Spotlight/garcia/21″/Lk1st/mike2nd By SHELLY GARCIA Staff Reporter A strip of Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, from Hazeltine Avenue to Sepulveda Boulevard, for years has been home to a cluster of shops selling musical instruments and accessories. But these days, many of those longtime music retailers are singing the blues. The expansion of national music chain stores already has driven a number of the smaller stores out of business, and it has changed the way those that remain are operating. “There’s this whole adjustment going on,” said Adam Remson, editor of an industry trade publication, The Music & Sound Retailer. “It’s closed down a lot of mid-sized stores.” Of the nine or so shops that have lined this corridor over the past decade, only five remain. The retail music industry itself has seen modest growth, increasing to $5.9 billion in sales last year from $5.4 billion in 1995, according to the industry trade group International Music Products Association. But an emerging sector of mega-stores is snatching most of the increases. Guitar Center Inc., the largest of these retailers with sales of $296 million last year, is emblematic of the new generation of stores replacing the mom-and-pop shops that had been the cornerstone of the industry. Publicly traded Guitar Center first came to Sherman Oaks in the early 1980s, and last year doubled its store size to 20,000 square feet, a move designed to accommodate more than 350 guitars it keeps on display and a new section devoted to the fast-growing high-tech music sector. That sector includes recording equipment, synthesizers, computerized music programs and peripherals, and other product lines. Many of the smaller retail music stores in Sherman Oaks first came to the area hoping to draw on the traffic generated by Guitar Center, but soon found they were unable to compete with the store’s selection and prices. “We do a lot of promotion and marketing, and we stimulate the market,” said Mike Vizvary, Guitar Center’s director of advertising and marketing. “A lot of the dealers around us are able to do well by niche marketing around the brands we don’t carry and emphasizing other things.” Indeed, the retailers that have remained in the area have deliberately carved a path that steers clear of the direct competition posed by Guitar Center. Baxter Northup Music Co., for example, which first moved into Sherman Oaks in 1946 and was acquired by its current owner in 1977, focuses on the school music market and traditional wind and orchestra instruments instead of guitars. It also offers one of the Valley’s largest selections of printed music. Last year, Baxter Northup expanded its music-instruction business, opening an additional five studios and bringing on eight more teachers. Its student load went to 400 from about 250 a few years ago. “We’ve also in the past year opened a completely new department, a kid’s music store,” said Ed Walker Sr., the store’s owner. The department caters to children aged 1 to 10, with kid-sized violins, drum sets and other instruments, as well as harmonicas and tambourines for the very young. “My store is doing a decent business in areas where Guitar Center isn’t,” said Walker’s son, Ed Jr. One of the newest stores in the neighborhood, Classic Guitars International, moved into the area a year ago because of the draw of the other neighborhood shops, and has also enjoyed brisk business because it targets a type of customer who essentially isn’t served by Guitar Center. The retailer sells custom-made acoustic guitars for those whose tastes run to classical or flamenco music. “Our niche is so specialized that even though the large retailers experiment with it, it seems immune to the big-guy effect,” said Chris Kamen, the store’s owner. The store caters to baby boomers who have mellowed and are looking for a quieter sound, as well as younger customers inspired by contemporary groups like Gypsy Kings, who play flamenco-inspired music. Selling one of these guitars is a very time-consuming undertaking, which may be another reason the mega-stores steer clear of the sector. “We may spend 10 to 15 hours with a client before they purchase a single guitar,” Kamen said. Avoiding head-on competition with the mega-stores is more difficult for retailers like Electronic Music Box, which specializes in home-studio equipment, and computer music programs and peripherals. “The biggest problem is the mega-store,” said Peter Brunner, owner of the Electronic Music Box. “In this type of business, people will drive a long way to save 50 cents.” Because Electronic Music Box can’t always compete on price, it has ratcheted up its service, offering classes in various computer programs and private consultations to help clients put together a system that best meets their needs. “Customers may get a slightly better price (at the big retailers) but they’re constantly buying things they don’t know how to use, so we’re getting more of a service orientation,” said Brunner. “The buzzword is customer service,” which has become the focus of smaller retailers, added Remson at The Music & Sound Retailer. Many of the smaller retailers had a reputation as havens for elitist salespeople who looked down on customers who lacked extensive expertise. But the stores are now trying to alter that perception with a range of programs ranging from in-store classes to services that help musicians seeking to form a band to locate candidates. Remson said it is too early to tell whether these strategies will help the smaller stores survive. Survival will probably not get any easier, with the national chains like Guitar Center and Sam Ash Music Stores aggressively expanding. Sam Ash just recently opened a store in Canoga Park, and Guitar Center, which just opened its 46th store, is looking to expand its chain to 60 stores within the next few years. “We’re really in the middle of finding out what’s going to go down,” Remson said. Sherman Oaks Year Founded: 1946 Origins: Created in the early 1900s by railroad builder General Moses H. Sherman, who was part of a syndicate that purchased 47,500 acres in the Valley. Of that expanse, about 1,000 acres around what is now Ventura and Sepulveda boulevards was subdivided into the community of Sherman Oaks. Business Profile: Small, neighborhood merchants and restaurants and a few chain stores. Music retailers located here because of its central location to other parts of the Valley and proximity to music studios.