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11/21/2004

Taking Note

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — When it comes to music, the term “middle of the road” often has a negative connotation: bland, inoffensive; in a word, boring.

But there’s nothing bland or boring about a music store that’s been able to survive for 30 years by caring for middle-of-the-road music customers.

“We don’t do the higher-end guitars; we don’t do a lot of the lower-end, either. We do a lot of the mid-range,” said Ken Miller, the owner of Miller Music, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. “We try to find these market niches where quality and price match up.

“We’re not really in it for the pros — we’re in it more for the hobbyist.”

In a competitive industry, made more competitive by the Internet, which didn’t exist when Ken Miller got into the music business, his store has been able to grow over the years by offering a variety of products — from guitars to band instruments to sheet music — and by not worrying about what the other guy is doing. Instead, the store focuses on serving its customers.

Miller discovered Colorado when he was 21 and came out from Michigan to visit his sister, who lived in Arvada. He quickly fell in love with the area, and first opened his store on Fifth Avenue, just off Main Street, in 1974. Originally called Bagg’s Conservatory of Music, he started offering lessons on a variety of instruments.

Now-defunct Longmont Music, which was in the 700 block of Main Street, helped him in those early days, he said.

“They were the big kids on the block,” Miller said. “When we got here, the guys felt so sorry for us they started giving us all their trade-ins and old rentals so we could hang them on the wall and look like a real music store.”

A year after opening, it was a real music store. Conservatory was dropped from the name, and added to the music lessons were sales and rentals of instruments. In 1985, Miller moved his store to its current location, 464 Main St.

“Being on the side street and being on Main Street are two totally different animals,” said Miller, adding that when he arrived on Main it wasn’t quite as vibrant as it is today.

“It was empty — it was like a ghost town,” he remembered. “There was a sagebrush blowing across downtown. I thought, ‘Oh God, this doesn’t look like a good sign.’”

The town then had about 24,000 people, and Longmont had a lot of growing up to do. His customer base grew along with the city, however, and today some of his customers are the children of customers from the old days.

During a recent 30th anniversary party, Cody Hale, a freshman at Longmont High School, scored a Samick electric guitar for only 99 cents in a contest the store held.

Hale, a regular customer of Miller’s, is on a mailing list that Miller used to promote the party.

“It’s a really nice guitar,” said Hale, who also owns an Ibanez electric and an Alvarez acoustic that he bought at Miller’s store. Hale, who is in the marching band at LHS, also frequents Miller for supplies he needs for his extracurricular school activity.

“I believe that Miller Music has a pretty good selection as far as brass instruments, and I like shopping there every now and then,” he said. “They have a lot of things I need as far as trumpets go and when I’m in there, a lot of times I see things for the guitar I like.”

Selling band instruments and sheet music has always been a part of the business for Miller, but the variety of products, like his business, has grown with time.

Today Roland keyboards are one of the store’s big sellers — it’s the only line of keyboards Miller carries.

“We’ve evolved,” Miller said. “When we first started we had only one guitar line.”

Over the years, Longmont Music faded into memory, and a few years ago, another competitor, Wildwood Music, also closed up shop.

That leaves just Miller and the biggest music store in town, Guitars Etc., which earlier this year moved in right next door to Miller Music.

Ken Miller said he had looked at buying the larger building but couldn’t come to an agreement with the owner on a price.

While Guitars Etc. is definitely a competitor, Miller said he feels that his particular niche allows his business to keep growing, and he said that having the stores side-by-side seems to have been good for both businesses.

“Our sales have been going up 5 (percent) to 8 percent, 8 (percent) to 10 percent,” Miller said. “They’ve definitely been increasing, so I don’t think it’s been bad for him to be next door to us.”

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.