Eddie Montana knows how aging baby boomers feel when they walk into his vintage musical instrument shop in Huntington Beach and set their eyes upon the Silvertone, Harmony and Kay guitars that helped define their youth.
"All of a sudden, the blood begins to boil again and you see the return of the couch guitarists--guys who get to my age who want to experience that feeling they got when they were young," said Montana, 46, a musician and co-owner of Montana & Lace Vintage Musical Instruments. "It's like they know what they used to enjoy doing, but they'd forgotten how to do it."
Boomers--particularly successful males who still harbor rock 'n' roll fantasies--are now viewed as an important growth market for the nation's $5-billion industry of musical instruments and related products, said Bob Morrison, director of marketing for the Carlsbad-based National Assn. of Music Merchants, which recently held its annual trade show at the Anaheim Convention Center.
Music retailers won't shift their primary focus from the 15- to 25-year-old wannabes who drive instrument sales through their school orchestras and garage bands. And they'll continue to court professional musicians who regularly buy new equipment.
But shop owners also are struggling to devise a marketing plan to attract "used-to-bes," former players who now wear expensive suits, drive imported cars and think nothing of dropping hundreds of dollars for a Big Bertha golf club to squeeze another 10 yards out of their drives.
"These people remember from their past that music means a lot more than simply turning on your radio," said David H. Berryman, president and co-owner of Gibson USA, the Tennessee-based instrument manufacturer. "But the industry hasn't done as much as it could have to help them recapture the real, meaningful experience that music can be."
Store owners such as Skip Maggiora think they can set the musical blood boiling again by giving dormant musicians a taste of the emotional experience that music provided when they were young.
That means merchants must do more than simply sell instruments, said Maggiora, who has developed a marketing package that helps musicians recapture the experience of jam sessions in the next-door neighbor's garage.
Enrollees in his "Weekend Warrior" program, which was rolled out nationwide at the convention, are handed an instrument and hooked up with other recent returnees who share musical tastes. A coach helps warriors regain their "chops," or musical skills, and after half a dozen practice sessions, the doctors, construction workers and lawyers head onstage for a concert.
Don Griffin, president of West LA Music, deals mainly with professional musicians, but his store is a magnet for upscale lawyers and professionals who, with a bit of hand holding, will gladly return to making music. "It's got to be done in a nonthreatening, nonembarrassing way," Griffin said.
"We had these guys earlier," Maggiora said. "Now that they have time and money, we want them back."
Chris Miller, president of Pacific Store Designs in Fountain Valley, said music shops have to realize that upscale customers must be treated with the same respect they get from BMW salesmen.
Miller, who designed a prototype store that was displayed at the NAMM convention, said young, hip salespeople have to realize that customers are king regardless of whether they wear rings on their fingers or in their ears.
"People between the ages of 35 and 55 are going to gain $280 billion in disposable income during the next four to six years," Miller said. "But many music retailers are going to miss out because they're not sending the right message with their stores.
"The first 28 seconds are everything," he said. "If the store doesn't look right, these [boomers] are going to turn around and walk out."
Once boomers do return to music stores, they'll find lots of equipment that's aimed directly at them. There's a decided "retro" feel and sound to many products in stores, particularly upscale guitars and amplifiers.
For example, Fender Musical Instruments Corp. is targeting upscale boomers with a new line of guitars that trades on a long-standing endorsement by the Ventures, an instrumental band that's kept America humming since the 1960s.
Brea-based Electroplex Amplifiers' product line eschews digital technology for tried-and-true tubes. "We've purposely gone to a 'retro' vintage for both the look and sound of our amps," company President Don Morris said.
Similarly, Rick Benson said Sylmar-based Groove Tubes offers "a chance to buy a brand-new, 35-year-old amp. That's what we've perfected . . . the sound that I loved when I was a 12-year-old standing in front of the mirror holding a tennis racket and pretending to sing with the Beatles."
Frustrated purists may turn up their noses at New Jersey-based American Showster's line, but there's undoubtedly a market for stylized guitars that are dead ringers for the tail fin of a Chevrolet from the 1950s.