Love to shop? From Prada to preamps, New York City has always been a buyer's paradise. While engineering talent matters most in personal studios and major facilities alike, it's a fact that no one can record until they actually get their hands on some gear. As the first step in establishing the signal path, New York City's pro audio retailers and their operating style have an undeniable impact on the sound of music here.
Dale Pro Audio's digidesign ICON/D-Control room
While online purchasing is significant, it's arguably the same experience everywhere: If you study the pro audio retail atmosphere in the Big Apple, you can find the latest wrinkles in the art of selling gear to people live and in person. The new 19th Street home of Dale Pro Audio (www.daleproaudio.com) was built with the walk-in customer's desires keenly in mind, with four separate demo rooms built to mirror control room/mastering room environments, allowing customers to privately A/B gear in a close approximation of real-world conditions. “We wanted to be the best place in New York City for people to successfully learn about the equipment and make their decisions,” says Tim Finnegan, general manager at Dale Pro Audio. “We worked long and hard on designing them with John Storyk, so the rooms are designed and tuned to that end.
“One room is for speaker evaluation and high-end signal processing, one is for microphones and preamps — with a drum kit and guitar amp for real auditioning — another room is for small-format digital mixers and the Digidesign D-Command, and another dedicated to the Digidesign D-Control. By and large, when people come in and audition product with us, they appreciate the time spent and usually place their order with us. We are price-competitive, so price is usually not a factor.”
Finnegan notes that overall prices of the technology he sells appear to be going down — good news for the consumer. “The products that are available have ended up costing less and less over the years because technology has allowed that to happen,” he acknowledges. “It becomes a matter of who's using the products, their talents and how they make use of the technology to design their end product. We're always trying to — within the customer's budget — give people the best products to deliver their best product.”
Much newer to the neighborhood is Guitar Center (www.guitarcenter.com), a national player with a new 30,000-square-foot flagship location on 14th Street. “There's a lot more activity in the audio industry here, which makes the competitive dynamic all the more intense,” says GC manager Tim Miller. “A lot of the evolution now in retail is product-driven. The industry has become very software-driven, so even keyboard sales over the last couple of years have slipped because all these virtual software engines provide the same sound without having to provide a keyboard or rack module.”
In a city where franchises in general are often the target of disdain by New Yorkers who prefer the old-world flavor of boutiques and family operations, Guitar Center — whose parent company is so big that they're traded on Nasdaq — waves the advantages of its large corporate structure for all five boroughs to see. “We have stores across the country, so when my New York City customers are looking for esoteric products, at the touch of a button I can find something exotic and get it here quickly,” notes Blue Wilding, account manager for the store's GC Pro division. “That's one of the things we offer that's different. New Yorkers have very little time to shop for products that they need to make a living with. I find that clients want everything, including their musical instruments, in one spot, but a lot of our competition doesn't have the fun stuff — the Les Paul Jr. that goes around their HD system. One-stop shopping is really where it's at.”
Ray Nostrand of B&H
photo: Tod Elert
A different spin on that philosophy awaits customers on Ninth Avenue who walk into B&H (www.bhphotovideo.com), one of the city's better known players. “It's New York City — there's always a lot of production going on,” says Ray Nostrand, sales manager of B&H. “But the changes here are that desktop/computer audio have made it so that a lot of the established production studios are closing down. In the past, a lot of music retailers would be supplying a lot of the studio business, so in retailing, there's a shift from large studios running multiple rooms giving way to home or project studios.”
Nostrand feels he benefits strongly from the fact that B&H, which began as a photo retailer 30-plus years ago, has multiple departments that deal expertly in media besides pro audio. “We are a nonlinear editing, video and photography store, so we have a diverse customer group and we are seeing a very large convergence of these mediums in the direction of what we call ‘pro media,’” he explains. “It may not be that someone goes to work simply as a sound engineer anymore but a pro media engineer, because what makes studios work? It may be the ability to do more than one type of project.
“In our audio-for-video area, for example, we started to let customers know about how using higher-quality shotgun mics will come back to benefit them when they're editing. They got the message so well that they now buy a new camera and they're already up to the audio department upgrading the mic. Mainly through the Internet and chat forums, today's customer is very savvy. They have the ability to access this information and download it, and what they're looking for from you as the retailer is to integrate the gear so they can produce their project. They're looking for an integrated solution.”
At the completely opposite end of the spectrum from the big-bigger-biggest arms race above are retail options like Turntable Lab (www.turntablelab.com), a relatively tiny store on a quiet stretch of 7th Street in the East Village. While the store focuses on DJs, a tight but intriguing selection of new gear, like a Moogerfooger MURF pedal, M-Audio MIDI controllers and sub-$200 microphones, is on display (and available online) for the personal studio producer. “It's really an abstract thing,” says Peter Hahn, creative director of Turntable Lab, on how his store decides what to stock. “I think that's what makes our company successful. We are not stuck in one type of genre of music — although we used to be — or one way of making music. We draw input from as many sources as possible, synthesize the information and do research. There's also a lot of stuff out there — good and bad. We try to present a general, manageable view of what's out there rather than being all-inclusive.
“Our physical store is not as big as our competitors', but we make up for it by only carrying the best of what's available. When we consider adding a new piece to our selection, we do research to see how it compares to what's already in the market, both price and features-wise. So if it's a $100 piece or a $2,000 piece, you know that you are getting the best in that price range at our store. Also, everyone who works at our store, and most people in our office, are music producers themselves, so we get a lot of input from them. We also try to target ‘classic’ pieces, ones that have been championed by users for their usability and performance. We get this information from our customers and large base of producer/DJ affiliates.”
Turntable Lab manages to carry over the low-key but cutting-edge attitude of its downtown physical home on its Website. It's a strong example of how retailers can keep their radar up on the streets to power global sales. “Our online store is definitely the main operation,” Hahn says, “but the [East Village] store is an integral part of that. The physical store serves as our link to what's happening in New York City; it gauges trends, and provides a place where our customers can interact with the products and provide input.”
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