When Jim Pettit opened Memphis Drum Shop back in 1987, he couldn’t have envisioned drummers from all over the world patronizing his store via something called the internet. But that’s exactly what started happening about a decade later, when Memphis Drum Shop became one of the first drum retailers with a comprehensive online operation.
Pettit says his online business model was “always evolving,” and it underwent a major evolution the following decade when Memphis Drum Shop began integrating video into its website. Though Pettit admits he’d be embarrassed to go back and watch some of those early videos, Memphis Drum Shop’s video output is now considered the gold standard. The store, whose staff currently includes sixteen full-time employees, offers professionally shot demonstration videos for nearly every cymbal, kit, and snare drum in stock, along with special features like the My Cymbal series (where viewers can see a demonstration of the exact cymbal for sale—not the next one off the shelf ) and celebrity videos featuring Steve Jordan, Jason McGerr, Benny Grebb, and many more.
Gongs are another area where Memphis Drum Shop stands out, with the by-appointment-only Memphis Gong Chamber and My Gong video series. “Our drums and cymbals and gongs are our main sellers,” says Pettit, who’s been running the shop from the beginning with his wife, Nancy, a former schoolteacher. “It’s a pretty even mix of all of that. I really try to have some cool stuff, some good new stuff , a little vintage stuff —what a player would be looking for.”
We caught up with Pettit recently to get the story behind his successful business.
“I always loved drums. I started playing when I was 12. No real formal training. I was on the road, did that for two or three years. Saw what that was about. Saw these guys who I considered at that time to be old and thought, Don’t want to wind up like this. Got to a point when I had so many more drums in the house than I should have had that I opened up a little shop. I loved the business aspect of the whole thing. I love helping people get the right sound, get what they’re looking for.
It was a week before we sold a drum or anything. I remembering thinking, Oh my God, how could I have been so stupid? We just evolved over the years. By ’91 I decided to move to a much larger building. That was the start of the growth and expansion. We jumped into the website business early on, thank goodness. It was three or four years before it became successful—not a terribly long time.
The videos were built from the ground up. We’d seen other videos, so we were like monkeys, just copying what we’d seen. We were using little camcorders. We used to do it in a little room upstairs. Probably seven or eight years ago we hired two guys just to work on video. We needed somebody smarter than me to figure out how to do all this stuff . [laughs] We certainly had to look at the numbers to see if hiring someone for video made sense. But back when we started doing it, we were the lonesome cowboy on the prairie. There was really no help. And I really wasn’t satisfied with what anybody else came up with. I said, “I’m just going to do this myself.” I just wanted to create the best product I could.
I just love gongs; I bought my first one forty years ago. One guy put it pretty well: I just love big pieces of vibrating metal. The Gong Chamber is a unique thing that doesn’t exist anywhere else. That’s really a whole different business model from the drum shop. It’s a whole other clientele, and there’s not a lot of crossover. We do some musical gongs. I just sold a gong a little bit ago for a lady in a rock band. Most of the gong business is not that at all. It’s mostly for sound therapy, sound healing, yoga classes, and individuals. The profit margin is good. We wholesale to a lot of other dealers, just because we have them. But I wouldn’t recommend that every music store have gongs.
Our clientele is a pretty even mix. We have a lot of beginners. Then we have a lot of weekend guys, the semi-pros. And we have a decent number of pros, though not the number you have in Nashville. There’s many more there. We have the working drummer here. We have what I call tourists as well, who find us online. Carrying boutique drums has been a very organic process for me. I knew Johnny Craviotto way before he started making drums. The same thing with C&C—[founder] Bill Cardwell was a personal friend of mine back when he had a drum shop. We sold the first C&C drumset. Ronn Dunnett, same thing. It’s all long-term friendships. We have a history with these people.
“We tell parents when they come in to buy that first drumset for a kid, ‘Yes, you can buy something cheap. But if your hardware doesn’t work, if the pedals don’t go up and down, I don’t know if the kid’s going to keep playing.’ They’re not going to enjoy it if the gear doesn’t work. That happened to me with guitar. My parents bought me a cheap guitar. Steel strings an inch and a half off the neck, and I didn’t know any difference. I couldn’t play it. I equate that to the drums. You’ve got to have a certain quality. Yeah, it’s a student kit. But you’ve got to give them a chance to make it work.”