Originally published in Business Digest, May 1997

Playing It By Ear

by Craig C. Bailey

While many musicians might aspire to earn a living from their art, Michael Trombley has a more practical vision. As co-owner of Advance Music Centre in Burlington and Rutland, Trombley is fulfilling a lifelong ambition to have as much fun at his day job as he does playing out. Every musician should be so lucky.

His story starts with a scene that nearly everyone has fantasized at one time or another. Fourteen years into a comfortable design/engineering career at Triad Design Service, he up and resigned. "One day, without another job or any place to go or anything, I gave my notice. I just needed to go somewhere else in my life," he says, sounding almost as baffled as his then manager must have been. "It just hit me one day working there: This is not me."

So Trombley, a native Vermonter who graduated from Champlain Valley Union High School and Vermont Technical College, left his "short hair and tie" behind him, and ventured forth to find his true calling. "It was probably the toughest thing I've ever had to do in my life," he says. "I didn't have any direction, didn't know where I was going. Gave up a great salary, and just went off into the world." That he would eventually become involved in a music store wasn't a great surprise, considering Trombley, who turns 39 in October, has been a music fan since his pre-teen years. "I had such a love of it in my life, that I just had to pursue it in some other way.

"My parents were Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass kind of listeners," he says. When the record clubs they joined didn't offer enough titles in the easy listening category to fulfill their free selections, they would select material out of the contemporary line-up to give to Trombley. "They were getting me all these cool albums that they had no clue were cool," he laughs. "I was getting The Doors' Soft Parade when I was, like, nine years old -- putting it on the turntable and going, 'What in God's name is this?' A year later, I'm loving it."

But it would be one particular classic rock anthem that would put Trombley on the path of going beyond being just a fan and becoming a maker of melodies. Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" in 1973 inspired him to dig out of the closet the budget guitar his folks had purchased for him the previous year. "The next thing you know, I'm playing 'Smoke on the Water' on this old, beat-up, classical guitar," he says with a lingering sense of amazement. "This is not an untypical story for a guitarist, by the way," he adds.

He's been playing ever since, with no formal training.

It wasn't long after leaving Triad Design Service, and after a three-month stint selling cars at PJ's Auto Village in South Burlington, that Trombley was approached by Bill Shafer, owner of Advance. Shafer had founded the store as a small shop in Middlebury in 1984, before moving it above the Little Professor Bookstore on the Church Street Marketplace about a year later. In the late '80s, the company changed hands to Henry Huston, who moved it to Main and South Champlain streets in Burlington. Then in February 1992, it changed hands again, back to Shafer.

When Shafer proposed a partnership with Trombley, the two already had a long-standing relationship: As a member of Quadra, a classic rock group that's become a staple in the northern Vermont music scene over its 16 year history, Trombley was a frequent visitor to the store. Trombley bought half of the business from him in December 1992, and Shafer has since become a silent partner. Nearly a year later, the business moved to 75 Maple St., Burlington.

Trombley strikes an imposing figure. At 6-feet 2-inches tall, with a direct, resonant voice, a visitor might feel intimidated, if it weren't for his thoughtful commentary and genuine warmth. From the vacant fourth floor of the store, a setting somehow reminiscent of the Texas School Book Depository, Trombley explains, "this whole block used to be a bobbin mill." Indeed, from the outside, the markings are clearly visible of where the 120-year-old brick building used to continue over to what is now the Bobbin Mill Apartments to the south. A corrugated steel structure, appended by Oakman Electric, the building's previous occupant, stands attached to the four-story brick structure.

"The biggest reason that we bought this building probably was the fact that it had the space we needed -- it was still downtown, convenient, walkable, all of those things," he says of the structure, which includes four apartments on the second floor. "And it had some tenants in it -- that helped offset the cost of the purchase price." Trombley credits Dudley Davis at the Merchants Bank for making it happen. "He was a godsend to us -- just could see the vision, could see that we were making progress, and lent us money to buy this building."

Still, many people are amazed that a city the size of Burlington can support a music store of 8,500 square feet, stuffed with everything from sheet music, drum sticks and guitar picks, to high end digital recording equipment and PA systems, and everything in-between. The fact is, according to Trombley, the Queen City area plays host to no fewer than 420 bands. "Some of them are famous. Some of them aren't famous. Some of them you've never heard of. Some of them are in their basements. But there're 420 bands," he says. "You multiply that by three to seven a band -- that's a lot of people.

"Jim Lockridge of Big Heavy World and people like Andrew Smith of Chin Ho!, some of the club owners -- the Wygmans from Toast and Anne (Rothwell) from the Metronome -- those people are all totally supportive of the whole thing. And some of the people at Seven Days and Vox. It's a good community for music."

And for music sales. When Trombley partnered with Shafer, Advance had annual sales of approximately $375,000. Last year, the store did $2.1 million, even in the face of stiff competition.

"Our true competition, the ones we really butt heads against, are the out-of-state, mail-order people," says Trombley. "We'll try our best to match those prices, and in most cases we can." But, "In some cases we can't," he admits, "when they buy things in absolute huge quantities."

Oddly, mail-order firms sometimes make his job easier, as when customers walk in with catalogs tucked under their arms after obsessing over a particular guitar model for months. "The sales pitch is done," Trombley says, "so they walk in and they know what they want. They play it for 10 minutes. They go, 'This is it. This is all I wanted.' And we sell it to them."

Not surprisingly, Trombley's secret weapon is service. "Sometimes I'll go, 'Listen, I don't know where they got that at that price. You know, I can offer you the service. I'll fix it if it breaks. I'll give you a loaner if it breaks, but I'm going to have to get $25 more than that,'" he says. "And 99 percent of the time, they'll do it. Especially things like power amps or guitar amps, where they use them at a gig and if the thing blows up they're done."

Trombley should know. With some 700 Quadra gigs under his belt, and time spent on stage with The Mike Trombley Experience over the last two years, he's no stranger to the trials and tribulations of the musician's life. "We could be booked 52 weeks a year, if we wanted to be," he says of Quadra. Instead, the band plays about three weekends a month, with Trombley leading his Experience the remaining weekend.

While he doesn't officially work weekends at the store, Sundays it's not uncommon to find Trombley out on the showroom floor, a place he has seen less of since last summer.

[Larry Wood & Merrick Hard] Larry Wood (right) stepped in when Ed Boivin, the company's previous bookkeeper, passed away last summer. Salesperson Merrick Hard (left) is a relative newcomer to Advance. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

On July 24, 1996, Ed Boivin, the accountant/bookkeeper for Advance, was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer in front of the Shelburne Museum while riding his bike.

Trombley received the call at 3 a.m. to identify the body. "It was a brutal thing for me," he says. "Like nothing I've ever gone through in my life." Trombley says Boivin's sudden passing "sort of cracked me in the back of the head." While Trombley and Shafer made the financial decisions for the business, they had left it to Boivin to handle the day-to-day transactions. With Boivin gone, is was up to Trombley to partly step into that role. "I've pulled myself off the floor a lot in the past six months, and dove into the while financial side of things," he says. "I do miss being on the floor sometimes."

Still, Trombley's got a staff of approximately a dozen to do that work. (None work on commission, as Trombley's "very opposed to it.") Not surprisingly, they're also all musicians, which makes for a fine marketing relationship with the musical community. "If people are out in the field, working and gigging, talking with other musicians, and they work in a music store," Trombley says, "they carry some of the enthusiasm of this place out into that, and bring some of the enthusiasm of that back into here. And it's a good combination."

Advance also employs Tim McCarvell, formerly of Scope Electronics. "He came on board and has done wonderful things for our repair side of things. He's swamped -- crazy busy." The facility also rents space to Matt Shahan, an independent repair person who handles Advance's guitar repair work, as well as jobs for his own clients.

Following the model of how Trombley became involved with the business, just about every employee at Advance Music was a customer of the store before he or she was hired.

"When we need to hire somebody, we never, ever, ever put ads in the paper. We don't take resumes. Everybody who comes in here we look at as a potential employee," says Trombley. "They don't know that we've been screening them for a job for the past six months. But we've been watching them, and talking to them, and dealing with them. And all of a sudden you can pull someone in the office and say, 'I have no idea what your status is, where you're working. I don't know anything about what you're doing. But if you'd consider working here, we'd like that.' God, that works great."

Trombley's biggest challenge is keeping up with rapidly changing high-tech products like recording equipment and keyboards, two product categories that have become increasingly computerized. "If you order 10 Fender Stratocasters, you know that next year -- let's say that you didn't sell any of them -- that they're still going to be a viable product. They're still 10 Fender Stratocasters," he says. Not so with the high-tech gear that advances by leaps and bounds.

Furthermore, for all his effort in keeping timely with such equipment, the profit margin is relatively low. The store's mail-order competition is "making little or no money on these keyboards," says Trombley. "On a $2,000 item, they're making $150. It's brutal.

"From a profit point of view, it's probably accessories, strings and picks, and cables and straps, things like that, that we sell a ton of that is probably the true profit center," he adds.

"To this day, I get out of bed in the morning and people are jealous when I tell them I'm happy to come to work!" he says. "I'm psyched for it." Since April 1, 1996, Trombley's had more to be excited about. A year ago, Advance opened its first satellite store in Rutland. With a staff of three, including manager Keith McGee, at press time the store was due to move between Wal-Mart and the state's largest Price Chopper on May 1.

"This is like a lifelong dream for me. I always either wanted to own a music store or own a nightclub," he says, before adding with a chuckle, "I think I made the right choice."