people that bought guitars for $ 300 , they ’ ll be able to go play soccer or hockey and are able to do other things because the world is opening up again and that guitar will sit in the corner . But I ’ m going to say 25 to 30 percent of those people will stick with it and make it a life choice like we did .”
He cites the Fender Play platform as a litmus test – “ Fender had something like one million people sign up for it . Now that the pandemic is waning , I think they ’ re down to about 350,000 paying monthly for lessons . So , they have retained about 35 percent of the people that signed up . So , there are people who did find a passion and excitement and that ’ s on the guitar side only , right ? Think about that . It ’ s pretty impressive .”
“ I ’ m definitely not pessimistic ,” Mc- Namee says . “ I feel like we ’ re just getting started . I ’ ve owned this business since 2014 . I ’ ve opened two new locations since then , so I don ’ t think it ’ s going to slow down for us .” McNamee notes that his stores , Rufus Guitar Shop and Rufus Drum Shop , focus on guitar and drums , and that focus helps them . Those people who did take up guitar and bought their gear from their Vancouver stores are going to come back for more gear , for peripherals from picks to pedals , for advice , lessons , etc .
“ So , is it a good time to open a guitar store ? Probably not . Are we going to see some shops go down ? For sure .” That said , for those willing to adapt , in particular to investing in streamlining online sales , the future is bright . As for lessons , although he had to pivot to online lessons during the pandemic , there are many , many options available , from random free YouTube tutorials to more organized , regimented offerings . For McNamee , competing with that is a losing battle – but then again , that can ’ t truly compete with the live experience . “ People are always going to want to take in-person lessons ,” he says .
That said , other online initiatives can help maintain and grow the business . “ What we ’ ve started doing is online demos . That ’ s a huge focus for us . We ’ ve always heavily advertised on Instagram . During the pandemic , we started investing more into our YouTube channel . We now crank out videos a couple of times a week and hired somebody to do that . So , I ’ m absolutely optimistic . We ’ ve seen huge growth . When I bought this business , it was doing just under
$ 1 million and we ’ re close to $ 5 million [ in sales ] now , in seven years ,” McNamee reveals . “ But your [ level of ] optimism is going to be based on how well your business is doing . The landscape is completely different now from what it was even a year ago and it ’ s not going back . If you have any illusion that in the future we ’ re going to go back to what it was in 2019 , that ’ s not going to happen .” In other words , adapt or fail .
“ I think you ’ re going to see more used cheap guitars come through Kijiji and Craigslist and stuff like that ,” Bader sums up . “ But the people that stick with it , they ’ re going to become more excited over time . The funny thing about guitar players is they ’ re habitually old-school . You look at the two number-one selling guitars in the world , the Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul , which were both invented in the early 1950s .” Basically , the technology may change , but , at the core : “ guitars are still six strings on a piece of wood ,” he says , chuckling , and adding that with playing guitar , “ it ’ s almost like going for that hike in the woods ; there ’ s an organic quality to it .”
While there are concrete steps every facet of the MI business can take to keep interest alive and well , speaking to the sea change in how people spend their time and why they do so now , are critical to success . The realization of what can be accomplished – both in-person in a DIY way and remotely – can drive growth and feed ongoing interest , Kirman believes . At the core , during uncertain times playing and learning filled a void – not just in terms of providing a focus , an escape , a project – but as a balm to ease the absence of the true communal experience of live music altogether .
“ People are waiting with bated breath for live music to come back … so there ’ s a resurgence in interest . But people have also realized that their neighbours can come over and play in the garage , or that online you can play with , or learn from , people across town or the world . People who are in their 40s and 50s who played in high school came back and started playing again , and , maybe , they ’ ve started inspiring the younger generation ,” Kirman says .
Will it stick for everyone ? No . But for a significant number it will , most likely , stick with them long-term and prompt them to spread the word .
Regardless of the instrument , playing is
Blaze Music ’ s Rod Bader
Search and Distro ’ s Scott Hager
Rufus Guitar Shop ’ s Blaine McNamee
a calming , almost meditative , activity – one that can mitigate the intrusion of the big , bad world for a while . Speak to that , and you ’ ll likely prompt growth .
Kevin Young is a Toronto-based musician and freelance writer .
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