How to Make a Living (Part 3): Music Merchants

This is a continuation of the series on career choices for bassists. The Music Business that I’m referring to today is the merchant side of the business.

Aside from gearheads, sometimes aspiring musicians end up working in the music merchant business for reasons unknown to them. They usually assumed working because of their perception that the music merchant industry is closely related to the music making field. The fact is that these are two separate industries.

namm_floor1When I was in college, I worked a couple of summers at a bass amp manufacturer. Later on, I ran a modest online music products mail order retail, while simultaneously running a separate bass specific online music store to help pay for tuition. I’ve spent enough time in the music merchandising business to share some insights with you. Many musicians work in the music business to make ends meet, since it’s hard to make a living solely being a performing musician. If you enjoy selling musical instruments and working in a music store, then more power to you, but here’s some alternate practical ideas about how to juggle paying the mortgage while working on your career as a performing musician.

The music performance business is a completely different industry than the music merchandising business. Many people in the music merchandising business do have a music background, but the only real connection between the two is the word “music”. I’ve been in meetings with key people in music merchant companies and they never talked about music, they talked about what all other business people in any industry do; profits, efficiency, market-share, and manufacturing. They’re more likely to discuss their golf swing than music. Most workers are about the same, most of them don’t even know much about music, there is no musical background advantage or requirement when the companies are doing job interviews. Whether you work for them or Intel, there’s about the same amount of involvement with music: zero.

One of the common misconceptions is that working at a music store makes you more of a musician than working at a regular business. Whether you work at a music store or at Radio Shack, your tasks aren’t really much different. You are there to sell and provide customer service. There’s no benefit to you as a musician for working at a music store vs a general retailer, except maybe the discounts that you might get. When I worked at the amp manufacturer, it was a business. We might talk about something related to music every blue moon, but for the most part, we were focused on doing our job: manufacturing and getting the product out in time. Music merchant businesses are just as much of a dead end career-wise for performing musicians. Again, if you enjoy the music merchant business, then more power to you. There is nothing wrong with this business, it’s just that some aspiring performing musicians have a misconception that opportunities exist for them there.

Let’s get down to the bottom line. On average, a music store pays much less than a good retail business. From the management end, I made 2x more money as a general manager of a industrial equipment rental dealer versus an offer for an identical position at a corporate run music store. As a far as commissioned sales people, my salespeople were pulling in also 3x more than their counterparts at a well known corporate music store. If you are indifferent to working in a business that deals with guitars, violins, and drums versus a business that pays you better, it’s something to really consider. The bassist at the amp manufacturer didn’t do anything more musical than me during the day, just because he was in the music (merchandising) biz.

This perspective is not to discourage you from working in the music merchant industry if that’s what you enjoy. Some people run these businesses because they enjoy it. When I ran my music retail business, the margins were good, but the volume wasn’t there compared to other types of retail businesses. In other words, you’d better like doing it, because you could do better financially elsewhere. At the end of the day of working at a non-music business, I still aspired to do the same thing as any employee in the music merchant industry; I wanted to perform and make music. The difference is that I could pay the mortgage, have savings, support our family and we still had a decent living while I was pursuing my music career goals.

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