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Sweetwater Sound

a few weeks ago I purchased a Ditto Looper from Sweetwater Sound, and because of that decision I became a member of an elite sect…a secret society…a special organization even. I’m now a valued customer who deserves…a Catalog! or Catalogue! Yes! I didn’t think anyone did the direct mail thing anymore. This is the musical instrument equivalent of the Sears Wish Book from days of old; jam-packed and chock-full of goodies!

My first reaction was to be completely and totally shocked that I would receive a 600+ page catalog from anyone, much less a music equipment company! I was in the graphic design business for many years and over the course of my career I was involved in producing at least 125 major catalogs, so I know a little bit about what goes into their creation, production, and distribution, including the cost. Publishing, printing, and shipping a catalog this size is not cheap and pretty much everyone says, “why bother?” in the current marketplace when everything lives online. Just the other day there was this latest figure that showed online Black Friday sales surged…they SURGED by over 20% from last year, including more than $2 billion dollars just from smartphones!

Also, I think I’ve done a very thorough job covering the new realities of the musical instrument landscape over the past 7 years The Guitar Cave has been in existence. As you may recall I wrote a few posts on the media bullshit associated with transformation of the instrument market or “malaise” the major media was referring to as the Death of the Electric Guitar without exploring all of the bad business decisions, corruption, overconfident future forecasts, incompetence, and a very tapped out American consumer, while focusing strictly on a changing musical landscape. While I acknowledged that, sure, the business and musical landscapes had changed (as they are wont to do), there was very little press on how corporate America seemed to be giving itself a pass on the problems associated with the collapse of the industry by blaming people for not buying guitars like they used to. As it turns out, I was right to have this attitude because as I wrote in my last post, Update: The Guitar is Totally Not Dying! the numbers show that consumers have been stepping up and buying musical equipment and a lot of this talk about “no new Eric Claptons” was Boomer Babbling misdirection away from the real problems. I also reported that after years of running his company into the drink, Gibson former honcho, Henry Juszkiewicz was kicked to the curb to save Gibson guitar from bankruptcy only to be replaced by former Levi Strauss CEO James Curleigh. Only time will tell if a guy who ran a pants company can get Gibson back on track! And now, right on cue we can add another layer of evidence onto my investigative theorizing. We have a company that, in this terrible, terrible market, where no one is buying instruments, can “afford” to send a huge catalog to someone who bought a pedal and an adapter. LOL. So who are these guys?

They are the largest online retailer of music gear in the United States. You can tell from their website or the catalog pages I’m attaching here that they carry a little bit of everything! (As an aside…the sheer size of the stompbox market, the number of companies, the number of pedals, the number of functions or combination of functions the pedals do today is flat-out outstanding! Wow! Does this look like a dying market? I think not.) The company was founded in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is where they are still headquartered. They have 1 brick and mortar store on their “campus” there in Indiana, so the ever-expanding real location stuff is an overhead the company doesn’t have to worry about. The prices are competitive, they offer FREE, reliable shipping, generous financing options, and what’s fast becoming the standard “No Hassle” type return policy that I’ve mentioned here, with regards to other online companies. Oh NO! I sound like an advertisement!

Sweetwater’s founder, Chuck Surack, seems like an interesting guy. He was a sax player in bands and then for a while had a recording studio in a VW bus that he would use to do location recordings…kind of like he was the Rolling Stones Mobile Unit. Neato. Here’s a video interview with Chuck. (Here’s a tour of the RS mobile unit). Sweetwater the gear company evolved from Sweetwater the recording studio; the gear they test and use in the studios became (becomes) the gear that they carry, so the whole process has been incredibly organic. Also, the company is privately owned; no shareholders, no banks and free from a lot of the pressures that drive business decisions and strategies at companies like Gibson and Guitar Center. Chuck’s business priorities of treating customers well first and worrying about the profits second is something out of the old days, but this is company philosophy. You’ll never be a billionaire with that attitude, Chuck!

But maybe he doesn’t care. That would be a refreshing change. Of course, it’s not all good, or is it? Obviously small dealers will have trouble competing with an entity like Sweetwater. There is a whiff of Amazonism at play here because Amazon got to be the world’s biggest bookstore by not having any actual bookstores. Rent actually does eat up a whole lot of money…ask any of the very famous shops that used to line the iconic 48th street in New York City. So anyone coming up who also wants to run and musical instrument company will have to adopt this business model or fail. But does it matter anymore? Probably not. Where I live people always talk about “mom and pops” like it’s still the 1970s and they want to buy a garden hose at Blogsteins after lunch at the Woolworth’s counter. The reality is that shopping experience is a quaint anachronism in 2018…or more Boomer Babbling.

I know, I know…“small businesses are the backbone of a healthy economy”; “competition is crucial for capitalism to function properly”; “too big to fail and anything that smacks of monopolies is bad, bad, bad,” and, in theory, I agree. I’m sure everyone out there has read the economic treatises that predict a very dire future when 20 companies will own everything. As I’ve written in the past, my local musical retail landscape is gone anyway except for boutiques that were stupidly expensive even before Guitar Center existed, so my choice to get this pedal was basically go to Guitar Center or order from Sweetwater. I ordered from Sweetwater and my experience was 100% positive. They really do go the extra mile on customer satisfaction and service and that’s more than I can say for some brick and mortar / mom and pop retailers I’ve dealt with over the years. Long term, big picture, what’s the answer? I don’t know. What is definitely needed though is a honest discussion about what the landscape realities are and as I’ve pointed out above (and on a few occasions now) I don’t think there is a lot of that in the mainstream media. This is a topic that’s interesting to me and I’ll have some more thoughts soon. BTW, if you would like a Sweetwater catalog of your own, you can order it right HERE. No purchase necessary!