BY JOHN ALDRIDGE
Buying drums has to be one of the biggest impediments to being a drummer. Money is always tight and our instruments aren’t the cheapest. But at least the picture does seem to be improving for the drum consumer. The venues for selling drums have broadened and multiplied, bringing variables into the buying picture that open up the market to an unprecedented level. If you’re willing to spend a little time, no matter where you live, you can now find virtually any instrument that you could ever hope to purchase via the worldwide web. Because of the nature of the beast, you can also find multiples of that item, which allows you to comparison shop for a drum that you wouldn’t have even had the chance to buy 20 years ago. But before you jump on the web to cruise eBay for your next drum, you should take a look at some ways to protect yourself and insure that you really get what you want at a fair price.
BLAST FROM THE PAST
Thirty years ago when I started playing, there were several ways to buy drums. My mother and father couldn’t afford the top-of-the-line Gold Sparkle Ludwig Super-Sensitive that I drooled on in the local music store when I purchased my first pair of sticks (Ludwig 3-S … I swear they weighed a pound apiece) but there were limited choices in 1971 in Ardmore, Oklahoma. My parents were supportive from the beginning, even though they didn’t have the money to buy an expensive drum. Besides, why should they spend a fortune on an expensive drum when I had left numerous economically feasible hints lying around the house in the form of every Sears catalog that featured musical instruments? To my 11-year-old brain, I just wanted a drum – any drum. The strategically placed catalogs would magically fall open to the page where the musical instruments were sold, and there was their answer, a cheap snare drum kit, just a phone call away!
That was my first experience with buying something from a catalog, sight unseen. I was a kid and I just knew that the folks at Sears wouldn’t handle any junk. They were the kings of catalog sales. At first, it was wonderful. I saw the drum through rose colored glasses and worshipped it! I’d hug it and clean it and tune it and love it forever and ever … uh huh. But after a while, I noticed that it never really could be tuned to a pitch, and it sure had a funny ring to it, and why couldn’t the snares be tightened enough to make contact with the bottom head? After almost a month of working on the drum, I came to the conclusion that I (or at least my parents) had been hosed. This drum was almost worth the $39 hard earned dollars my parents spent on it. But within a year, the reinforcing rings started separating from the shell and the shell went out of round one week when I left the head off. I learned a lot from that drum. The lack of quality construction forced me to work on it to make it better than it was. It also gave me a strong motivation to look very carefully before I purchased my next drum.
BUYING IN THE 2000S
In the past 30 years, I’ve bought sold, repaired, rebuilt, recovered, painted, piddled with, and played hundreds of drums in the course of being a working drummer. Having been burned about as often as I’ve had good transactions, I have a first-class education on how not to buy drums. As the editor of a small magazine devoted to buying, selling, and trading vintage drums (Not So Modern Drummer), I get numerous calls from subscribers and others who are avid collectors and drummers as well as drummers who are new to the hobby. Like me, they’re very enthusiastic and eager to find the drum of their dreams, but they’re (rightfully) leery of just sending money to a stranger to buy something through the mail, and particularly wary of purchasing drums over the Internet.
Ten years ago, I told people how to avoid getting burned when dealing through the mail and by phone. The same tips still apply today, but the Internet has opened up even more problems (and solutions) for drum buyers. The anonymity of the Internet is a beautiful thing in that it allows well-known collectors or public figures to buy things without revealing their own identity (which might result in a higher asking price). It is also an excellent way for an unscrupulous person to hide his or her identity from you in the event that the deal goes wrong (intentionally or not). Internet auction houses such as eBay have their own new set of problems to address, but most of the common-sense details of buying over the phone or through the mail still apply when dealing with unknown parties on the web.
KNOW WHAT YOU WANT
The first thing that I would advise you to do before purchasing anything on the web is to know exactly what you intend to buy. Arm yourself with enough information to shop intelligently. With new drums, that’s easy. Get the catalogs from the companies you’re considering, or go to their websites and study their product line to find that product that will suit your budget and needs.
It’s a little tougher with vintage drums. You can research the vintage drum companies online or buy the books available on the subject. (Did I mention that I wrote: The Guide To Vintage Drums, published by Centerstream Publishing, distributed by Hal Leonard, which you can run out and buy for only $24.95?) Or you can subscribe to a magazine like Not So Modern Drummer (did I mention that I’m the Publisher/Janitor of this gem of publishing pulchritude?) to get your periodical dose of drum wisdom via the semi-regular subscription. (Editor’s note: Hey John, enough with the shamelessly self-serving plugs, already! And, oh yeah, did I mention that I wrote the Drum Setup And Hardware book for Hal Leonard? So there!)
After you’ve educated yourself on what the drum should look like, you’ll still need to deal with the subjective information concerning your online purchase. You’re totally at the mercy of the seller’s descriptive powers to determine if anything has been altered on the product since it left the assembly line 20—60 years ago. Your only protection in this instance is to know what the drum should be like, and ask enough questions to determine if it is original or altered enough to affect its value.
Let’s assume that you know everything there is to know about the drum you want. You’ve found a dealer online and you’re ready to purchase the instrument. The first matter is to determine the type of entity you are dealing with. Is this an individual or a drum shop or a chain store? Why is that important? Would you be worried about buying a DW drum from Guitar Center? Of course not. It’s such a safe call that you could even do it online with any acceptable method of payment. Even if you’re dealing with a small music store, they will most likely take a safe form of payment that is reversible, like a credit card. But would you buy a slightly out of round ’40s Radio King from an unknown individual who doesn’t even know if it’s a three point or clamshell model, who requires a money order or cashier’s check?
The most secure way to purchase online is to use a credit card. Most credit cards have a guaranteed refund. Merchants who accept credit cards get their payment via electronic deposits directly into their accounts, which are reversible in case of disputed charges. Credit card companies will take the money back from the seller for you if the merchandise is not what it was supposed to be or if the seller does not deliver the product. There are even a few that specialize in web purchases only! However, this layer of protection only works when you use a credit card. Online checks are not protected and neither are personal checks, money orders, or bank drafts sent through the mail, as the seller can disappear with the money leaving you with no way to recover your loss.
If the seller does not accept credit cards, or you don’t know them personally, or they don’t come with an exceptionally high recommendation by a person who you know and trust, you should protect yourself by processing the transaction through an online payment service like Pay Pal. By utilizing a third party, you can gain the security of a credit card transaction without having to pay more for the item. This way, if you put the merchandise on your card and it doesn’t arrive when it is supposed to, you can dispute the charge and have it removed from your bill. The credit card company will suck the money back out of the account that they put it into and everything will be back to square one.
There are numerous venues for purchasing vintage, used, and new drums online. One of the best sources for all of these is eBay. However, a few suggestions are in order if you plan to take this route. I know I said this earlier, but it is critical when dealing with auctions. Know what you plan to buy and its actual fair market value before you start to bid. Here’s an example of how you can get hurt by ignoring this detail: I know numerous parents who went online Christmas shopping for Brio Trains for their children (picture me raising my hand with a sheepish look on my face) and paid as much as $50-$60 online. However, that same train set sells for $32.95 at your local Target! The moral of the story is: Don’t buy things via auction on the spur of the moment if you don’t already know exactly how much they should cost. Auction fever can cause you to pay more than the actual value of the item you plan to buy.
This same effect on the auction participant is a boon to auction sellers who prey on uneducated buyers. They go to a store and purchase (or even just photograph) an item, and then list it on eBay with a reserve that matches their cost. Then they auction the item, buy it from their source, and ship it to you as well as others who may have bid on the same item. This way they pocket the profit that they’ve just made from you thanks to your ignorance of the item’s real price. It works the same way with drums. The only way to avoid this is by knowing what you’re buying and what it should cost before you get to the auction.
Once you’ve determined the value of the item being auctioned, set a limit for the maximum amount you want to spend on it. When you are ready to bid, you still have a couple of options to consider. If you have time to log on frequently and check the auction as it draws to a close (the ending time of every auction is clearly listed), you can bid as needed manually. However, most people don’t have time to hover over eBay waiting to outbid the latest challenger on the auction for a pair of bongos. That’s probably why most auctions on eBay allow for “proxy bidding.” This means you bid the total amount you are willing to pay for the item being auctioned.
For instance, let’s say that the current bid is $250 for an item, and the increment is $5 to the next bid. You’ve done you’re homework and know the item is at least worth $500 and you could sell it for that right now. You don’t want to pay too much, but you’d be willing to pay around $375. So you enter a bid of $375. This won’t automatically bid the item up to that price. However, it will raise it to cover the next highest bid. For instance, if there are no other proxy bids in line, the amount may only go up by $5 leaving you with the highest bid at $255. If you get in early on an auction, you may notice that your bid will be upped and covered several times, depending on how much others are willing to bid on the same item. As long as no one outbids your maximum bid, you will automatically overbid every lower offer by $5. If someone outbids you at your reserve bid ($375), you have to decide at that time whether or not you really want to get the item. Remember: Just because you got the item, that doesn’t necessarily mean you won the auction. If you get caught up in a bidding frenzy and overpay for the item, you didn’t win anything but an overpriced reminder not to do that again.
Keep in mind that there are different types of auctions, which can affect your chances of getting a good deal. Reserve auctions allow the seller to preset a minimum acceptable bid, which remains hidden from potential buyers. The only hint you will see is an indicator that reads: “reserve has not been met.”
Here’s an example: The seller puts his ’20s Black Beauty up for auction. He knows it’s worth at least $2,000, so he sets his reserve for that amount. If the auction doesn’t reach that price, he’s not obligated to sell the drum. Once the reserve is met, the seller is legally obligated to sell the to the highest bid. Since most buyers would assume that that drum costs over $2,000, this is not unrealistic. He could start the bidding at $100, but until the $2,000 reserve is met, the auction is just a dance with numbers. Of course, the seller always has the option of taking less than his reserve price. Sometimes a high reserve will result in bidding that goes beyond the market value of an item. This allows the seller to get the most money for his merchandise, while not committing to sell unless he’s satisfied with the price. Since bids are recorded, the seller can go back down the line of bidders to see if anyone will pay a set price for the item once the auction is over. This is a somewhat dishonest practice as the sale isn’t actually sanctioned or governed by the auction house.
Another way to get a good deal is to be an early “pre-bidder.” If you’re the first person who’s interested enough to bid on an item, and you contact the seller before any other bids are entered, you may be able to negotiate a pre-auction sale. In this case, the buyer offers what he’s willing to pay to the seller, who then decides whether that’s enough to make him want to end the auction and sell the item immediately. I know several prominent collectors who avidly search the Internet daily for auctions that have just been listed, so that they can try to purchase the items before the auction actually begins. This can be frustrating, since the guy who has the most money will generally get there first. But if you’re lucky, and are the first person to find something cool, you might get it.
One final way to find auctions for drums that others might miss is to look for unconventional listings. Instead of typing “Ludwig Black Beauty” into the search criteria, try more generic terms like “drum,” or misspelled brand names like “Lugwig,” “Gretch,” and “Ledy.” These indicators suggest that the seller isn’t an expert on the subject of vintage drums. Someone who doesn’t really know much about the item they intend to sell is often more likely to accept a lower bid than you might otherwise expect to pay for that merchandise. This same person is also more likely to describe unfamiliar items in layman’s terms that well versed drum shops, collectors, and drummers wouldn’t normally use. I recently saw a listing for an ’80s Ludwig snare, and for some reason I looked at it. Instead of the (roughly) $200 drum I expected, there sat a pre-serial number, chrome-over-brass Ludwig Super from ’59-’63. It sold for $375, well below the current market value of $650+, simply because there was no competition. The reason? Due to the inadequate and wrong description in the title, people who were looking for chrome-over-brass drums didn’t bother to look at it!
KNOW WHOM YOU DEAL WITH!
If you deal with a reputable nationwide chain store or well-known individual, evidence of their trustworthiness should be readily available. On eBay, you can check the seller’s feedback to see if they’ve been ethical in past transactions. If they haven’t been on eBay long enough to have any feedback, ask them for specific references from individuals who they’ve done business with before. If you deal with an unknown person with no verifiable reputation, you’re asking for trouble.
HOW TO BACK OUT OF A DEAL
The final step in any online deal is to form a contingency plan for problems that might occur when the merchandise arrives. For example: You’ve made the deal, checked the references, paid with a credit card, and just opened the incredibly well packed boxes that just arrived on your doorstep. But there are several problems with the merchandise that weren’t revealed in the photographs and the seller didn’t disclose. It could have been ignorance on the part of the seller or intentional fraud. Either way, you’re not happy with the deal as it stands. Without a contingency plan, you’re stuck. Technically, the gear is everything the seller said it was, but the problem is that he didn’t say what it wasn’t.
Unfortunately, buying anything that is older or not totally new depends on two sets of perceptions: The buyer’s and the seller’s. It’s an extremely rare occasion when any two humans who are separated by a significant distance would come up with the same descriptions after looking at the same object, much less a picture of that object. Don’t wait until something bogus arrives, then try to call the seller back and return it. Negotiate a return policy in advance. This means that you need to decide:
1. Who pays for the shipping?
2. Who pays for insurance to cover shipping damages?
3. How soon must the item be returned in order for you to get a full or partial refund?
4. Will the price drop if the merchandise proves to have lesser value than the seller’s description? This is even more important when dealing with individuals who don’t really have a working knowledge of the product they are selling.
Now that I’ve convinced you that everyone on the web is out to get you, let’s look at it from another perspective. If you’re selling on the web, you need to protect yourself from unscrupulous buyers as well. One strategy I have used to protect myself is to sell used items “as is.” Know enough about your product to describe it in a clear and concise way. But make sure everyone agrees that at the end of the deal you will accept only the negotiated price for the transaction, even if the buyer’s perception of the drum is different from yours. Since it is a common practice to try to talk the seller into a partial refund on a deal when the merchandise arrives, you’ll want to make this policy clear in advance. Price negotiation is not an option to me unless I have truly misidentified or omitted an important detail on the item sold. If the buyer doesn’t like it, for whatever reason, they have 48 hours to contact me and tell me that they want to send the drums back. If the buyers adhere to the return policy or call to make reasonable alternative arrangements, I’ll agree to refund the purchase price in full, minus any reasonable expenses that may have incurred in packing and shipping the drums to the customer.
Of course, if you’ve unintentionally misrepresented the merchandise in the first place and your buyer is not satisfied with it, your negotiation skills come into play in a big way. The bottom line is that your buyer is your reputation. A reputation for good service and fairness in dealing will result in steady growth of your business through recommendations from satisfied customers. This is just honest, up-front dealing and it depends largely on your powers of description and knowledge of your product to be successful. As with any business transaction, a satisfied buyer will tell a friend or two about you, but a dissatisfied buyer will take the same amount of pleasure in telling everyone that he meets what a schmuck you are!
To make your item available to the most active buyers, use terms that really describe it well. Research what you have and use the best descriptive terms to list it. Check the spelling! It can mean the difference between a wasted effort and a successful auction with heavy bidding.
Aside from writing a good, searchable text description and title, a picture of the instrument is the next most critical factor in selling over the web. Many Internet hosting services allow you to post graphics for auctions. You can find a few by looking at other auctions and noting where they’ve stored their pictures. Many times, this service is free simply for allowing the hosting service to put a banner under your pictures. Try to offer several views of your item so that the buyer can see it from all angles. Take detailed photos of any damage or alterations that might cause the buyer to want to return the merchandise. Most people will still buy an imperfect item as long as they know where the problems are in advance. People don’t like surprises. Don’t try to be sneaky. Save yourself a headache and put as many photos online as possible.
If you don’t know the value of an item, overshoot it by a large margin. If it sells for the reserve price, you’ll be delirious with happiness. If it doesn’t sell the first time you put it up for auction, a high reserve will allow bidders to show you what they’re willing to pay for it. You can then either list the item again with a more realistic and educated reserve, or simply call the high bidder in the first auction and offer the item at their bidding price.
I would recommend to any seller, whether they’re an individual or business, to invest the time that it takes to enable your customers to pay you as easily as possible. If you can accept credit card payments, you’ll have much less difficulty with customer trustworthiness. You will also get the money faster!