Recent reforms have Guitar Center playing a new tune

Okay, so a woman walks into a Guitar Center...

Sound like the perfect setup for a sexist punchline? It's not, but it very well could be. As long as there's been a music industry, women have been treated as lesser-thans often viewed as supporters and sideline cheerleaders, not key players.

The attitude was pervasive on stages, behind stages and in stores, such as Guitar Center, a national retailer with more than 200 outlets across the country, including six in Colorado. "I've heard pretty much verbatim from customers that the experience is just awful," says Laura Taylor, the Los Angeles-based vice president of operations. But now, based on such feedback, Guitar Center is actively looking to improve that experience. And the 42-year-old Taylor, a musician herself, has a vested interested in seeing things change.


Guitar Center

"I purchased my first guitar from Guitar Center in Chicago, and was treated so poorly," she recalls. "I mean, it was awful. If you can imagine, it was the late '80s, and there were very few female players." The salesman she dealt with made sure to point out the return policy: There wasn't one. "It was a different industry," she adds, "and a different time."

Taylor had moved to Hollywood from Chicago to attend the Guitar Institute of Technology (known now as Musicians Institute). She was living across the street from the Hollywood Guitar Center — a store she made a concerted effort to avoid for as long as she could, until one day when she needed to purchase some equipment and finally walked through the doors. The visit ended with Taylor applying for a job and later working for the company part-time. Eventually she worked her way up, and she's been with Guitar Center ever since.

Taylor's personal experiences let her look at the situation from various perspectives, and she's seen that sexism can cut both ways.

"We have a phenomenal drum-department manager in one of our stores," Taylor notes. "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's also coming from the other side. We know it's an area where we need to help drive a change through the whole industry. That's what we're focusing on."

What triggered this seemingly sudden change in a company that appears to be doing just fine without having to upset the sexist-culture apple cart? According to Taylor, it was just a matter of taking advantage of the present moment. "The big initiative for Guitar Center came to us, really, through me," she explains. "Being a female, being a player, being in a male-dominated industry for so many years, I was the one who approached my boss." That was Gene Joly, executive vice president of Guitar Center stores. "I said, 'Look, this is something that we really need to focus on,'" Taylor recalls, adding, "It has been off everyone's radar, and it's just how it has always been."

Over the past year, Guitar Center has invested in surveying patrons on several levels. Beyond traditional customer surveys, the company has put together several customer-based panels, polling female shoppers and asking for specific examples of mistreatment. The retailer has also hosted three discussion dinners across the country, inviting female musicians to talk about what they experienced when walking into a Guitar Center.

The results of the surveys were not far from what Taylor expected. Across the board, women talked about being treated as though they were in the store "with" someone — especially if they happened to be shopping with a male — rather than being there of their own accord to buy gear. The panels also not so subtly revealed the obvious: When a woman enters a Guitar Center, she just wants to be treated like 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," Taylor points out. "So why would we want to do anything differently with a female customer? And 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 who spends a lot of money."

After collecting that data, Guitar Center went to work. The company's first step was to reach out to the Girls Rock Camp Alliance, an umbrella group that serves to connect all 33 individually run Girls Rock Camps around the world. Led by volunteer musicians, these week-long camps invite young women ages eight to seventeen to be a part of a band. Girls are often introduced to an instrument for the first time at the camps, which serve as a place to learn and sharpen playing skills, build self-confidence, and connect with a community of musical peers and mentors.

Guitar Center's specific point of entry was the Girls Rock Camp in Los Angeles. The company approached the camp with a "package" that included the donation of musical equipment, camp scholarships, instrument care and tune-up sessions, and Guitar Center gift cards for campers, staff and volunteers. From there, the company approached individual camps.

"One of the Girls Rock Camps didn't want to join this alliance with Guitar Center," Taylor reveals. "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."

Katie Rothery, co-director of Girls Rock Denver, says she was initially skeptical of a big-box retailer wanting to help out. "Guitar Center is at the top of our list of stores that treat women badly," Rothery points out. But after a conversation with Brian Berman, director of local marketing for Guitar Center, who assured her that things were really changing, she took Guitar Center up on its offer and gave campers gift cards for the store.

The company has reached out in other places, as well. It's partnered with Daisy Rock Girl Guitars — not only to provide instruments to Girls Rock Camps, but also to increase the brand's inventory within Guitar Center stores, giving female customers more options — and is set to roll out a singer-songwriter contest this fall, potentially targeting female talent.

Guitar Center doesn't have high expectations for immediate acceptance of its initiatives, says Taylor. The company is aware how deep the problem goes, and knows that while perceptions can change, it might take years. Which is why it's also moving toward changing the atmosphere at individual locations.

"We're also changing — subtly — things within our stores," Taylor explains. "Marketing and buyer's guides are featuring more female artists. Little things like voiceovers in our commercials — which have traditionally been male, loud-type marketing tactics — have changed. We're using more female voiceovers in our radio and TV ads."

But what about that little problem of the glaringly misogynistic treatment of female customers by Guitar Center employees?

"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," Taylor notes. "But now we have Guitar Center University training, where every quarter we bring the sales training managers together to train them specifically on this. 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."

These new maneuvers may seem small on paper, but Taylor is convinced that they can inspire a shift in the industry as a whole, with Guitar Center leading the charge.

Recent visits to a few local Guitar Center outlets produced mixed results. At the first location, no one offered any assistance for the better part of fifteen minutes. At the next two stores, however, staff was not only cordial, but they approached without assumption or airs. And an image of Sheryl Crow was prominently displayed in one store's windows, suggesting that the company is making good on its promise of more inclusive marketing — or that the individual store is creating its own culture.

Whatever the case, Guitar Center is clearly striking the right chords.

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