Coping with Large Moronic Music Retailers

Monday, February 9th, 2009

In the words of Chris Anderson, blogger extraordinaire and author of The Long Tail:

“Never underestimate the power of a million amateurs with the keys to the factory”

Within the realm of music production,  modern technology has indeed democratized tools once only accessible by professionals, and the consequences have been nothing short of extraordinary.  I know for a fact that the power and affordability of modern technology is one of the main reasons I passionately reconnected with music after nearly a 15-year hiatus.   Amateurs like myself do this for the love of it (after all, the word “amateur” is derived from the Latin amator, “lover”, from amare, “to love”).  And, we will continue to play a vital role in the music technology industry because, collectively, we amateurs represent the majority of the market!

All good and well, but what if you’re just getting started, or like me, getting back into it after a long time away?   Where the hell do you begin?  Putting aside the challenges of rebuilding your playing skills, there remains a substantial learning curve to acquire the additional skills and tools necessary for high-quality music production.  Sure, you can go a certain distance with freebie stuff – like GarageBand – but you’ll likely outgrow these before too long, and find yourself swimming in a sea of pro- audio equipment choices…

No problem right?  Just venture into your local professional audio/music retailer and you’ll receive exceptional guidance and professional consultative support, no?  I mean after all, we’re talking about PRO-AUDIO gear, this is a whole different ballgame than the moronic level of service you find inside of consumer electronics superstores, right?   Unfortunately, not!

Here are some vivid testimonials that pretty much illustrate today’s reality:

GearSlutz.com is perhaps the world’s largest online community for musicians and producers alike – here you’ll find everyone from famous Grammy Award winning producers to beginning students.  The common ground: sharing insights about music technology and studio design.  But here’s something else you’ll find if you venture into GearSlutz’s Moan Zone section:  By far, and I mean by a healthy margin, the single most viewed topic and ongoing discussion thread is none other than Stupid Things You’ve Been Told at Guitar Center! This is not the first thread of its kind, but this one has been growing for over a year, and now has over 88,000 views and 873 contributing posts! To put it in perspective, the #2 thread has just over 15,000 views and 305 posts, and that’s just as of this writing.   What this tells me is that my own experience with large equipment retail chains is far from unique.

A slippery slope lies ahead for the impassioned amateur musician setting out to build even a modest home studio.

Take a read through some of these posts and you’ll not only be seriously entertained, but also dismayed.  How is it that the largest music equipment retailer (here in the US) can get away with such dismal sentiments from the most experienced and authoritative segment of the market?  The answer unfortunately is that there’s are a lot more unknowingly ignorant consumers, or even worse naive parents of budding young musicians, than there are “connoisseurs” that comprise the likes of GearSlutz.com.  As entry-level consumers continue to fill the market, large retailers rely less on “upper-end” prosumers.  This trend, of course, begins with the manufacturers; today top-end stuff is more likely to be produced by a niche company, such as Bricasti and Barefoot Audio (two of my indispensable favorites) using niche distribution channels such as VintageKing and powerful word-of-mouth marketing.

While the tools have been democratized, quality has been crapetized

So anyone embarking on this journey must proceed with caution.  Fortunately, you can do lots of homework on sites like GearSlutz, and I would highly recommend everyone begin there.  If you’re reading this post, you’re likely already aware of this “market gap” – bravo!   My additional recommendation is to hire professional help.  In the present economic climate, there’s lot of talent that would gladly lend a hand for relatively modest fees.   Start by following the posts of frequent authoritative contributors and when you find someone with the expertise you’re seeking, write them a “private message” requesting help – more often than not, you’ll be pleasantly surprised!  In my view, there are only two choices: spend money or invest money – they are not same.

The Links section (right sidebar) lists the online forums I frequent – I suggest you try some of them, and if you have any recommendations, let’s discuss!

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Know Music, Know Life

Monday, January 26th, 2009

Hard to believe that a year has passed since the inception of my little blog.   It’s been awhile since I’ve written a post, but I took some “time off” to not only recharge the batteries, but also pour over the analytics, and consider various directions for its future.   Oh yeah, this global financial meltdown has been a bit distracting as well…  But you know, it’s during times like this that I find myself so thankful (to my parents) for sticking my ass into music school at an early age.  They always said that it would be the type of treasure that could never be taken away, and they were right.  I trust that all of you with the same good fortune agree… but if you’re like many who are wondering whether it’s too late to learn, my answer is that there’s never been a better time!

I am of the belief that modern society (for all its goodness) has imposed a heavy price on our stress levels and our ability to focus.  We have way too many distractions and the sound byte is rapidly becoming our lingua franca.  This does not bode well for the human condition, and ironically, we need creativity and focus more than ever in light of present economic circumstances.

A distracted mind is no place for innovation, problem-solving or creativityEoghan McCabe

So what does this have to do with music?  Everything.  Creating music, regardless of your level, is one of very few activities that counteracts this unfortunate societal trend.   One of the things I love doing the most is answering question I get every now and then from a friend, “I want to get (back) into this, but where should I begin?”  Usually, this question means what should I buy first?  Without a doubt, technology is an immutable partner – and a damn essential one in today’s scheme; but returning to the earlier point, having too many choices is a double-edged sword.  I am a firm believer that too many choices can make it that much more difficult to focus your time and resources on the FEW things that really matter; and what really matters will differ from musician to musician depending first and foremost on WHAT you’re trying to accomplish.

My suggestion is to keep things as simple as possible in the beginning.  If your chops are dusty then spend some time reacquainting yourself with the fundamentals.   You’ll have plenty of time to build your sanctuary and trust me on this, it’s a slippery slope; and there will always be a bigger fish!

Bigger Fish Home Studio

As for my blog, I will continue, but probably with greater focus on gear and studio related topics merely because my site statistics overwhelmingly confirm this to be the predominant interest.   Fastonkeys.com gets between 2,000-2,500 new visitors per month from across the globe, the majority of which are seeking out the gear-related posts.  And here I was thinking it was all about the fabulous music I’ve created (LOL)…  So I’ll be refining the focus in 2009 and attempt to better cater to my core audience.  Thank you to everyone for your comments, emails, and encouragement!

What we permit, we promote

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

I’m taking a “time out” with this post to not only do some venting, but also spread awareness of a pending legal matter which, at first glance, appeared to be frivolous and almost humorous; but upon deeper inspection and reflection really pissed me off!

As a business professional, I’ve experienced first hand the ease at which the ambiguities of intellectual property law can be marshaled to initiate frivolous legal actions.  But Monster Cable seems intent on defining just “how low can you go”…

Cutting to the chase, Monster Cable will apparently be going to trial very shortly as the plaintiff versus defendant Monster Mini-golf for trademark infringement!  Monster Mini-golf is a husband/wife owned small business Child & Family Entertainment Center Franchiser (in Rhode Island, NY) with the concept of indoor glow-in-the-dark monster-themed mini-golf.  That’s right, MINI-GOLF!

Why is it that all of the instruments seeking intelligent life in the Universe are pointed away from the Earth?

Now I don’t mind if people think I’m stupid, but I don’t like to give them any evidence…  I’m willing to risk that, however, by readily admitting that, try as I may, I’m failing to see how Monster Mini-golf could possibly represent a bonafide trademark dilution threat to Monster Cable.

Ironically, I am I was a consumer of Monster’s products – and I must give them credit for being an excellent marketing organization…  For the profit margin they successfully command, I’d be willing to bet they could sell ice cubes to Eskimos!  But here’s a few I things I didn’t know about their apparent business practices, all of which shed greater light on the subject at hand:

  1. Monster Cable are well known for aggressive pursuit of trademark and patent infringements within legal and audiophile circles.  To date, they have pursued similar action with lots and lots of other entities – most of which are small businesses.  Just exercise Google a bit, and you’ll see for yourself or better yet, go straight to the source: United States Patent and Trademark Office
  2. Newsflash: Most small businesses lack the resources to fend off predatory and/or frivolous lawsuits; hence, the vast majority of these cases have been settled out-of-court.  Most of the small entities that have fallen into Monster’s cross-hairs accede to settlements that involve relinquishing the disputed trademark to Monster Cable, and Monster “licensing back” (for fees) the right to continue using the trademark.
  3. Newsflash: Intellectual Property law is not a typical core competency for small businesses.  But here’s a refreshing exception, and it happened earlier this year when Monster decided to mess about with Blue Jeans Cable!  Unfortunately, the Mini-golf case involves a different type of claim (trademark vs. patent infringement) – and the owners of Monster Mini-golf don’t have the benefit of having been a litigator in prior life (as was the case for Mr. Kurt Denke).  By the way, if you have the chance, you must read his response letter back to Monster: Brilliant and better than a John Grisham book!
  4. Monster has racked up quite a collection of trademarks over the years, all of course containing the name Monster; these are apparently held in an off-shore holding company (Monster International Ltd based in Bermuda); any of you familiar with international business can presumably put the rest of the pieces together.  Hint: corporations use these types of mechanisms to legally move retained earnings off-shore to reduce domestic corporate tax liability.
  5. Monster’s litigation appetite is, well, apparently monstrous, and not limited to small businesses.  Monster has (unsuccessfully) pursued similar actions with the likes of Disney/Pixar, Monster.com, Monster Energy (the drink maker), the Chicago Bears, and the Boston Red Sox to name a few…  But small businesses obviously lack the resources to defend a case like this to judgment, unless they have the necessary background, like Kurt Denke, or simply have brass balls – like Monster Mini-golf!

I want to applaud the principals of Monster Mini-golf for choosing to stand their ground!  As you’ve probably already figured, I was very moved by this story.  I even contacted Patrick and Christina by phone because at first glance, this all seemed too crazy to be true.  But sadly, this is really happening and it’s simply wrong.  Really wrong!

But here’s the thing…  the Internet and Social Networking tools are providing incredible leverage to quickly raise awareness.  Even as I write this, this story is well on its way to going VIRAL, but every little bit helps.  I’ll challenge any of you moved by this to take some form of action…   At minimum, spread the word using the tool of your choice, or visit Monster Mini-golf to find out more.

I am a professional hobbyist when it comes to this.   Though my relationship with the piano began at a young age, I only recently pulled off the gloves to rekindle it and haven’t looked back since.   This was partly inspired by huge advancements in music production technology now available to all  – and from the comfort and privacy of your home!   I’ve never subscribed much to job titles so I won’t attempt to label my genre.  Besides, composing music mirrors life in that there are really only two ways to write a song: your way, and the wrong way. 

Thank you for your interest and encouragement.