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Music Stores

I Miss Mars Music

I miss Mars Music. I’ll explain.

We can order just about anything we want for our musical instrument needs through the internet. Before the Coronavirus pandemic, it could arrive in a matter of a day or two. Once the pandemic kicked in, package delivery now takes weeks. When it comes to a lot of music stuff, especially instruments, you usually don’t want to just order them – you want to sit down and try them out, take them for a test-drive.

For months, music stores were considered non-essential, so the doors were bolted shut. Now, some are open on a limited basis or by appointment. Moreover, some mom-and-pop ones have gone out of business never to return. It is a sad state of affairs.

I love music stores. To me there are two kinds: the big-box ones like Guitar Center, and the specialty smaller ones that cater to enthusiasts. I always looked at it like going out to eat. If you want something fast and maybe cheaper and are not too picky about the outcome, you go to McDonald’s. If you want to get the best steak available and are willing to pay for it in money and time, you go to a five-star restaurant.

As for the big-box music store, there is really only one out now: Guitar Center. The immediate competition is minimal. Music-Go-Round is not much of competition as far as offerings, seems to concentrate on used gear, and is limited in locations. Sam Ash is even more limited in locations and relies heavily on internet orders. GC has its ear to the ground, with numerous locations and prices that are reasonable in most cases. They really do not have any brick-and-mortar competition.

It wasn’t always that way. For a few years, from 1996 until about 2002, GC had intense competition from Mars Music. MM was founded by Mark Begelman, a former president of Office Depot and an avid guitarist. After being disappointed by an experience at a local music store, he started up MM with the intent of selling decent equipment at affordable prices and no pushy salespeople. It worked for a while. Stores were in 20 states, and it was innovative in setting up music education programs and charity programs.

What I loved about MM was that it was competitive with GC in pricing, especially with accessories. I never really purchased any big-ticket items from either store, but I relied on them for quick and easy access to strings, cords, picks, straps, and other stuff that breaks and needs replacement right away. When MM opened, they had their own brand of such items, and they were extremely affordable. You could get a box of 10 set of guitar strings for about $20.00. A set of bass strings would be about $7.00. GC shortly started selling their own brand of accessories as well at bargain prices.

Begelman had a great heart. He knew musicians liked to try out instruments and did not have a lot of money. MM was in many ways more comfortable and welcoming than GC, but the main idea there was competition. Both knew there was a decent-sized market out there, and both went to extremes to get that cash.

Sadly, MM went bankrupt within a few years due to expansion problems and poor investments. It was literally a one-day-open-next-day-closed situation. I thought about all of that branded stuff going nowhere. GC kept going, but phased out most of its budgeted self-branded accessories. While GC still has relatively good prices, there is not that competitive feel for the small-ticket items.

Recently, I needed to purchase a budget gig bag for a cheap Chinese bass guitar that I got brand new for around $65.00. I just needed a glorified dust covering, not a hardshell case or a bells-and-whistle soft case gig bag. Surfing the internet, it was extremely hard to find even a cheap-quality gig bag for under $25.00 plus shipping. I finally found one that come to about $20.00 with tax and shipping. I got it through the mail a week after ordering, and it was not much more than sewn canvas with a zipper.

This experience made me think about how much I miss Mars. Back then, I remember getting a few gig bags that were of the same quality as this recent one for about $8.00. It had the MM brand emblazoned on it, but who cares? It did its job at a musician’s price. Times change, and I realize that a lot of good things disappear. Only competition can keep the things we love affordable.

Chew on it and comment.

By Matt Merta/Mitch Matthews

Musician and writer (both song and print) for over 30 years. Primarily interested in roots music (Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk). Current contributing writer for Fiddler Magazine, previous work with Metro Times (Detroit), Ann Arbor Paper, as well as other various music and military publications. As songwriter, won the 2015 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (Bluegrass Category, "Something About A Train," co-written with Dawn Kenney and David Morris) as well as having work performed on NPR and nominated for numerous Detroit Music Awards.

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