|Lee Anderton visits with John Petrucci of Dream Theater during an episode of Andertons TV.|
Andertons Music &
The Power Of YouTube
IF LEE ANDERTON hadn’t quit college, or if YouTube hadn’t come along when it did, or if Weight Watchers hadn’t made such a good model for guitar lessons, maybe no one outside the U.K. would know about Andertons Music. Until about eight years ago, not many did. Based in Guildford, 30 miles southwest of London, Andertons was a source for guitars and combo gear going back to the days of Lee’s father and grandfather. Not without its musical lore, the shop was only 20 minutes from studios where Eric Clapton and Genesis recorded, and both acts were Andertons customers at one time. Other than that, though, it was just a family-owned shop in a city of 150,000 with no special advantage for drawing out-of-town customers. But that was before the YouTube channel known as Andertons TV. In 2010, Lee and his team started experimenting with video as a way to differentiate their online side, learning first what didn’t work and then what did. Combining informative content with witty commentary and personable hosts, the channel would draw an international fan base now approaching 400,000 subscribers and nearly 100 million total views. And arguably, those aren’t even the numbers to get excited about. Converted to U.S. dollars, Andertons’ yearly revenues have spiked from around $11 million in 2010 to $50 million for the most recent year. As Lee sums up, “The impact it’s had on the business is staggering.”
Of more than 60,000 square feet Andertons occupies over two premises in Guildford, 50,000 square feet is devoted somehow to its web and ecommerce side—from the studio where they shoot their videos and office space for their content and copywriting teams to a logistics center that coordinates shipments all over the world. Although its retail shop a mile away has been dwarfed by comparison, the international exposure has made it something of a landmark. Visitors on vacation in the U.K. come by the shop saying an in-person stop at Andertons was one of the things they just had to do while in the country. As an online phenomenon, it’s reached the point where emerging brands say just getting Andertons onboard is one of their goals for gaining a worldwide voice. “And we’re going, ‘Wow, this is just insane,’” says Lee. “The stars really aligned for us. I weren’t doing this, I have no idea what I’d be doing with my life.”
"The impact YouTube has had
on the business is staggering."
Lee’s grandfather, Harry, and his father, Peter, founded Andertons together in 1964, just as the Beatles and Rolling Stones were peaking all over Britain and the world. Both founders were drummers, though from different backgrounds. Harry was a career police officer who’d spent 25 years with London’s “Flying Squad,” which investigated robberies linked to organized crime in an era known for such figures as the notorious Kray twins. On the side, though, he’d been a jazz and big band drummer since the ’30s. After retiring on a modest pension, he cofounded Andertons just hoping it would turn a small profit and give him a place to jam with his musician friends. It was Peter, a drummer in the ’60s pop mold and just 18 when the shop opened, who had greater ambitions for Andertons. In those days, says Lee, it was unusual to see premium imports by Fender or Gibson outside London’s fashionable West End. As a result, Andertons’ early selection was dominated by U.K. and European brands such as Burns, Hägstrom, Marshall, and Vox. There was also limited credit available to a small music shop, so Peter maximized Andertons’ selection by buying broken stock from suppliers, repairing it himself, and selling it at a discount. The family lived upstairs from their first shop, which wasn’t more than 1,000 square feet. In the years since then, Andertons has moved three times, though it’s never left Guildford. “They put their heart and soul into making a little music shop work,” says Lee.
From his early teens, Lee worked around the shop on days off from school, but it was several more years before he knew he wanted a career there. Despite doing well on his GCSE exams (the standard test of high school-level competency in the U.K.), he lost interest at the college level and left school, taking a job selling photocopiers door-to-door for Panasonic. What followed, he recalls, was about seven months of having doors slammed in his face. He resolved to give college another try, which in the U.K. meant his father had to pay for him to retake his high school-level exams. As it turned out, though, he was no more committed the second time around... and simply stopped attending class, while pretending to his parents that he was still going. Unluckily for Lee, his family name was well-known enough locally that eventually someone figured out whose son he was and tipped off his father. “So I go to see my dad at the shop and he’s literally got smoke coming out of his ears,” says Lee. “And at the end of it he says, ‘I’m giving you a mop and you’re getting half the minimum wage. You start here tomorrow, full time.’ But even then I was thinking: ‘It’s probably what I wanted anyway.’ I just wanted to work in the store.”
So Lee started his Andertons career cleaning toilets, carrying boxes, and making cups of tea for people. By his early 20s, though, he had real responsibilities in the guitar department. A gigging guitarist himself, he knew the products and related well to the customers. He also had a feel for the guitar scene and started pushing for changes in how the gear was bought and sold. For starters, he felt Andertons had been choosing its inventory to please vendors more than customers, perfunctorily stocking a few models from 15 or 20 brands just so everyone would be included. In Lee’s view, the store should stock just the brands it could really endorse and do them justice with a top-to-bottom selection. “I remember upsetting a lot of reps,” he says, “But I strongly felt that if we didn’t believe in a brand, we just shouldn’t have it anymore.” He felt, too, that the customer base was changing and the shop hadn’t caught up to it. Early on, many Andertons customers were hard-up gigging musicians looking for inexpensive guitars that would get the job done. At this point, though, the shop had pure enthusiasts coming in with money to spend on the instrument of their dreams, if only someone would speak to those dreams. Andertons needed to spend less time selling utilitarian value and more on the unquantifiable thrills of a name-brand guitar. “I thought that really, we should be more akin to a fashion store than a hardware store,” says Lee.
"I remember upsetting a lot of reps.
But I strongly felt that
if we didn’t believe in a brand,
we just shouldn’t have it anymore.”
A different breed from his father, who was meticulous in everything he did, Lee was one who’d spot an opportunity and dive in. If they’d worked together longer they might have really clashed—but fortunately, opportunity intervened. Sometime in the ’90s, Peter had decided traditional guitar lessons weren’t serving modern young beginners: Kids drawn to the instrument by Blur and Oasis were being taught to pluck out old-fashioned children’s tunes, and predictably, they were quitting. So in the early 2000s, Peter partnered with a young guitar teacher named Phil Brookes who’d designed a contemporary guitar course based musically on popular songs kids and teens like to play. Structurally, though, he’d based the method on the Weight Watchers program his mother had been following, which emphasized weekly goals and rewards for milestone progress. With its motivational, step-by-step format, the program caught on in schools and then set the curriculum for a standalone music school in Guildford, the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM). The school went on to become the largest contemporary music institution in Europe. Soon making far more income on ACM than he did at Andertons, Peter cheerfully stepped away from the shop and left Lee to run it in 2003. “At this point he knew that even if I made a complete mess of the store, he’d be fine,” says Lee. “But it was unbelievably great because it allowed us to just have a father-son relationship.”
By the time Lee stepped in as managing director of Andertons, ecommerce had long since become a factor and started becoming a challenge. Early to the web, Andertons had picked up a lot of what Lee calls “low-hanging fruit” just by having a website, but a few years later, that wasn’t enough. Most every store was selling online, and they all had nearly the same selection. With nothing else to differentiate them—and especially without U.S.-style MAP pricing—retailers simply faced off to see who could sell it the cheapest. Worse, says Lee, “you found yourself competing with people who didn’t seem to have any idea how much you needed to charge to stay in business. Who was the customer supposed to choose?”
Watching videos at your desk might suggest a slow day at most jobs, but that’s what Lee was doing when he realized YouTube might be the answer. A guitar teacher and blogger named Rob Chapman had made a series of fun, conversational guitar videos and gained a respectable following online, so Lee reached out and said he’d pay him to make some YouTube content for Andertons. The two teamed up to shoot the shop’s first videos, though in hindsight, says Lee, he didn’t really understand how they were supposed to work. “They were fun videos, but they were very sales-oriented,” he says. “I thought we’d post the video and immediately sell 50 of the product. And—absolutely nothing. We didn’t sell one thing. It was really quite demoralizing. The only saving grace was it was good fun to shoot the videos.”
“Instead of trying to sell something,
the idea was just to be honest and fun
and to do something positive
for the music community—
to be this living embodiment
of how much fun you can have playing
a musical instrument.”
The “lightbulb moment,” says Lee, came when the shop started getting emails from people who said they’d bought from Andertons—maybe not five minutes later, but eventually—because they liked the videos. Unlike the home shopping channels on TV, he realized, the point of Andertons’ video campaign wasn’t selling. The point was building a brand affinity, or in plain English: getting people to like you. “So that was the road we embarked on,” says Lee. “Instead of trying to sell something, the idea was just to be honest and fun and to do something positive for the music community—to be this living embodiment of how much fun you can have playing a musical instrument.”
Andertons went on to develop a number of “regularly scheduled programs,” almost like a network TV lineup, featuring seven or eight presenters who became familiar to viewers and drew fan followings in their own right. The team created shows such as “Sounds Like”—where presenters advise viewers on which gear to buy to play in the style of, say, Jimi Hendrix or Pete Townshend—and “David Vs. Goliath,” which pits a high-end guitar pedal against a more affordable pedal in the same style. They’ve hosted notables like Steve Vai and Greg Koch and staged features such as the “Blindfold Strat Challenge (Can We Tell a £300 Guitar From A £3,000 One?)” and “Can You Guess The Christmas Wrapped Pedals?” Sometimes the banter is what you might call politically incorrect, though Lee and his team have worked hard to strike the right balance. They didn’t want to find themselves pandering to an in-group of guitar players while alienating new viewers, especially women, or turning into the kind of site parents wouldn’t let their children visit. “I have two young daughters,” says Lee. “I’m aware of how many people are watching this video and perhaps sitting next to their kids. On the flip side, you don’t want to be so desperate not to offend anyone that the content is just vanilla. I tell my team, ‘You know where the line is.’ But we might poke the line. We still want to have fun with it.”
What they couldn’t control was how viewers would behave when they came to comment on the programming, and that led to one of the defining moments in Andertons TV history so far. One school of thought goes that when it comes to assorted trolls and bullies on the web, the best thing to do is ignore them—but at some point, Lee decided there was no ignoring the state of his comments section. “When you post a video, just under 1% of people will leave a comment,” he says, “and that 1% is polarized between the people who love you and the people who feel the need to say something awful. I’d see these comment trails spiral out of control, from some minor disagreement into something that just represented the worst of humanity.” Lee’s response, eventually, was to post a video announcing that from then on, anyone who posted something truly vicious would be banned. Overwhelmingly, regular viewers later told him he’d done the right thing, though “a few said I was infringing on their freedom of speech,” says Lee. “Well maybe I am, a bit—but I’m only running a guitar channel. Find something important to get angry about. Life’s too short.”
“I’m aware of how many people
are watching this video
sitting next to their kids.
On the flip side, you don’t want
to be so desperate not to offend anyone
that the content is just vanilla."
Hassles of internet fame notwithstanding, there’s very little that doesn’t look good for Andertons these days. Along with associate partners Stuart West and Beverley Franklin, Lee has presided over seven or eight years of the most dramatic growth the company has ever seen: At the physical shop, Andertons took on a major expansion a few years back, acquiring and building into two adjacent properties. On the web, its YouTube channel recently became four channels—for guitars, keyboard, drums, and technology—so subscribers could more easily be served with just the content they’re interested in. “If someone comes into your store to look at drums,” Lee explains, “you don’t ask them to wait in the guitar department for three hours first.” And as far as Lee and his team are concerned, there’s no reason not to keep doing more of what they’re doing—since the videos are as much fun to make as they are to watch.
“It’s easy to point to the finger at one or two big changes at Andertons over the last 20 years and say, ‘That’s why we’re successful,’” says Lee. “However, the reality is that I have been incredibly lucky to have found the most amazing people to work with, and it’s their attitude and desire to make us the best we can be that is real reason why we’ve been successful. It’s so important to find, train, trust and keep these people as ultimately they will be the people who make the biggest difference to the future success of Andertons.”