The year 2020 has not been kind to small business. The pandemic has imposed true hardships on the small business community. From our prospective here at AR, none seem to have been hit harder that the music business. Local music stores seem especially vulnerable.
Some weeks ago, several of us from AR were spending a few days on North Carolina’s outer banks. While we were not in the magazine mode or even in the music playing or listening mode, we could not pass up the opportunity to visit the Jubilee Music Store and see how Mr. Ronnie Swaim was weathering the storm. We found him to be in good spirits and ready to face the uncertain future as best he can. We asked him to tell us a bit about the Jubilee Music Store and how a country boy can survive.
He began by saying sales by internet merchants had already been making it hard for little mom and pop stores to survive when the virus pandemic added another woe. Mr. Swaim told us, “The schools are not operating during this pandemic and therefore will have no bands, and I do a lot of band rental for the school kids. With no school, they have turned the instruments back in to me. Band instrument rental was steady and the income loss is not going to be good. Hopefully things will keep going if we can hold it all together.”
We wondered how long he had been in the music store business and how did that come about? He told us that he had been in this shopping center going on six years and at this current location almost two years. He quietly added, “Before the store, I operated the Outer Banks Jubilee Theater.”
Of course, we had to know more about that. Here is what he said, “It was once a twin movie theater building, and we fixed the building with a nice stage very similar to the Opry stage (in Nashville, TN). We did about three live shows a week booking acts such as Ronda Vincent and Dave Adkins for instance The theater also had a house Jubilee Band. I had quite a few folks working in the theater getting the shows together. We had a few church bus groups come down from Virginia Beach for the gospel shows. It went on a couple years but never really` took off. What happened is this: visitors come to the outer banks to fish, go to the beach, and maybe party a bit but not to attend live entertainment concerts. There finally came a time when the theater was not paying for itself and could not continue regardless of the amount of media advertising that I did.”
We asked Ronnie how the music store came to be. Swaim replied, I was acquainted with a lady who ran the only music store here in town. Her husband passed away, and she approached me about buying her store. There was room in the theater, and it occurred to me that a music store might be a good companion to the live music venue. So, I bought her store and she came along to help get it going and train me. Since I had done some light instrument repairs over the years, I had that experience so I added the repair service to the store as well.”
End Of A Run
While the theater closed, the store was successful so Swaim relocated it to a store-front in a strip mall. With the repair business doing well, he started doing rentals to folks who come to the outer banks on vacation. Visitors to the outer banks come by the store and rent an instrument to play during their vacation stay rather that having to make room in their car to bring one with them from home. Doing rentals has been very successful for the store. With a bit of advertising, word has spread, and they have gained a good following for the rental program. Folks will now call before they leave home and ask Ronnie to have an instrument set up and waiting for them when they arrive. He said, “We may rent for a week or two weeks but have had folks rent for the whole summer. We now do rentals for the school bands as well as doing repairs of those instruments.” As for repairs he added, “We are always ready to re-string or re-fret an instrument for a customer. Amanda, who works here with me, is great at refinishing a guitar or resetting a headstock.”
The store soon outgrew the first location and needed to relocate to the present location in the same mall about two years ago. The present location is about twice the size of the first and enjoys a good customer flow. Mr. Swaim was very proud to tell us, “We have a good following of people here at the store. We just won first place in a survey as the best music store on the outer banks. We received a big plaque and a large vinyl poster that was awarded by the local radio stations. That sure gave us a good feeling.”
Keeping It Fair
“I believe in keeping the price fair; working with folks; and trying to keep a good name around here. I think so far we have been successful at doing that,” Ronnie added.
We noticed that there was a small performance stage in the store and asked about its purpose. Swaim began by telling us that he was originally from Elkin, NC and started playing music when he was 10 years old on an old Silvertone guitar he purchased from a neighbor for twelve dollars. He said the neighbor showed him how to make chords G, C, and D and told him he could play anything he ever wanted to play with those three chords. He related, “I have been messing with music every since. I have a bluegrass band named Drifting Sands. We still play different places for parties and such. We did a regular show when the theater was active, and we still get together. The store has this small stage, and we block off half of the store and put out some chairs so we can get maybe 50 to 75 folks sitting out front.”
Open Mic Night
He continued, “We did an open mike show on the stage every Thursday night that was really going well until this virus came along and messed things up. We also had some ticketed shows planned for Friday nights and had the flyers printed but that effort got cancelled as well because of the virus. We want to carry on in the fall as soon as the officials give the okay for groups to gather once again.”
Mr. Swaim says he tries to keep local musicians happy. Here’s how, “Sometimes they will be playing on stage and their microphone or amplifier will stop working. They will give me a call late in the evening, and I do not mind coming to the store to meet someone who is in the middle of a show and had an equipment failure. I think that level of service is what helps a business—just being there for the community.” I injected, “They would have trouble doing that on the internet would they not?” He laughed and replied, “Yes, they would for sure.”
Swaim continued by agreeing that customer service is what keeps an independent local store in business. He told us, “Folks will bring in an instrument to me for repair that they have ordered on-line. The set up of the instrument will be terrible, and the customer will need me to do all that is necessary to get it in a playable condition. I do not mind setting up the instrument and helping the customer in any way that I can. That is what I am here to do, and it helps in customer relationships. Doing this level of service helps gain respect with our customers.”
Ronnie told us that not only do loyal tourist customers return to shop at the store each summer season but also new folks drop in that hear about Jubilee from their friends.”
Being a seasonal tourist location, the winter months are slower; however, local folks do come by to shop. Ronnie, said, “I have lived on the outer banks for 35 years and the area has really grown. Years earlier, winter months were slow but more recently there is music being played all year here. Of course, currently the pandemic has caused a halt to that. Still, summer time is the busy time.”
Keeping It Local
If you have yet to discern what it takes for a small independent music business to make it in this day and time, know that solid product offerings backed by great customer service is most important. To see that combination in action, the next time you visit the outer banks of North Carolina; slow down in Kill Devil Hills at milepost 5.5; turn in to the Seagate north shopping center; park in front of the Jubilee Music Store; and slip in the front door. Browse their great selection of electronic, acoustic, strings, brass, and woodwind instruments and have a chat with Mr. Ronnie Swaim. In the mean time, follow the Jubilee Music Store on Facebook® at: facebook.com/jubileemusicobx/ or look at their website at:www.obxjubileemusicstore.com/.
Written By Ed Tutwiler