Business

Making music at home keeps Iowa's music stores in business

Businesses see 'pretty good sales' for entry-level instruments

Annie Brewer talks about frets as she leads a ukulele lesson via online video conferencing at West Music in Coralville o
Annie Brewer talks about frets as she leads a ukulele lesson via online video conferencing at West Music in Coralville on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. Like many activities during the pandemic, music lessons have moved online. Brewer’s lesson drew students from the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids area, and as far-flung as Mason City. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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In a year that kept Eastern Iowans in their homes, many took music into their own hands, helping one retail group weather a dearth in foot traffic and a suspension of in-person lessons and performances.

“With folks having to stay home, they’re coming back to music making at home,” said Ryan West, president of West Music.

“You can do this and do it safely.”

“They’re home so much more and they have time on their hands,” said Steve Judge, Griggs Music president. “From that angle, it’s been good.”

“With the entry-level instruments, sales have been pretty good,” said James Kipp, owner of Musician’s Pro Shop and School of Music.

“We’re up quite a bit from last year.”

But it wouldn’t have been 2020 without a downside — in this case in the form of long-term school closures, interrupted lessons and shuttered venues.

“Where it really hurt was the normal working musicians,” said Kipp, who operates stores in Iowa City and Burlington.

“Guys and gals that make their living from playing music have taken a huge hit, and we haven’t been seeing them.”

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Guitar Center, the nation’s biggest musical instrument retail chain, reported an 85 percent rise in business in August, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

But the company, citing the closure of most of its nearly 300 stores due to the pandemic, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late November.

Eastern Iowa retailers hope things will return to something like normal in 2021.

Delayed starts

With stores in Cedar Rapids, Davenport and Galesburg, Ill., Griggs Music specializes in renting and instruments to students in school music programs, many of which are still idle.

“We have a lot of schools that just delayed starting their beginners,” Judge said.

“That’s a special concern for us. If they skip a year starting beginners, that’s going to affect programs going forward.”

“It’s tough,” said David Griffin, choral music director at Franklin Middle School in Cedar Rapids. “You push at the middle-school level to have the same level of interest.”

While high school groups have staged some performances, in-person learning and rehearsals for most younger students are on hold.

In-person lessons at the Eastern Iowa Arts Academy, which Griffin co-founded and for which he is co-executive director, also are canceled.

“We do try to continue as much as possible virtually,” he said. “We don’t sell any instruments at the academy, but any one of our members can freely check out a guitar or an amp to have at home.”

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After a layoff as coronavirus case levels surged, the Academy’s popular youth rock band program “is going strong,” Griffin said, with socially distanced rehearsals at the organization’s larger studio.

Each band has six or seven members.

“We stopped in-person rehearsals mid-October but we brought it back again a week before (holiday) break,” Griffin said.

The program even added an eighth group, a blues band.

“So the interest is there,” Griffin said. “When school resumes in January we’ll go back to live rock band. As far as the in-person lessons and open studio, we’ll see how it goes.”

Judge is encouraged by some school districts’ plans to return to in-person instruction, including music programs, in January.

“For the long-term health of our industry, we need full-time school starting in the fall,” he said.

“We saw a quick drop-off in lessons” last winter, Kipp said. “Nobody knew what was going to happen, but that’s slowly come back.”

Adjusting the mix

Staff at West Music’s seven stores rearranged floor space to allow for social distancing and installed air purifiers and shower curtains to partition larger rehearsal areas for individual instruction.

“We’re working with our teachers and our families in terms of what they feel is most comfortable and safe,” West said.

“As things were coming back this summer, we’ve had a lot of teachers doing virtual lessons, which is fantastic that we’re still making those connections.”

Sales of entry-level instruments jumped last spring and through the summer.

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“We’ve been adjusting some of our mix as far as what’s in our regional stores,” West said.

“Being part of the global supply chain ... has taken off, it’s been interesting. We had to find alternative options for folks because things were so back-ordered.”

Musician’s Pro Shop saw an increased demand for home-recording equipment.

“That sort of thing was the first big surge we saw,” Kipp said.

“Not just for home recording but for Zooming into work, and everybody decided to start a podcast as well.”

Digital pianos and drum kits are an attractive alternative to traditional acoustic instruments for beginners — and their parents.

“We saw a boost in electronic drums,” Kipp said. “If they’re going to be stuck on the house with them, maybe an electronic drum and a nice set of headphones is the way to go.”

Interest carried through the holidays, according to Judge.

“We can’t get any digital pianos for a month or so,” he added. “It’s hard to get any guitars.”

Retailers and educators are cautiously optimistic 2020’s beginning musicians will keep at it.

“Students right now are just sponges,” Griffin said. “They’re just waiting for that time to soak up all the opportunities.

“We could’ve completely lost our members, but we’re keeping them.”

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