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Instruments of Change

To fight the category killers, two local music store owners ditch their solo acts.

And, of course, the sounds: squealing heavy-metal solos from the T-shirted guy test-driving a Fender guitar, the crash and clatter of cymbals and drumsticks.

Chris Stanley lives for that stuff. He's owned Southern Music since 2001, after a stint managing the venerable Richmond music store for the previous owner, and has been a guitarist and performer for 20 years, since he first took the stage at age 16.

"Everybody gets burned out on their job sometimes," Stanley says, "but then I look out in front and I see 15 kids lining up to take lessons, [and] I realize that I'm creating something that is very positive. I know that without music I would be nothing."

But like many industries, the music-store business is changing. No longer are the local stores the only games in town. These days, anyone with an Internet connection can order a guitar from Manhattan or Florida. And the late 1990s saw music's versions of Wal-Mart move into town — high-volume discount superstores like Mars Music, Sam Ash and Guitar Center that offered lots of selection and low prices.

To compete, the small stores focused on their strengths. Southern Music found a niche with young musicians, increasing its music lessons to the point that it now has 700 students and finding success in instrument rentals to school bands.

Over at Richmond Music Center on Midlothian Turnpike, Kip Williams saw the same situation. His store on the Turnpike had been competing against the superstores by focusing on professional musicians with customer service and clinics with famous musicians — its ability to bring in nationally known drummers resulted in its being nominated in 2001 and 2005 by Music & Sound Retailer magazine as the top drum store in the country.

The two knew each other — Williams, a drummer, had even played in Stanley's band for a time — so they sometimes compared notes about what they were facing.

The industry can be tough. The country's largest instrument retailer, the publicly traded Guitar Center, based in California, has 161 stores under that name with $1.8 billion in sales last year. It plans to open 35 more stores this year. It recently bought 61 stores aimed at young musicians under the Music & Arts Center name and has a thriving online business, Musician's Friend.

But in music, being big doesn't necessarily mean you'll win. Guitar Center keeps just 4 cents of every dollar it makes, according to its financial statements. It also spends a fortune just to open new superstores — up to $3 million on each.

One attempt at a national music chain, Mars Music, declared bankruptcy in 2002, closing all of its 38 stores after just five years in business. Analysts said it spent too much growing too fast and couldn't compete with the local stores when it came to service.

When it started, Mars was supposed to ring the death knell for local music stores. It didn't.

"My experience has been that the local guys usually survive," says Paul Ash, president of New York-based Sam Ash Corp., which operates 45 music stores in 15 states, including one in Richmond that's less than a block down West Broad Street from a Guitar Center. "They offer a level of personal attention and service that bigger stores can't match. … I don't think we're a danger to them. They might want to change their style a little bit, but they can do well."

Still, with so many competitors and little profit from each sale, competition can be ferocious. Salesmen tell of stores sending drivers to wait outside competitors' stores and offer better deals on whatever the customer has just bought.

And last month, Guitar Center announced that it's being sued for $1 billion in damages by a store owner who accuses the company of illegally conspiring with instrument manufacturers to sell instruments below cost to force others out of business. Guitar Center denies the charges.

Growing a business is never easy. In this environment, what's a music store owner to do?

Good musicians listen for ways to complement each other's playing. When Stanley and Williams talked about what they wanted and what they did well, they realized that their businesses could do the same. In mid-2005, they decided that the best way to compete was to join: Rather than as soloists, they'd operate as a band. "Instead of beating each other up, it made more sense to put [Stanley's] strong points and our strong points together," Williams says.

They agreed on a 50-50 partnership and began planning their dream store. They found 12,100 feet of available space on Midlothian Turnpike — larger than both of their stores put together — got a building permit in mid-February and went to work. As musicians, both had spent time working in the building trades, so they did a lot of the construction themselves, hanging drywall and building many of the fixtures.

Despite their frenzied work, they kept the plans secret for almost a year. Until recently, the employees at Richmond Music Center knew nothing of the merger; they had thought the store was simply moving to a larger space.

Williams and Stanley say they believe the combined business, which will operate under the Richmond Music Center banner, will be the sort of store they have each dreamed of — big enough for dozens of studios for lessons and lots of instruments without feeling sterile and cavernous.

"We want people to come in … and say, 'This is cool!'" Williams says. "It's not corporate with white ceilings and big, bright lights. And I'll tell you, when you get a space this big, it's really hard to keep it from looking corporate, like Wal-Mart."

They plan to open the store the Tuesday after Memorial Day. S

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