Surviving the changing tide of the music business

In the old days making music was both simpler and more difficult than it is right now.

While the internet and advancing technology allow remote cross-border musical collaboration on a global scale like never before, and a recording studio in any bedroom, music production’s very democratisation has made it difficult for people to get their music heard in the crowd.

In the last 30 years music distribution has moved from vinyl and cassette to CDs, MP3s and now online streaming. The pace of change has been swift and relentless.

Progress has also had a fundamental impact on the business of selling musical instruments. It’s just about as easy to order a guitar from across the world as it is to pick one up from a musical retail store such as TOMs in Braamfontein, a decades-old business that has weathered competition, recessions and the sweeping commercial reforms of the internet.

Director, Abe Seema, has seen it all. From the shop’s early beginnings in downtown Johannesburg’s Bree Street when flamboyant 1980s big-hair bands dominated the charts to its current domicile in Braamfontein, an area itself in the throes of transformation, TOMs has ben a major player in the musical instrument retail space. There are also branches in Sandton, Durban and Bloemfontein.

Adapting to change

Seema entered the music business as a result of an act of kindness – his own. He saw someone struggling to pick up a heavy amplifier and offered to help. That person offered him a job in a new Joburg music store and he’s never looked back. Seema is now as much part of the South African musical bedrock as the brightest of its musical stars – for three decades he’s been, you might say, instrumental in their success.

He’s philosophical about change.

“Sure, the internet has exposed consumers to a greater variety of musical goods and that’s a good thing. But if you need something quickly, immediately, just walk in here and you’ll walk out with it. There’s no wait. You can also compare things directly,” he says.

“Musical instruments are hugely tactile. You want to hear how they sound, but you also want to feel how they play. How heavy is that guitar, how high is its action – does it feel right and does it look good on you?”

Seema says the changing musical landscape has required the shop to employ people with skills sets that simply didn’t exist three decades ago.

“Synthesisers, for example, used to be these huge keyboards that would occupy a great deal of space on stage and in studios. Then they became rack-mounted in stackable modules. Nowadays the most powerful synthesisers are just software – they live in a computer box. Salespeople had to adapt their skills accordingly from becoming hardware experts to software fundis,” says Seema.

“Even instruments that have always been regarded as acoustic, such as drum kits, have been given electronic overhauls. Electronic drum kits allow drummers to take the same amount of hardware into the studio or on the road, but they can dial in any number of electronic sound combinations, which gives them thousands of drum kit permutations.

“And, says Seema, “there’s a volume control so you can turn them down.”

Perhaps the most difficult time for the music instrument retail business was the 2008 recession, but the company rode out the storm.

“We did it by being adaptable and that’s what we’re doing now, taking things like social media in our stride and capitalizing on the opportunities that technology has to offer.”

As he watches two youngsters walk into the shop Seema chuckles. “Three decades ago they would have been able to afford a packet of guitar strings, maybe. Now with a month’s savings they could buy the recording equipment that’s basically a studio in a pocket and run it off their smartphones. You have to embrace change, otherwise you’ll get left behind,” says the music retail veteran.

This article is part of a series sponsored by MTN Business. While the theme for the series has been agreed to by MTN Business, the articles have been independently sourced by the M&G’s supplement’s editorial team and MTN Business has not seen this article prior to publication. The other articles in the series can be found here.

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Greg Gordon
Guest Author

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