Guitar Center exec Laura Taylor on the changing attitudes toward women in the music industry

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For this week's print feature, we spoke with Laura Taylor, Vice President of Operations for Guitar Center regarding the company's recent initiatives to improve the treatment of female customers in the company's 219 stores across the country.

When we spoke with Taylor, she was very candid about the steps the company is taking to increase relations, from hosting customer experience surveys to having sit-down dinners with female musicians. Guitar Center has also made a concerted effort to incorporate women in its marketing and in-store promos, and is also working to educate its sales staff on the equitable treatment of all customers, regardless of gender.

Below is the transcript of our recent conversation with Taylor, a musician in her own right, who's been with the company for more than two decades.

Westword: How and why did this women's initiative start?

Laura Taylor: That is a great question. Let me give you a little history on where it all started, and we can go from there. I've been with Guitar Center for 22 years. I've been in the music industry for a long time. I started in our Hollywood store. Our industry is very male-dominated -- well, it's not just our industry, its not just music industry retail, it is the entire music industry. It is weird. It has evolved a lot, and there are so many more female artists and players, and I myself am a guitar player.

I started at the Hollywood Guitar Center, because I moved out from Chicago [to Los Angeles] to go to Guitar Institute of Technology [now known as the Musician's Institute.] I have a history in the music industry from this standpoint, so I've watched it evolve. The big initiative for Guitar Center came to us, really, through me. Being a female, being a player, being in a male-dominated industry for so many years, I was the one who approached my boss [Gene Joly, Executive Vice President of Guitar Center stores]. I said, "Look: this is something that we really need to focus on." It has been off everyone's radar, and it is just how it has always been.

So we thought, what can we do to really drive a difference in this industry? In music retail? In the music industry in itself? That's how it started to evolve. It isn't just Guitar Center; but we are big, so it is easy for us to get called out. When you look at Sam Ash and some of the other big competitors of ours, it's the same experience over and over again. And we have a huge initiative to change that, and that is what we are driving towards.

So you know that going into a store like Guitar Center, women have to kind of mentally prepare themselves. How did you zero in on the problem?

Absolutely. I've lived it. I mean, I'm a musician as well. I go into our stores and have that same experience because people don't know who I am. A lot of the initiative we're working on [is based on] a lot of customer surveys and customer panels. We've had three dinners with professional women musicians in three major cities around the country. Just sitting and listening to their experiences. They are very much the same -- it is the same everywhere they go. It is the intimidating environment. It's the not being treated seriously as a musician. The assumption is who they are with is always the musician, if it is a male.

It is something we have very much focused on, pushing training down into our stores. We have 219 stores around the country. Not only have we surveyed our customers, we have surveyed our employees. Here's the interesting part: A lot of what our female sales associates are experiencing is kind of the same thing on the opposite end. It was something we hadn't really thought of. Male customers will come in, and they don't want to talk to a female sales associate.

Once instance in particular that I can think of is: We have a phenomenal drum department manager in one of our stores. A male customer came in and wanted to talk to the drum department manager. When she said, "Well, I am the drum department manager" the customer said, "No, I want to talk to a guy." So when you look at it, it isn't just the musicians going in, it is also coming from the other side. We know it is an area we need to help drive through the whole industry. So that's what we're focusing on.

How were the customer surveys conducted?

We have a customer panel, and we also did surveys [in store] with our actual female customers -- we collected customer data. So where we were able to, we sent surveys out to our customers. We got some great, blatant feedback. I mean we've gotten some good feedback, too -- it isn't all negative. But the negative is what we wanted to fix. Our goal is evolve the industry, but we know that isn't going to change overnight. It will take time and a lot of energy but we are committed to driving that change.

Honestly, we are still learning. What can we do better? How can we do it better? We want you [the customer] to be blatantly honest with us because if you're not, how can we fix it, right? We have thick skin. Tell us what we do wrong and tell us what we do right, so we can do more of it.

Will there be or is there any special training Guitar Center employees get with this initiative?

Absolutely. I've seen a lot of the evolution of the industry already, starting from back in the day when [music retail associates] appeared to be like used car salesmen. We've a bunch of training -- we have Guitar Center University training where every quarter we bring the sales training managers into a group and train them specifically. Our initiative with this is to treat everyone with respect. Don't assume anything. Quite honestly, based on the feedback from female employees and customers, we know that they don't want to be treated differently, they just want to be treated well.

It's not that we [Guitar Center] want to go out of our way to treat them differently. We don't want to do that. But we understand that they want to be treated with the same respect as anyone else. When a male customer comes in, we don't assume that he's a beginner or that he doesn't know what he's talking about. So why would we want to do anything differently with a female customer? That's the message that we're driving -- respect. Respect your customers, not just the guy who wants to buy a pick or the guy that spends a lot of money. It is everybody.

We have been working in partnership with Daisy Rock guitars -- Tish [Ciravolo] the founder and president of the company, came and spoke to our once-a-year store managers conference. She gave the exact same message, and we're working with her to push this initiative. It's not just about getting more customers in the store; its really about driving a change in the industry and inspiring more females to play. We don't want people to feel uncomfortable or intimidated in our stores, and while it isn't just about women, we are aware that we are particularly bad about it with females. And that is where we are making the change.

The other great thing about this is, our stores are really responding to it -- they are thrilled that we are raising the awareness for this. Everyone is saying, you know, "It's about time. Let's really focus on this." It has been a big collaboration for us within Guitar Center and our employees. It is really exciting.

Are there things in place in Guitar Center stores that customers might be able to see or notice a change as of now?

We're doing a singer-songwriter contest in September. We have a lot of contests we do every year like the King of The Blues and the Drum-Off contest. Then we do a lot of different contests, like record with Slash, or the Keith Urban contest we did, where he produced and played on a song for the winning group. So, we want to drive this more toward the female market, which seems to be the singer-songwriter. So we're going to be doing a singer-songwriter contest in the September-October time frame with an artist sponsor -- we're not sure who we'll have yet. With this we hope to make the female population more comfortable in our stores.

We're also changing -- subtly -- things within our stores. Marketing and buyers guides are featuring more female artists. We're doing more events and clinics featuring more female artists. Little things like, voice-overs in our commercials -- which have traditionally been male, loud-type marketing tactics. We're using more female voice-overs now in our radio and TV ads.

We're teaming up with Daisy Rock and increasing their instruments within our store, so there will be more options, especially for the younger players. We want to inspire the younger players to come in and play. It is interesting -- the younger females love Daisy Rock; the guitars are smaller and they are really designed for them. It is smaller and lighter and easier for them to play. So we're putting a lot into understanding what we need to put in our stores.

And quite frankly, a lot of our vendors agree and want to partner up with us to drive this initiative as well. It's not just retail here; it's the community. Vendors and artists have been excited to help. Obviously, the Girls Rock Camps have also been awesome (to us.) We have learned so much from them and we know that there is still so much for us to learn. That's what is really going to help us drive this initiative -- not just thinking we know it all, and letting people really help us understand how to make this a better environment.

How did you connect with Girls Rock in particular?

Interesting enough -- there are thirty-three Girls Rock camps across the world and twenty-eight of them are in the US and there are a couple in Canada and internationally as well. Its not one [group]; they kind of have an alliance, so all camps are run individually. We reached out to the local Los Angeles Girls Rock camp and connected with two of the girls that started the camp.

We kind of worked with them, and they gave us a lot of insight into how the camps worked and what they struggle with. There isn't one person to talk to for all of the camps, so they each kind of do their own thing in different ways. But there is an alliance where they can get together and talk through what they're doing and how they're doing it and share best practices.

That's kind of how we started with Girls Rock Camp. Then [we worked with] Mona [Tavakoli] and Becky [Gebhardt] of the Los Angeles Girls Rock Camp, and they are also in a band called Raining Jane. They tour a lot and they're on the road a lot, so they are sometimes a little more difficult to get in touch with, but they really educated us as to what the camps are. They gave us a lot of the connections to the other camps to see what we could do to try and help their cause and what they are doing.

We have relationships right now with about sixteen of the twenty-eight camps and we're reaching out more and more to get in touch with all of the camps and offer them what we think would be best to help them. Now that we have the (product and instrument) package together, We're trying to get in touch will all of the camps that we can, and see what we can do to help them and offer what we have.

So, you're starting with younger women who may not have had that experience in the store yet. Maybe they will be more open-minded than say, an adult that has had that experience already?

We put together this package, and it went through the Los Angeles Girls Rock camp and the Omaha Girls Rock Camp, and Tish of Daisy Rock, and we said, "Okay, what do you think?" And they gave us pros and cons of what would work better, and we tailored it to the camps. I'll give you a great example: We have our "GC Garage," which is our repairs department in every location. We want to send our guitar tech out to the camp for several hours on one of the days to teach the girls how to take care of their instruments. So, for some of the camps, they really loved the idea. But for others, they didn't think it was so important. So we send them our package and let each camp pick and choose.

The Girls Rock campers are the younger set, but they also have the volunteers, who are older. For every staff and volunteer, we give them a $20 gift card for the store -- since they are traditionally musicians. That way they can go in and get what they need, as well. It allows us to kind of reach out to a wide variety of females and hopefully get them into our stores and have a great experience and change the industry itself.

It will be the hardest to change people's perception, for sure.

And again, we don't assume that we know it all. We are really learning. We've been working on this initiative for just over a year now and just gaining the understanding and what steps we can take to change those things and really put training and awareness out there. I've gotten some comments from customers already saying they feel the difference. That is extremely rewarding.

But we certainly aren't even close to being where we want to be. We have a lot to do, and it is going to take a lot to change it. Perception is reality. It takes a lot of time to change that if you've had a bad experience. We want to change every person's bad experience. One at a time, we are going to change it. We just need the opportunity.

One of the Girls Rock Camps didn't want to join into this alliance with Guitar Center. They didn't want to take any of the opportunities we were able to give because they had had such bad experiences in our stores. We are still working with them to change that. But when we hear stuff like that -- and I've heard that pretty much verbatim from customers, that the experience is just awful -- you wouldn't want anyone to treat anybody that way.

Again, it is our industry. It is male-dominated. It always has been. In the 22 years I've been with Guitar Center -- which, I mean I'm 42, so most of my life I have been in this industry -- I've seen where it has evolved and where it hasn't, and where we need to go. I'm really excited, and I really do believe that we can make a difference and we are going to.

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