Running a drum shop in the United States isn’t without its challenges, from competing with the nearby Guitar Center and online giants like Musician’s Friend and Amazon to maintaining a healthy profit margin when a majority of your sales are from small-ticket items like heads and sticks. But at least drum retailers on Modern Drummer’s side of the Atlantic don’t have to import the bulk of their stock or navigate the economic impact of something like Brexit, the U.K.’s prospective withdrawal from the European Union. This is the reality for U.K. music retailers, like the superstore Absolute Music, located in scenic Bournemouth on England’s southern coast. Austin Lane, a veteran of bands like Face to Face and Seven, who had some European chart success in the late ’80s and early ’90s and opened arena tours for Richard Marx and the Monkees, joined Absolute in 2011 to set up its drum department. He shared his insights on what it takes to succeed in a market with such unique challenges.
The challenges have changed quite dramatically even in the last six years. The latest challenge is the Brexit thing. Everything has gone up quite considerably since Brexit, some things as much as 30 percent. The pound crashing against the dollar has obviously affected that. Because with a few exceptions—you have Premier and the British Drum Company—we don’t have a great deal of drum manufacturing going on here in England. And we have no cymbal manufacturers. So much of it—your major stick companies, heads, cymbals, and kits, even the Far Eastern drum companies like Pearl, Yamaha, and Tama—they’re all paid for in U.S. dollars.
I wouldn’t say I’ve seen a drop-off in business due to Brexit, but there’s a kind of underlying worry. Luckily we’re quite a big store, so we can maintain a level of business. But there’s been quite a few casualties over the last few years, and not just because of Brexit. A lot of smaller stores went under. The place I used to work, Poole Percussion, went out of business, and that was a reasonably sized store. A very big store in England called DrumWright also closed. Denmark Street in London, there’s nothing there now, really. You’ve still got a couple of decent drum stores in London—you’ve got Drumshack, Footes, and Wembley Drum Centre. But there’s very few major drum stores or drum departments left in the U.K.
People keep blaming the internet, but I don’t think it’s just the internet. We can all complain, “Oh, Amazon is selling this at whatever price….” Great, let them do it. But Amazon cannot fix your bass drum pedal on a Saturday night before a gig. Amazon cannot tune your drumkit up before you go in the studio. Amazon can’t do a drum clinic. Go see Dave Weckl on Amazon? It’s not gonna happen. We do a lot of clinics, a lot of big names. We’ve had Mark Guiliana, Dave Weckl, Gavin Harrison, Benny Greb, Jojo Mayer, Russ Miller, Mark Schulman, and Bruce Coleman. We do things during the summer holidays where kids from ten to sixteen can come and make records in our studio. We’re very proactive in attracting business. We accentuate what we can offer.
We do a fair amount of online sales throughout Europe. And we do get a fair amount of people from Europe in the store, particularly if they’re holidaying in the U.K. Especially from places like Sweden. It’s quite expensive for drum equipment in the Scandinavian countries. They’re not necessarily coming to see us per se; they’re in the U.K. on holiday. Bournemouth is one of the best tourist destinations in England. That helps.
I’ve been selling drums now for twenty-five years, and I still get things horrendously wrong. I think something is going to sell great, and I order a load of them and it kind of dies. Other times I think, Well, that’s not going to do very well, and it sells like hotcakes. The biggest problem I find, particularly with kits, is colors. Color is always subjective. I love the Tony Williams yellow color. I’ve got an old Yamaha 9000 in ‘mellow yellow’ from ’83—it’s one of my favorite kits. So I love yellow kits, but other people, they come in the shop and see a yellow kit and go, Ah, yuck….
What’s going particularly well at the moment are the Benny Greb Meinl Cymbal Tuners. I got that one right-ish. But I still have massive errors. That’s when you’ll find the Absolute Music drum department has a sale on stuff that I’ve cocked up on. [laughs] But my ratio is on the plus side. I get more things right than I get wrong.”
Austin Lane estimates that Absolute’s drum department takes up about 10 percent of the roughly 400,000-foot-store, a two-story complex that includes a recording studio, rehearsal space, lessons, and—taking a page from IKEA’s book—a cafe. “If you’re waiting while your son or daughter is having lessons,” Lane says, “you can sit there and have a coffee—and it’s actually good coffee.”