Long Live Mom 'n' Pop: Indie Music Stores That Are Beating the Odds


1. A vintage Wurly and Rhodes joined by new synths in the keyboard showroom of Beacock Music, a short hop across the Columbia River from Portlandia. 2. Hard-to-fi nd modular and analog gear takes center stage at L.A.’s Big City Music. 3. Dave Contois leads teachers in a seminar on integrating technology and piano lessons at Contois School of Music in Vermont.INDEPENDENT GEAR RETAILERS FACE MORE CHALLENGES THAN EVER. ESPECIALLY in the keyboard, recording, and pro audio sectors, which have incredibly tight margins, not to mention informed, price-savvy customers like you. Yet many stores are thriving, thanks to a focus on service, music education, and building community in their local scenes. Here’s a very incomplete list of some who are at the top of their game.

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ANALOGUE HAVEN | online only
Gear focus: Doepfer, Moog, Dave Smith, Nord, Elektron, Metasonix, Vermona, and more. Specializes in hard-to-find analog and modular synths, as well as bigger names such as Alesis.
What’s special: Analogue Haven is the sole U.S. distributor (though not the sole retailer) of Doepfer modular gear. They’re often first to carry new boutique offerings, and provide a 30-day warranty on all products in addition to what manufacturers offer. Analogue Haven buys and sells used synths, modular gear, and pedals. Have a specific (read: strange) equipment need? The staff is happy to put feelers out to help you find it. OO
analoguehaven.com | 310-451-7744

Gear focus: Roland, Moog, Access, Dave Smith Instruments, Nord, Korg, Yamaha, Alesis, and Casio, among others.
What’s special: One of the leading NorCal outlets for keyboards and recording gear, with nearly every major product line (and a number of boutique ones). Bananas has instruments and audio equipment on consignment, along with a full rental department for sound systems, amps, keyboards, and related gear. An authorized Apple reseller, Bananas specializes in optimized A/V production systems, including Pro Tools HD. You’re likely to see a staff member patiently taking 14-year-olds through GarageBand or a Casio Privia.
Lessons: Regular events and classes, including jam sessions with San Francisco Bay Area pros, and sound solution clinics for churches. RL
bananasmusic.com | 888-900-1959

Synth heaven at Nova Musik’s studio, which is often used for demos by product reps.B&H | New York, NY
Gear focus: This NYC institution is a destination for photo and video pros, but also has an extensive selection of major brands of keyboards, recording equipment, and live sound gear.
What’s special: The merchandising displays are impeccable. Whether you want to compare the Jupiter, Kronos, and Motif; ultrabooks for running soft synths; or even those high-end digital cinema cameras you have no use for but still drool over, you’ll find everything plugged in, well maintained, and ready to demo. They also buy and sell used gear, maintain an onsite library of free application howtos and buyer’s guides they’ve created. Their huge brick-and-mortar store is one of a kind in any dense urban setting, and with a purchase, they validate parking—important in New York. SF
bhphotovideo.com | 866-264-5201

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Gear focus: Synths, workstations, digital pianos, and portables from major manufacturers such as Yamaha, Roland, and Korg.
What’s special: Beacock is the largest indie music store in the Portland, Oregon, area, selling everything from keyboards and recording gear to guitars, drums, and band instruments. They route multiple keyboards through shared monitor systems so you can A/B competing models. Beacock will let you rent-to-own synths, workstations, and digital pianos, has in-house repair, and works with nearby Left to right: Roger Linn, store owner Steve Taormina, and Dave Smith in front of Robotspeak in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. servicer Inner Sound for more demanding repairs. There’s also consignment for used gear.
Lessons: Thirty-five teachers run group and private lessons in just about every instrument and all skill levels. Staff organizes bands that students can sign up for and hosts in-store concerts. Students can use the Yamaha Keyboard Lab. One-on-one training for workstation keyboards can even extend to house calls when the situation demands.OO
beacockmusic.com | 800-729-7134

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BIG CITY MUSIC | Los Angeles, CA
Gear focus: Korg, Moog, Fulltone, and more, alongside boutique brands Metasonix, Jomox, and Critter & Guitari.
What’s special: Their appointment-only policy isn’t elitist—it’s because they want to give as much personal attention to the novice as they do to, say, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (who paid a recent visit). Want to demo hardto- find gems like the Teenage Engineering OP-1, Analogue Systems French Connection, or eight-bit OTO Biscuit? Big City has them. As the only Dewanatron distributor, Big City is the only place you can play the unique Swarmatron (reviewed Dec. ’11). OO
bigcitymusic.com | 818-985-0855

Gear focus: Nearly all major and many boutique brands, including Korg, Yamaha, Roland, Nord, Kurzweil, Dave Smith Instruments, Moog, Access, Casio, Waldorf, Arturia, Rhizome, Elektron, Alesis, and Akai.
What’s special: This much-loved hub of the DC music scene is extremely well stocked, with more than $8,000,000 in inventory. The keyboard department often has more than one of the same model plugged in and ready to play. The most junior salesperson has been there for over eight years, and they’re all real musicians with industry experience. Chuck Levin’s offers its own tech support and has four onsite repair shops for different instruments. The website offers sheet music downloads and hosts free classified ads for musicians. They also provide P.A. and keyboard rentals.
Lessons: Manufacturer reps are in the store daily and host free (and some ticketed) clinics on a regular basis. OO
chucklevins.com | 301-946-8808

Group instruction at Cordogan’s Pianoland in Illinois. CONTOIS SCHOOL OF MUSIC | Essex Junction, VT
Gear focus: Yamaha, Line 6.
What’s special: Family-run since they started as a piano and organ shop in 1971, Contois became a major source of expertise during the heyday of Yamaha’s FM synths. In 2010, they renovated their 4,000-square-foot facility and added “school” to their name to emphasize education. They’re one of the few Yamaha dealers in the country that’s authorized to do service and repair onsite.
Lessons: Seven private studios and one group classroom complement the retail floor. All the studios contain Sibelius, Music Ace, Pro Tools SE, Line 6 Pods, Yamaha Clavinovas, and more, and are networked so that students and teachers can collaborate. Teachers are all connected with tools such as Office365 and Facebook for communicating with students and parents. The school serves over 300 K-12 students weekly. SF
contoismusic.com | 877-266-8647

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Gear focus:
Cordogan’s houses five Kawai grands in one showroom, has a separate room dedicated to the full line of Yamaha Disklavier pianos, and dedicates another to used and digital pianos. They also carry acoustic and digital pianos from Estonia, Roland, Modus, Casio, Viscount, Story and Clark, The extensive grand piano gallery at one of West Music’s Iowa stores. Suzuki, and Palatino.
What’s special: Cordogan’s has more than 400 acoustic and digital pianos on display in a 30,000 square-foot facility. They offer consignment and rent-to-own, as well as moving, tuning, appraisal, refinishing, and repair—anything piano-related. Their website offers a wealth of information for piano buyers and sellers alike.
Lessons: In Studio K, a dedicated piano teaching center offers private as well as group lessons in a Yamaha Keyboard Lab. OO
chicagopianos.com |877-242-9944

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Gear focus: Virtually all major and mid-sized brands of pro keyboards and synths, plus recording, live sound, and AV production gear.
What’s special: Huge selection. Because their retail floor is in the same building as their 80,000-square-foot warehouse, they can offer very quick delivery. A wide variety of keyboards are always ready to play, and separate demo rooms are for “testing things out that make more noise,” in the words of CEO Jonathan Lipp. Their onsite production facility can be a TV studio, theater, banquet hall—whatever the occasion needs. Here, they host and webcast seminars with top musicians like Victor Wooten and engineers like Leslie Ann Jones, not to mention charity events and recitals by local students. They were also one of the first stores in the industry to cross-train product experts and assign them to individual customers as opposed to product categories. SF
fullcompass.com | 800-356-5844

NOVA MUSIK | Milwaukee, WI
Gear focus: A superstore specifically for synths and electronic music production, including all major brands plus many you’d expect to find in boutiques: Analogue Solutions, Doepfer, Elektron, Future Retro, Vermona, and more.
What’s special: They’re known mainly for mail order, but a retail showroom and studio in downtown Milwaukee is packed to the gills with analog goodies. They’re big enough to have a 30-day return policy, but small enough to be staffed by true synth geeks, which means you’ll get your pre-sales info and support from people who don’t also have to cover entry-level electric guitars to make rent. SF
novamusik.com | 877-290-6682

ROBOTSPEAK | San Francisco, CA
Gear focus: Analog and boutique, including Moog, Dave Smith, Teenage Engineering, Doepfer, Elektron, and Pittsburgh Modular.
What’s special: It’s cred central for the San Francisco Bay area’s electronic music scene— the go-to store for everyone from aspiring Skrillexes to DIY’ers whose main instrument is a soldering iron.
Lessons: Recurring courses include Ableton Live, Pro Tools, Logic, Reason, Max/MSP, modular synth design, recording, and circuit-bending— and are very affordable. SF
robotspeak.com | 415-554-1977

Gear focus: Vintage electric pianos (Rhodes and Wurlitzer) and Hammond organs, Leslie speakers, and new Nords and Rolands. Acoustic and digital pianos.
What’s special: A team of piano technicians is on call for tuning and repairs. The store also rents out vintage electric pianos, organs, synths, and backline. Other piano services include moving and storage; Jonathan Cain of Journey recently had Seale move and store his Fazioli grand while his new studio was constructed. Seale also offers music software as well as repairs on vintage and modern keyboards, and is an Apple reseller.
Lessons: Clinics and user group meetings for DAWs, including Logic, Avid Pro Tools, and PreSonus Studio One. TB
615-370-8800 | sealekeyworks.com

***To completely nerd-out on gear photos, check out our flickr photostream of these stores.

Gear focus: Virtually every major brand of keyboards, synths, computer audio, software, live sound, and DJ gear.
What’s special: The culture. Sweetwater’s “sales engineers” have some of the most thorough and rigorous product training in the business, and founder Chuck Surack (who majorly helped put Kurzweil on the map) is deadly serious about investing in and retaining good people. Their yearly GearFest is like a NAMM show for the public. Their huge campus includes a café with WiFi and a free retro video arcade.
Lessons: The Sweetwater Academy of Music offers personal instruction for all ages and skill levels in keyboard, guitar, drums, bass, and singing. A gorgeous new theater hosts student recitals. SF
sweetwater.com | 800-222-4700

Gear focus: Includes Moog, Korg, Sequential Circuits, and ARP, as well as boutique makers such as Malekko, Bubblesound, and 4ms.
What’s special: Austin’s headquarters for vintage analog synths, drum machines, sequencers, stompboxes, new and vintage modular gear, software, and controllers also features an in-house repair department that refurbishes all used gear sold; warranty coverage on vintage pieces; a custom modification service; and rentals. Switched-On also builds powered Eurorack modular cases under the Sound Modular name. You can also bring your laptop, MPC, or other sampling device and for $25 per hour, sample any of the cool stuff that’s in stock.
Lessons: Group classes in everything from live sound basics to hardware hacking. A certifi ed Ableton Live expert leads training sessions. OO
switchedonaustin.com | 512-782-8806

WEST MUSIC | multiple locations in IA and IL
Gear focus: Steinway, Boston, Essex, Yamaha, Cable Nelson, Henry F. Miller, Roland, Kurzweil, Casio. What’s special: West Music focuses on customer education and service, and has six retail locations, more than 170 associates, and a professional audio installation service. They sell everything from drums and guitars to school band instruments, but there’s special focus on pianos and keyboards; one store (West Des Moines) is primarily for this. Showrooms display upright and digital pianos surrounded by floor lamps and rugs for a homey feel. The repair department handles warranty work, and it offers one-, three-, and five-year trade-ups on all keyboards: They apply your original purchase price toward up to half of the price of a new instrument.
Lessons: Conservatory with more than 3,000 students (close to 600 for piano alone) and 27 teachers. Programs range from early childhood Kindermusic and the all-ages Weekend Warrior rock band course to summer music camp. During the holidays, the store offers four free lessons when you buy an instrument. There’s even a music therapy program, which employs only boardcertified therapists and serves preschools, rehabilitation centers, group homes, and correctional facilities throughout Iowa. OO
westmusic.com | 800-397-9378

WEST L.A. MUSIC | Los Angeles, CA
Gear focus: Synths, workstations, arrangers, digital pianos, controllers, portables, and recording gear from most major brands. Korg and Roland recently installed custom demo stations.
What’s special: Location, location, location—the epicenter of the film, TV, and record industries. Because of West L.A.’s high-profile customers, they’re often first to receive new gear. For example, they recently helped Interscope and Lady Gaga get two of the first production Waldorf Zarenbourg electric pianos. They also do studio design and contracting, from home studios to ground-up builds.
Lessons: Manufacturer product specialists run weekly clinics. Most are free to anyone who RSVPs. Top-call musicians regularly host events as well; recent ones included a drum clinic by Terry Bozzio and bass with Carol Kaye. OO
westlamusic.com | 310-477-1945

Gilt for Gear

Taking its cue from flash-sale websites like Gilt and Woot, Hello Music offers deep discounts on a small stock that refreshes every 48 hours. How does it work? By putting a free membership wall between the public and their deals, and by disallowing price results in search engines, Hello can sell new gear as far below MAP (minimum advertised price) as they like. They get the majority from manufacturers and the rest of from stores with overstock. They offer a 365-day return period, and additional deals on services like mastering and music distribution—Delta in-flight play is a frequent option. Visit hellomusic.com. OO

Big Bad Good Boxes?

Why mention large chains in a story about independents? Because they too are realizing that it’s essential to create a space where musicians want to be. At a recent Guitar Center grand opening in Emeryville, California, we saw a new software demo station GC is rolling out company-wide: multiple controllers connected to an iMac loaded with software and plug-ins (pictured). “We worked long and hard to make it solid and crash-proof,” says VP of Merchandising Bill Wrightson. Also, spacious rehearsal rooms at some locations (see gcstudios.com) each have a full backline, P.A., and Internet, and let you record in stereo. These rent for just $13 per hour, and other rooms host oneon- one instrument and DAW instruction. Likewise, industry stalwart SamAsh is now offering lessons, songwriter circles, open mics, and seminars in everything from synths to DAWs to crowdfunding to DJing at many locations. More info is at samashmusic.com/lessons and samashmusic.com/events. SF

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