Carlsbro Sound Centres
Graham Pell, Marketing Director of Carlsbro Sound Centres Ltd, tells why business is booming
"It all started really with the manufacturing in the early 60's, when the Mansfield-based associate company, Carlsbro Sales Ltd, began producing amplification equipment. In 1970, the first Carlsbro Sound Centre shop was opened in Mansfield to sell the amplification equipment produced. From that we became a more general group gear shop and five years later it moved into one of the UK's biggest musical shops, a superstore in Chesterfield Road, Mansfield. The store is now the Head Office for the firm and also provides separate facilities for specialised service and repair of musical equipment.
Carlsbro then opened a shop in Sheffield which later expanded into a superstore at 720 City Road. Meanwhile, the growth in musical equipment extended from amplification to home recording, guitars and disco equipment. As we see the market changing, we try and change with it, trying always to get on the bottom rung of the ladder rather than jump on somebody's bandwagon. Within a couple of years we opened a small shop in Nottingham and from that we've moved up recently to a new superstore in Nottingham which has four floors.
A few years ago when Carlsbro was only the one shop, it was either a trip to London or a trip to Carlsbro, because they were the premier Northern shop. Since then there's obviously been a lot of infilling, with all the major towns now having two or three decent music shops and then between those the villages have even got better ones than the towns used to have, so the market growth has made the slice of cake quite difficult to get. Nevertheless, in October last year a deal was done with Sound Pad, Leicester, and it became a Carlsbro outlet. This made Carlsbro without doubt the largest musical retailer on one site in Europe, with customers coming from all parts of the country due to its location near the motorway network.
The company's worth reflects the public's growing interest in music as a leisure activity and its wide price range caters for both domestic users and professional entertainers, and from beginners to advanced musicians. Having four shops obviously allows us to carry extensive stocks, probably more than anybody else and it's very rare if we don't have a required product somewhere. Carlsbro can usually get items very quickly from one branch to another and we do have weekly inter-shop stock transfers. The shop managers are Steven Friss in Leicester, Rod Bradley in Nottingham, Nelson King in Sheffield, and Malcolm Jennings in Mansfield.
Having gained a reputation in the beginning with amplifiers and guitars we then expanded our range of products to satisfy anyone from novice to Pro musician. With acoustic percussion, keyboards and drums added to our range we catered for all group requirements. Even in the early days we were particularly anxious to carry all leading makes of instruments, so guitars have grown to include unusual things like the Steinberger bass. As a leading retailer, the customer expects to see what he reads about and we have that obligation to provide the instruments for him. Of course we have to experiment with new lines, because if you don't you get left behind. From the early wah wah, fuzz box and Copicat tape echo we've acquired a large number of rack-mounted and foot controlled effects. As the demand for big amplification stacks reduced we were able to carry a much wider selection of PA systems.
Sheet music has been a fairly recent innovation for us. I think it's all down to the leisure industry in general, having mammoth sales on keyboards and requiring lots of easy play music and songbooks. The easy play books have extended to cover more or less everything from organ to guitar. We don't do sheet music, only the books, and find that the city centre shops we have in Leicester and Nottingham bring in the browsers who buy the music.
As well as selling or leasing equipment, Carlsbro hire anything from a mobile disco to a set of instruments for a rock group by the day, week or month. You can even hire something and have your money refunded if you purchase it within 14 days. This provides an ideal opportunity to really check out specialised equipment. Our choice of leasing, renting or buying also extends to the lighting systems — including big screen videos — which the other associated company, Carlsbro Sound Services Ltd installs in clubs, pubs and other premises all over the country. We have seven or eight people fulltime doing mammoth installations with stage lighting and pyrotechnics. They do all the Mecca work in the Midlands.
Looking at the type of percussion we carry, we try to cover every major line from Yamaha, Ludwig, Premier, Pearl, Sonor, Capelle, to Simmons — including all those electronic drums.
Guitars include Gibson, Fender, Aria, Washburn as well as virtually all the copy guitars like Tokai. We stock all the main effects from flangers, chorus and rackmounted processors to anything that's really decent and under £1,500. We certainly do quite a lot of pro studio stuff for the 8-track studio.
This really started with the Teac 3340 4-track recorder, when anybody in a decent group had access to one. In the last three or four years it became apparent that we could do deals that hi-fi shops wouldn't want to do — trading in guitars or a drum kit. It was really all part of the same industry. With the advent of the Teac Portastudio and Fostex 8-track and others there is a mammoth growth in home recording taking place. Apart from the playing musician, there's a whole army of bedroom musicians out there who get a tremendous amount of fun producing sounds. Most of this resulted because studio time was expensive and the studio situation did not always allow you the freedom of recording at home.
From that we were able to branch out into a lot more rack mounted things, more effects and quality monitors from JBL.
I think the magazines play an important role in that they actually give the customer unbiased information and do tell you what the machine is capable of, whereas if you just pick up the manufacturer's brochure, it's glossed towards the good points without giving that overall picture.
Our keyboards range from the VL-Tone to the big polyphonics from Chroma, Moog, Sequential Circuits, Yamaha, Roland and Korg, although we don't carry specialist lines like Oberheim or PPG. We don't do acoustic pianos or furniture-type home organs, but we've always had synthesisers from the early Davoli synth in '72 to virtually everything in electric pianos and string machines from £150 upwards — and all the new contemporary portable keyboards.
The great thing about the keyboard 'explosion' is that you can start making music straight away — you don't have to learn for ages. 60% of people who buy a small keyboard find that they want to go on to another more sophisticated instrument later. Out of all the products we sell, keyboards and home recording have the biggest turnover — at least double all the other lines.
The biggest problem is in educating ourselves in the computing and more technical side of music instruments and recording. All our engineers have to be familiar with the latest technology devices used in the new instruments. At one time we did brass and woodwind especially in Mansfield, but even though there are more bands using these now we decided to leave these with violins and smaller percussion instruments to the other general music shops. The high volume business is definitely in the areas of electronic and modern group instruments. The amplification side always brings in sales because people do change amps and are tending to go for smaller and better gear.
I think electronic percussion will grow and may take a bigger slice of the market — not just electronic machines but electronic drum kits too, although jazz musicians and others will obviously stay with acoustics. Simmons have proved everybody wrong and can't produce kits fast enough.
To run any multiple retail outlet, the shop floor atmosphere should be a relaxed one although it also has to be an efficient one to actually succeed. It's certainly quite a challenge for me to keep up with the latest products. I also like to spend one or two days on the shop floor going round the shops and getting the feedback from customers and salespeople alike. We have regular management meetings and take in a lot of product information, so it's difficult to have a lot of time with customers and be very efficient as well — because as you're talking to them about last night's gig, they expect their amp to be repaired at the same time! Still, the sound booths which we've always had in the shops help a great deal in making up peoples minds about equipment. Saturday brings the most people into the shops, but we may well do more business on a Monday or Tuesday with serious buyers.
In the next few years, once the economy settles out and people start to get jobs again, we'll continue to keep active with all kinds of in-store and hotel promotions of new products, and the interest in home recording will be as strong as contemporary keyboards over the next five to ten years, I'm sure. We're still only on the bottom rung of the ladder — and there's a lot of people out there with a little bit of money in their pocket interested in making music".