Perhaps once in a generation, an idea comes along which changes an entire industry, touching every aspect of it, from root to leaf. In the music business, the Fender Soundhouse is just such a concept.
Placed in London's busy Tottenham Court Road, the Fender Soundhouse opened on September 27th, 1973, and the repercussions were immediate. Rod Alexander, the present shop manager, joined the following April, but he was immediately aware of the shop and its impact on the music scene.
"I had worked at Sound City for four years, and although I knew and was impressed with Ivor Arbiter, I eventually became fed up with that scene. It was a four-man shop, and there was no future." As a lead guitarist who still plays sessions, Rod's alternative was obvious. "I joined Blackwater Junction, and I was back on the road again. After about three weeks, I began to hear rumours about the Soundhouse. When I got back to London, I came to Tottenham Court Road and had a look around the shop.
"I also had a chat with Reg Clark and Andrew Wallace, and it was so obvious that for the first time, this was a retail operation that was looking forward, not backward. Taking on the management of the shop was a tremendous challenge. There's a staff of 20 to take care of, and we also have what I consider to be the three best agencies going — Fender, Rhodes and Rogers. With top quality equipment like that, it's a tremendous incentive to do your best."
Rod's own experience, both in retailing and music, have proved an added bonus for the Fender Soundhouse. He began playing in bands ten years ago in his native Cumberland, and in his day he has played with Carl Douglas, Joe Brown and Blackwater Junction. He still plays some sessions when he can fit it around his duties at the Soundhouse, and his collection of instruments includes a Fender Stratocaster, a Gibson Stereo, a Martin D 18, an original Les Paul Junior and a Coral sitar. Most of his musical time now is spent in writing.
"I'd played in bands for years, and I knew loads of musicians who all had similar complaints about music shops. We would go in and try to get service, and you could tell by looking at the guy as he talked to you that he was handing you a line. Especially in after sales service, which I feel is so important for musicians."
The corner stone of Rod's shop is a nucleus of staff who have all been professional musicians or roadies themselves, and who know how to advise customers what to buy. Chris O'Kelly, who used to work with Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel, and Colin Pincott - "He can outplay 98% of the guitarists in Britain" is Rod's claim — are characteristic of the shop's staff. As Rod added, "They didn't know the retailing and paperwork side of it, but I've taught them. The music side of it, and the friendly, youthful and helpful side of it is more important."
The aim of the Soundhouse is not to succeed by a series of one-off rip-offs, but to build up a relationship with customers that will last. "We have 12 year old kids coming in who will buy an Arbiter guitar for £20, and we want to make sure that it suits them. In five years he may be the new guitar hero. We want to build up trust, and a continuing relationship."
This philosophy is epitomised by another facet of the Soundhouse motif — the free guitar and drum lessons. "Every Saturday we have free drum and guitar clinics for learners. They range in age from small kids to 25 year olds. We also give good discounts to our students on any instruments that they buy."
This tremendous desire to give something back instead of constantly taking is also demonstrated by the clinics which are held frequently at the Soundhouse, in the 200-seat theatre upstairs. Recent "demonstrators" have included Jon Hiseman, Kenny Clare and Big Jim Sullivan.
Another aspect of the Soundhouse which Rod Alexander takes pride in is the completeness of their stock. Virtually everything a musician or D.J. could want is inside their walls. Fender, Gibson and Guild guitars, Rogers, Premier, Gretsch, Ludwig, Slingerland, Hayman, Pearl and Star drums. Fender-Rhodes electric pianos, ARP, Moog, Farfisa, Hohner are the names in keyboards, which are on the first floor, and the stock of amps include Fender, Marshall, Ampeg, Hi Watt, Sound City, WEM, Acoustic, Vox, Shure, Altec, and Peavey. P.A.s number among their ranks such names as Fender, Shure, Hi Watt, Carlsbro, Peavey and Altec, while the mixers are largely Soundcraft.
Disco units are also stocked on the first floor, and they include such names as Sound Out, Citronic, and FAL.
An additional hallmark of the Fender Soundhouse is its snack bar, located on a mezzanine between the ground and first floors. Like every section of the Soundhouse, there are no hassles or pressure to drink up and get out.
The Fender Soundhouse is a happy shop, and Rod Alexander is a happy man. He has nothing but the highest praise for Managing Director, Ivor Arbiter, who he believes is the most progressive and forward looking individual in the business, and he has also managed to gather a like-minded staff of underlings who know their business and really care, both about the customer and the product. This is reflected in every area. From accessories to repairs, the emphasis is on quality and personal service.