undergroundAlthough I usually talk about the Community Music Store’s place in our changing industry, I’m always aware that lurking in a dim corner of the music products business model is what I think of as the Music Underground. Seldom glamorous, it is responsible for (I believe) a very large chunk of our collective revenue, despite being sketchily documented in our statistics (when mentioned at all).

Clandestine as the “Music Underground” sounds, the activity is legit…well, mostly. I’m talking about the vast trade that goes on every day in used goods. We know it’s always out there, and we ourselves participate with our trade-ins, consignments and rental returns. Yet, despite all the analysis of the music products industry that we hear quarter after quarter, there’s little or no documentation regarding used gear.

Without even thinking about the inevitable traffic in stolen goods, it’s still a difficult—likely impossible—number to track. The only hard numbers we might easily document are dealer reports of used-goods sales. That alone is problematic, as some dealers in MI—even those with legitimately sourced gear—have traditionally executed something of a sleight-of-hand approach to what many think of as a “cash and carry” transaction. I suspect, though, that even accurately reported numbers from that small sample would startle the manufacturers. And the dealers are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. eBay, Craigslist, Amazon.com and any number of online sites sell used instruments. Certainly, eBay and Amazon.com aren’t about to share numbers with us…and they might be suspect anyway. I’ve witnessed many of what I consider sham auctions that drew a lot of attention. Despite very healthy bidding, the items don’t sell because of a very large reserve price. Did interested bidders then contact the seller and arrange an off-site sale to avoid commissions and documentation? It raises the question.

That doesn’t even account for the thousands of garage sale, “friend of a friend” and flea market sales that leave no digital trail. Arrangements are made and cash changes hands…done deal. As a dealer, I see the shadow of these myriad sales as instruments come in for cleaning, or questions come up about a used purchase. I have several customers who have gleefully reported that they’ve NEVER purchased a new instrument: career players, lifelong hobbyists, parents with multiple kids in band. (That doesn’t even address the many students handed a school instrument who turn it in upon graduation, never actually owning one.)

I don’t think this is bad in itself. After all, many of our products have a service life measured in generations. I’m about to sell a 1959 Fender DuoSonic guitar on eBay for one of my customers. A musician gigged on it for 40 years before retiring it to its case a few years ago. It will continue to serve a new owner for years to come. (That is, assuming it doesn’t go to a collector who puts it under glass like an exotic butterfly.) Band instruments, violins, pianos: they all have a lifespan measured in decades at least. We make some pretty durable goods. Heck, I can’t believe the number of people recycling wire music stands!

That said, I still think we vastly underestimate the dollars changing hands in the used market—when we even bother to speculate about it at all. So much attention understandably focuses on new-gear sales. It is our main—and a manufacturer’s only—point, after all. But I think the vaunted statistical gulf between players and “wish I could play” individuals would be much smaller if we took into account the used-market participants.

We’ve also come to realize that the industry isn’t just MI storefronts, or even MI Web sites. We’ve seen years where even Bed Bath & Beyond sold guitars. (I guess “Beyond” is a catchall.) At a time when we can’t even tell how much MI product Amazon.com sells new, the used numbers, although uncorroborated with documentation, suggest a market size we’ve never allowed ourselves to imagine.

So, my question is this: how do we bring these music consumers out into the open? I have nothing against used gear per se, but some of the used instruments I see for “cleaning” are nothing more than carcasses long past the glory their name-brand heritage would suggest. A bent Yamaha saxophone is first and foremost a bent saxophone.

These people need our help.

I think dealer education—not disparagement—is important. No one wants to be berated for buying a crappy horn, particularly when someone has taken advantage of him or her. Sure, we’re still going to see cheapskates (I have a couple of customers who complain bitterly when the band director uses a book new on the market and they can’t find one used!), but most people are just naive. I think we’ve done more to chase them away than to nurture them. If so, it’s unlikely they’ll ever buy a new instrument.

Even if the used gear is in good shape, the new owners will eventually need consumables like strings and reeds (little cause for worry about a used market there…eww), repairs, maintenance, lessons: all the things a Community Music Store ideally provides. But we still need to get the word out because, most likely, they didn’t come to us for the used gear in the first place. Promotion aimed directly at the used-gear purchaser (especially the first-time purchaser) might bring them in. Then, we can educate them further, particularly about the reasonable price and improved fit-and-finish of today’s instruments.

The heart of this, for the Community Music Store, is ownership of the customer. I hear too much talk about customers only in relation to their big-ticket purchases, as though small goods, repairs and lessons are incidental to the relationship. In reality, years of regular purchases will add a significant amount to the bottom line: more than we make from Mr. Match-The-Internet’s tiny-margin guitar purchase, even if he buys one every year. There’s a vast market of underserved consumers who might never buy an instrument from you, but you can nevertheless profit by serving them.

Invite them out of the shadows and into your store.

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