Today we have another guest post from Fathomless Regression. We don’t talk about music retailers too much here on HSC, but he’s got an interesting take on an interesting topic. Be sure to leave a comment with your opinion!

Why buy gear from people in cubicles?

Recently in an industry magazine (I’ll leave it to you to figure out which one), Mercenary Audio posted this ad:

Don’t buy gear from PEOPLE IN CUBICLES, buy gear from ENGINEERS IN STUDIOS.

When I first saw this ad, with a picture of a guy relaxing in his cubicle juxtaposed to a picture of Mercenary’s studio, my reaction was probably similar to most people’s. I laughed a bit and thought that it made sense. Why talk to some kid in a call center about high end gear when I can talk to a “real” engineer in a “real” studio? Then I started to think about it a little bit. I’ve dealt with online/phone based retailers for a long time. Living in the middle of nowhere and trying to build a career out of music there, pretty much necessitates getting my gear from a non-local source. So I’ve dealt with them all at this point, from Musicians Friend to Full Compass to Vintage King. I’ve even spoken to Mercenary a few times, although I’ve never done business with them. I have nothing against them, but the opportunity just never presented itself to buy anything there. One thing I learned from dealing with all of these companies is that each one had their place in the world. Places like Musicians Friend or Guitar Center Online (which are the same company now) are decent order takers. I go to them expecting no better service than I would expect from any minimum wage worker, and they deliver that level of service every time. My order almost always gets to me correctly and relatively on time. If I have questions on gear, they are not the ones that I’m calling. Places like Vintage King, Sweetwater, GC Pro, and even Full Compass can provide some decent insight into the gear, and even offer recommendations and opinions. These places also carry some higher end brands (API, Tubetech, Chandler, etc) that the other guys don’t. BUT…they are still call centers, right?

Thanks to the wave of telemarketers that have cropped up, and the fact that Tech Support is now a Middle-Eastern term for call center, the words call and center (when placed together properly) have become blasphemy. We imagine a bunch of college students trying to pay for next semester’s books and who don’t give a rat’s ass about what they are selling. I’ve learned from the aforementioned “higher end” call centers that this is not always the case. I’ve encountered guys who really know their stuff and are very enthused about it too (which I like)! This begs the question, in my cynical brain, “If they’re so enthused about it, why don’t they go work in a studio and get out of their cubicle?” Well as I’ve learned from many many years as a starving musician/engineer, that’s easier said than done. Sometimes the gas bill determines your fate more than your dreams do. I’ve eaten my fair share of Ramen in order to fund that next gear purchase. Hell, my wife has probably eaten MORE than her fair share of Ramen in order to fund MY next gear purchase. Eventually you say, “Enough is enough.” My kids don’t like Ramen so much, so it’s time to get a “real” job right? I imagine similar motivations are what have driven most of these engineers, musicians, and producers into the land of cubicles and out of their studios.

So we should all pity them and buy gear from them so that they can get out of the cube and back into the studio, right? No, of course not. I’ve never been a fan of pity or of people not making their own way. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t avoid them simply because they are in the cube. I think it’s time to take a look at this a bit more objectively. Let’s imagine two scenarios. In the first we have our guy in the cubicle, and we’re going to assume he’s working at VK, Sweetwater, or GC Pro and has a somewhat decent knowledge of gear (as most of them do). His sole function from 9-5 (or something similar) is to work on getting you gear, getting you the best deal on gear, making sure your gear got to you, and making sure that you like your gear. His gas bill is depending on it, and that’s all that he’s doing all day long. If you need to get in touch with him, he’s there. Any issues come up, he’s there. If you need someone to teach you how to mix, or how to use your gear, then find a mentor, or pay someone. If you plan on learning how to mix over the phone, with someone across the country, then you’re delusional.

In our second scenario we have the “engineers in studios” that apparently line the hallways of Mercenary Audio (I’ll try to keep the sarcasm to a minimum). Their day begins, they grab some coffee and head into the studio. They bring up the mix that they were working on yesterday and start listening. They edit, they adjust, they tweak, and they get into the zone. That glorious place where you could mix for days and everything you touch turns to gold. Their phone vibrates and tells them that they have a new voicemail from YOU (presumably to buy gear). They’ll call you back eventually, but first they’ve got this record to mix because a manager, or band, or some client is breathing down their neck to have it done by some deadline. Their paycheck, or at least the larger portion of it, is dependent on them finishing this mix and it sounding great, so they keep going on that. Eventually during that day they will probably get back to you but it will more than likely be several hours, or possibly even days (if you read the customer feedback on Mercenary’s own website it points to this possibility). By that time your need for gear has either passed, or already been filled by someone else, and you were hung out to dry.

Further down that rabbit hole, let’s say they actually do finish a mix that turns into a hit. They’ve got a hit record to their credit and now more and more clients are beating down their door. Suddenly the person that you’re dependent on to supply you gear so you can do YOUR mixes, has fallen off the map because they’ve got more records to mix than they know what to do with. Now you’re stuck dealing with someone else at that company who DOESN’T have a hit record and therefore has an “inferior” opinion, so you’re just as well off trusting one of the people in the cube who also doesn’t have a hit record. I won’t even get started on the fact that their “engineers” in their “studios” are competing in the same studio market as you are presumably, and all that that implies.

My point after all of that ranting is that I wouldn’t buy a car from a professional race car driver. I’d buy it from the person who gets me the best deal and provides the best service. I wouldn’t buy an oven from a professional chef, I’d pay them to cook for me. I wouldn’t buy a…well, you get the idea. If you want someone to mix your record, it sounds like the guys at Mercenary would be perfect, but if you want someone to take time with you on purchasing gear, and following up afterward, you may want to go with someone who IS trapped in a cube all day and has nothing else to do for that time. Sure they’re opinions won’t always be spot on (whose are?), and they may not know how every piece of gear out there sounds, but that’s why you have ears. That’s why you have friends. That’s why we have this glorious cesspool called the internet. Guys like me can spout their opinions on everything all day long! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go back to making some music with the gear that I bought from cube dwellers. Sounds fantastic!!!

Fathomless Regression

Check out my other rants on the industry:
The Many Hats of A Home Studio Owner
Do I Have To Go To College To Be A Recording Engineer?

Or my rants on everything else under the sun:
fathomlessregression.wordpress.com

  • David Grey

    Sweetwater guys are trained the most. Period.

  • As a “value added re-seller” in the video industry selling $15 batteries to $30,000 digital cinema cameras this has really struck a chord. There are a couple sides to the issue. If people ask me questions all day long and then buy online from somewhere else, that is my fault. It is my fault because I am not managing the relationship through knowledge of past behavior and listening to expectations moving forward. Do we match online prices, yes, most of the time. Do we ship for free, yes, most of the time. Do we know our gear and keep a decent selection in stock? Yes. Is Amazon.com going to same day shipping in Texas, where we are. Yes. Am I excited about our clients work, new gear being released and our market share in the future? Yes!

  • Charles

    This idea that there exist these benevolant retail sales people whose only concerns are the well being of their customers seems so foreign, so far from the truth. Why not mention the time the cubies spend in sales meetings? That seems a very important part of this equation because “sales engineers” get serious pressure from the top down. The musical instrument retailer, like the general retailer, has to keep growing to stay alive. They must rule the world! As an example why sales matter, I would like to mention the Sweetwater Sound virtual tour. Wow. How did they get all that nice stuff? They didn’t get it by giving gear heads the best deal. Sweetwater, and others, make excellent profits from retail sales. Period. Bring in a pallet of USB audio interfaces at a hundred bucks per then push them out the door for three hundred. Am I being too generous? And, if the sales engineers” are really so concerned with “getting you the best deal on gear,” why not just hook you up with the wholesaler?

    • I disagree with you. Also, your example of marking up the product 200% simply isn’t true.

  • Just cycling back through some of the guest posts I’ve done here on HSC, and I kind of forgot about this one. Cube dwellers unite! 🙂

  • Josh Stevenson

    Great post- coming from a guy who works in a call center selling computers competing with the guys in retail who actually have such an unbelievable lack of tech knowledge its ridiculous. I think the important thing to recognize is that each serves its purpose and has its place. I’ve referred enough people to local folks in cases where it makes more sense.

    – josh

  • Even living within reach of several outlets for my gear, the “musicians” that work in most gear outlets usually act like there going to be a star any moment, and try to make you feel stupid for asking a question anyway, I still end up ordering online!

  • WILLIAM JONES

    I don’t have a problem buying from the guy in the Cubicle!! But Joe, you already know that!! I have a problem with driving long distance somewhere to buy a piece of audio gear. So, that’s why I choose Sweetwater most of the time. The other 3% of the time I take my chances on something I found on Ebay and most of the time that works out. But it can also backfire. If I buy it at Sweetwater I know they are going to stand behind it and be helpful even after the sale.

  • Good read man, your blog just made my RSS reader.
    I can related 100% to this, cube dweller gear rocks!! Hey wait, you mean when I call Sweetwater the guy taking my order isn’t sitting at a mixing console?!

    In the IT arena I’ve lived between cubicles and data center/server farms (these days I’ve scored 3 walls and a window, woo hoo), and in the last 10 years if someone ever said “don’t listen to Julian, he works in a cubicle” they would have missed out. But on the other side of the coin, I’m not the person you want to ask about setting up your home computer because I’m gonna probably digress and talk about RAID and backups and geeky stuff. 😛

    I’ve done the call-center support thing, being in IT, and more-recently in my gear quest. I kinda determined that if I’m gonna have gear questions…I may have better luck with a place like Sweetwater vs some of the other shops out there. But at the end of the day, as a noob in setting up my home studio much of my gear was bought based on advice from friends or from researching sites like this one (if ONLY I had found this site a few months ago!!).

    I really value when I get an engineer/producer type on the phone, but like you say if he gets a success he’s gonna flee the cube. Then I’m left with someone who may not have his insight, and so then I need do my homework. Opinions are everywhere and varied on the crazy Internets, so it comes down to our research and and our wallets (I can related to the Ramen dinners to get gear!). I guess as long as I can keep bad gear purchases at a minimum I’m happy, but sometimes that does happen: a “Guitar Sinner” salesrep talked me into a Yammie hardware DAW late last year when I began my home studio journey. It’s not a bad piece of a gear, but the advice was way way wrong for an IT dork who would learn more by going direct-in and doing Pro Tools or Logic or whatever (but such was the quality of advice I got from G. Center, zing!).

    Good rant, I enjoyed reading it. Cheers!

    • I meant to say “good write up…” instead of “rant”, I was busy ranting in an M-Audio forum at the same time. heh…

  • Mike

    I’ve never had a problem buying gear from the so called “cubicle guys” The bottom line is as a consumer you need to do as much research on the gear as possible. I’m fanaticle about research, I’ll sometimes research a piece gear to the point where I know more about it than the sales guy. So for me, I don’t care if your in a cube, a studio, or a gas station, do your homework and you’ll be fine.
    Peace! Mike