The Inside Story
Twentieth Anniversaries are always an event in any business, but when such an anniversary occurs in the retail music industry, it's even more of a milestone. Many shops come and go, but this month A1 Music celebrates its 20th birthday with the purchase of a gigantic new warehouse and the unveiling of major expansion plans which will make A1 one of the largest music stores in the UK.
Talking to Graham Mellor, owner of A1, you realise that he began in business just as the Beatles' popularity was at its highest - a good time perhaps to enter the music world - but it seems not. We asked Graham to explain. 'Having worked the clubs as a semi-pro musician in the early 60s, working as a TV engineer by day, I was ideally placed to sense the need in Manchester for a group gear repair shop and so, soon after, when I found myself out of work, it was decided to open such a shop.
'A1 was born in a small shop which stood on the site of the new BBC studios in the centre of Manchester. However, despite the mid-60's boom, at that time I was unable to retail music instruments due to lack of finance. Until one day an employee of Vox Amplification by the name of Colin took a chance and opened a credit account for me. Business grew and 18 months later A1 moved to its present premises at 88 Oxford Street, and I was then able to employ Ann, whom I had married 3 years earlier, on a fulltime basis.'
Previously, Ann had given moral support to Graham but retained other employment; now with Ann's help they were able to grow and to handle all the new business coming their way. It wasn't as easy as it seems: Graham continues.
'Having been unable to cash in on the beginning of the boom, we found ourselves in an industry which had already reached its peak and was just beginning to decline. The available market was reducing - no doubt as a result of the falling birth rate - and in fact this trend continues up to the present day.'
I asked Graham how A1 had managed to progress and expand despite the declining market. 'Several reasons really. Firstly, Ann. Her support and organisational abilities are a great contribution to our success, and being owner and management means instant decisions can be reached, which is vital in the music business.
'Back-up service is how we started and it remains an important part of A1, becoming increasingly important as high technology enters almost every area of sales together with the resulting complexity of products.'
Whilst other shops offer little in the way of 'on the premises' repair facilities, A1 Music have separate workshops with engineers who specialise in their own fields. Other services are provided too, such as custom-built flight cases, speaker cabinets, tuition, guitar modifications and 'on the spot' or same-day service is usually available.
Visiting A1 is, quite simply, a unique experience. What appears from the outside to be a small corner shop is in fact only the tip of the iceberg. Whilst it remains the hub of the business - with the main counter area linked to the other floors by a video camera, phone and intercom network — one descends at the rear to the various departments with a current staff of ten, each with a special interest and skill in a particular field. Down the stairs to the right is the drum and percussion area with, opposite, the guitar section adjacent to the recording equipment room and at the far end the amplification area. Backtrack and go down more stairs and you'll find the main keyboard area, which is also home for the many hi-tech products: everything in fact from a monosynth to the complete Oberheim Performance System. Yet more steps lead to the Combo Room (packed with Combo equipment) and then the workshops!
All this and a further 3 floors in the new adjoining premises!
Graham told us of his plans: 'to give you an idea of scale, each floor is over 2,700 square feet. On one floor we hope to feature a one-level shopping area with wall-to-wall guitar displays fronted by service counters, visual displays of effects units and spare parts, which will mean easier access and faster service. Towards the rear we will be holding in-store demos by manufacturers and distributors on specially-made movable 'stage sets'. Such demos are already well attended locally but are currently held at outside venues, and at the time of writing have recently featured a drum clinic with Jon Hiseman and Paiste and a Simmons Electronics demo.
'Displays of hi-tech products will be a main feature and we hope the new extensions will widen the appeal of A1 Music to the top end of the market buyers, who often don't realise they can obtain such products locally. Now studios, bands and other professionals can buy high-technology products on their doorstep without having to travel south and the worry of what happens then if it goes wrong. A new feature on the after-sales side will be the introduction, shortly, of the Personal A1 Guarantee Card, which in many cases will enable an improvement in Warranty cover to be provided, over and above that of the manufacturer.'
Winding things up, Graham gave us his ideas on the industry's direction. 'I feel the business lacks a figure-head, to renew interest in music over the whole spectrum. Someone like the Shadows or the Beatles, Hendrix even, who made young people want to go out and be musicians. OK, it does happen today, but not in such a big way and not as far as live music's concerned. Kids today are computer crazy; they learn how to use computers at school and go out and buy a computer just as they used to go out and buy a guitar. We've got to cater for them and realise that if today they buy a computer then tomorrow they'll buy something to interface to it - and it might well be a music-related product.
Music and the way it's made is going to change as a result of computers, and we intend to follow that change by offering 3 Computer Systems in our new-look store which can be linked up with related high-tech music products for customers to assess themselves.
Twenty years on, the music business has come a long way, and A1 Music has grown with it. Perhaps more importantly, A1 Music is continuing to look ahead. Ahead to a future of further commercial and technological development.
Twenty Years Of A1 Music - A1 Supplement
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