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Eulogy for a dying shop

The Allans Music Billy Hyde store will be closing its doors next week, another home-grown victim of tumultuous times for retail in this country amid the online shopping revolution. But unlike, say, fashion labels and department stores that refused to improve their customer experience before the Zaras and Topshops came to rain on their parade, this time I actually care. In fact, watching Billy Hyde fall to its knees with is one of the saddest things I’ve seen this year.

Some context; I’m a drummer. If you make it your business to smash things loudly with sticks in Australia, the first port of call for gear was always Billy Hyde. Since I was eight years old, I’ve been making my pilgrimage to the Surry Hills store in Sydney to spend unnecessary amounts of pocket money on crash cymbals, congas, extra deep floor toms and whatever else I thought could turn me into the next John Bonham. As a little kid, I was convinced the store went on forever, and that behind the last row of drum skins was a secret portal to even more snares and hi-hats that were hidden away from the public, like some sort of rock and roll Narnia. I couldn’t get enough of the place, and nine times out of ten, I didn’t even buy anything when I went in.

Whether you were a green student only just figuring out how to play the beat to ‘Back In Black’ or a session drummer for a prog-metal band, the staff at Billy Hyde treated you equally. There was no ambition too lofty, no enquiry too stupid (and believe me, I had many) and no phase too ridiculous for them to take time out and indulge you. In those awkward teenage years where everyone else was listening to 50 Cent but I liked Rage Against The Machine, when I was convinced rock and roll would save the world and used to carry my drumsticks around in my back pocket as a matter of principle, those dudes with ponytails and sleeve tattoos and excessively large nose piercings became my best friends. There were always older, more talented guys in the store who dropped a thousand dollars on new Pearl shells each visit. But Ben, Milan, Anthony and John still remembered my name. In fact, they remembered everyone’s name, even if you hadn’t been there in months.

When I worked at Baker’s Delight, they ‘gave back’ by throwing money at a local school. Billy Hyde did one better and ran their own. They built practice rooms wherever there was space, like the abandoned office next door or the car park around the back. They offered lessons with the same staff that would help you choose your next drum kit, and they were some of the best teachers in the city. Session players with dreads would groom me for their annual drumming competitions, where I’d turn up full of hot air and promptly be thrashed by kids half my age, humbly retreating back to practice my paradiddles and single stroke rolls. When I was obsessed with the Police, they showed me how to tweak my set-up to make it sound like Stuart Copeland’s, and even lent me some roto-toms for nothing. There seemed to be this unshakeable mantra that as long as you were playing, as long as you were trying to get better and branch out beyond your comfort zone, there was always a place for you at Billy Hyde. I certainly didn’t have that experience anywhere else.

Perhaps I’m prejudiced. It’s entirely possible that by the time they ate into Drum City and in turn were swallowed by Allan’s, Billy Hyde were running such an efficient monopoly that I didn’t realise how far above the base price I was paying for sticks or skins or new ride cymbals. Certainly everyone else did by the end, and the pressure of competition from e-tailers, combined with a lack of discretionary consumer spending post-GFC would become their undoing. But what fucked up in upper management and merger fallouts doesn’t alter the fact that these guys loved what they did, and they spread that love around.

To be a shopper at Billy Hyde was to become part of a community far bigger than yourself. When I was interning at a record label around the corner, they let me come in at lunch times and mess around on their Roland V-drum kits for ages, even though they were well aware that I was never going to take one home. They showed me new music, taught me new grooves, recommended books and kept me interested in music long after the passion died out for my friends. It’s not a stretch to say that geeking out at Billy Hyde formed the basis for my lengthy career in obsessing over sound. There was never enough cash I could drop to make up for the experience I gained just from being in that environment.

I went into the store last week and they were getting so desperate that they were actually selling the fixtures. Staff had quietly installed a donations jar next to the till. This is not how it should be. Not for a store started by a dedicated drummer in 1962 in Melbourne and perpetuated by legions of dedicated drummers since. When the doors close next week, some 600 of them will be out of a job. I don’t know where they’re going to go. When you’ve given so much of your life to a passion as niche as drumming, what’s left? We all know playing in bands (which the majority of them do) simply doesn’t pay the bills anymore.

Whatever eventually takes Billy Hyde’s place, it will not be the same. We drummers will never have another place so organically comprised of people and ideas, of rhythm and soul. A computer algorithm can’t tell you which tom configuration will work better for your new band, or set it up and play it for you. It won’t guide you away from buying stupidly colourful sticks that aren’t the right weight for you. And it won’t come to your crappy band’s shows and sink a few beers, because it knows how much it means to you. The drummer is the backbone of any group, and Billy Hyde was the backbone of drummers. RIP.

Jonno Seidler is a drummer, contributor at TheVine and web editor of Smarter Business Ideas.

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