A chat with Jay Milley of SJ Music LLC (Part 1)

On Tuesday March 7th, I sat down with Jay Milley of SJ Music LLC. in Turnersville, New Jersey. We had a nice long chat, so I’m going to split this post into two parts. I’ll post part two later this week. Jay has been with SJ Music for about 15 years, and worked in the music industry for even longer. He run the music store along with The Volume Cafe, which is directly connected to SJ Music. There he brews coffee, sells food and wine, and hosts a successful music venue for local artists. Here’s what we talked about.

Jay Milley of SJ Music from Woodstown, New Jersey. Playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.
“I try and treat people the way they wanna be treated and the way I would wanna be treated, not like an idiot or an imbecile.” said Jay

Me: So how old were you when you first started with guitar?

Jay: 13-14, something like that.

Me: What was your first guitar?

Jay: Some old Sears electric guitar with and action you could park a truck under. That was my first one and shortly thereafter I got an acoustic that my Mom got me for Christmas when she knew I was gonna stick with it, and it was a red Fender. Ya know, a very girly red Fender.

Me: Was it that “Fiesta Red”?

Jay: It was a wine red that was a little bright for a wine red. It was a nice guitar, but it was very red.

Me: So, you said you played in a band when you were younger. Was that your main gigging guitar?

Jay: Yeah, when I was high-school I played guitar and I sang. And through high-school I was in original band, like this one called “Grease Monkey”, and I was in “Faith, Fear, and Tear” and a bunch of other bands. Then I had a falling out with a band that did some studio stuff, and things started happening that were good, but the guitar player and drummer were brothers and they were very difficult. So, I was getting fed up with it, and was hitting all sorts of roadblocks, and long story short I ended up getting a haircut and a real job. Because, ya know, I had hair down to my ass. So, I cut it all off and I quit playing for like four years and I started working warehouse work, whatever I could find, driving forklifts and stuff like that. And then a buddy of mine was like “Hey man there’s this guy opening up this music store. Do you want a job?” Well I was in a union job, and I had a 401K, dental, I was making 20 something an hour, with a lot of overtime, and incentive pay. And I was doing pretty well! But it was backbreaking work, so long story short I ended up getting out of there and met with the owner of that store. And the place jerked me around a little bit. It was my birthday, and I’ve never asked for a day off and they wouldn’t give it to me, and I had all these plans, and I ended up just calling out, they wrote me up and it started this whole fiasco. I was like “Listen, I was your best employee for four years.” And anyway, back then I didn’t watch much football, and there was a super bowl game on, and they ad us all come in early. I was their fastest guy, because we loaded trucks. We used pallet jacks, and after you got seniority you got to choose your pallet jack, and the ones they start you on are like death traps, so I picked a safe one, but some rookie already took my jack, and they said “well he was here earlier”, and I said fine “I’m not scheduled to be here till five anyway.” Any they’re trying to get done by five, so I’m just gonna come in at my Union scheduled time. So I went a sat in this gazebo and the guys were like “Come on man you gotta!” and I said no. So right then and there I decided I was done in that place. And I was young at the time, 23-24, and I was in shape. Not round like this shape (points to himself). So yeah, then I started in the music store after that, and I started playing music in a cover band and also did originals again. But I ended up staying in the cover band, and it was one that was represented very well. We had a great agency, one of the top ones in the tri-state area at the time and beyond, and for almost eight years I played with that band, and we traveled up and down the east coast. From Virginia to Vermont.

Each of these guitars are copies of the Fender Stratocaster. Though they are made by various companies, the uniformity is a callback to tradition.

Me: And you played all covers?

Jay: Yeah, we were playing anywhere from five to seven nights a week. And I opened this store while that was happening. When I was working for Don (owner of the first store Jay worked at) at Music Go Round, he was there for five years and he was gonna move to where The Laboratory is now.

Me: Not anymore! I spoke to the owner there just the other week.

Jay: Yeah, he’s planning on going online. My old partner that bought in after I got established here, he was just like him (Aaron). He was an online guy, but he wanted to buy in because being online can be like a “Catch-22”, to be an online store you have to have the brands, but to get the brands you need a brick and mortar store. So, that’s how Music 123, Guitar Center, Sam Ash, that’s how they do it. They’re dealing in millions of dollars’ worth of stuff. They’ve got the buying power. And that’s hot they started out they gobbled up a bunch of other music stores. And I know the other side of that, my partner Chris, he came in because he was having such a hard time making any kind of money online without having first a brick and mortar. And plus, everyone is looking for used stuff now, so Reverb is great if you’ve got used, and yeah, you can put new stuff on there, but the problem is MAP (minimum advertised pricing) levels the playing field and might give the brick and mortar stores the upper hand. So, I wish the best to him! I like Aaron, he’s a good dude and all, but he’s got a hard road coming.

Me: With going online you lose the income from instrument repairs, though right? It looked like Aaron had done a lot with repairs.

Jay: Yeah that’s us too. We do amp repairs, guitar repair, horn repair, ya know, just about anything. But yeah, everything has shifted. Lessons used to be our bread and butter. That’s where everything was. Now YouTube is giving lessons away for free, even though they’re not correcting a student. I’m self-taught, so it’s not that it can’t be done. You can get it done, but I grew up where there were no lessons to be had. So, I was taught by guys I played with I bands basically. Just picking up things like “Oh is this a power chord? Okay! That’s what that’s called?” And I learned the chords and stuff just by learning songs. And I’d just piece it all together.

A “Marshall Amplification” sign adjacent to a Trombone. This perfectly illustrated the diversity of equipment found in Jay’s shop.

Me: That’s how I learned in my band, when the other guys learned something new I had to come back with something better the next week.

Jay: There was always somebody better in my band, like the lead guitar player. I was the rhythm guy, but I sang. I had a pretty decent voice, at least at the time I thought I did. Until I heard tapes of me singing, and I thought “Good God! I’m so much better now.”

Me: What made you want to open this brick and mortar store?

Jay: That happened when Music Go Round went out of business. I really loved that job. It was a great job. And Don was a great boss, he was a really nice guy, and he was gonna move to where the laboratory was. They wanted him and his wife to sign, and he was struggling at the time. He was the nicest guy but he wasn’t the best at business. He was pretty gullible. And he called me up and said “Listen, I can’t go on. They want too much for this lease. They want my wife to sign, and I’m just not willing to do that.” He was a retired boilermaker. So, he closed up. I knew the drum instructor from that store, Dom, was going to try and buy in with Don. So, I called him to talk business, how much money you wanna put in, how much money am I gonna put in. And we only came up with about 60 grand. And that’s not much money to start a business. But in those five years I worked for Don, I was his right hand man, I did all the ordering, and all the buying.

A Marshall DSL 100. Perhaps the largest amp found in SJ Music. A quintessential rock-n-roll machine.

Me: And where was his store?

Jay: Over in the ACME shopping center. Which is funny because I ended up taking that store over after I opened up here. I moved there, and then I came back. I’ll get to that part in a second. So, Dom and I sat down and figured that if we get one of every pack of strings, like 12 guitars, and only like three drum kits, and all the parts. The we started looking for a building, and I really wanted where the Laboratory was. But right there next to the Raymour and Flanigan there was a space for lease from Raymour and Flanigan. But with the deal that Don was trying to get there was extremely low, I mean half of what he was paying over there. So, it would’ve been like $1000 a month rent. But somebody else jumped on it before I got my act together so we missed out on that. And I looked at the space where the Laboratory was and the rent there was through the roof! So we ended up finding this location, and it was just this, and that hole wasn’t there (points down the all hall to the rest of his store). We put slat board up everywhere, there were two rooms, there was a wall right here(Points to the middle of the café) and that was the drum room, and this was where all the guitars were, they were put all down that wall. We built out counter just like that (Points to where the cash register is for the Cafe). Built the lesson rooms in the basement. And said “Alright, let’s give it a shot”. So, we got one of each thing, and every time we sold something we bought two more. And you sell that, you buy three more, or four. And before you knew it we had some stock.

The store is attached The Volume Cafe. With enough seating for 60-80 people.

I bought the phone number that Don had, so the minute I opened my doors, the phone was ringing. It was only four, five months between when he closed and my store opened. I bought his book cases, his pedestals, and some of his old stock, I was able to obtain that. But the biggest thig was that I bought his phone number. And he sold it to me for $500 with a bunch of other stuff. It was such a steal really. So I turned by phones on, and they were ringing right away. And back then we called ourselves “South Jersey Music” back then. And then we shortened it to SJ Music because ya know, it was too much to write. So, I was here for five years and we were bursting at the seams, and we wanted to take over that section next store, but that was a bird store. And she was rumored to be leaving. So months went by and nothing was happening and finally the landlord called and said “They’re staying.” So we had to move. We started looking at the location where Music Go Round was, It was exactly the way he(Don) left it, except they partitioned off one section. Which was great! We could have one section that was all lesson rooms, and now all these walls to hang product on. We moved over there and I was there for almost five years. In our fourth year, right before that happened, my original partner was bought out by my Dad, and he’s passed on now. And then the guy, Chris, that I had mentioned, the internet guy, he came in, and that’s really what got us moving. I was playing music and that’s all I really cared about because that was putting money directly in my pocket, directly. This place never has. But, he had a night job and all that, and he was a go getter, and it was the three of us for a bit, Chris, Dom, and I. But Don couldn’t stand it, he had so many OCD’s, he was very anal, and long story short, I know I say that a lot, but he wanted to go, he was not happy with the new arrangements. So, my dad bought him out, he went away, then we moved to the ACME, and then when we were in our fourth year there Chris came to me. He’s got a daughter, he’s got a wife, a career and all this, and said he couldn’t do this anymore. So that’s when my brother Mark came in, because my Dad was getting sick and he was out of work, and so Mark came in. He plays guitar, so he’s been around music as much as I have. And we knew we couldn’t stay there (at the ACME) because the rent was three time what we were paying. We had to get out of there. We broke out lease and we moved back here in the middle of the night. At that point him and I partnered, so even though I’ve been my own boss for 15 plus years now, it’s really only been five years for this LLC, because this is a new LLC. So, I had to talk to my lawyer about it, because I’m an honest guy, but had we stayed there, it would have broke me, we wouldn’t be here right now. It’s par for the course, this happens all the time in business. I didn’t want to be that guy, but oh well. So, then we moved back here, this became the Café and it’s been like that for four years.

Me: And this has been your full-time gig ever since?

Jay: Yes. I mean I still play on weekends, but nowhere near as much. It became too much. I’d like to start playing again because of the money, the money is good. But, my old band has been gone for a long time. Band are a business on its own. Cover Bands, I know how to make them, and what works, but keeping the personnel right, and keeping everybody happy, and finding people that are all on the same page is next to impossible. There’s different levels of musicians. You may be a pro, but when you’re in the pros there’s guy that just wanna do weddings, or wanna run off and do cruises, and guys who just wanna be in the night clubs. And I want a little taste of it all. Except the cruising, I don’t know about that. I wanna do weddings, corporate events, and I’d still like to do the occasional bar where you get to, ya know, rock out with your cock out!

Click the image to listen to Jay.

A huge thanks to Jay for taking time out of his day to sit down with me for an hour or so and talk shop. Part 2 to this interview will be posted later this week with the conclusion of our conversation!

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