A quick guide for buying instruments in 2020

Can you go to the music shop after 15th June? Yes! But make an appointment and plan ahead – social distancing still applies

  • Buying instruments can be quite stressful
  • Music shops don’t want you to feel buyers’ remorse
  • 2020 introduces new challengers for buyers and retailers…

What’s your success rate for buying instruments and audio gear?

Is everything you’ve bought perfect forever, or have you found yourself wondering why you made that choice after the presets and shine of a new purchase have worn off?

Some elements of kit, particularly electronic, computer-related kit, are out of the hands of the makers; OS support, driver stability, the compatibility between interfaces, apps and hubs can cause frustration that is down to three or four different firms’ support teams to resolve. But it’s just as likely that you’ve enjoyed an in-store demo, got your new gadget home and felt it really wasn’t all-that – either because it doesn’t fit your style, or it’s got a lack of depth or features that was easily overlooked in-store.

Inevitably this is focusing on synths, interfaces and controllers, because acoustic instruments wear their sound on their sleeves – but also, I freely admit that my expertise buying guitars, drums and other instruments is lacking. Synths, on the other hand… Oh, so many synths…

Coronavirus (Covid-19) and music shops

  • Take some disposable gloves, and wear a face mask
  • Stay 2m apart and remember, browsing ‘costs’ stores more now
  • Most equipment will be locked away, so make appointments first

Unless you’ve been stationed on the ISS AND wilfully ignoring the news (and new visitors), you won’t have escaped the effects of SARS-CoV-2; most of us are fortunate enough to only be affected by the measures taken to avoid the tragedy that hundreds of thousands around the world have suffered.

In the UK, restrictions on movement, social distancing and the closure of non-essential shops and services at the end of March included many music retailers. Most have survived – some have thrived – by selling online, but from June 15th a relatively normal shopping experience may be able to return to Britain’s high-streets and retail parks.

Relatively. Social distancing – staying 2m apart, and potentially with mandatory use of face masks – will still apply, and there are some considerations that are going to be particularly applicable to music shops.

  • Wind and reed instruments aren’t likely to be readily available for demo
  • Guitar strings retain organic matter rather well, and playing with protective gloves is tricky
  • Shops are unlikely to be able to allow browsing and wandering
  • Microphones and headphones are also prime vectors for infection

There are a few other concerns, less related to the spread of infection and more about helping you buy the right gear first time, to avoid return trips, and supporting your local music store’s financial survival and the wellbeing of their staff.

Choosing, demoing and buying kit

Above all – don’t waste time! Understanding your next purchase is important, but perhaps, keep the dreaming to YouTube and reading reviews, rather than killing an afternoon aimlessly looking at gear. I used to do it, and it does usually lead to a purchase eventually, but focus!

  • Make a shortlist of kit you want to try out
  • Read the manuals online first, search forums for user impressions
  • Watch a few demos on YouTube that show controls, not just sound
  • Be respectful to the shop’s staff, help them to help you

Bring the inevitable disposable latex gloves and antibacterial spray or wipes – don’t put cleaning substances on store gear, let the shop do that with products they know won’t damage the finish – and put the gloves on once you’re in the shop so you don’t contaminate them with anything on the door handle or outside. The gloves are to protect you from anyone else’s exploring paws as much as they are to protect others from your nose-wipe sniffles.

If you have specific items you want to test, make an appointment first and give the staff enough notice to queue up the gear you want to audition.

I recommend allowing at least 15 minutes (and bringing your own laptop, if that’s how you’re working) for checking out an audio interface or controller, and around 30 minutes for a synthesizer or drum machine – that should be enough time to audition the presets, try shaping a sound from scratch, and explore the controls.

Staff aren’t going to be able to hang around and chat – the facemasks might make it hard to converse normally anyway – but larger stores might have space to allow more than one demo at once.

Give them space to swap kit over for you. If you have doubts about compatibility before purchase, remember that return policies are better for online/distance purchasing.

Once you’re done in the store, remove your gloves by hooking your thumb into the sleeve and pulling them forward, turning them inside out to trap any contaminants on the inside. Wash your hands afterwards!

Some stores are rearranging into zones to help you stay focused and provide demo space. Check their websites before taking a trip, to avoid disappointment. Not all gear will be on show, and touching won’t be allowed anymore!

Negotiating: Be nice

This is where I, and the British public, seem to diverge – as you might gather from a lot of the content on this site I’m all about getting the best value for things; that’s out of necessity. I don’t think I’ve bought anything without at least trying to haggle a bit over the price, but it’s always overt and clear.

Price matching is the most obvious route. If the item you want is on sale at a different, reputable music shop (not a grey import or dodgy clickbait site), your local store will probably have a policy to price match.

Some make it very clear – I’ve always found PMT to be super-helpful about ensuring I got the best deal, but local shops who tended to have higher prices than online and chains have been just as willing if they can afford to do so.

If you’re buying a lot of kit at once, your dealer might be able to discount or throw in some accessories. I’d suggest taking this approach with own-brand items; for example, if you’re buying a lot of kit from Gear4Music, they have their own line of cables, stands and gadgets and may be more inclined to secure your sale by providing much-needed and often-overlooked accessories.

When looking at pre-owned equipment, or trading in, do your research first. Again, coming back to PMT, though their initial offer on a guitar I traded in was low, they used a discount promotion to effectively make my last Nord 3 purchase better value than buying a used one on eBay and selling the guitar myself.

Existing relationships with your local store – places like Fair Deal Music in Birmingham, for example – should still be in place – but we have all had a very stressful few months. Be kind, be polite, and accept that some things may not be as cheap or as readily available as they were.

Paying for your new shiny things: contactless, cards and credit

  • Most music stores offer 0% finance. Use it, if you qualify
  • Credit card payments offer extra protection
  • Contactless payment limits may be raised
  • Some stores may be unwilling to handle cash

Smaller transactions can be contactless of course. For larger items, discuss bank transfers or PayPal with your store, if you’re concerned about using the PIN pad. Most stores will provide hand sanitiser, plastic screens and other protection.

Credit cards offer purchase protection, but indecisive buyers may prefer the combination of credit cards and distance selling regulations; no store is going to want to deal with returns because you changed your mind.

Waynes World GIF
Have you sanitised that, Wayne?

Absolute Music are the first to have sent out an email detailing their opening provisions, and they’ve clearly stated they won’t be handling cash. Finance is probably the best option for larger purchases, and there’s no reason not to use 0% deals where available.

Through a number of providers, most music shops in the UK offer interest-free finance; personally I’ve used several of these offerings and have found them completely free of flaws, hidden fees or a requirement for a particularly great credit rating (in fact, completing such deals helps your rating). Avoid ‘consumer high-street’ type deals with deferred interest-free periods and high APR – just go for the V12-style straight 10% deposit, 10 payments and done.

Although very useful for large, expensive items, I’ve rebuilt a studio of affordable synths and accessories by treating them like a Sky or mobile phone subscription – setting a fixed monthly budget, choosing gear to that budget and paying off in 10-12 months.

Students and younger musicians may find extra help from Take It Away – an Arts Council backed 0% scheme aimed at supporting music education and providing access to specialist and professional instruments.

Many new instruments now have two- or three-year warranties, so only buy from UK distributor-sourced stock, not grey imports, but feel confident in rejecting the ‘extended warranty’ unless it comes with accidental damage cover and is good value.

Buying online is the future

  • No time to demo – but 14-day returns reduce risk
  • Finding the best price is easy
  • Can still support local stores
  • Doesn’t support the pre-owned market well

One thing that was apparent even before restrictions; online shopping is the way forward. There are some issues though, make visiting a music shop more appealing. Top of the list has to be the growth in the pre-owned market; more musicians are looking for the authenticity and classic sounds of vintage instruments, and you can’t deny that the profit margins have appeal for the shops too – the buy-in prices, often set by the likes of Cash Converters or CeX, are low, and some of the instruments can create a lot off buzz (not ground-loops) on social media.

Returns, B-Stock and open-box offer their own problems with the risk of Covid-19 about. Remember that the item you casually returned has to be opened, checked and resealed by a human – and they’re going to have to resell it at a loss, probably with an extra 14 days added on to the turnaround to allow time for pathogens to die off.

Now, more than ever, you need to be able to buy the right gear first time.