Chances are that if you’re a musician in Perthshire, then you’ll have come across Pete Caban. He’s been running his music shop, Bandwagon, in St. Paul’s Square in the city centre since 1983 and he’s sold many a guitar to bright-eyed youngsters taking their first steps and learning to play their first instrument.
He’s also a well-known face around Perth’s live music scene, having played in a number of different bands across five decades. Now Perth’s only independent music shop, Bandwagon offers top-quality musical instruments, accessories, servicing and repairs, and tuition which makes it a musician’s idea of paradise.
I was looking forward to interviewing Pete because I hadn’t been in his shop since I was a little twelve-year-old who was buying his first guitar. That music phase lasted all of a few months, when my tuition at school kept clashing with PE and there was only going to be one winner there! However, a dozen years later and I’m now considering picking it up again so I was keen to pick his brains while finding out a little bit more about the man himself and his fantastic business.
“I’ve played guitar as long as I care to remember,” he told me, “it’s been my hobby for over fifty years. I first started to work with another music chain which was called Thomson’s Music – that was on Princes Street in Perth, and it was a big retailer.
“I got a little bit frustrated with some of the decisions when it came to stock so I decided I wanted to go out on my own. You get more scope that way and I could make the decision on the brands and the makes and models I wanted to have.
“So, I established Bandwagon in St. Paul’s Square back in 1983. We were originally a couple of shops down at no.5 for about seven or eight years, then we moved into the current shop and we’re still here!”
Having been in business for many years, Pete is aware of the challenges that every small retailer has to face in modern times. Competing with the internet is tough, but with a loyal customer base and many strings to his bow he’s still thriving.
“The main challenge for shops now is the rise of the internet. It’s basically one big shop with everything so it can be difficult to compete with it sometimes. I’ve got quite a loyal customer base though and it’s something that gets passed down generations. It tends to be kids of original customers – and it pains me to say it – grandkids now too! As independent retailers we’ve got to find ways of getting people to come in and buy from us.
“As independent retailers we’ve got to find ways of getting people to come in and buy from us – so we offer other things such as tuition, servicing and repairs, and accessories. We’ll often get people coming in who’ve bought their guitar online and are just looking for things like strings, straps and such like for it.
“That’s fine but twenty years ago that wouldn’t have happened – I’d have sold them the guitar as well. I guess that’s just the change in culture but don’t get me wrong we do still get youngsters coming in to buy which is great and I just hope that it’s the whole shop experience that keeps them coming back.”
It’s easy to see when you speak to Pete that he loves his job. He’s passionate about music and the shop was bustling with people coming in and out, with the phone ringing every 5-10 minutes as someone on the other end of the line asks to speak to him.
Coming up for thirty-five years in business, there’s no sign of Pete’s passion for his business fading and he enthused about his work and also about how, thanks to Bandwagon, he has helped to form and bolster many a band over the years.
“I really enjoy it because every day is varied! Different people every day, different challenges every day, you just never know what’s going to happen or who’s going to come through that door from the minute you open until your closing at night. That has its problems as well because sometimes nothing can happen – you can’t force people into your shop!
“I’m a musician, so to be able to work in a music shop every day and deal with my fellow musicians day in day out is great. It’s nice meeting likeminded people and over the years we’ve seen bands form right here in Bandwagon.
“It’s like a little hub. People who love music, who play in bands, come to the shop to buy something and they’ll say, ‘we really need a new bass player’, and it’ll just so happen that there’s a bassist in the shop at that moment who is looking for a new band. It’s like a little community!”
As the retail side of things becomes even more competitive, Pete has had to focus more on developing other areas of his business. Servicing and repairs is now a big part of what he does, with many of the city’s musicians relying on Bandwagon to make sure their instruments are in top shape for their gigs and open mic nights.
And tuition is also big for Pete, even though he himself no longer teaches lessons. He has tutors work from his Bandwagon shop which brings budding young Clapton’s and Hendrix’s through the doors giving him additional retail opportunities.
“Repairs and servicing is becoming more and more important to the business as it needs to fill the void from losing retail to the internet. Tuition also plays a big part in getting people to come into the shop and we’ve got some great tutors who teach upstairs which is brilliant for us. The live music scene in Perth is actually quite buoyant. The venues that are there encourage local bands to play, and the open mic nights are great as well.
“The tutors encourage their pupils to buy here too and the kids are coming in every day and seeing these guitars so naturally they’ll eye them up. The tutors will advise their pupils what might be a good guitar for them at whatever stage they are at with their playing, and then they can have a shot of something we have in stock to suit them. It definitely helps to promote the retail side of the business, it’s a nice balance.
“On the topic of tutors, I need to put in a word about the schools and education department too. They’re good with us and they support local business by ordering their guitars from me. That’s great because they could quite easily go online to get their guitars but they come to me to buy and for repairs as well.”
Our conversation wandered slightly to discuss my own aspirations to pick up the guitar again, with Pete telling me that you’re never too old to learn. We discussed my favourite type of music – country – and my love of Brad Paisley, Tim McGraw and old Willie Nelson. “You were born in the wrong era,” he joked, “the country music scene was booming in the 1980s, in Perth and right across Scotland!”
Talking about country music led to us chat more about Pete’s own music, his varied musical genres and of course Southern Fried Festival.
“Over the years I’ve played them all – every venue in Perth, in a wide variety of bands! I’ve played in function bands, blues bands, country bands, you name it and I’ve played it. I still play my own night at the Green Room in Perth and still have a few other projects going, all just for fun nowadays.
“There’s still live music in the area, and the live music scene in Perth is actually quite buoyant. The venues that are here encourage local bands to play, and the open mic nights are great as well. There’s pretty much something on every night of the week which is good and you’ve got some nice venues that support the local bands such as Green Room, The Venue, Twa Tams and many more.
“Southern Fried is a good festival as well and for the shop, it does bring people in but it’s mostly accessory business – people looking for strings, straps and such. Festivals are a funny thing – they can help inspire kids and you might get a wee wave just after a big festival of people taking up a musical instrument which is always nice.
“When the ukulele orchestra comes to Perth and plays, you all of a sudden get people coming in to buy ukuleles – so it’s definitely a positive thing to have any musical event or festival in the city.”
Having been around for three-and-a-half decades, Bandwagon is still going strong and remains an important part of Perth’s vibrant music community. Chatting to Pete has further fuelled my desire to get back to learning guitar, and in the New Year I’m sure I’ll paying the shop a visit for some lessons with his tutors!
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