Retail Podcast 606: Robert Christie Providing Opportunity In Retail

Bob Phibbs interviewed Robert Christie, president of A&G Central Music, about how the democratization of music has been a boon to musicians and those who sell to them, and more on this episode of Tell Me Something Good About Retail. 


Bob: I’m talking with Robert Christie, president of A&G Central Music. It’s a school service company with two stores in Southeast Michigan. Robert received degrees in music and business from Valparaiso University and was a NAMM music business scholarship recipient. So much to unpack about our guest. And before purchasing Central Music, he worked as an educator, touring musician, jingle writer, and retail manager. He lives in suburban Detroit with his wife, Peggy. Welcome, Robert.

Robert: Hi.

Bob: Well, I’m glad you’re here. Rumor has it that you had performances with the Count Basie Orchestra under Thad Jones, Woody Herman & his Thundering Herd, and Henry Mancini. Is that true?

Robert: It is true, all before the age of 18.

Bob: That’s crazy. So, can you tell me a little bit about that?

Robert: Yes. My first serious drum teacher, I’d taken some piano lessons, but I was far more interested in learning to play percussion instruments. My first serious percussion teacher was Henry Mancini’s vibe player, a guy named Duane Thamm in suburban Chicago. And I just kind of did what he told me to do and practiced a lot. And he afforded me a lot of opportunities that, at the time, I thought were really normal. I thought, you know, when you’re a kid, what you do you assume that everyone does, right? And so, at the time, you know, this is one more thing that I had to do. But looking back on it now, I realized, like, what a great opportunity it was to both learn under him and then the opportunity he afforded me to perform as well.

Bob: Wow. That is amazing. And then Henry Mancini?

Robert: Yes. So, Duane played in his orchestra regularly as a vibe player. And Duane had a son, Duane Jr. And the three of us did a thing with him. We played “Seven Come Eleven” with that orchestra song.

Bob: Wow. Wow, that’s wonderful. You know, I got my degree in music ed before beginning guitar with 30 young boys, trying to play “Stairway to Heaven” on untuned guitars, it was like, “Yes, there’s not enough gin in the planet that I will have this job.” But what I particularly like about your story is that not only are you a musician and jingle writer, we might get to that, but you worked in a music store before actually buying it. Is that correct?

Robert: Yes, several.

Bob: Several? Musicians aren’t known for being business people that well. So, what brought you to that decision?

Robert: No, it’s actually a joke. When I talk with a lot of my peers, I say, “A lot of times in this business, there’s too much music and not enough business.” I think like most people, who end up wherever they end up, it was not necessarily their intention to be where they end up. In my particular case, though, it all worked out for the absolute best.

But I am from the Chicago area, and my wife is from Michigan. And she was deeply unhappy living in Chicago from the standpoint of she’s too far away from her family. And like you do when you’re really young, we just decided on a whim to pick up and move to Michigan with really no plans of how we were going to build a life there. And so when I came to Michigan, I was kind of, like, “Well, I could do anything.” And I went looking for work, and the first place that took a chance on me was a school service music company in Dearborn, Michigan. And from there, I ended up to where I am today on, you know, kind of, a roundabout path.

Bob: Well, now, can you explain to us what is that mean, a school service retailer because a lot of people don’t know necessarily what a music store does? We know it has instruments, we know they probably give lessons. But the way.... well, why don’t you explain it.

Robert: So, we focus almost primarily on school service. So, let’s imagine that you’re a parent, and you have a student who’s depending on where you live, 9, 10, 11, maybe even 12 years old, and they come home from school one day and say, “Mom, Dad, I want to join the band or the orchestra.” Right? Now, you’re in this position, as a parent, where, like many things that children want to try, you just don’t know how that’s going... like, it could go a lot of different ways, right? Like music could completely end up being their jam, and you can set them on a lifelong path in that direction, or it may be just like one more thing like karate that they try until they get kicked in the head, then they don’t like it so much, right? So, if you’re in that position, you know, shelling out what it costs nowadays for a good quality musical instrument, A, it may be beyond your means, and B, even if it’s not, it would likely be more money than you would want to spend just for your kid to explore music.

So, the main focus of our operation is being the solution to this problem for parents. And we do that by renting them band and orchestral instruments at really attainable prices. And there’s a lot that goes along with that, obviously, you know, as you have a musical background that musical instruments can be finicky, and they take a lot of maintenance and care. And when you give them to a 10-year-old kid, they may not be the most careful. So, we take all the worries out of it for parents as well. They get that instrument, but we totally support the student by making sure that the instrument works every day. If they change their mind like kids are want to do, and they’re playing violin today and want to play trumpet tomorrow, we’ll turn their violin into a trumpet, not literally, but, you know.

Bob: I wish you would be able to turn a violin to trumpet because strings was just you have to have the patience of a saint to learn strings, especially violin, it’s right at your ear. You can’t run away from it, at least you’re doing vibraphone you’re like, “This is cool. Look at this.” Right? And so there’s a certain amount of dexterity and amount of confidence that has to come across to stay with a lot of these instruments, right? You have to get over that learning curve.

Robert: I have a lot of respect for teachers that teach strings, in particular, it’s all not easy. But to me, I’ve learned to play all these instruments to, you know, varying degrees of success. And strings for me are very, very difficult. And I do feel like, in the string world, the kids move a little bit more slowly. So, like you say, you have to have more patience for it.

So, everything that revolves around that, things that happen in the school, obviously, schools have their own fleet of instruments, which they purchase and repair. So, we handle all of that. So, we’re the resource for the government customers, which are the school districts and the individual teachers, and the parents. In addition to that, obviously, we operate retail stores as well.

Bob: And so, is the goal that they come into your system for three or four years, and then they pick something up and then buy it? Is that the path for the lifetime customer? I know this might be a separate thing, but I was reading how Fender had said, 90% of people who pick up the acoustic guitar, drop it within a year, which is pretty damning facts. And I think if that’s, you know, more adults, what does that like for kids? I mean, what...

Robert: Yes, our retention numbers are better than that, substantially better than that. And that’s owed in large part to the fact that these students are involved in a sequential educational program and they have the direction of a really highly qualified professional. I think if you looked at Fender’s statistic, and you throw out everyone who tried to learn, “on their own,” you know, I bought a book or I saw a thing on the internet, right? Certainly, YouTube is a really valuable resource, but nothing is more valuable than a person sitting in the room with you guiding your learning, right? So, yes, there is a lot of attrition in school band programs, but having those teachers there makes a huge difference. That connection with the student keeps them involved. So...

Bob: But there is no relationship with the teacher, in particular.

Robert: Sure. Absolutely. So, for us, the pathway is they will rent that instrument on day one. We try to make that experience, and that’s really what we’re about, is providing the best experience for the student, right, so that learning is as easy as it can be for them, and then making everything completely kind of hands-off automatic for parents. Like parents are busy people, and we definitely don’t want to be that one more thing that they have to deal with because that’s just one more obstacle in the way of the student. If we make it complicated for the parents to interface with us that, “You know, forget it, this is too much trouble. I’m going to put you in soccer or whatever.” So, there is a path to ownership in our program. The ideal pathway is you get your student instrument that gets upgraded to an intermediate instrument, and then maybe for those kids that move on to college or just want to continue to play beyond high school, they’ll get into a professional instrument.

At the most basic level, we talk about this all the time at the shops. It is our goal in our community just to make more music makers. Now, we do that with the kids in schools, we do that with adults. I’m sure there’s people in your life, right, Bob? You’re out, and you’re with your friends and they’re like, “Oh, you have the superpower, you can just go and make music simple. I wish I could have done that.” Right? Well, every time you hear that, you know, the reason that you’re hearing that is because, in our country, it seems like, at least, especially with instrumental music, it’s a cruise ship that pulls up to a dock when you’re very young, and it sails off, and that sucker never comes back, right? So, if you miss the ship, you’re that person. So, we try to provide these other entry points. We try to provide entry points for kids that are in high school, maybe that missed it in elementary school, and for adults, and then for older like retirees. So, it is our goal to make more music makers, because, in the end, that’s really what’s gonna be good for us, is if we have a healthy musical community.

Bob: I love that analogy. That would be like, every bit of marketing I did for my music store would be around that. You know, when I got into college, I decided to be a musician. I’d sung in choirs and I had piano, but I decided to do music when I was like 17. So, I come into Chapman College in Orange County, I’m failing out my first semester because they’re dropping the needle, “Hey, take this down. And what key is it?” And you’re like, “Holy crap, there’s all language I never knew.” And I freaked out because it was like, “Well, I’m not good enough for this.” And I would imagine a lot of people the boat showed up, you should have been there because now it’s passed. And I think that an awful lot of times when it comes down to it, we just want to make music.

I did a commission with Libby Larsen one time, she’s an orchestral composer for Minneapolis, not far from you. And she just took these... we were, I don’t know, 60 students, and she goes, “This is what I do. I’m in my room, what can I make music with? So, today, pick something and we’re going to make it.” So, I had a book of papers. So, she’s like, “All right, if that’s all you had to make music with, what would you do with it? What would the title be? And would it have words or something?” And you’re like, “Wow, that would be great. Why didn’t we learn music like this?” Because that experimentation that I think young people have right now, right? I’m watching the... is it Mark Ronson on Apple TV? His whole new series on reverb, and autotune, and how you don’t need to have gone to four years of college, eight years of college to make music, that you could just go in and play with a synthesizer. And that could be enough. Well, that wasn’t the way we learned, was it? I mean, it was, you had to perform, and there’s a jury, and you have to do a recital, and it was oftentimes kind of scary.

Robert: That democratization of the music-making process is a boon to our industry. I really believe that. There’s a lot of old heads that lament all of these new things, you know, you hear it all the time. Like, I’m a serious musician, I don’t need autotune or whatever. It’s like, “Well, yes, you probably do Listen, the Beatles vocals isolated, yes. Absolute brilliant. I’m not in any way suggesting that it’s otherwise, but they are not perfect. And to me, the imperfection is what made them what we, like, to listen to. But all of this democratizes music-making, and you don’t have to dig very deep into any online platform that provides music. Now you have folks that are literally in their basement, just being creative, and they can share that with the entire world through something like Spotify, or Apple Music, or whatever. And that’s...

Bob: And not have to wait for capital, not hope that you’re going to be one of the anointed few that should get a record deal, right? That it’s not about that necessarily.

Robert: And I think, you know, the word “and” is an incredibly powerful word, and it’s one that we forget all the time. You know, YouTube can expose you to every performance from everywhere that’s ever been recorded, and you have that... you know, a 10-year-old has that in their pocket. How powerful is that? When I was learning to play music, someone gave me really good advice early on and said, “Hey, you need to listen to this, go listen to this person, go listen to that person.” But I had to go to the library and sit in the listening room and drop a needle on a record to do it. Could you imagine how much more I would have learned or how much better I would have been, or how much faster I would have progressed if I could have just gone to my phone and listened to 13 performances, the same song by the greatest artists ever? And it’s powerful.

Bob: And a buddy of yours could say, “Listen to this thing.” And you’re listening to it, instead of, “Go listen to this. Oh, what’s the name? Let me write this down and see if I can check out the sacred, you know, disc,” because music stores didn’t have a lot of those. I mean, that’s what’s kind of amazing, as you look at these amazing performances from a while ago, whether it was in Broadway or classical music, or vocal or vocal jazz, or fill in the blank, big band, whatever. Unless you happen to see it in that movie, good luck, right? And I think that’s one of the dangers that an awful lot of people nowadays don’t hear or see. I did choir for many years, I had a choir for 14 years, and we did a send-up of “White Christmas,” I mean, the best things happen while you’re dancing. They don’t write like that, you know, an orchestra with those lush orchestrations, to hear that and go, “Wow,” and have those lightbulbs go off, I think have to start with something, right? And I think that has to be what keeps you going, right? All the new ways that you can get people. So, what tips do you have for getting more music? Because I am going to turn this around on business a little bit. But let’s be honest here, we’re both interested in getting more music in people’s lives. So, any tips on people who may not feel like, or who may feel that the cruise line already left?

Robert: Yes. You just need to demonstrate to them that it hasn’t. It’s always dangerous to generalize, but most folks feel like when they’ve missed that boat, they say things like, “This is something I could never do.” And I just always ask them, “Well, why can’t you? Why can’t you? Plenty of people have, have you tried? Here’s a way to get an instrument and try it.” You know, empowering them to feel okay about it. Getting them to understand... Dave Grohl, at least to me famously once said... you know, somebody asked him, “How do you become a famous rock musician?” He says, “Well, what you do is you go with your friends into your garage, and you suck. And you continue to suck until you come out and you don’t, and that’s okay.” And there’s another place where technology comes in. I’m sure in your life, learning music, you feel like you aren’t making any progress, right? You’re like, “Oh, I’m not getting any better. This is so hard.” Well, now we can film every time you practice or every lesson you have. And when you start to feel like that, I’ll go back 30 days and play what you sounded like 30 days ago, you’ll say, “Well, I didn’t realize, I didn’t realize that I’m actually getting better.” So, you want people to feel empowered to take charge and feel like they can do it. And a lot of times the barriers to why they can’t do it is just because they don’t see the pathway. And it’s not that complicated. You just listen to people and you say, “Oh, well, here’s how, it’s easy.” Fifty-five bucks a month, let’s go.

Bob: That’s right. When I was in school, and we did a survey, and it’s like, when kids weren’t learning music, you could almost always go back to the administrator or someone that told them you shouldn’t sing. Somewhere down the way, it was bad, and we don’t need it. And so what you’re talking about, I think, is this mind shift that says, “Well, why not?” And suddenly when you just hit me in the face with that, it’s like, “Well, yes, why not? Why aren’t I picking up vibraphone right now? I love vibraphone.” But that’s kind of it. And I think when I read that you had done a NAMM session on working with Cross-Generational Workforce, that’s got to be the same thing too, right? Because a lot of times we’re typing people of, who’s like this and who isn’t, but there are some very definite differences. So, what tips do you have to motivate a Cross-Generational Workforce?

Robert: It’s interesting. If you find good people, and you find out what they’re good at, and then you just turn them loose, and you create a culture where if you need help, you’re really comfortable asking for it. And if you can give help, you’re really comfortable with offering it, right?

If I came to someone...and obviously I’ve got, how many years, decades in this business, right? But if I came to someone who was just getting started, maybe they’re 24, and they’ve been in the business for three years, there’s this assumed thing, where, I’m up here, and you’re down here, right? And I have all of this experience, and I’m going to tell you a thing or two. And there’s value in that, like sharing my experience can be valuable. The problem is that so often it doesn’t go the other way because I’ll tell you what, that that person that doesn’t have all my experience, is not in my box, and could very easily get me out of my box. They’re gonna think about things in a way that I probably never would, right? So, if we make it more linear, so we’re talking straight across each other instead of up or down at each other, I feel like we accomplish more, but more importantly, there’s more and bigger ideas that are shared.

Robert: And obviously, you know, that’s not to say in our organization there’s no accountability, right? You don’t have to be accountable for your responsibilities. But what’s great about the way we operate is we all hold each other accountable. I go into work every day, knowing that my co-workers are not going to be afraid to call me out if I’m not getting it done. And that’s important. It’s especially important to me because I am not infallible. I will screw up, with the best of them.

And so if someone can point that out to me, obviously, it becomes a better experience for our customer. Because in the end, that’s the important thing, not whether I’m right or I’m wrong, but that things are being done in a way that supports our business by supporting our customer.

Bob: I’m reading all these things about how we have to learn how to talk to the younger generation, and they’re looking for all these different things. And when I read these articles, I’m always like, “Retail has always been a game of being brilliant on the basics.” It has to be a two-way street. It has to be an open, and I do believe in there’s a element of training. I’m a training guy, right? So, I believe there’s a training part, but at the same part, if we’re not growing and trying different things and being open to it, that’s how people get burned out. And I think why so many people are struggling with employees right now because it’s a static existence, at least in a music store. I personally wouldn’t have any signs that say, “Don’t play the instruments,” but you see those all the time, don’t you? I mean, it’s like, “But isn’t this a music store?” But I get how you get there, right, because it could be cacophony, and it could be, you got people coming in and playing whenever they want it, and... I get it.

But to me, for a music store, if it really becomes that we believe in music, everyone that walks in, it would be like, “How do I get this person to thump this, or blow that, or grab that, or something to engage them in a different way?” And I think that’s a high mark to set as a store.

Robert: If you take all kind of the things that we’ve been kind of dancing around discussing here, what it comes down to is, I don’t put much credence in customer satisfaction. Hear me out. Okay? People, all the time talk and they have measurements to quantify it, but... Let me ask you this. How successful are you at business if you wake up in the morning and go, “I want to successfully satisfy 86.72% of my customers?” Right? Customer satisfaction isn’t the end goal, customer satisfaction is the baseline. That’s as low as you can go. This is the low as you can go, I satisfied that customer. Because at that level, right, that’s going into the restaurant. My analogy here, going into the restaurant, having a good meal, having a courteous server, paying a reasonable price, and leaving with a full belly with no reason to ever go back to that restaurant. If somebody asked you, “How was the meal?” “Oh, it was fine.” But you will never go back. Okay. And there’s a myriad of reasons we could talk for days about the experience around that.

So, that’s our base level, like, everybody should be satisfied with their interaction with A&G Center Music, right? What I want is to make those people completely loyal to me, to my shop, not to me, personally, but, Robert, right, but to our shop. I want them... Because when you do that... I’ll tell you what, one of the greatest feelings in the world for me is when I walk into a school, and there’s a parent there, and they are completely unpaid advocating for my shop, “Oh, there’s the music, you should go to that place. This is the... let me tell you what they did for my daughter, Jenny.” Right? Like, when you are operating on the level of creating a high level of loyalty in all of your customers, you have an army of unpaid advocates for you out there that are building your business. And there’s a million ways to do it but I think one of the most important ways, at least in terms of the way we’re structured is, whoever is facing that customer, in that moment, is going to be able to handle whatever happens to be going on with that customer, right?

We see a thing all the time when we talk about it. This is just fresh in my mind because it’s been something that’s been on our mind recently. I don’t know, you deal with people from all over the country world, right? I would say, in my trade area, and I would wager it’s the same everywhere, people get ratcheted up faster and faster. Now, we have very few of these interactions, of course, we all have friends that work in business, like, “Man, I can’t believe this person called and they were just screaming and yelling on the telephone.” I think that some of this is a learned behavior, and I think it’s a learned behavior because they know that whoever they’re dealing with at first is not the person that’s going to solve their problem, they have to work their way up to the chain until they can get the person to solve their problem. Now, if your problem, Bob, is that you just need an instrument for your 10-year-old, I want the person facing you to be able to solve that problem for you and make you so happy about the solution that you’re never going to ever think about going anywhere else even when that student is done with that instrument, right?

If you are coming in because your instrument is broken, same thing. And heaven forbid, like, in the world we live in now, it is an issue. We’re experiencing the same as most other industries where we can’t get things. So, some of the issues that we have now are people who have tried to go everywhere they can think of, and they can’t find what they’re looking for. So, they’re already kind of on edge, “I just need this thing.” I want the person facing the customer to be empowered to do whatever it takes to solve that problem, right? Up into the point where everybody that’s customer-facing, has a budget in my shop. And as I said earlier, we’re not infallible and we’ll fall down sometimes. There’s someone will have a bad experience, and whether it’s our fault or not our fault, these people have a dollars and cents budget that they can spend on that customer without asking anybody for a buyer leave or permission to do something for that customer to make them feel better about it, whether it’s giving them another product at no charge, whether it’s writing off the price of their repair bill. And it doesn’t have to be a situation where we’ve necessarily not provided a good service. There are people that come in occasionally that, I’m sure you’ve experienced this, I know it’s crazy, but that are unreasonable.

Bob: No. Really? That happens?

Robert: Occasionally. But if you empower the person instead of putting your co-workers in the position of like, “Oh, man, I got to deal with this person, I’m going to hand them off to somebody else, and...” right? What’s wrong with just being able to say, “Well, here’s the fact, you know, this is what we’ve promised you, I’m sorry that you don’t feel that we’ve delivered, we have. But in this particular instance, what I really want you to do is come back, so I’m going to do X, Y, or Z for you.” Right? That all kind of goes into the bucket of creating that experience of dealing with our shops, and that experience should be one that leaves you feeling incredibly good to the point where you want to feel that good again so you come back.

Bob: That’s brilliant because I think so many times we forget that those little ones that go out, that are not happy are going to do much more damage than you going out and doing a Facebook Live or doing an event or something like that. And more importantly, your employees’ associates, team members feel drained by those things because they couldn’t answer it or they couldn’t do something. So, speaking of people being back, we’re going to continue in just a minute with Robert Christie.

But first a word from this season’s sponsor, CoreLogic.

All right. So, we’re talking to Robert Christie, president of A&G Central Music. Now, what kind of innovations are there like SmartMusic? I know, that’s one thing I heard you talk about. Is technology something we should be fearing when it comes to retail? Is it something that’s helping you drive more sales? What are some of the innovations that you’ve seen? And then after this, we do have to start talking about how you make money at all of this because it’s a very enlightened way that you are managing your business. There’s a lot of psychology involved in it, I think there’s a lot of mindset. I think a lot of people listening are like, “This sounds great. I’d like to be part of this.” But I know it doesn’t just happen. So, let’s talk about innovations first, and then let’s talk about that business side.

Robert: Sure. Like many things, technology isn’t good and it isn’t evil, it’s just how you choose to incorporate it. It’s not going to go away, though. I know that much. And in some ways, I know it’s cliche but there’s silver linings, right? And this whole last 18, 20 months of a global pandemic, it deeply affected many industries but it deeply affected, especially the school music business. When kids could not go into the classroom and actively make music, this is not a good day for A&G Central Music, in-person lessons being a thing that can’t happen. So many challenges. And if it wasn’t for the technology that’s now available, like some of which that we’re using right now, you know, you could have a trumpet in your hand, and we could be doing this. So, it’s all in seeing the opportunities that technology provides. And the good news on that is that you don’t have to be a genius because there’s plenty of geniuses out there, you just have to have your eyes and ears open and try to find a way to incorporate these things.

So, when we couldn’t offer lessons in our shops anymore, okay, well, we’re going to offer virtual lessons. And you set up an online payment portal, and then they can bring into a room with their teacher and they see him on a screen. Is that the same as being in the room? Of course, not. Does it allow us to keep the lights on and the teachers paid? Absolutely. Did the kids keep learning or adults? Absolutely. Now that we’re at a point where kids are back in the classroom and we’re now being able to reopen our live lessons, are we going to stop teaching online lessons? Absolutely not. That’s something that’s never going to go away. There are people who appreciate the convenience of it. Like now you don’t have to carve an hour out of your day to drive your student, drop them off to a lesson and go and pick them up, and... Right? They can do it right from the living room. There’s things about it that aren’t ideal. There’s no perfect situation, right? Same with something like SmartMusic. I remember when it first came out, there were a lot of teachers that were really resistant to it.

Bob: Can you explain it, what is SmartMusic for those that don’t know?

Robert: Absolutely. SmartMusic is just a software platform, it’s really smart, ironically. Let’s say I was playing a clarinet. I could take the book that I’m learning to play clarinet, it will be loaded into SmartMusic. I can physically look at the book on my screen, I can play my clarinet into a microphone, and the software will tell me where I made mistakes. It will give me a rating on the accuracy of how I play almost video game style, right? Like I see kids all the time now they’re like, “Oh, well, I did Kookaburra to 97%.” “Oh, yes. Well, I did it to 98%.” It holds you to your tempo, it makes sure that your rhythms are right, it makes sure that the notes you’re playing are right, tells you if you missed any accidentals. It’s a good teaching tool.

And can SmartMusic tell them which finger to put down on the clarinet? Maybe, but probably not. You know, it depends on what note you’re shooting for, right? So, you’re not as a teacher obsolete, but it’s a really good tool. I think it’s all good. I’m a real big fan of YouTube, in a lot of ways. It’s great to be able to check in on kids. Now you can set up a Google where kids play their performance tests and just email them in, and you can do them at your leisure and you don’t have to schedule kids to come in after school. Band is so curriculum... there’s a curricular element, but so much of it is co-curricular. And I feel like the more the stuff that you can move from the co-curricular before school after school Saturday, into the school day, the better off you are, and technology certainly enables us to do that. So, like every industry, it’s impacting us, but I think, overall, if the tools are used properly, it’s hugely positive.

Bob: So, what’s one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve made in the business side of your business?

Robert: Wow. There’s been a few. Modernizing our repair, which this may be a surprise, but modernizing our repair facility has been really big for us. Over the last dozen years has been a lot of new technology that deals with how we maintain and repair musical instruments. And before that time, nothing had really changed since the 1930s and ‘40s.

Then they started developing new chemical solutions to use. Okay, well, these are more environmentally friendly, but they’re still not great for our repair people to be around. And now they have full immersion tanks that use a completely bio-degradable cleaner, that use ultrasonic waves to agitate the dirt out of the instrument. This leaps and bounds better, and if you have a big, you know, 90 or 125 or 140-gallon tank, instead of dipping one in this steel container full of acid, you can have multiple instruments. They’re all cleaning while you’re working on something else, bing, bang, boom, it’s much faster, which makes it far less expensive to your customer, it’s way better for the environment. So, making those investments has allowed us... And I’ll tell you why it’s important. One, is because when you operate a large fleet of rental instruments, the per-unit cost of caring for those instruments is one of your biggest expenses. Other than buying the inventory, maintaining the inventory is your biggest expense, right? And so if you can lower that per unit cost, you’re immediately going to crack your nut on that instrument much sooner, right? The other thing it does is school budgets seemingly never get bigger. And so you can really help your school partners stretch those budgets if where they could get one instrument cleaned before now they can get six. And it really is like a six to one.

Bob: What are some ways that you think other music stores, or stores in general, if you don’t want to be that specific, can raise sales? I mean, you’ve been talking a lot about people, we’ve talked about technology, you’ve talked about getting these unpaid... I forget what you call them, unpaid messengers, unpaid advocates.

Robert: Advocates, yes.

Bob: Yes, it’s a lot of fun, but let’s be clear. I mean, you’ve sat on the NAMM judging best Store Of The Year competitions, there are some beautiful stores out there, so... But in the end, it’s really about making more music, but also at a profit, right? This isn’t a hobby, this isn’t a 503C. So, what do you think some opportunities might be there for increasing sales in a music store?

Robert: I do know that if you look at the pie of 100% of consumers, the percentage of that that are consumers in the music products industry is really small, right? So, the one thing that we can all be doing is trying to make that pie bigger, right? I’m not just making more music makers, right? We are making more customers for ourselves. We talked about these adults that say, “Oh, I could never do it or whatever.” If we didn’t create a pathway for those folks to start playing an instrument, there is no customer there.

Bob: But that’s the key to what you’re trying to do, my friend, Robert. That’s the whole idea. If that’s the case, it’s not to say we got to get more flutes out there, but certainly, getting people comfortable with making music as a start. But I want to go to that next level, which is, and they need an instrument, or guidance, or something to deepen that, right?

Robert: Yes. First of all, you’re you are right that, unfortunately, a lot of music retailers today have gotten pretty stale. They are in a position where they are doing business in the exact same way that they did in 1972, and that’s all they know. But our customer or customers, in general, do not shop the way they did in 1972, right? Like, I can’t just hang a shingle out on the road and expect people to come pouring into my door. So, part of it is you have to meet people where they are. And I know that this is a retailing podcast and you deal with brick-and-mortar people, but the internet is real. And the internet is a big part of our brick-and-mortar operation, right?

Bob: Of course.

Robert: So, the tool of the internet is deep and wide. It’s from the very obvious things of, “I am not buying space in the Yellow Pages anymore. I am not putting an ad in the Sunday paper,” but you would be surprised how many of my competitors do, right? Like, I’m going to do Facebook ads, or whatever.

Bob: I would take out an ad on YouTube, any beginning guitar ones, and make it geolocated. So, anyone who’s watching how to get a good guitar, come down to the store and find the ways to do it. But that’s not radical thinking, but it can be for a lot of people because it sounds like, “Oh, that’s above me. It’s kind of like the ship left, right? I’m 60, the ship already left. I’ll never know how to market. Here’s $1,000, please take out my Sunday circular and put a 20% coupon because that’s what I know works,” like...

Robert: While you’re on the subject, does that discounting work?

Bob: I’m a big believer in no. My first book was “Double Sales Without Discounting.” That’s what the consumer wants. I didn’t pick up the flute because you gave me 20 bucks off, I picked up the flute because if you buy this from us, I’m going to be your check-in buddy, I’m going to goad you when you’re not doing it, I’m going to get you to the place that you see that you want to be. I’m your partner in this. I could sell anything in a music store because I believe in the power of music. I’m a changed guide because I became a conductor. I learned how to use my voice. I learned how to... I went through methods class in college and realize like, “Well, these things don’t work, but this sure does.” But unless I had somebody, a mentor along the way, several mentors, right, to say, “Yes, this is exactly where you’re going,” it wouldn’t happen. And so it’s the same thing, you’re a guy, it has worked. You have figured out a lot about it, but I don’t think it’s instinctive.

Robert: Yes, preach. It’s 100%, right? So, what we need to do is we need to meet the customer where they are, we need to provide opportunity, and then we need to be there throughout the journey. Like, customers go on a purchasing journey, and I promise you, I promise you that maybe zero out of 100 customers that end up renting or purchasing something from A&G Central Music started at A&G Central Music? They started on the internet somewhere like, “Mmm, my kid wants to play the flute, dear Google, what’s the flute? Where can I buy a flute? What’s a high-quality flute?” So, in the school business, we actually have it, in my opinion, a little bit easier than the MI guys, and MI being guitars, amps, drums, keyboards only, sound reinforcement because we have the ability by working closely with our school partners, and then obviously with the actual educators. By being a good partner to them, we have someone in the chain that’s going to turn our customer on to us, right? A parent is going to ask a teacher where they should get this thing or what kind of thing they recommend. And if we’re doing our job right, we build that trust, and they know that we’re going to take care of that parent and that student iss going to get exactly what they need to be able to participate and be successful in class. And we’re going to take care of them and not drag them over the coals. So, we have an easier from that, from that standpoint.

Bob: That’s a linchpin like Lululemon with their yoga instructors, that’s face is all up there. If it was music teachers, I would do the same thing. If it was a music store, I’d be like, and these our music teachers and they’re a celebrity, and these are people who’ve done it. And they’re invariably people who have maybe played with Henry Mancini or who knows what. But we haven’t really thought about them being a celebrity, but that’s the culture we’re in. And maybe it’s not a celebrity compared to downtown Manhattan. But if it is for Little Falls, South Dakota, why not? But we’ve got to rethink all of it. I think we have to realize we’re selling confidence in using your body and your voice. That’s the key. And more importantly, I think the way that you’ve thought about retail that has changed from when you and I were kids, to what you’re able to provide now, has got to be incredibly inspiring to you to see what all is happening. It sounds like it. Is that true?

Robert: Yes. You mentioned earlier how easy it is to burn out in retail. And I would say, this maybe audacious, but I would speak for everyone that I work with on the daily and say that, what makes it all worth it and what keeps us from burning out. But when you hand that kid their first instrument, and they open up that case, what I see, honestly, and I mean this, like from where I came from to where I am, is the gateway to a world of possibilities, right? It is a case full of lifetime opportunities, whether they’re going to be, go on and be a professional musician, or they’re just going to get the benefits of what the discipline of learning music teaches you, that is a gateway. So, I get excited about that, and then I look at the kid’s face and I see how excited they are to go take the shiny noisemaker, right? And do something with it. It’s pretty good feeling, Bob, it’s a pretty good feeling.

Bob: I just have to add on, and we’re almost out of time here. We’ve been chatting like good buds here. And I really appreciate your time today, Robert, I know we have an awful lot of NAMM listeners I’m sure today, and just to hear that the party is always in the aisles. The party is in the aisles. It’s who do you get to serve and who is life is changed, you changed lives. That’s what we’ve got to bring back to, I think anyone that works in music and to realize that, yes, we can say we believe in music, but we are out changing the world with a song, or a concerto, or whatever is, but we’re helping people navigate a world that increasingly says, “It’s out of control,” and music says, “We got this.” And with partners like you that makes a difference. Final thought for you, my friend, and I’ll let you go. Tell me something good about retail, that’s the name of the podcast, and I’m sure you can but just one thing good about retail?

Robert: Well, I would tell you this, that regardless of whether you’re selling widgets or trombones, if we all didn’t do what we do, there would be millions of unsolved problems in our world, right? And I like to think doing the music that we’re solving multiple problems, you know, not just the problem that the customer is faced with, how do I take care of my student or how do I learn to play the trombone, but also the just the energy and healing that music brings to the universe? That’s what we provide, but said the same way, so could your plumbing supplies, right?

Bob: You have to believe that or else it’s just a dismal world. And I think no matter what you sell, it becomes harder and harder. So, I appreciate your time today, Robert Christie, president of A&G Central Music, and we’ll invite you to look below for the links and check out his site. He’s got some great YouTube videos and an awful lot more, but you have been a pleasure to talk to, my friend, and I really appreciate it.

Robert: Thanks, Bob. I enjoyed it.


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