Sweetwater Moves into B&O

Mike Lawson • November 2021UpClose • November 12, 2021

The cost for entry into band is a daunting challenge for many students, and it sends those with parents willing to support their interest off in myriad directions to get them into band, even when the financial implications present a hardship. Back in 1980, my beginner band experience started with a recruitment night at the Jr. high school. And as happens across the country, the local music dealer was on hand to talk about instrument rentals, purchases, and repairs.

Sweetwater’s new Band and Orchestra showroom in Ft. Wayne

Parents were given options, and warned against used instruments from pawn shops, hand-me-downs, or even worse, ordering from Sears or JC Penny catalogs. Understandably so, as a poor quality or condition instrument is a hindrance to success for beginning students. In my day and age, school instruments outside of Sousaphone or marching bass drum were not available. Students wanting to participate had to provide their own instruments. It was expensive for a new one, and rentals varied in price based on their condition and age. The past two decades or so as “e-commerce” became the norm, parents are now warned about ordering an instrument from Amazon, or eBay, and not supporting a local dealer who can provide in-person assistance if an instrument isn’t playing correctly, or needs repair.

“We recognize that band and orchestra is where a lot of musicians are born, and if we can do anything within our power to help those kids be more successful when they start, then that’s doing the right thing, which is what Sweetwater is all about.” – David Fuhr, SVP of B&O, Customer Experience at Sweetwater



And make no mistake, the local music dealer specializing in band and orchestra instruments will always be the backbone of school music programs, providing an indelible local service crucial to band programs. But no matter how many times parents are told they should really only buy local for their new band student; many are going to go online anyway to try to save money and get the best price so their child can fulfill their desire to join the band. I get it. That toothpaste is out of the tube, and will never be put back into it. Local stores will always be able to provide in-person what online retailers can’t, even when they might not be the best on price. 

This is all part of what made the announcement November 1st that Sweetwater, the world’s largest online retailer of all things music products related, was making a major entry into the world of band and orchestra (B&O), intriguing. I know them to be an exceptional company that cares about customers beyond the sale.

While he initially wanted to play the trombone, his father nudged him towards the saxophone instead, which Chuck credits as one of the wisest decisions his father made

Sweetwater was founded in 1979 by Chuck Surack, former band kid

The company, founded in 1979 by Chuck Surack, has an amazing backstory and is an example of the American Dream on steroids. Chuck was a touring musician, who got his start like so many of us, playing in school bands. He’s a saxophone player, and a really good one, at that. He began playing music during elementary school in Fort Wayne, Indiana. While he initially wanted to play the trombone, his father nudged him towards the saxophone instead, which Chuck credits as one of the wisest decisions his father made. After high school, Chuck went on to play professionally across the country for several years, before making his way back to Fort Wayne and founding Sweetwater in 1979. Chuck’s time in band sparked his passion for helping others on their musical journeys, and he works to instill that same joy and excitement upon his friends, family, and customers alike. Chuck continues to perform regularly in two bands – The Sweetwater All Stars, and Prime Time. Chuck and Sweetwater have been a massive supporter of school music programs, especially in his home state. 

Full disclosure: I am a (habitual) Sweetwater customer. Sweetwater also has been an annual sponsor of the non-profit I help run, TI:ME, for years.

I’m a longtime customer not just because of price, often their prices are the same as anyone else’s price. The no-sales tax thing went away years ago due to new laws. Sweetwater has kept me around because of service, technical support, ease of ordering, and fast shipments. I have honestly never had a bad Sweetwater experience. I also love how much they give back to the music education community across the country. I’ve been to their facilities a few times for their annual customer gathering, Gear Fest, which has people literally flying in from around the country to attend. It’s hard to describe how cool it is, and the onsite operation. 

David Fuhr, SVP of B&O, Customer Experience at Sweetwater, is a former band director

I view Sweetwater’s full-throttle entrance into B&O through the lens of a customer with really good experiences. I own over 50 guitars. I’m picky. I’ve bought guitars I have never played in person from them, something I never thought I would do, because I trusted their inspection staff. Never had to return one. I trusted them because I know that Sweetwater actively recruits and relocates amazing musicians to move to Ft. Wayne, to do this work. I have several friends who took the bait, made the move, and love it there. The campus is really an astounding place full of real musicians, serving other musicians. I could write an entire article on the in-person experience, but that’s moot, because their B&O customers will nearly all be online orders. 

Sweetwater’s headquarters in Fort Wayne, Indiana

To learn more, I sat down via Zoom with David Fuhr, the SVP of B&O, Customer Experience at Sweetwater. David has a degree in Instrumental Music Education. He is a former middle school band director from Cobb County, Georgia, with hands-on expertise in the needs of school music parents and students. With over 20 years of experience leading sales teams in the school music retail business, Fuhr is leading the launch of B&O for Sweetwater.

B&O is traditionally kind of a mom-and-pop-supported market, how can a giant online retailer provide value in that world?
That’s a great question. And to answer it, you know, probably the best way to go about it is to say that many of our sales engineers started their musical journeys on a band or orchestra instrument. When you look at our sales engineers, many of them are as strong on a band or orchestra instrument as they are on a guitar or with their recording background. We have a tremendous depth of knowledge with our sales team with experience there. And on the other side, we were realizing very quickly that our customers were asking for us to be in this business. We came into it mostly because we just didn’t want to send our customers somewhere else for something that we should be able to help with. 

Sweetwater is not online-only, but has a massive retail location at their headquarters in Ft Wayne

We’re finding that the vast majority of those people purchasing band and orchestra instruments since we put it on the web are our existing customers that are moms and dads with kids in band programs. We have to enter this space as strong as anything else we do at Sweetwater. We inspect every band and orchestra instrument before it leaves our doors to make sure that it’s ready for that consumer, that it’s been recently inspected, lubricated, if it’s a saxophone that we check the key heights, the intonation on that instrument, and we make sure that before it goes out the door, that it’s ready. And we make sure that our customers get that legendary customer service from Sweetwater in this new area.

How will you involve yourselves as a retailer in the band recruitment and retention activities of the local high school and middle school bands?
With Mynett Music, which is the [B&O] company that Chuck Surack purchased, we’ve been doing that for decades now.  I’m a former band director myself, taught middle school band, and I’m very aware of the process that parents go through when they’re selecting a music dealer. I’m very aware of the process band directors go through when they’re looking for very specific needs for their students. In different parts of the country, we recognize that the customers are going to need different products for those school classrooms. And what we want to make sure of is that we’re presenting products on our website that parents can trust, that teachers recommended and close the loop on making sure that a teacher can recommend Sweetwater and know that we’re going to follow those teachers’ recommendations and give them the products that their students need for their classes. In northeast Indiana, we visit almost all the schools on a weekly basis. We have many of the rental accounts that we service. We are already doing that. We do fittings, we do those recruitment programs. 

Will Sweetwater be providing rental services?
At this time. nationally, Sweetwater is not renting beginner instruments, but we definitely are dialed into what it takes.

Sweetwater has a massive knowledge base from videos to articles, photos, walkthroughs to support the products, and educate the customers. What can B&O customers expect?
There are several layers to that onion that we’re currently working on. One layer is our technical support department, which is a human being that answers the phone when you have a problem. That is up and running today for band and orchestra. So, if you have an issue, for example, you buy a trumpet and those valves are sticky when it comes to you, which can happen due to temperature change, call our technical support department. We’re going to make that right by walking you through how to lubricate those valves. If we can’t help remotely, we’re going to get you a different trumpet, and get that other one back. They’re there to help and they’ve been fully trained. And many of them are band and orchestra folks themselves.

Next up is what you were referring to as our knowledge base or video articles. We have begun to build that up for band and orchestra and we’re creating a roadmap on every instrument because we want to be a trusted resource. 

The next piece of the puzzle is our product video content. We have a group of professional musicians from the industry who have either expressed interest because they’re customers of ours. You’ll start to see those videos coming together in the coming days, weeks, and months. And there are already some on the bottoms of our product pages. We have just over 2400 unique band and orchestra products. If you go to the oboe page, for example, for Fox, you’ll see a video on Fox Oboes and what goes into the manufacturing of a Fox Oboe. That’s a ton of content to build. 

We have a team that focuses on educators. Every sales engineer has gone through an entire two-month period where in just about every sales meeting they were getting training on band and orchestra instruments so that they could be highly knowledgeable. And if they don’t have the answer, they know how to find it very quickly for our customers.

Parent support and outreach, as you know as a former band director, is huge. You need parental buy-in and support. What kind of resources do you see Sweetwater developing to educate the parents of potential and returning band students?
We are working on resources for helping your student with, for example, how to pick an instrument. What instruments are they interested in? We’re working on resources, whether its videos describing the different instruments, [or] helping them with aptitude testing. We recognize that band and orchestra is where a lot of musicians are born, and if we can do anything within our power to help those kids be more successful when they start, then that’s doing the right thing, which is what Sweetwater is all about. 

As a band director, what percentage were just kids not knowing how to lube the valves versus really having an actual physical repair issue?
From the time I was a band director, I would say half of the kids would walk up to me with something that wasn’t necessarily broken. It was just an example, like, they put their trumpet valve in backwards and now air won’t go through the instrument, and you just spin the valve around, put it back in, and you’re good. And so that’s where our technical support department can step in and help. We can also walk those students through, “Okay. Here’s how you lubricate a tuning slide. Here’s where you put the oil in an instrument.” 

Sweetwater carries both pro and beginner level B&O instruments from brands band directors trust and recommend

Part of our instrument inspection process also offers some tips and tricks for students that will help them, you know, like one that says, “No eating or drinking when you’re playing because that can deposit sugars on the surface of the pads and cause them to stick to the tone holes.” That is a very common thing where kids would drink a Coke, pick up their clarinet, start playing on it, and then wonder why their pads are all sticky. And that’s because the sticky syrup from the Coke gets all on their pads and causes the pads to close up. 

We have a repair shop here on campus with repair techs. Our average tenure of a repair technician is 27 years. They’re exceptional at what they do. We’re recruiting best-in-class repair people. We just recruited somebody last week who started from North Carolina and we brought him in, and we put him at the bench because we want to make sure that if somebody’s got an instrument that needs to be repaired, they can send it to us, we can fix it. And if it’s something they bought from us, we’re going to stand behind what we buy and we’re going to take care of it as well.

Sweetwater has a stellar reputation. What last thoughts would you like to share in presenting the new B&O commitment to music educators?
Sweetwater isn’t going to do anything unless we can do it at the level that we perform at today. We held off on entering band and orchestra for a long time because of the complexities of that business. We did our homework. We understand that the band director determines the course that we need to go in. Our sales engineers have been told very clearly that we need to follow band director recommendations. So, the band director wants that kid to have a Bach Strad, we’re going to get that kid a Bach Strad. 

A teacher can feel comfortable if they send parents to Sweetwater and say, “My child is here to get a Bach Strad or a Holton-Farkas French horn or a Selmer saxophone,” that that’s what we are going to sell to them. We’re not going to go against those educator preferences. We are going to support our band directors and orchestra directors because we realize that they are the ones who want an ensemble to sound a certain way. We get the fact that they’re trying to create their most successful approach to teaching students and we’re going to support that. sweetwater.com 

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