- 20 Jun 06
For 25 years Music Maker have been a central force in the Irish instruments industry, their premises in Exchequer Street in Dublin a veritable musical mecca for international and Irish customers alike. Latterly they have expanded into distribution with MIDI (Musical Instrument Distribution Ireland) and were also involved in the initiative to create the permanent memorial to Rory Gallagher being unveiled this week. Jackie Hayden talked to the key players about the Music Maker success story, and even heard the one about the man with the child's organ!
A kid wandered into Music Maker in Exchequer Street in Dublin, his eyes lighting up at the very expensive Fender Stratocaster hanging up safely behind the counter. He was a somewhat scruffy lad, but he told them he practically dreamed of playing it, or even holding it.
Perhaps a little reluctantly they decided to take the risk and let him try it. When he did, they were amazed to see him transformed before their eyes from scruff to ace axe-wielder. All he wanted to do was to feel the energy running from his heart through his fingers and out through an amp into the ether.
That story, told to Hot Press by former Music Maker manager Gerry Ford, now a major client of the company through his role as CEO of Roland-Sennheiser in Ireland, probably sums up why Music Maker changed the face of the musical instrument business in Ireland. “Up to the arrival of Music Maker in 1981,” he recalls, “most Irish musical instrument shops looked with disdain at rock musicians, who in their eyes not only couldn’t really play proper music but were probably on drugs and only out to steal your best stuff. But Music Maker was different. It was run and staffed by people who were often rock musicians themselves and who could relate to the kids and made them feel welcome in the shop.”
Indeed that was as true in Forde’s time as it is now. He himself was a musician with '80s Dublin band Eugene, while Paul Lyttle cut his musical teeth with '60s pop outfit Chips, starring alongside Linda Martin.
Now celebrating 25 years in the Irish musical instrument business, Music Maker was started in Mary’s Abbey, a small street on Dublin’s northside between Capel Street the now throbbing Smithfield area, before opening their flagship store across town in Exchequer Street, ideally situated between Dublin’s boho Temple Bar and the bustling Grafton Street. The Exchequer Street premises comprises 10,000 square feet on five floors and the company also have a monster warehouse out in Blanchardstown.
The company was originally set up by Lawrence Kerr, and grew very much in tandem with the burgeoning Irish rock scene, as acts like U2, and the waves of new bands their success inspired, turned Dublin into what the American music industry at the time described as “a major A&R talent pool for the nineties” and Dublin became a rock capital of the world. But Kerr now lives in the USA, leaving the running of the Irish operation in the hands of general manager Lesley Kane, who has chalked up 19 years as part of Music Maker, and blossomed in her role as general manager of the company since 1995. Kane is now aided by an impressive team of experienced experts, including the ever-affable Paul Lyttle, as Hi-Tech retail manager, Aidan Pierce MIDI sales manager, and Ed Brady as office manager.
As Lyttle pointed out, “When Music Maker first opened, the instrument market in Dublin especially was predominantly geared towards the classical, trad, folk and showband ends of the market. Rock musicians often felt intimidated and unwanted even going into some of the shops at that time. As a result, Irish rock bands had little choice but to go across to London to get the best new Fender, Marshall or Pearl equipment which they then showed off to the envious mates back home.
Now that’s all changed, with most serious Irish rock musicians taking the wise path of developing good relationships with their local music dealers to the point that Music Maker has won numerous awards on the overseas market for the quality of their service. Not surprisingly then, the gregarious and energetic Kane is justifiably proud of the countless global awards the company has scooped over the years. “The very notion that Ireland can outsell per capita huge markets like the United States or Japan on a product like Marshall or Sabian, says an awful lot for Irish rock n roll”, she argues. Perhaps modesty forbade her adding that it’s also an extraordinary tribute to her skills and that of her dedicated team.
But perhaps the best award any retail outlet can attract is the continued custom of the top practitioners in your profession, and this is where Music Maker have scored big time, over and over again over the past quarter century. Just last week, for as example, Joe Walsh from The Eagles popped in. As Paul Lyttle told Hot Press, “My jaws dropped when I saw him in the shop. He ended up buying a Marshall Extension Cabinet to give himself a bigger sound for their gig in Lansdowne Road!” But then, Steve Vai was in the shop the previous week, and acts of the calibre of The Edge, Terry Bozzio, Chad Smith, Eddie Vedder, Paul Brady, various members of Def Leppard, Declan Sinnott and countless other musical expeditionaries have been spotted leaving the Music maker shop over the years with satisfied smiles on their faces.
Another feather in the Music Maker cap is the role the company and its staff played in the imminent unveiling of a specially-commissioned guitar sculpture in honour of the late guitar legend Rory Gallagher who died way too soon in 1995.
This idea had its origins in Music Maker, although Lesley Kane generously attributes the credit to Mark Walsh, now of Keynote Music, who was working with Music Maker at the time of the idea’s genesis.
“It was Mark’s idea,” she told Hot Press, “but we’ve backed his efforts all the way. We have a strange attitude in Ireland about our musical success stories, but Rory Gallagher was really the first Irish rock star to make a big impact on the international scene, and he deserves to be honoured every way we can. So I’m delighted that the efforts of Mark and everybody else is at last coming to fruition.”
She also adds, with a laugh, that the objections the proposal persistently received from the naysayers in Dublin only spurred everybody to make sure it eventually would happen, so the unveiling will be handled by the Lord Mayor Councillor Catherine Byrne at Rory Gallagher Corner on a building developed and owned by Temple Bar Cultural Trust and with Rory’s brother, and the custodian of his legacy, Donal, among the guests.
Supporting Kane’s views, Mark Walsh says that, “Rory was Ireland’s first rock’n’roll star, selling records and touring the world, blazing a trail for others to follow. As musical instrument sellers we owe our livelihood to him and the others who followed, bringing Irish Rock to the world. Now as his beloved Donegal and Cork have already done, Dublin honours one of Ireland’s greatest sons. Let’s remember Rory with this long overdue tribute.” No doubt, Rory’s increasing legion of fans all over the world owe a huge debt to mark and his former colleagues at Music Maker.
Of course, no area of the constantly changing music industry, no matter how successful, can afford to become complacent, and Kane is acutely aware of the need to keep tabs on, and respond to, the new challenges that confront the industry from time to time. “The Internet poses new threats to all Irish music retailers in the same way that the better selection available in London shops did in earlier days. It’s very tempting for a kid today to feel that he or she is picking up a real bargain through a website on the internet, but what happens when that instrument develops a problem, or needs servicing, is it fair that they should expect their local dealer to fix it for them?” she justifiably asks.
Gerry Forde echoes Kane’s concerns, adding that “the internet company gets your money first, and you are not in a position to even hold the instrument or to try it out or to check what condition it’s in before you buy. In your local shop you have all these benefits. In fact I’ve heard some real horror stories about instruments bought through a website and arriving here in bits, and some not arriving at all. But then these are the kind of challenges we’ve had to overcome before, and I’ve no doubt that Music Maker, Roland Sennheiser and all the other top brands in Ireland will overcome them too”, he adds with characteristic optimism.
Lyttle reckons that the industry has a tendency to be cyclical, admitting that the dance craze hit so hard that at times he felt they’d be better off with a specialist DJ shop. But now guitars have come back into pole position, and there’s continued growth in computer music and home recording as well. “Young musicians are aware now that while instruments are better these days, they’re also cheaper, and with China now a major manufacturer, that’s really shaken things up for everybody’s benefit”, he says.
And there’s fun to be had too, so it’s not all doom and gloom, slaving away stock-taking plectrums and trying to match loose guitar strings. Kane recalls the day a man arrived into the shop, slapped his hands down on a table and declared loud enough for all to hear, “I’ve got a child’s organ!” Perhaps he had mistaken Music Maker for Jervis Street Hospital, or maybe he was boasting or just looking for sympathy? But no. “He was quite nervous, actually,” Kane explains, “and obviously not used to being in a music store, so when we all straightened out our faces he was able to explain to us that he had a kind of beginner’s keyboard and he wanted to upgrade it. Nothing more sinister than that, but he did take us by surprise initially”. As you can well understand. Fortunately the man got his bigger organ.
Perhaps learning from the above encounter, Paul Lyttle, who is believed to have the uncanny knack of spotting a drummer at a hundred and fifty paces, is also conscious of the need to listen to the customer and try to clarify not only what they want, but why they want it and to see if the two match up. “I don’t want this to sound pompous, but young musicians especially might want to buy an instrument that isn’t really going to do what they think it will and I think it’s part of our customer service not to let them buy something that ultimately won’t work for them. Young musicians might want to buy a particular instrument just because their hero uses it, but it might not do what they want it to so, so I think that’s why we have to pay attention to what their real needs are,” he told me.
But while that might understandably apply to fledgling musos, I wondered what he feels is the general level of knowledge among Irish musicians today. “Are they more knowledgeable than previous generations?” I asked him. “Frighteningly so,” he frankly admits. “Because of the internet especially, they know more about what’s available and what’s possible. And that’s great, because we can learn from our customers just as much as they can learn from us” he reckons.
Not many moons ago, it seemed that everybody wanted synths and that the guitar might become a thing of the past, whereas now guitars are back and then some. I asked Kane why this might be the case. “Actually, even through the synths phase, guitars still kept on selling. They have that special attraction that never goes away. Besides,” she adds with a laugh, “you can play air guitar, but have you ever seen anyone do air keyboards?” I can’t say I ever have, actually. Although I recently saw an air drummer.
Nor is it all hard sales either. Gerry Forde recalls a kid coming into Music Maker and buying a drum kit with money he’d saved all summer. “The following Monday his parents arrived in, outraged that we were practically encouraging him to be a drug addict, mixing with layabouts and getting up to who knows what. I gave them a bit of lecture about why they should be encouraging him, that playing music had great benefits in terms of developing confidence and self-expression, but they were having none of it. They wanted their money back and eventually I gave in. But then we decided to give the kid the drum kit free. In farness to the parents, they wrote a letter a few months later, admitting that their son was getting great pleasure out of playing music and was developing none of the tendencies they had been worried about. That sort of encounter relay stays with you and shows that the Music Maker philosophy is more about making music than making money”, he feels.
You would hardly get long odds for a bet that Lesley Kane will insure that Music Maker will do both, and well into the foreseeable future. Oh, and keep us a slice of birthday cake!