Music Land Serves Its Corner of the World Well
“We don’t go for business beyond our county too much any more,” Joe Noto says. “We decided to focus more on local music making. I’d rather be in my little corner and do my little thing, and not try to conquer the world.”
Like all good independents, personal service and expertise is key to the success of this Baltimore suburban music retail operation known as Music Land, owned by Joe Noto. But being old school doesn’t keep this business from having a good Web presence, or getting that precious “word of mouth” online. Music Land features prominently in Insider Pages, a website where consumers can rate local businesses, and the locals are singing its praises. “Joe was very helpful in getting whatever music equipment was needed,” and “[Joe] is a great person and has a good sense of humor.”
Music Land is a full line store – you can get your Fender guitar and Marshall amp there – but the emphasis is on Band & Orchestra. They cultivate a culture of young music makers; one of their customers, Katie Bulb, 17, was one of just ten scholarship-winners awarded by MMR’s sister publication, School Band & Orchestra (SBO), through an essay contest, which is co-sponsored by NAMM, Alfred Publishing, Sabian, Woodwind & Brasswind, and Yamaha.
Noto’s own story is inspiring. He was born in Sicily, Italy, and his family immigrated to the states in 1957 when he was a teenager. Family connections landed them in the Baltimore area, and despite having to learn English on the fly, Noto quickly got involved with local music stores. He got a job teaching accordion and guitar, and then in the mid-1960s, he opened up a small shop in Baltimore. In 1971, he closed that one and opened Music Land a little north and east in Bel Air, Maryland. Next was an evolution of sorts from small store to a shopping center in the 1980s, finally moving to their current stand-alone building where they have been for over 20 years. While combo was always in the mix, “We grew stronger because of our band and orchestra [department],” he says. “It’s a big part of what we do because of our relationships with the schools.”
“With the business, everything is a little better,” he says cautiously. “The rental season didn’t really get affected by the recession too much. Parents still rent instruments, and stands, reeds, and strings still get bought. But foot traffic is down. I think the business is still there, it’s just getting misplaced with the Internet.”
MMR: What is the bulk of your business?
Joe Noto: We do a good amount of repairs and rentals. We do a lot of accessories but that’s become very competitive because of the Internet.
We really cater more to the local population, and service is the number one emphasis. You can buy an instrument anywhere, but here it’s not just about getting the sale, it’s about cultivating relationships. We have second and third generation family members coming to us. I see the grandchildren of people I used to teach!
MMR: That must make you feel good …
JN: It makes me feel a little older, that’s what it does! [laughs]
MMR: Your repair shop has a great reputation. Tell us about it.
JN: We do all the repairs for all the schools, including Peabody Conservatory [in Baltimore]. We service a lot of Baltimore musicians too. We have two main repair people, Gary Lindenborn, who has managed the repair since 1982, and Eric Church, who has been in the shop since 1990. Then there is also Gary’s father, Bill, who helps with guitar and banjo repairs part time, and Josh D’Onofrio, who is new.
All our technicians are members of the National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians. They all do good work and I couldn’t ask for anybody else to work on the instruments that come into the shop.
JN: We have four working in front, at least two people in the shop, and then we have eight teachers.
MMR: Do you get out to the schools?
JN: We don’t go to the schools like we used to. The schools themselves give out a list of local dealers, and we get a good amount of the kids renting from that.
MMR: And how are the school music programs in your area?
JN: The county school district has a really good, strong program.
MMR: Are marching bands strong in your area?
JN: They are. They are really good. C. Milton Wright High School is getting stronger all the time. They have a huge program and the teacher is fantastic, doing an unbelievably good job.
MMR: You still have a big print department…
JN: We’re into sheet music, books, band books, solo books, samba books –we have a large selection. Our biggest suppliers are Alfred and Hal Leonard, and then we use jobbers for the small stuff. We have some band music, orchestra print, and we supply the schools with choral music sometimes. We have lots of sheet music, pop stuff, traditional music education books. I just think print music is an integral part of the store.
Accessories are a big part of our business. Yamaha, Selmer, Rico, and Van Doren all do well.
MMR: What instruments do you carry?
JN: We sell Bach, Selmer, and Yamaha. Those are three main lines for brass and woodwinds. We tried Buffet for a while as a step-up instrument, but it didn’t sell too well.
We’d actually like to do more step-up business. Prices are so competitive because of the Internet. It’s always that old story: Do we cut prices more and cut service? Or sell the service? We do the latter.
For strings it’s Glaesel, Scherl & Roth, Yamaha, and Allegro. We recently just added Amati string instruments. Their sales person came by the store and showed the instruments off and I was impressed. I’ve tried some other brands, but I thought this was good for the money. The instrument’s setup is excellent. It’s a nice instrument for the price range.
MMR: What does well percussion-wise in your B&O market?
JN: The main three are Ludwig, Tama, and Pearl. We do some low-end sales with WJM, too. Zildjian and Sabian cymbals do well. Related accessories include things from them plus Sabine, Remo, Evans, and Latin Percussion.
MMR: Tell us about the teaching component of Music Land.
JN: We have eight who rent the rooms – we don’t run a “school.” They are independent – in fact, my daughter, Amanda [Noto], teaches piano and voice. Some of the teachers have been with us a long time – some started taking lessons here as a kid, and then come back later to teach.
But we teachers tie the idea of sales to the students.
MMR: Do you do clinics?
JN: We haven’t in a while. We have guitar clinics, keyboard… we had Robert Godin himself come in for a Seagull [guitar] session.
I feel like manufacturers are spending their money on websites and YouTube and that’s why there are less clinics. What they forget is that getting people in the store really sells the instruments. A trumpet player comes by out of curiosity for a clinic, and is shown a new instrument. Then the clinician says, “now try it with this mouthpiece, and it’ll sound even better!” The person goes home from the clinic, and can’t stop thinking about the horn. Eventually he comes back and buys it. You can’t get that [experience] on a website or YouTube video.
MMR: Like many dealers, do you feel like you’re struggling against the Internet?
JN: A kid comes in and plays three, four, or five different [models] to decide which one he likes and buys that. Is happy with it. Someone on the Internet buys something, tries it out, decides he or she doesn’t like it and sends it back. This can happen a couple times for months, so when someone who buys it does like it enough to keep it, you’ve got a used instrument.
MMR: You’ve got a great website – it’s nice to see bios of all your teachers, etc. Is it new?
JN: We did that about a year ago, and we’re still working on a product page. We haven’t tried to sell on it … One of my customers programmed it.
MMR: It’s fun to look at all the photos you have on it from your decades in business.
JN: Funny thing. He thought I was crazy for wanting that, but when [the website] was up, he came back and said he couldn’t believe how many hits those pictures got! Old students, teachers, people from the neighborhood like to look at them.
And that’s exactly what I’m talking about with a store versus the Internet. You can buy stuff anywhere, but a store like this is about being a community and getting closer to those who live here.