A chat with Jay Milley of SJ Music LLC (Part 2)

Took a little longer to get this post ready, but here it is. Close to the end of the interview my audio recording device stopped recording because storage was full. I lost the final 8 minutes of dialogue. I’ll abbreviate what Jay had to say. Here’s what we talked about.

Me: So you’re not interested in recording anymore?

Jay: Nah, I haven’t recorded in a decade.

Me: Did you do any recordings with your cover band?

Jay: My original band. Yeah we recorded the cover band. There’s all kinds of stuff out there.

Me: Did you do any albums?

Jay: No, it’s covers music, so we didn’t write it. But with my original bands we did two demos. But I gave up on that. There’s just no money in that kind of stuff. You can try and have the dream and try to go out and become rich and famous. But, I mean my band was GOOD. But that doesn’t matter. Good or not, it’s a popularity contest. Not it might be different with Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Maybe it’s easier for the younger guys to get their music out there. But back then you had to find “The deal”, and when I finally was presented my first original “Deal”, it was from Dave Iber Productions. He basically said “I’m interested in you”, meaning me, because I wrote all the stuff, I was the singer, and it was all my songs. But he didn’t want my band. I was loyal to the bone, and so I told the guy to go screw himself, and probably one of the biggest regrets of my life was doing that. Who knows where I’d be now? I’d be a different person probably. I just couldn’t do that to my friends that helped me write all that music. We were all at the time, best friends. Now the bass player actually cooks here (at the Volume Café), the guitar player is in upper Pennsylvania. We just split up and went our own ways.

A peek of the drum kit to get a view of the wall of amps at SJ Music. Includes several Marshall, Vox, Kustom, and Bogner amplifiers.

Me: Is owning a guitar store still relevant these days? Is it a lucrative business?

Jay: No. That’s why I’m doing this over here (The Volume Café). The café is my future because everybody has gotta eat. I’d like to keep the venue alive, however it’s very difficult and it’s stacked against me, that’s for sure. But that place is still doing what it’s doing (SJ Music). The Nice thing about moving back to this location, there’s really pros and cons. The pros are; my rent is low, which means I don’t need to make tons of money although it’s still difficult to even make that because the con is that I’m stuck behind the Arby’s and nobody even knows I’m here. But, most people hunt out music stores. It’d be nice to have a corner lot right out on the pike or something, or BE at Arby’s or something like that. But if we move there our rent goes through the roof.

Me: I found you here by posting on The Gear Page what I’m trying to do with my blog. And someone recommended I stop by.

Jay: Good! I try to be a nice guy. 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. Whenever I go to a music store, even the big box stores, I never let on what I know. I went to a pawn shop one time, the guy had a red Fender with gold hardware, Mexican Fender. Tops $400 is what it’s worth, tops. And they were asking, I can’t remember but it was a ridiculous amount. So, I was like “Mind if I look at that?” and the guy said “Well that’s a FENDER!”. I said “Yeah, I mean, it’s a Mexican Fender.” So, I strum on it and it’s all screwed up, not set up right, but it’s all things that can be fixed. So, I asked what he wanted for it. And he told me! And I said “Oh my god!” He said they were real solid gold tuners on it. I was like, “Really? Really? Solid gold huh? Is that what that is? Solid gold?” And he said “Yeah, ya know, Fender, they make the best guitars.” And, finally, I said, “Yeah? So, let me tell you a little bit about your solid gold guitar!”. But anyways, you always play dumb at first so you can get the honest reaction from people.

Just part of the guitar wall here at SJ Music. Some B.C. Rich, Aria, Esp LTD, Epiphone, and Squire guitars.
“And I’ve got the new stuff too, but not much. It’s mostly used. That’s where the market is right now. ” said Jay

Me: Like you said, you’re not really relevant these days. But, you’re still here! What are you doing right?

Jay: Well, I’m changing with the times, hence this place over here (The Volume Café). This has been an eye-opener. The potential business that this place can do is awesome. The money that this place can make in a night is very impressive. But, it’s difficult to get people to come to this one place all the time. There’s so much competition out there. The same can be said about the music industry. There’s me, there’s Old Town Music right up the Pike, there’s that guy in Pitman (The Music Museum).

Me: Yeah, I talked to Larry about Phil in Pitman. Larry used to work for him back in ’76.

Jay: Larry’s a good guy, I talked to him a few times when he first started down there. I lived in Woodstown.

Me: Same, I went to Woodstown High school.

Jay: So did I [laughs], so did he! But I was thinking about opening a satellite down there. The problem is, Woodstown has money, but it’s old money. It’s not young, there’s not much there.

Me: In the past few years several small businesses opened up on North-Main St. there and closed a year later.

Jay: Yeah, I know. When I first went there [Woodstown Music], I was just shootin’ the shit, ya know, owner to owner. It’s nice to talk to your own kind. And I was like “Who are you using for your distributors?” And he says he’s using Musician’s Friend and Amazon. So, I was like “You’re buying your strings at retail?” Larry says,” Well I buy them bulk so I get them a little off, I can’t afford to do a dealer.” And I said “Larry, you can do it, all you need to do is commit. It takes $1,000 a year.” And some of his prices were high because he was buying high. And he can keep his prices the same! He’s the only game in town down there! But, shouldn’t you want to get them as cheap as you possibly can?

Me: He focuses on a lot of used stuff. Lots of cool vintage gear.

Jay: Yeah, I’ve seen a couple things there, he’s got some old vintage stuff, and things like that. But, so do we. And I’ve got the new stuff too, but not much. It’s mostly used. That’s where the market is right now. So, new stuff you can get it online, on Amazon and order it, and it’ll be here the next day. I’d say %70 of the guitars out there are used factory seconds. I deal with a company that deals with refurbished guitars. And they take guitars that have never been sold, or were sold and returned by the company. And I found one that was 70 bucks off because it had a little over-spray in the white binding. Like a little black smudge, and you could never get it out because it was underneath the clear-coat. So, I was like, “Okay, I’ll take $70 off for that.” And I mean, of course the factory warranty doesn’t apply anymore, but the factory warranties don’t apply ever anyway. The thing has to be a pretzel coming out of the box before they’ll cover anything. It’s funny how a lot of people get real stuck on that warranty thing. On a car, I understand that. There are a whole bunch of little machines to make that one big machine work. But a guitar, it’s a block of wood. Yeah, there are things that can go wrong, but it’s not often that it’s so traumatic that a tech couldn’t fix it for $60 or under.

A closeup of the nice grain and flame in the maple top on this Telecaster style guitar.

Me: How do you feel about buying guitars online?

Jay: Well, I did. It’s very difficult to buy online, at least for me. I have to hold the guitar. I have to play it when it comes to guitars and stuff. But, if I know it’s a good reputable brand and like, ya know, I bought a 1978 Gibson Black Beauty. It came from a guy in California. It was a long time ago I did this, when eBay just started, and I was nervous because, eBay, that was the wild west.

Me: Was it the three-humbucker model?

Jay: No, it was two. It was one of the “fret-less-wonders”, so you got those little tiny frets. They were really flat on top.

Me: I had one [a fretless wonder] for a little while. Personally, couldn’t stand it.

Jay: Yeah, me neither. Quick story. When I was working at Music Go Round, I never liked Les Pauls, I was a Strat’ guy, always was. And then this guy came in a 1977 Black Beauty, mint condition, original case, for $100. When you grabbed that thing your hands were burning it was so hot, I knew it was stolen. But, jeez, $100, ya know! So, I bought it, didn’t tell the owner at the time. I gave him $100 out of my pocket and I kept it. So, next day, his Dad comes in and he’s looking for his guitar. Now, I can’t get caught in this lie because Don didn’t know I bought it since I bought it out from under him. So, as he was leaving I was like, “Yo, I got your guitar, just come back at 9:00 when we’re closed. I bought it for 100 bucks, give me $100 back and you got your guitar back. I’m not gonna do that to ya.” I could’ve just said “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”. It was actually the next week not the next day. Sold it on a Friday, guy came in on that Monday. But, that Saturday I had a gig, and I played that guitar and I fell in love with Les Pauls from that point. Because the switch is up there, and the two volumes, ya know, it just sits right when you’re playing, and then I understood why everybody loves playing Les Pauls so much. And I’ve been playing them ever since. But I gave that one back, so I bought a ’78, eBay, California, and I insisted I call and talk to him. And turned out he’s a happy old guy, the thing got too heavy for him, so he said it plays great. He says, “It’s a player’s guitar. It’s got all sorts of nicks and dings in it. That’s why I’m selling it so cheap.” It was $1,300. And even back then, 15 years ago, they were going for like $1,800. So, I bought it, I got it. He said the bridge was changed, and I opened up the case and the original bridge was sitting there, so, I swapped that out. The thing was nowhere near as bad as he said. It had a little buckle rash on the back, but the top was clean. And it played like a dream! The action was slammed! But, I played it for a while, and I was young, but after the second set, third set, fourth set, you’re like [makes heavy groaning noise]. And sometime I was playing Atlantic City, we’d do four one hour sets. Four hours of holding that freakin’ tree trunk on my back. So, I got rid of it. But, now I got a 1960 Reissue Goldtop, and I got a couple Michael Kelly Patriots, which are their Les Pauls. I got two of those. They’re really nice guitars.

Me: I’ve seen some of those. The tops on them are beautiful.

Jay: Those guitars are built well. They’re build out of the South Korean factory that Schechter, when Schechter was awesome, like back in the 90’s and 2000’s, they were out of that same factory. And then Schechter moved their stuff. I was a Schechter dealer, the Laboratory got them out from under me because they bought more of them than I could at the time. And I got swindled on that. But I got the last laugh because I ended up getting all the lines that I thought were better because Schechter switched their company and the new factory they were using just was making crap guitars. And they fixed it after a while. But, it took a couple years to get that worked out.

As made famous by John Lee Hooker, the Epiphone Sheraton II is a modern classic. Notice the wood grain, the gold hardware, and the faux tortoise shell guard .

Me: What do you like the most about owning the Café and the store?

Jay: Being your own boss is always number one. Not having to talk through anyone else, ya know, the buck stops here. Him and I, we’re partners, and we get along great, and we have a third partner for over here [the Café]. He’s never around anyway. Now, this is a new challenge for me, this Café thing. I didn’t know anything about it. When the idea for this came up, this was empty, completely bare, just a hole in the wall. So, Brian, my buddy, come up, we were standing outside, it was cold I remember, he was looking in the window and he’s like, “Why don’t you open up your own venue, like a café or something?” (At this point a prospective artist was at the door of the Café. They came to check out where they’d be playing) Mark, somebody’s trying to get in. Anyway, I was thinking if I was gonna do that it’d be more like a bar, ya know? Hang on a second.

Me: You need to talk to a client?

Jay: Nah, he’s just checking out the space. So, anyway, I started thinking about it, and I didn’t know anything about this, so we had to figure out exactly how we’re gonna do this. And so, he said, “I would go in with you.” We started with the floor, it was all carpeted, so, we ripped it all out, stripped the walls down, we painted with this special paint. It’s not two different tones, it’s this new fancy paint they have. And you take a card or something and swish it around and it makes it look like stucco. Put the hardwood floor in. And I thought if we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do this right, we’re gonna build a real stage. And that’s what we did. So, we built that, we got floor monitors and mixers all the way around, we got a 32-channel board that has the ability to record, and we can record videos, we can do audio, video, put together promo packs. All live recordings.

The stage that Jay built here at the Volume Cafe. Set in the far back of the venue adjacent to a wine rack and the doorway to his store.
Jay said ” If we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do this right, we’re gonna build a real stage. And that’s what we did.”

Me: Is there any place you post that stuff?

Jay: It’s all on the website mostly. That just came up to be a newer thing now. We just started doing that and got the kinks worked out about a month ago. So, yeah, that’s that.

Me: How would it affect your business if you moved the Café and your store to perhaps a better location?

Jay: We’ve been discussing that. I’m always looking. We found a place in Pitman that we went and looked at. And it was nice. It was a great location, but it just needed to be completely gutted and completely redone. Let alone, even if I could afford to do that, it was a corner lot, an art studio I’d be taking over, and there were nine or 12 dorm rooms on top. It was weird, you walk up there and most of them didn’t have bathrooms or kitchens. They had a central kitchen and one bathroom that reminded me of “Porky’s”, like shower heads all over in this big room, and I was like, “Who does this?”

It was at this point that the device stopped recording the interview. Jay went on to explain that this location he was looking at was were Bob’s Hobby Shop in Pitman is. He briefly stopped to discuss the venue with the artists that walked in during the interview. They discussed the alcohol policy there at the Cafe. They serve wine, however if they want to bring in beer it’s BYOB. Next they talked about floor space, since the artist planned to bring in a crown of about 100 people. After the artist left Jay would continue to explain his thoughts about moving his store and/or the venue to what he thought was a better location. Jay ended by recounting stories about his days in his cover band and the people he met along the way.

I’d like to thank Jay Milley and Mark at SJ Music for allowing me to sit and chat for awhile and take photos of their establishment.

Click the image to hear more of Jay’s playing!

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