In mid-April 2020, as the reality of the first lockdown began to take hold, some musical instrument retailers in the UK began to notice a wholly unexpected trend. Shops that had shifted their sales operations online saw a surge in demand for everything from guitars, ukuleles and saxophones to workstations, USB mics and mini grand pianos.
“In March, we were disaster planning,” says Lee Anderton of Andertons Music Co in Guildford. “But in April and May we had our best two months ever in the history of the business.”
Twelve months on and business is still brisk. While sourcing a new instrument could be the last thing on many pro musicians’ minds right now, the desire for a good deal on new and used gear is still driving the market, even in these uncertain times.
Buying or selling an instrument requires an investment of time, dedication and research. The used instrument market in particular is littered with instances of people either getting ripped off or failing to get the price that their instrument warrants.
With this in mind, it’s well worth taking note of a few key factors that will optimise your chances of a successful purchase or sale. By empowering yourself with knowledge of the instrument and the market, you can maximise profit and minimise disappointment.
Buying instruments online is popular but presents its own challenges
One of the most popular methods of instrument sales is through dedicated online sites. The auction site eBay is safe, secure and has a huge audience, although the fees and charges can be high. Another option is Facebook Marketplace, an efficient site featuring focused communities of like-minded musicians and producers. Gumtree is also a popular option and particularly useful for buying and selling locally.
But one of the most respected sites is Reverb.com, a dedicated marketplace launched in 2013 that transformed from a small team of musicians above a Chicago drum shop into a global community where millions of players buy and sell new, used, and vintage music gear.
Iain Butterwick, EMEA territory manager at Reverb.com, is all too aware of best practice when it comes to buying and selling instruments online. One of the challenges of buying from a global platform, of course, is that buyers won‘t get to actually see or play the instrument before purchase. Consequently, buyers really need to empower themselves with information, he says.
“My first piece of advice for buying online is to not be afraid to ask questions,” says Butterwick.
If you’re curious about how the instrument sounds, what it feels like in your hands, or even what the parts look like close-up, just ask.
Sellers want to help you feel confident about buying gear from them and are more than willing to give you more information or pictures.”
Butterwick strongly advises buyers to negotiate, as many sellers will accept offers on used gear, he says. “Around 15-20% off the original asking price is the sweet spot for a reasonable offer,” he says. “And always check the return policy. On sites like Reverb that feature many different sellers, shops are able to set their own return policies, so it’s important to make sure you understand the return policy before you purchase.”
Be transparent about what you are selling
For musicians looking to sell their instruments online, it pays to provide potential buyers with as much information as possible.
Honesty is key, so any dings, cracks or general faults should be photographed and detailed in the listing. “An important best practice when selling is to take clear, well-lit photos of items from all sides and angles, and to take close-up shots of any and all blemishes,” says Butterwick. “It’s all about transparency: you should provide as much detail about your item as possible in the item description and make it come to life to help buyers picture themselves with the gear.”
It’s worth noting that Reverb.com has tools that help sellers to assess the condition of their items. It also has a price guide that provides real time data on what prices instruments are being bought and sold for on the site. There are also real people at the end of a phone line if you need them. “Reverb has an entire team of musicians that can provide you with assistance,” adds Butterwick.
Selling instruments through shops and dealers
According to a recent report by US publication The Music Trades, online sales now account for more than half of all musical instrument transactions, and this is set to increase. But for some, physical transactions are still the preferred option. For the online seller, advertising an instrument, negotiating its sale and arranging shipping can be a time-consuming process.
For the buyer meanwhile, ensuring they get the instrument they want at the right price and in one piece can be equally challenging. Many relish this process. But for others, it may be something they’d rather hand over to someone else.
Professional musicians may prefer to sell their instruments via a trusted and specialist shop or dealer. The shop’s fee – commonly a 20% plus VAT mark-up – reduces the profit, but handing over the responsibility for the sale can have substantial benefits, particularly when it comes to vintage instruments.
“People tend to trust shops more than people,” says Nigel Pulsford, guitarist with 90s rock band Bush and former owner of Vintage ‘n’ Rare Guitars in Bath. He suggests buyers should really do some groundwork before parting with their money.
“Don’t buy without researching the seller, the instrument and obviously the price first,” Pulsford explains. “Without taking a guitar to bits it’s very hard to ascertain what is original and what isn’t. But when you buy from a reputable shop they can guarantee the originality of the instrument.”
The same level of provenance applies if you are selling through a shop. “So suddenly your instrument is being endorsed by the shop that is selling it for you,” he says. “The beauty of selling through a shop is that they can take the stress out of the deal for you.”
Nick Woodward, partner at the Bristol Violin Shop, advises anyone buying a bowed string instrument from a shop to always try it in the acoustic setting where it will be played.
“If a shop or dealer won’t let you take it away to show a teacher or to try it in the acoustics you are used to – an orchestra, a pub, a church or whatever – then I would avoid them,” he says. He also cautions against buying online. “You can buy a new guitar or metal flute online and be pretty sure of what you are getting. Bowed string instruments are a whole other thing.”
Preparing your instrument for a sale in store
For anyone selling an instrument through a shop, it pays to ensure that the instrument is in good playing order before you turn up at the counter. “We will only sell instruments that are set up to our standards and have refused to sell some that have not been,” says Woodward.
This is a view echoed by Pulsford. “It’s worth making your instrument look presentable before you bring it to a shop,” he says. “Give it a clean up, change the strings and make sure it plays okay. Turning up with something looking grotty, feeling sticky with rusty strings won’t endear you to the shop and will be reflected in the price as someone at the shop will spend time cleaning, polishing, setting up and restringing the guitar.”
Be realistic about your expectations
Pulsford says people who sell instruments via a specialist retailer need to be realistic about what they hope to achieve.
“It’s worth considering how desirable the instrument is. Some guitars can sit in a shop for five years without a buyer taking any interest in them. If you’ve got a vintage Les Paul or Strat in original condition you’ll probably sell it very quickly. Something more modern can take longer. There’s no hard and fast rule. If you want to sell it quickly then it needs to be priced attractively, and unfortunately that means selling it for less.”
Insurance against damage and loss in the process
There is a common assumption that anyone selling an instrument through a specialist instrument retailer is automatically insured for any damage or loss on the premises. This is not always the case. The seller should always be insured and keep the policy running until the instrument is sold and they have received payment.
The MU’s preferred broker Hencilla Canworth confirms that MU instrument insurance, underwritten by Allianz Insurance PLC, covers theft or damage except if stolen by shop staff. However, some policies may not give sufficient protection. In 2020, the MU received reports of a few members losing their instruments without payment after a shop went into administration.
One member, who asked not to be named, advises all musicians selling instruments via a shop to check their insurance policies. “Before you even put one foot inside the shop, the insurance needs to be rock solid. Make sure you’re covered for all eventualities. I was perhaps very trusting and I didn’t check it. I just presumed.”
There is no one singular approach when trading instruments. As Nick Woodward says, buying or selling through a specialist retailer, privately, online, or even at an auction all have their benefits and downsides.
But whichever route you choose, the chances are that the greater your commitment and diligence, the better the outcome. That way, you’re more likely to secure a sale or purchase at a price that satisfies both parties.