In the lead up to NAMM’s 2017 Top 100 Dealer Awards, Canadian Music Trade caught up with Menzie Pittman, owner of the two Contemporary Music Center (CMC) stores in Virginia, to find out what earned them the 2016 award for Dealer of the Year.
CMT: There is a lot that goes into winning an award such as Dealer of the Year, but the broad question is what made you the best and how did you separate yourself from the rest to earn the title?
Menzie Pittman: I appreciate the question. I think the humour here is that you work on your store and you have a vision of what you think it needs to be and you go about that task regardless of outside industry happenings. You’re there to serve your customers and to be the best that you know how to be. Through the years, I think the first year they did Dealer of the Year and the Top 100 was in 2011, and when we made the Top 100 that year, it really kind of made me stop and pause for a second, because it made me realize that the work we were doing was gaining recognition and it was gaining recognition against peer companies that are wonderfully run businesses. So, you know, it’s kind of like getting your shirt starched. You realize you’re going to a dance and people are going to see you and you want to look the best you possibly can. So through time, you keep at that and you make changes in your model that you think kind of embrace the current environment that you’re trying to function in and it’s not static, so you have to consider the changes in trends and styles and customers’ ways of buying and interacting. So we kept making adjustments and trying to do things better…
I guess if there’s something that put us in the limelight it is the fact that we have the store set up a little differently than a lot of music stores. In 2013, we put a performance centre downstairs and it’s not a recital hall. It could be a nightclub if you had alcohol in there, which of course we don’t.
CMT: What was the reason for creating @4410, your in-store performance venue?
MP: I was at [the 2012 Summer NAMM show] and I went by the Bedell Guitars booth and I saw a young artist playing guitar and I thought to myself, “You know, it would be fun to bring one of the top rock camp bands down to Nashville.” So I talked to Tom Bedell about having them play at Two Old Hippies and he was like, “Yeah, that’s exciting.” So we worked to set up kind of a “road moment” for the top band we had that year and to get them ready, but I couldn’t help but notice there was no place really convenient to have them do a show… It really made me realize that there was a missing piece to this puzzle. It wasn’t just a missing piece; it was a critically missing piece. I realized that we weren’t able to get the step that was the most important in learning to play, because learning to play and practicing in your bedroom is one thing, learning to play and doing the school recital is another, and learning to play and playing in front of an audience of a packed house that are there to see you really perform is a different thing. That’s how I grew up and so I was really motivated by it.
So I came back and talked to the building owner and it took us about a year to build it. Not the easiest thing we’ve done but it became the crown jewel. When people walk in the place, they just freak out because it’s designed exactly like a Bluebird [Café] in Nashville or a Blues Alley in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. I modelled it after the great listening rooms that I knew of.
CMT: During the awards last year, NAMM said of CMC that “every aspect of the store is intended to positively impact the customer and create an emotional response.” Are they referring to @4410 or is there more to it?
MP: When somebody walks in the store, my objective is to have them feel my vision before they talk to anybody. When staff answer the phone, I want the way they answer the phone to impact the listener. When somebody walks in, I want them to see we’re meticulous in the layout.
But one of the things we do is I have a pretty large vinyl collection because I’m from that era, and we have vinyl all over both stores. No matter where you go, the great albums from the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s – well I guess I’d stop at the ‘70s because there are no great albums in the ‘80s [laughs] – so you know, Earth Wind & Fire, James Taylor, James Brown, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and all of those are all over the walls on any floor and in any room. And the only room that doesn’t have a lot of records is the listening room and the focus in the listening room is simple. You’ve got a Beatle wall that is about 15 ft. wide by 12 ft. high and it mimics The Cavern Club that The Beatles played in. The fun part about that is I had art students from the high schools come in and paint logos on the wall. So we had to take the 100 most recognizable names and talk about why they were iconic. So we used it as a class and then when somebody plays the room, they sign the wall, so there is a ritual there…
CMT: What other services do you provide to enhance the customer experience?
MP: I was at a home last night because any time we sell a drum set, we deliver it and I do that personally because that’s my instrument of trade. So here we have a 10-year-old boy who has had a lawn business and he’s bought his own kit from us. So at 8 p.m. last night, I take it over to the house and I go through and I take two hours to go through every lug and how it works and how to tune it, what does this, what does that, and his father is standing there with me. He is like, “I cannot believe that you provide this service,” and I said, “We have families that stay with us a long time and the reason they stay with us and do the other programs and buy other instruments for other siblings, or whatever, is simple. It’s service.”… But the parents are very moved by that and the next thing you know, they’re writing you thank you blogs and stuff like that and it helps to clarify the differentiation between you and anybody else who’s doing it…
As I said to the dad last night, and he was stupefied at what he had just witnessed, and I said, “Well just remember, if you’d ordered it on the internet, that wouldn’t have happened.” He was like, “Wow, there is a huge difference.” I said, “There is an old-fashioned term for it and it’s called ‘service.’”
CMT: What would you say is the governing philosophy for CMC?MP: That’s a great question. The ultimate flag of success is not selling a piece of gear; it’s when you see Michael League [of Snarky Puppy] get his third Grammy and know that he studied guitar at the store. That speaks to the teacher, it speaks to Michael, and it speaks to the fact we could attract a young student like that in the beginning…
Ultimately, if you’ve done your job well, you’ve helped the music industry and that’s really what this is about. This is about protecting something that we’ve begun to not be able to differentiate how special it is. So for me, it’s leaving it slightly better than it is today. If it’s slightly better tomorrow because we’ve put this much work into it and you have families – and at this point we have somewhere between 500 and 600 students come into the stores – and you want those families touched because you hope that they can pass that on. You hope that they do something. Michael League, every time you listen to a Snarky Puppy song, it’s expressing something that helps the entire industry. If you go see our guys play locally, you realize that these are just premium people and we’re just so excited to have relationships with these phenomenal educators. If I make a 10-year-old kid feel special because I’ve set up a drum set for him last night and he knows the next time he cuts grass that that really did matter, then we’re affecting the outcome and that’s really the governing mission. It is to just make people realize that this whole thing is special and that we can contribute to it or be critical of things around it. We hope that we can get people in touch with that creative opportunity. That’s the big part – that we’re trying to advance creativity and expression. We’re just part of that; we’re just a note in the symphony, but we hope to be the one that makes the ending sound good, right, as opposed to the one that’s played wrong [laughs].