If you play music in any capacity, there is no avoiding that entity known as the music store, where upon entering, one is greeted by an assortment of new and vintage guitars hanging from the walls, enhanced by a surrounding array of amps, effects and accessories. The site of all this gear tends to have an aphrodisiac-like effect upon musicians, yet all too often, it is the attitude of the music store personnel that dampens the guitar-induced arousal like a cold shower. I cannot count the number of times I’ve walked away from a music store wondering the following: shouldn’t buying a guitar or other piece of gear be a pleasant experience and why is it sometimes such an ordeal? And what the hell is wrong with the people that work in these places?
Please hear me out. I’m not describing all people who work in music stores. Many of them handle their jobs with an aura of professionalism, appreciation and genuine respect for their customers. But in twenty plus years of music related shopping, I’ve found these good-natured types to be in the minority.
A disproportionate number of music store sales clerks are bitter, sardonic creatures whose cancerous disdain for customers grows each day like a brain tumor. Some exhibit a false bubbly enthusiasm akin to politicians and used car salesmen. Others are void of expression and enthusiasm; depressing, jaded, drowning souls, trapped behind the counter for years, their lives and ambitions fading away like the decay from a Line 6 delay pedal. It is you, the customer, who becomes the scapegoat for this person’s lack of fulfillment with his job and his life. At best, these people are simply a necessary annoyance. At worst, their behavior can turn a potentially fun part of the music process into an unpleasant and morale-damaging experience.
Here then, are my top three, all time worst music store experiences in chronological order:
Leo’s Music, Oakland, CA, July 1981. I am 12 years old, buying a guitar cable, when the guy behind the counter offers to let me in on a little musician’s secret, something that only the “pros” know. He looks around to make sure no one else is listening, god forbid he should get caught revealing one of the tricks of the trade. Then he whispers to me the secret that, according to him, will make my cable last longer and improve my guitar tone: keep a small knot tied in the cable at all times. Thrilled to have gotten an “insider” tip, I take his advice at face value. (Keep in mind I was 12.)
A week or so later, I’m at a guitar lesson with one of the Bay Area’s premier hard rock guitar heroes of the early ’80s, Danny Gill. Danny is about to show me a Van Halen lick when he looks down and says, “You know there a knot in your cable?” “Yeah, it’s good for the sound and the cable!” I say this with pride, sure he’ll be impressed that I know the musicians’ secret. He starts laughing hysterically. “Where did you hear that?” “The guy at the store who sold it to me,” I reply. He laughs again. “You mean it’s not true?” “Skolnick, c’mon. The guys that work in these places are jerks. He was putting you on, probably thought it was funny. A knot in your cable? Gimme a break!”
I have just learned not to trust people who work in music stores.
Guitar Center, Concord CA, April 1996. I walk in and overhear an employee trying to make a sale over the phone. He sounds like a pretentious jackass. Fortunately, I just need a microphone, so this should be relatively painless. He hangs up, places both hands on the counter and flashes me a game show host smile. “Welcome to Guitar Center. My name’s Russell. How can I help you, today?”
I tell him I need a Shure SM57 microphone. Considered the “industry standard” by audio professionals, the “57” is one of the highest-rated and most used guitar mics of all time. This is true in 1996 and has been true since the 1960s. In 2010, as I write this, it will still be true. “Let me give you some advice, my friend,” the guy says. “The 57 is on the way out. We have much better options today and thankfully, you’ve come to the right place.”
“That’s ok, I…” Before I can respond, he reaches under the counter and pulls out a different microphone.
“Check it out. This bad boy is one of the best mics out there. It’s got all the features of the 57 but new and improved. It costs a bit more but it’s worth it. All the 57 users I know are switching to it. You’re really much better off going with this one. What d’ya say?”
“No thanks, I’ll just go with the 57.”
“Let me ask you something. What instrument is this for?”
“And you need a mic for…?”
None of his business, but I answer out of politeness, “Home recording.”
“Hang on a sec.” He reaches below and pulls out a different microphone. “Got just what ya need, right here. This mic is made specifically for hobbyists like you. It’s got a higher dynamic range for more control. And we’re running a special on these babies! If you buy now, we’ll give you a ten percent discount on …’
“Can I just buy the 57, please?” I can’t take any more. That’s when I notice several other employees huddling on the other side of the store. They’re observing us, pointing and whispering. As the overhead speakers play a Sammy Hagar song, Sammy’s voice reflects the frustration I’m feeling. “I can’t Drive…55!”
All of a sudden, the music stops and a voice comes over the intercom: “Russell to the general manager’s office…I repeat, Russell, please report to the General Management at once. ”
He beams with pride. “Hang on buddy, got important business, it’ll just take a sec. Anything else ya need?” I shake my head “You sure? Cables? Picks? Strings? I can cut you a special deal if you buy this here mic. Think about it! Be right back...” I roll my eyes, amazed at this guy’s audacity.
When he returns minutes later, he looks as if he’s been notified of a death in his family. Looking down in shame, he slowly takes his place back behind the counter, He is sober, somber, and reflective. What did they say to him in the back office? “You’re Alex Skolnick.” he mutters.
“Uh…yeah, I suppose so”
“The guitarist, right?”
I nod uncomfortably. “I play guitar, yes. I already told you that.”
“I…I…don’t know how to tell you how sorry I am, sir. I didn’t know who you were.” Awkward pause.
“I really don’t see why that matters.”
“Sir, I truly apologize.” He reaches for my hand. We shake hands and he says, “Mr. Skolnick, sir, I realize your time is valuable. And again, I’m terribly sorry. I’m ready to ring up your purchase now. Would you still like to buy a microphone?” I nod and point to a Shure SM57 under the counter. “I’m going to give you our biggest discount on the price.” He rings up the cash register in a hurry and hands me the bag. “Again, I’m truly sorry. Here’s my business card. If you ever need anything, any assistance, I am here. My name’s Russell and I apologize again. Is there anything else I can do for you sir?“
I glance around and notice that all eyes in the store are upon us. “Just one thing: you know, it really shouldn’t matter who comes in here. Maybe it’s a 12-year old kid who’s never played before. Maybe Jimi Hendrix is back from the grave and he’s decided to visit Concord, whatever… The point is, every customer in here deserves your respect, ok?” He nods. I leave.
The next day, a blinking light on my answering machine tells me I have a new message. I press Play and hear the following: “Uh…good afternoon Mr. Skolnick, my name is Russell, I helped you with your purchase yesterday. I just want to make sure you’re happy with your purchase and let you know what an honor it was to have you in our store. Please let me know if there’s ever anything I can do to assist you in the future. You have a good day, sir.” Forty-eight hours later, I receive a new message just like that one. Another one follows a few days after that. I avoid these calls and never pick up or call back. He continues to leave messages like this for about a month.
Rudy’s Music, New York, NY, 2005. The guy behind the counter looks at me as if I’m some stray animal that’s wandered in off the street. Reading the back page sports section of the New York Post, he doesn’t smile or say a word. Stocky, stubby handed and slightly heavyset, he is better suited for a pizza counter than an accessories counter. As the rumble of a hockey game quietly blares from the overhead TV, I ask him where I can find the Gibson guitars.
“You play?” He asks.
I tell him yes, I play. And I’m seriously interested in purchasing a red Gibson SG Reissue guitar. He points me to a rack of guitars in the corner and says, “Those ain’t toys, man. You sure you can play?”
“I play professionally.” No response. I walk to the rack, sift through the Les Pauls, Explorers, and SG’s until I notice a red one like the guitar played by Angus Young of AC/DC. I don’t touch it, yet.
Eager to play it, I pull up a nearby stool and begin to remove my jacket. The jacket is halfway off when, not even looking up from his paper, he calls out “Remove your jacket, please.”
“It’s halfway off, already.” I say.
“All the way off, please.” I’m getting annoyed. Still I put the jacket on the floor and pick up the red SG.
As my hand reaches for the tuning pegs he yells over “You need help tuning?”
“You know how to tune?
“I said I play professionally”
“Everybody says that.”
“Do I look like I don’t know how to tune?“
“Just checkin’.” He goes back to the sports page. Prick. Hearing me play, he decides I’m worth talking to. He asks if I play locally. I say yes, not bothering to tell him that one of my last “local” gigs was down the street at a place called Madison Square Garden. I also don’t bother to mention that I’m featured in the guitar magazine next to him on the counter, either. Why should I have to spout my resume to shop here? Instead, I just answer his questions politely. But what I really want to do is tell him to f**k off and dump his drink on his head. I decide that no matter how much I like the red SG, it’s not worth it because thanks to this bozo, I’ll always have a negative experience attached to it. I put back the guitar, walk past him without saying a word and leave.
As I wander through the bustle of 48th St. in Manhattan, the noise of the traffic does little to drown the flood of thoughts flowing in my brain: How does one handle people like this? I suppose I could have opened up the guitar magazine and shoved my picture in his face. Then I think of Julia Roberts’ character in “Pretty Woman,” the scene where she goes shopping in Beverly Hills. I could buy the same guitar from Manny’s down the street, then come back in and say, “You work on commission right? Big mistake.” I decide that in the future, I will not be caught off guard, thrown for a loop, or lose my temper because of someone like this. What I’ll do is calmly inform him that he is not doing himself or his employers any favors with this behavior and that while I may not be one who wears his resume on his sleeve or walks around projecting an aura of superiority, I’m not a guitar player you want to be mess with, either. For the time being, I will tell everyone I know in the New York music scene (and there are many) to avoid this store and hope they hire better staff in the future.
I’ve often wondered what it is that makes people behave this way. Is it feelings of arrogance? An inferiority complex? A superiority complex? Whatever it is, there is no excuse for it. Music stores exist to serve the higher purpose of art, creativity and expression among civilized human beings. When shopping at a music store, I don’t need to be treated like a prince—but don’t treat me like a leper, either. Just treat me like a person.
If other stores can handle that, then why not music stores? Can you imagine going to a bookstore and the clerk tries to talk you out of the book you want to buy? Then he tries to get you to buy the one HE wants you to buy? Or he acts as if he’s doing you the biggest favor in the world for even allowing you in the store?
If you work in a music store, you are the gatekeeper between music makers and the equipment that makes the creative process possible. If you’re a musician yourself, working in a music store doesn’t make you less of one, or less of a person. The negativity spread by behavior such as that described here causes more damage than you can possibly imagine. If you can’t change your behavior, then please do us all a favor: seek other employment and resign immediately.
Again, these “music store horror stories” shouldn’t reflect on all music store employees. There are some very nice folks working at music stores out there, you just have to look for them. The good ones respect their patrons without prejudging them and understand that the store exists for the greater good. They know their job is to help their customers, not inflict products on them they otherwise wouldn’t buy. And they recognize something especially important: that working in a music store is something to be proud of. If more music store employees felt that way, the music world, and consequently the world, would be a better place.