Tips and Tricks from 2017's Dealer of the Year

A&G Central Music doesn't skip a beat as they bring the gift of music to their community

Shelley Hickox

NAMM sat down with Robert Christie, 2017 Dealer of the Year and owner of A&G Central Music to discuss his keys for success. After 23 years as a band and orchestra retailer, he says there is some success that can’t be measured, like seeing the sparkle in a child’s eyes as he or she opens the case to their very first instrument. This passion is what fuels Robert and his staff during the sometimes-unglamorous parts of music retail as they make a daily impact in their community and beyond. 

What is your musical background?

I started playing music at a really young age. I played piano, drums and clarinet. I attended Valparaiso University in Indiana and actually got a NAMM scholarship before I even knew what NAMM was! My professor told me they wanted to try to combine music and business degrees, and I could learn more at The NAMM show. I received the NAMM Music Business Scholarship after I went to the show in Chicago and finished my degree.

What sets you apart as a music dealer?

I worked with and for people who were always really concerned about what other competitors are doing. I think that’s important but not the most important question. “What can we be doing?” is the better question. Rather than try to beat them at the game, I would like to invent the game. One thing that sets us apart is our philosophy. It’s not just about selling the product. It’s important to bring people in and create more music makers. Beginning band is like a cruise ship that pulls up to your school in 4th or 5th grade, but once that ship sails off, there aren’t a lot of other entry points for music making. We’ve asked ourselves the question: “where can we dock that cruise ship and load more people on?” So, we have started targeting empty nesters—people in their 50s. We found the most appealing way to reach them is to create an event that this new audience wanted to attend. We’ll send out an eblast that says, “Band tonight. You don’t have to have an instrument. Just come.” We can target these band parents by knowing what grade their child was in when they first rented an instrument from us. For example, we can identify parents whose kids have finished high school by pulling up all accounts that originated in a certain year and send them an eblast. I’m also on the board of a few civic organizations and I target people who are going to concerts, but may not be music makers.

What's the most gratifying thing about what you do?

That’s easy. Going to the school and meeting up with the kids who are going to have their very first day of band. I don’t care how bad your day has been, that face when a child opens up their instrument case for the first time will make your day. After 23 years it never gets old. I tell them, “show me your excited face!” but usually I don’t have to because they are already so excited.

Of what are you most proud?

That’s a tough question. I’d say the relationships we have with some of the school districts that surround us. This chunk of Michigan is unique—we straddle the second-most affluent county on one side and then Detroit on the other side, which has a long way to go. When I started running A&G, I felt like the chasm was wider between the two demographics, and with the help of amazing band directors, the chasm is narrowing so more kids are getting equal access to a quality sequential music education. I’m a real believer in equal access to music. We work hard on it. What’s really cool is we have gotten buy-in from these more affluent communities. A year ago, we tried to get these affluent kids to sponsor a kid in need to attend the same music camps that they were going to and many people were receptive to that. It’s about building bridges.

How do you stay fresh and motivated?

The people I am surrounded by every day keep me motivated. When I’m on the struggle bus, they are here to pick me up. 5 am-10 pm is not glamorous five days a week. I could be feeling really beat up and then someone tells me a story of a kid who got his or her first saxophone. That keeps me going. The educators keep me motivated. I think I am having a bad day and they tell me about their day and I say I am good!

How do you motivate your store employees?

The first thing we try to do is get together in small groups and do something we are passionate about, or play music together outside of work. I think that is refreshing. I like to remind people of the good they are doing every day. When a coworker is having a hard time, or thinking about something they did wrong, I like to remind them of what they did right.

Success for me is one more person engaged in active music making. Eventually you add up all of these “one more persons” and it’s a significant number.

What do you like about being in this industry?

Recently I was sitting with George Quinlan and he said this to me, “You know Robert, for the type of activity we are doing every day, we could be selling plumbing supplies but I’m so glad we’re not!” It’s so true. The good thing is what we do every day is wrapped up in this big glittery bow called music. I have been making music since I was five. It’s a part of me. I can be working in my office doing paperwork and can hear a kid 13 feet away playing trumpet. It’s a constant reminder of why I do what I do every day.

What is one of the most helpful business tips you’ve ever received

The best advice I’ve ever gotten is from one of the previous owners of A&G Music. When I bought the store, he told me that on the darkest day when things look the worst and on the best day when things are going perfect, it doesn’t last. So, don’t get too high or too low. All things pass. Make incremental changes every day. Stay focused on the long-term impact.

What are some of your future goals for your business?

I know this may sound backwards, but I think we are right-sized. Often when I talk to my friends who are in this industry, they talk about growth. The future for me doesn’t look like a chain of A&G rental stores throughout Michigan. I would like to focus on what we began with, which are music makers and sustainable growth. I would really like us to capitalize on reaching non-music makers. We are constantly looking for activities where people who aren’t even sure they can make music can feel comfortable making music for the first time. Success and growth look like more kids in band programs and more people coming into the fold who have never even considered making music.

How do you think NAMM can or will support you in achieving these future goals?

That’s easy. When we go to the trade shows, we camp out in the Idea Center. NAMM members are pretty generous in sharing their ideas. There is bravery in that and value in that. I always think, someone on stage is living my life, just in a different spot. Everything that the NAMM Foundation is doing—the research is unbelievably beneficial to us. We don’t have the means to do that research and it helps us a lot. Years ago,I was banging on and on about how beneficial education is to my customers. Now I’ve seen a shift and they will come in and tell me the benefits. I think that has a lot to do with NAMM. Combined together, we cannot fail. NAMM has a lot of outlets. In general, we do a good job about getting people to tell their stories. The music products industry is unique in the fact that we are so willing to share. Because we all already have something in common, it’s easier to get into a discussion. In the end, that helps everybody.

How has being Dealer of the Year impacted your store since July

We got some impact from the press releases and the local paper. I feel like you get instant credibility. We will be coming up on 50 years in business but all of the sudden being Dealer of the Year gives us credibility. The biggest thing it has done for us, is it’s allowed us to go a little gonzo on our own marketing. We thanked our customers by putting a banner up in our store and had people take pictures with us. The Music Makes a Difference award was also such a validation of what we’re trying to do every day. We were able to share that with a lot of our band director partners.

What advice would you give a struggling retailer?

Step away from the computer, ledger book, order sheet or payables stack and just step onto your sales floor. Go out and visit your customers. Remind yourself that you are doing it all in the name of music. We don’t draw our success from the health of our balance sheet, but from the music we get to do every day. You are meeting a very vital need for your customers. When you stop and reflect on that, it’s hard to have a bad day. When you are mindful of that, you cannot fail. In the end, this business is about the customers’ need to make art and people are going to remember you for that. We are built on loyalty, and loyalty is earned. Every single customer should be satisfied at minimum. You’re going to build loyalty over time through exceeding expectations and going beyond simple satisfaction.

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