Rusty Adams feels good about how his little Apex music store is doing.
Since 2011, when he and his wife, Rhonda, bought Burt's Music, brought it to the Beaver Creek Commons shopping center, and renamed it Quarter Note Music, they've run a thriving guitar store and music instruction center that employs twenty instructors to teach about two hundred students.
But now he's concerned about some news he heard recently: Guitar Center is coming.
The fifteen thousand-square-foot store at Durham's Northgate Mall is closing July 9 and reopening five days later in Cary, about fifteen minutes from Quarter Note. Not only that, but a sign on the door at the new store advertises lessons and rentals, which means that Guitar Center is trying to cut into his market.
"We're a little worried," says Adams. "We're just a small mom-and-pop. They're able to buy large quantities at a much cheaper price than I am. And I'm worried that they're going to come in, and they're going to have big sales."
Back in Durham, Guitar Center's exit presents an opportunity for independent music stores to come back—and for those few existing stores to up their game. Right now, there are only three.
High Strung Guitars & Violins on Markham Street, off Ninth Street, specializes in acoustic stringed instruments, but owner Lee Raymond says that she'll be stocking some electric guitars soon, in an effort to bring in new customers who might have headed to Northgate in the past. Music & Arts, a subsidiary of Guitar Center that also focuses on lessons and rentals, is located on Mount Moriah Road off 15-501. SoundPure on Washington Street is just a short walk from Motorco, which regularly sends people to Guitar Center to buy warrantied cables and other equipment that can't be found at SoundPure, which is mostly a boutique guitar store with a recording studio.
Scotty San Dwich, the longtime production manager at Motorco, says he doesn't know where he'll get those emergency things now. The Guitar Center at Northgate was only six minutes from the club.
"I'm not a huge fan of Guitar Center, because of, you know, evil, corporate Bain Capital shit," says San Dwich, who plays guitar for the Durham punk band Almost People. But he buys stuff there anyway. He's not alone: as much flak as Guitar Center takes from anti-corporatist musicians, almost everybody in the Durham scene has used it at one time or another.
Still, Bain Capital is a cause for antipathy far beyond what is usually reserved for big chains. People started talking about the private equity firm's connection to Guitar Center around the same time its founder, Mitt Romney, was running for president in 2012. Bain bought California-based Guitar Center Holdings for $2.1 billion in 2007 and took on $1.6 billion in debt. Bain couldn't make the payments, so its partner, Ares Management, bailed out investors and took over management.
But the bad press continued. In 2015, commissions for salespeople were cut from 10 percent to 0.25 percent. At the beginning of this year, Forbes reported that employees were forced to sign an arbitration agreement, stripping them of the right to sue over unjust firings, wage violations, and workplace discrimination.
It's notable that Guitar Center is still kicking. A year ago, it was all but pronounced dead by business analyst Eric Garland. His provocatively titled posts ("The End of Guitar Center," posted on his blog in February 2015, was the first) quickly went viral.
"The corporate entity known as Guitar Center, Inc. is in the midst of irreversible collapse dynamics and will cease to hold its position as the industry leader in the short-term," he wrote. But that hasn't happened. And while he's still skeptical about Guitar Center's future, Garland admits that it's been smart to move into affluent areas (like Cary) and focus on lessons and rentals.
"They're a player," Garland says. "They have some real assets compared to other retailers. They have scale. As long as they're around, they're always gonna be larger."
To supporters of independent stores, it's just another unfair advantage for a company that's too big to fail. Guitar Center's buying power has made it impossible for a lot of small stores to stock Fenders and Gibsons, which is why merchants like Adams and Raymond are always looking for lesser-known but high-quality brands.
But musicians are a stubborn, brand-loyal bunch, and building loyalty for anything that isn't the industry's two most recognizable brands is a challenge. Adams can make the case for his products, and he can build personal connections with his customers in a way chains can't, but he also knows he'll need to focus on holiday sales to stay alive.
"What I'm worried about is Christmastime, when the parents want to buy these little combo kits—like, a little Fender Squier with an amp in it," he says. "And they'll go there instead of coming to see me, mainly for the price. So I'm competing against that."
The new Guitar Center at the sprawling Parkside Town Commons looks strangely small from the front. It's nestled between a Petco and a Target that contains a CVS pharmacy and a Starbucks. Durham store manager Chris Weldon says that twenty of his employees, all but one, will go to the Cary store.
For years, the Guitar Centers and Sam Ashes of the world have coexisted with indies that managed to find the right formula. They both have their functions. "If someone comes to me and says, 'I want to buy left-handed black drum keys from you, and if you stock 'em, I'll buy two a week,' then I'll stock 'em," says Jim Dennis, owner of Music Loft in Carrboro.
On the other hand, you can walk into any Guitar Center and start banging or strumming away on most instruments, and participate in a storewide cacophony that would seem intolerable in other venues. That's a key incentive for a lot of teenage kids.
Thirteen-year Durham resident John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats is a regular at High Strung, where, in 2003, he bought his beloved Larrivee OM-O3 acoustic. "It was the first really good guitar I ever owned," he says.
Like Raymond, he'd like to see some new stores pop up—a niche store that just sells synths and related electronic doodads may be a good idea, now that Moogfest is part of Durham's culture, he suggests. But high rents downtown rule out that area. And the absence of Guitar Center from Northgate, he adds, is likely a negative for Durham.
"What are they gonna put there? A cell phone store? Whatever they put up, it probably won't be a better place than Guitar Center."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Sound of Silence"