Live music shows are few and far between these days, but music lovers are honing their skills at home, and local music stores are reaping the benefits.
Alpha Music in Virginia Beach is one of several shops in Hampton Roads that has seen an uptick in customers as the pandemic drags on.
People isolating at home and looking for something to do are learning how to play a new instrument. Some hobbyists are upgrading their gear because they have more time to practice. And when bars and restaurants shut down last spring, drying up live gigs, working musicians took advantage of the time to buy recording gear and are setting up home studios.
On a recent afternoon, a steady stream of customers went in the front door of Alpha Music on Virginia Beach Boulevard. Guitar salesman Ross Becker churned out a riff for a customer known fondly by the staff as a “repeat offender” — someone who comes in often enough that everyone knows their name. And a short line formed in front of the repair counter. Another customer paid for an electronic drum set while a few others meandered through the u-shaped showroom.
The front wall of Alpha Music is lined with electric and bass guitars in colors that can only be described as eye candy: shiny butterscotch blond, metallic blue and snow white.
Eric Burgess, 58, started working at Alpha Music when he was a teenager and the store was in Norfolk. About six years ago, he and his wife, Ginny, bought the business. Ginny Burgess takes care of the bookkeeping and payroll. Many of their employees have worked there for more than a decade. At the start of the pandemic, she worried the store wouldn’t survive.
“When everything shut down, I was absolutely terrified,” she said. “We’re responsible for paychecks for ten other folks. If we have to shut the doors, how can we do this?”
Retail stores in Virginia were allowed to remain open. Alpha’s a big store with plenty of room to social distance, and capacity limitations didn’t have much of an impact.
But for several months, the store canceled all in-person lessons. Instructors turned to Zoom, but it wasn’t the same as being in the room with the student. And it meant fewer parents coming through with children who see and want new equipment, said Eric Burgess.
“That traffic generates money,” he said. “That all came to a complete halt.”
But when the first wave of the pandemic hit, the Burgesses were happily caught off guard. Suddenly, everyone wanted recording gear.
“Musicians were home, not working, recording songs,” Eric said. “They set up a studio at their house.”
But last spring, the store took a hit, too.
“Easter is usually a big time for me,” he said. “Churches invest money in new sound systems, new wireless mics for the preachers. That just vaporized instantly.”
A little bit of that business returned when churches started holding parking lot services, and they brought old equipment in for repairs or bought new items.
Even smaller, boutique music shops saw a bump in sales last spring when people realized they would be stuck at home for unknown amount of time.
In late March and early April, sales spiked at Russell’s Music World in Norfolk’s Ghent neighborhood. Guitars and ukuleles were flying off the shelves as new customers picked up hobbies, said owner Russell Scarborough.
“They came in with their masks and gloves and would point at a ukulele and say give me that one and hand me a credit card,” he said.
Russell’s Music World consigns instruments and is known for its vintage, jazzy drums and hard-to-find items, including handmade Turkish cymbals.
After the first round of government relief, business picked up again at local music stores.
“When I got that first stimulus check, I used half of it to pay off a guitar I had put on layaway,” said Dariel Clark, 33, a Virginia Beach musician and U.S. postal service worker.
Clark had been gigging at restaurants in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, playing what he describes as “hip-hop soul with a jazzy punk attitude.”
He likes shopping for guitars in person at Alpha Music rather than online because of the interaction with the staff.
“The more you go there, the more they get to know you, and you get to know them,” he said. “You start to establish rapport; they start to know your taste.”
Full-time musician Bennett Wales, 29, bought his first electric guitar from Alpha Music when he was 13.
“It’s a Virginia Beach staple for me,” said Wales, who shops there at least twice a week. “The staff is just so welcoming; there’s no such thing as a stupid question, and they’re just super knowledgeable about everything.”
Wales has been writing songs and live streaming music online. He’s still been able to perform solo acoustic sets live at Oceanfront restaurants, Grain in Norfolk and James River Country Club in Newport News, but opportunities have dropped off considerably compared to pre-pandemic days.
He picked up a part-time job at Vinyl Daze Records, a record store on Laskin Road, which has also seen an uptick in sales, especially during the holiday season, Wales said.
But even with a loyal customer base that prefers shopping in person, independently-owned music stores have been facing competition from national chains that come up first on internet searches.
Guitar Center, a national chain that has stores in Virginia Beach and Richmond, closed to customers for a few weeks last spring so that its staff could focus on shipping online orders.
Online sales more than doubled at the beginning of the pandemic, said Luke Ponessa, manager of the Guitar Center in Virginia Beach.
Among the biggest sellers for that store: electronic drums and keyboards that can be played in apartments with headphones, Ponessa said.
Another challenge independent stores face is getting products through the door. Production has slowed down as manufacturers both overseas and in the states limit the number of workers on the factory floor. Banjos are sold out right now at Alpha Music.
“We’ve been selling gear faster than we can get it in,” said Ginny Burgess. “Usually the banjos are hanging with the mandolins, but I got nothing.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Billy Helps stood in line with his dad at the Alpha Music repair counter for service on his three guitars.
Helps is 14 years old and an 8th grader at Plaza Middle School in Virginia Beach. He recently used his savings to buy his first bass guitar. He’s taking music lessons and has learned songs by Rush, The Black Keys and Rage Against the Machine.
“I’ve gotten more into it over quarantine,” Helps said. “It’s given me time to get much better at this.”
Stacy Parker, 757-222-5125, firstname.lastname@example.org