- The Washington Times - Monday, November 30, 2009

Rockin’ around the retail tree. Whether listening to a digitally remastered Beatles CD, shopping for Guitar Hero, purchasing a drum set or enrolling your teen in a rock-band music class, you’re in a groove that is good - for the economy.

Parents are being drawn toward all things rock ‘n’ roll-related, and some economists say that can only help Christmas sales for key products within the categories of music, fashion, consumer electronics and entertainment.

“This could be a speck of good news in general if Christmas is where we do a lot more retail,” said economist David A. Brat, a member of Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine’s advisory board of economists and economics department chairman at Randolph-Macon College near Richmond.

While it is difficult “to drill down to the micro level” to assess just how individual sales of distinctly different items are converging in a rock-related upswing, Mr. Brat said, “parents are spending more on the family unit,” which could help nudge the economy out of its doldrums.

“If I’m looking at just consumer goods, there’s a nice little shift going on there,” said Doug Hermanson, an economist with Columbus, Ohio-based Retail Forward. He said government data for September show “a loosening up” in spending, with sales of prerecorded music increasing 1.2 percent and musical instrument purchases jumping 3.5 percent over the previous month.

While Mr. Hermanson admits it is difficult to track rock-inspired items within individual categories such as fashion, a current trend toward everything from Mohawk haircuts to zippered-and-spiked black leather bags screams of punk-rock styles reminiscent of the early 1980s, which was another post-recessionary period.

“As we start to recover, the categories that will show the first signs of strength will be the smaller-ticket, discretionary items” such as apparel and music, Mr. Hermanson said. “I think music is unique. Kids are not going to go without Christmas this year.”

Those buying patterns make sense to Jon Cole, an associate professor teaching behavioral psychology at the University of Liverpool.

“People spend money on luxury items that they deem to be a necessity,” Mr. Cole said. “You have impulsive shoppers, so if you’re into music, the recession isn’t really going to affect it.” Recalling how Hollywood’s heyday began during the Great Depression, Mr. Coles said, “People had absolutely nothing, but they would still go to the movies, didn’t they?”

Contrast the Depression era of the 1930s, when young people flocked to Hollywood seeking fame in films, with today, when from the comfort of home, teens use technology to jump-start their journey toward another kind of celebrity - that of rock stardom.

Learning how is getting better all the time because the tools of the trade are more attainable. Consider the popular video games Guitar Heroand the Beatles: Rock Band, which enable users to simulate playing rock songs with a mock guitar or drum set on an Xbox, Wii or PlayStation.

Such games can be gateway devices that not only spark interest in real instruments, but often accelerate advancement on them. Other factors, such as inexpensive imported electric guitars, drum sets and keyboards, coupled with accessible recording software and the promise of free fame on You Tube, are propelling teens to take their rock-band fantasies to the next level.

And with nightclubs seeking an entertainment edge, getting a gig can be easier then ever. In fact, the resurgence of indie rock bands as an entertainment trend in the hospitality industry is something Graham Stanley, a British nightclub manager, said he has been observing.

“Rock bands are sexy again,” declared Mr. Stanley, who handles development for Bumper, a Liverpool hot spot that transitioned from a 1990s dance club to an eclectic venue that offers live rock as well as DJ music.

“…The dance culture has kind of faded away.” Because music is “a small luxury that is easily satisfied,” it shouldn’t be impacted by a sluggish economy, Mr. Cole said.

“It’s cheaper than going out and buying a BMW, isn’t it? And you can’t get the financing for that anyway. It’s commonly known that people will self-medicate a negative mood, so if the downturn is causing a negative mood, why wouldn’t you look for things that make [you] feel better, whether it’s buying a CD or going out for a beer and listening to a band?”

At the offices ofNightclub & Bar magazine, Editorial Director Donna Hood Crecca is tracking entertainment trends for an annual industry report due out in March.

“I do think there is a movement toward the indie bands and the bar bands as a way to drive traffic because the economy stinks and it’s a way to differentiate.”

That concept works well for the Rock & Roll Hotel, said K.T. Robeson, manager of the popular District nightclub.

“Our main room is pretty much devoted to live music,” often delivered by younger bands,” Ms. Robeson said. “They’re 18- and 19-year-olds. I think that has a lot to do with popularity of the rock-band video games like the Guitar Hero.”

Paul Ash, president of the musical instrument retail giant Sam Ash Music Stores, said he thinks teens are “inspired” by such video games. “At the beginning, I was afraid that it would take their interest away from really learning how to play,” he said.

Mr. Ash said the opposite is true and guitar sales are soaring. While declining to release sales figures for his 45-store chain based out of Long Island, N.Y., Mr. Ash said, “Guitar sales are very strong, as are bass guitars, and drums are having a very good year. A good part of what we will do for Christmas will be on guitars and amplifiers. It’s so strong now, it has to be strong for Christmas.”

Mr. Ash said he has seen a 20 percent jump this year in teens seeking company sponsorship in Battle of the Bands events. “They’re thinking about bands. They’re talking about bands. There are bands in movies. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll year for us. Rock ‘n’ roll is really the key to the music industry.”

For some teens, one key way to get started is by persuading mom and dad to enroll them in a rock-band school where, after learning the finer points of performing, they give a live concert at a local nightclub.

At the Cavern Club in Liverpool, the famed venue that launched the Beatles nearly five decades ago and today hosts tribute performances as well as indie rock groups, marketing manager Jon Keatts teaches eager musicians how to jam at its rock-band school held site every Saturday afternoon.

One Cavern student, Josh Philip, has already written a song for his recently formed band, the Maniquins, and hopes the rock classes will improve his guitar-playing style. Mr. Philip, who envisions a career involving “something in the music industry,” said his parents paid the Cavern’s tuition as a combined gift for his just-celebrated 18th birthday and an early Christmas present.

Prevalent across America, rock-band schools are more popular than ever despite the dour economy, said Matt Ross, chief executive officer of the Paul Green School of Rock Music, a nationwide chain of nearly 50 schools, including locations in Loudoun County and Vienna, Va., Baltimore and Silver Spring.

“Our business has grown nicely [in 2009] in terms of enrollment and sales revenue.” The reason? “I think parents will spend disproportionately on their kids, no matter what. They will cut back in other areas before they cut this back.” Small music stores find that rock-band school can be good for profits and promotion.

In Richmond, Ky., the local media recently profiled classes conducted in the basement of Currier’s Music World, where 14- and 15-year-old students jammed to everything from “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd to “Enter Sandman” by Metallica.

Rock-school students at Houston’s Jewish Community Center and Nash County’s (N.C.) Parks and Recreation Department graduate by performing a rock concert for family and friends.

Graduates of the Cambridge, Mass., School of Groove, a nonprofit supported by the Berklee College of Music and Harmonix Music Systems, which developed Guitar Hero and Rock Band,perform at local nightclubs such as Johnny D’s and the Hard Rock Cafe.Exactly what all these wannabe rock ‘n’ rollers will mean to the music industry is anyone’s guess. Whether they will go from consumers to contributors and one day join the ranks of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones remains to be seen.

Mr. Philip, the Cavern student whose new band has already played a few gigs, has a more levelheaded vision of his future: “to go to [university], work in a recording studio and maybe teach music.”

But, with a shy pause, he admits that even though he’s not a rock star yet, it is thrilling when “the girls scream.”

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