unparalleled when it comes to support and inclusion. Since opening a storefront at 3418 College Avenue in 2015, the Sam Ash staff quickly admired San Diego’s thriving, “strong” music scene and culture, which stems from the region’s “best of both worlds” situation: It’s a big-name city that feels much more intimate.

“The biggest upside is San Diego’s strong and supportive music community,” Manjarrez says. “The ‘big city/small town’ feel of San Diego, as well as its geographic location, leads itself to having an almost secluded yet inclusive environment.”

Being located in Southern California, Manjarrez notes that many musicians think there’s a promise for a better selection of gear and instruments in Los Angeles, which often can take business out of town – at least until they realize that whatever they’re looking for is already in stock in their own hometown.

“While there is no doubt that San Diego has a unique and thriving music scene, every SoCal city is inevitably compared to L.A.’s historic music scene,” he explains. “Players may make the trek to our L.A. music shops under the assumption that they will find a wider selection or more unique gear. That is, until they walk into our San Diego location and realize that we have just as wide and unique a selection! Especially our used gear!”

Manjarrez also agreed that San Diego-based music stores benefit from the area’s robust music programs, which are bolstered by the San Diego Sam Ash Learning Center. In just six years, the organization has become one of the strongest Sam Ash Lesson Centers in the country: “Between healthy school music programs, support from parents for private instruction, and a strong live-music scene – we are proud to be part of such a rich community! San Diego’s school music programs are some of the strongest in the state.”

In addition, Sam Ash takes an active role in San Diego’s live music scene with their own in-house stage, especially during their annual “Thank-a-Palooza!” customer appreciation and blood drive event, which brings San Diego acts on board for a day of chow and free goodies.

“Each year we say, “Thank you!” to our customers by throwing a massive party including giving away tons of free gear, grilling up hot dogs, and hosting live music from our local scene – all the while running a blood drive in partnership with the San Diego Blood Bank,” Manjarrez elaborates.

Because there isn’t a “typical” San Diego customer at Sam Ash, Manjarrez says the store makes a conscious effort to stock items that are priced for every type of customer, from beginners and students, to more seasoned pros who are seeking pricey top-shelf gear.

“Because of these wide-ranging demographics, we offer the same in wide-ranging price points in all our product categories,” he notes. “Our ‘Guitars of Distinction’ high-end selections are as plentiful as our mid to entry-level assortments and the same can be found in our pro audio, recording, drums, and band & orchestral departments.”

As the city begins to rebuild life after the strictest parts of quarantine, Manjarrez remains confident that the San Diego music scene will fully recover after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Regardless of the genre or area of town, San Diegans reward authenticity above all else,” he concludes. “Since our opening, we have employed, supported, and served the local music community, which goes a long way in such a supportive town. Our customers are our family and we feel the love!”

Harper’s Music Store

Xavier Prieto, Assistant Manager

At Harper’s Music Store, variety is the spice of life. The Chula Vista shop honors and recognizes the especially rich musical tradition of Southern California, which partially

stems from San Diego’s proximity to Mexico. With that kind of cultural richness in town, the shop stocks its shelves appropriately.

“You have a lot of Norteño and Ranchero type groups, Mariachi as well,” shares assistant manager Xavier Prieto. “We have to tailor our inventory and stock just to try and meet everybody’s needs, so it’s not just guitar, drums, and pro audio stuff that we typically sell at the store. We also sell a lot of accordions and Ranchero type instruments, Mariachi stuff, as well as band and orchestra [items].”

The San Diego area also packs in a high density of breweries, venues, casinos, and nightlife-centric clubs, which serve both the city’s musicians and local music enthusiasts. Cover bands, Prieto says, do especially well.

Unsurprisingly, Prieto also notes that half of the store’s clientele is music students, and that Harper’s Music serves about 15 different school communities. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he noticed that there was an uptick in school music program participation, which directly resulted in more business for Harper’s Music. As such, Prieto describes the shop’s “typical customer” as a beginner musician, usually between the ages of 10 and 13.

“The way we see it is we’re not really competing with any of the other mom and pop shops. We’ve found our niche and we’ve really tried to stick to that, and that’s offering rent-to-own, new and used gear, and a quick turnaround repair department” he explains. “We try to carry reasonably priced, quality products in our store from entry level to professional. Our most popular guitar that we sell is a basic $100 acoustic guitar, or a $50 ukulele for someone who’s just trying to get into music. That accounts for the majority of our clients, helping someone who’s just getting started. Being in the South Bay of San Diego, our demographic isn’t just the professional – it’s also going to be the hobbyist, the enthusiast, the student, or someone starting out. We have a lot of local schools we work with.”

Prieto notes that the biggest upside of operating an MI business in San Diego is the sheer legacy of Harper’s Music Store itself. Founded in 1965, Harper’s Music has been a community staple for 55 years, even though it adopted new management around 10 years ago.

“Our customers know the name,” he explains. “My aunts and uncles have shopped there. I have clients who have their grandsons are shopping here, and they started shopping there when they were children. I would say the most important thing for us, the one thing that keeps us busy and keeps us in business, is the fact that we are tailored to our community.”

In a similar vein to what Brett Manjarrez from Sam Ash mentioned, Prieto also says that one challenge of running an MI store in San Diego is that many of the local musicians are tempted to move to elsewhere to pursue their careers – in many cases, eyeing the Pacific Northwest. Prieto himself even considering moving to Seattle years ago, but Harper’s Music owner Steve Gouthro dissuaded him. “He made a great point and he said, ‘Well, why can’t you do it here? You have every retail outlet basically at your fingertips.’”

On a grander scale, Prieto has noticed a shift away from buying and selling electric and acoustic guitars, and more towards electronic music and home production, especially with more folks creating from home in the recent months.

“That’s definitely something that’s taken the place of a lot of sales in other departments,” Prieto explains. “We have plenty of people who are video game streamers or people just looking to start an online talk show or a podcast. We get a lot of those, too, and we can still provide them with good quality, professional audio and home recording products.”

Due to the initial onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, Harper’s Music was closed for six weeks earlier this spring. Fortunately, Steve secured a small business loan, and was one of the first music stores in the area to reopen. As Harper’s Music continues to weather the storm of 2020, their sights are set on expanding their inventory for band & orchestra students, now stocking items like trigger trombones, mellophones, and alto clarinets.

“Since then [reopening], business has been good,” Prieto says. “We were still doing full service, so repairs, school rentals and everything. Our website has even picked up. We’re just trying to keep the norm.”

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