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Alto Music Grows In Brooklyn

...a converted factory loft, complete with exposed brick walls and heavy wooden beams, and an espresso bar in the lobby, the location mirrors the needs of the scores of nearby recording studios, offering a broad selection of boutique gear. The Brooklyn store is a departure from Alto Music’s three other locations in upstate New York—bright, well-appointed full-line stores that offer everything from rental band instruments to $30,000 Pro Tools recording systems. But for Jon Haber, CEO, it’s a perfect fit. “It’s been exciting to get back to a small operation where you’re dealing with customers one-on-one,” he says. “And combining the Brooklyn showroom with our inventory and support systems has been a big plus.”

Haber’s new Brooklyn venture was less the result of careful planning, and more a case of seizing an unexpected opportunity. For the past decade he had operated an Alto Pro Tools showroom in a small space at a prominent Manhattan recording studio. When the studio announced it was shutting down, he faced a painful dilemma. Sky-high Manhattan rents made a store there economically unviable, but he didn’t want to give up lucrative New York City audio sales. As he pondered alternatives, he heard that Audio Power Tools in Brooklyn was planning to close down due to a dispute between partners. An urgent phone call to Dan Physics, Audio Power Tools’ founding partner, led to a quick deal and the operation was seamlessly rebranded Alto Music Brooklyn. “I knew nothing about Brooklyn, but after meeting with Dan and visiting the store, I knew it was the perfect solution,” Haber says.

Brooklyn, which lies just across the river from lower Manhattan, had long been the butt of jokes; a rundown former industrial center defined by high crime and abandoned buildings. However, as lower rents attracted artists, hipsters, and families who were priced out of Manhattan, the borough underwent a remarkable transformation. Trendy restaurants sprung up, businesses began opening, and elegant apartments were constructed. Dan Physics was one of the first to recognize the potential of Brooklyn’s gentrification. He had worked at Guitar Center Pro in Manhattan, but as he saw recording studios en masse migrating to more affordably priced spaces across the river, he moved with them, opening Audio Power Tools. “Manhattan was once the epicenter of the recording and music business,” he says. “But, it’s all moved to north Brooklyn now. There are dozens of recording studios within a stone’s through of our front door.”

Physics, who is a skilled audio engineer in his own right, built a loyal following among Brooklyn’s recording studios with a straightforward approach: using decades of product knowledge to help customers solve problems and offering a selection of boutique products not readily available at the larger stores. He explains, “We provided an acoustically neutral space where you could really do A/B tests on mics and monitor speakers, something that’s hard to do when 30 people are wailing away on guitars nearby. And, we have always been more concerned about helping musicians with their  recordings than inventory velocity.”

Access to Alto’s broad-based inventory and infrastructure has enabled Physics to significantly expand the reach of the Brooklyn operation. With ready access to capital, he can now serve those customers who come in looking to trade a piece of gear so they can buy something new. As a result, used gear now accounts for 20% of the topline and is growing. Boutique brands like Tree Audio, Amphion speakers, and AEA are perfectly tailored to the Brooklyn hipster ethos. The fact that they aren’t stocked by chains or most mail order operations provides an added draw for Alto Brooklyn. However, thanks to the tie-in with Alto, he’s been able to match boutique brands with mainstream products from Shure or Harman Pro, creating additional sales opportunities. “Now we can outfit an entire studio,” he says.

Brooklyn’s spreading reputation as New York’s hippest new district has brought an influx of tourists, and Physics reports a small but growing number of European and South American visitors to the Alto store. “They think coming to the store is something of an adventure,” he says.

Backed by Alto’s financial resources, Physics has been able to seize on unusual opportunities. Earlier in the year when Kaufman Astoria studios, the filming site for numerous New York-based television shows, shut down its recording studio, he was able to buy all of their audio gear for pennies on the dollar. Reselling it, largely promoted through Facebook advertising, provided a major boost to the bottom line.

Jon Haber’s new Brooklyn venture is in keeping with a career defined by constantly adapting to a changing business environment. As a teenager, he started working at Alto Music part time. A few years later, when the owner decided to retire, he scraped together the money to buy the business. Later, he expanded beyond guitars and band instruments by embracing electronic musical instruments and pro audio. When MARS Music went bust, he was on site immediately, snapping up store fixtures at the liquidation sale. The MARS store build-outs were effectively put to use at his three New York locations. The advent of the internet prompted him to invest in a website and begin actively selling on eBay, Reverb, and Amazon. “The business doesn’t look anything like it did ten years ago, and I don’t know what it will look like ten years from now,” he says. “My goal is to stay flexible and be ready to adapt.” Solid advice from a proven practitioner.

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