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Reno music shops rely on guitar sales, piano tunings to weather COVID

Steve Gibson, owner of Absolute Music in Reno, holds a sign with a creative way to remind customers to social distance amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo: Absolute Music

August is the month Steve Gibson, owner of Absolute Music in Reno, has circled on his calendar every year. Marking the start of a new school year, it’s when students in band and orchestra want a new instrument to rent or need their old one repaired for the numerous practices and concerts ahead.

In other words, it’s the time of year when new business begins rolling in like a steady drumbeat for Absolute Music.

Of course, that wasn’t the case this year, thanks to the pandemic.



“Our business is all about the back-to-school season,” Gibson said in a phone interview with the NNBW. “We do a huge number of instrument rentals, the band and orchestra instruments that the kids play in school. And on that side of our business, which is our main business, we’re down 70% on new rentals this year.”

“So,” he sighed, “it’s pretty bad.”



To reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading among students, Washoe County schools, like many across the nation, put their in-person music performing on pause, from group practices to concerts, and the trickle-down effect on music businesses like Gibson’s has hit some sour notes.

Wendell Carpenter, owner of Carpenter’s Music World in Reno, said his shop was impacted by the lack of instrument rentals. While the longtime store has seen “a lot more rentals” than expected, Carpenter said business took a 15% dip in August.

“It’s been slow,” Carpenter told the NNBW. “There’s not as much traffic as usual, of course. The biggest challenges are being able to keep the business operating and get services done and keep the bank account healthy. It’s a struggle.”

Meanwhile, Carpenter’s Music World, which specializes in selling, renting and tuning pianos, has seen the service side of its business remain steady all year, Carpenter said.

Why? People spending more time at home are dusting off their pianos and tickling the ivories as a creative outlet. And a piano sitting dormant for months or years likely needs to be tuned or restored to produce pleasing sounds.

“A lot of people are staying at home and have more time to play instruments and develop talents,” Carpenter said.

Absolute Music has plenty of signage to remind customers to practice social distancing during the pandemic.
Courtesy Photo

Absolute Music has seen the same COVID effect play out in its sales of guitars and ukuleles, which have increased 50% this year, Gibson said. He added that even adult beginner rentals for instruments like the violin, trumpet, clarinet and saxophone were up about 25% in June.

“Maybe it’s just that people are stuck at home and looking for something fun and interesting to do,” he said. “And guitar and ukulele are the most self-taught instruments that exist. Some people are thinking, ‘I’ve always wanted to learn to do that.’”

Epitomizing that trend, legendary guitar maker Fender has seen its global sales grow 17% during the pandemic, estimated to top $700 million this year, according to a CNBC report.

Absolute Music and Carpenter’s Music World do not carry Fender guitars. All told, both Reno-based shops say they are struggling to bring any guitars into their stock because of the high demand and COVID’s disruption to the supply chain.

“I haven’t really tried to take on the major brands,” Gibson said. “We focus on more of the boutique brands, partially because Fender is available through Guitar Center, a big national chain, and all of the online dealers.”

To that end, CNBC reported that 70% of Fender’s sales this year have come through online purchases.

And with consumers increasingly turn to online retailers instead of visiting brick-and-mortar stores, the $5 billion musical instrument and supplies store industry is estimated to see its revenue decline 12% overall in 2020 compared to last year, according to market research firm IBIS World.

Gibson, for one, is optimistic that, with a COVID-19 vaccine being rolled out, 2021 will be a bounce-back year for music shops in Northern Nevada and beyond.

“I think that by next fall, our back-to-school season will be as close to normal as we can expect,” he said. “We’re weathering the storm and waiting for next fall.”