A Cloud On The Horizon
"The customer is always right", runs the well-known phrase. But from what we hear this month, musical instrument retailers don't seem to pin much faith in it.
HOW MANY TIMES have you read through three-and-a-half pages of a Simon Trask synth appraisal, or 2500 words of a Rick Davies software review, only to find the words "there's no substitute for trying this out at your local music store" somewhere in the course of the concluding paragraph.
Quite a few times, I'd reckon. Now, some of you may construe such a phrase as something approaching a cop-out, while others will — rightly — see it as a necessary piece of advice. For respected and admired as our opinion may be, the last thing we want is musicians hanging on to their every word, and making purchasing decisions without so much as casting a cursory glance over the object of their desire.
If each review we published had unlimited space, if each reviewer had unlimited time in which to collate their information, and if each piece of review gear arrived fully specified and documented, perhaps we wouldn't have to qualify our concluding paragraphs with phrases such as the one above.
But seeing as the above criteria are very rarely fulfilled by any piece of equipment, we feel it necessary to suggest readers use their own judgement — as well as ours — before they make up their minds as to what to buy.
All right, so most of the above may strike you as fairly obvious. But the reason I'm stressing these points is this. If we, as reviewers, depend on music shops to offer readers some kind of reasonably informed demonstration facility of the instruments we review - and if you, as musicians, depend on music shops for exactly the same reason - then between us, we're putting quite a bit of pressure on music shops to maintain their standards.
When hi-tech musical instruments were in their infancy, it wasn't uncommon for this magazine to receive complaints from musicians who'd been enticed into their High Street music shop by flash-looking window displays, only to find a complete absence of anyone inside the shop who knew anything about the flash-looking equipment whatsoever.
Times changed, though, and bit by bit, music shop managers became more responsible in their attitude to the flash-looking equipment and the musicians who wanted to buy it. They started to employ knowledgeable salesmen who were genuinely interested in what they were having to sell. And they began to offer back-up and after-sales facilities that were on a par with those they'd previously offered for buyers of things like guitars and drums.
As little as two weeks ago, things on the retail side were looking brighter than they had been for a long time. Until, that is, we received the letter from Southampton reader Mat Rhys-Roberts. This month's Communique features Mat's letter, but to save you the trouble of flicking through straight away. I'll quickly repeat the gist of his message, which is this.
A typical MT reader, with a fair amount of money burning a hole in his wallet and his heart set on a glittering new piece of hi-tech gear, walks confidently into his High Street music shop, and is effectively told to piss off. The salesman shows little knowledge of the instrument in question, and even less inclination to let our reader try it out for himself. The reader leaves the shop in disgust, and puts pen to paper the minute he gets home.
So much, then, for all the progress that has been made in musical instrument retailing over the last couple of years. And so much, also, for our well-intentioned message to readers at the end of our reviews.
Clearly, there's little point in either MT as a magazine, or you as a musician, placing trust in the retail community if the above little scenario is played out day after day. I can't imagine for a moment that it is, but you never know.
If you've had a similar experience to Mat Rhys-Roberts', tell us about it. Similarly, if you have a more encouraging story to tell of the way you've been treated by your High Street music shop, write to us and help tip the balance the other way.
If our newly elected Government is to be believed (OK, so it may be asking a lot), then this country will soon be basking in the sunshine of an unprecedented retail boom. There is a chance, though, that a minority of retailers might just stop some musicians from getting a suntan.