How The Only Music Shop became a South African institution: "Nothing can replace brick & mortar"

Santhan Reddy – one of the owners of TOMS (The Only Music Shop), a music tech reseller in South Africa – reflects on the company’s journey from selling musical instruments to studio equipment, the changes in the South African audio and music industry over the years, and why nothing can replace brick and mortar stores.

TOMS (formally That Other Music Shop)  has been supplying musicians and hobbyists with musical instruments and pro audio equipment since 1978. Now boasting stores in Braamfontein and Rivonia in Gauteng, Bloemfontein, Durban, Cape Town and Bellville, TOMS Music Shops are more than just your average music shop, it’s a South African institution.

The company prides itself on its selection of musical instruments and pro audio gear – you name it; they’ve got everything a musician or audio professional (or enthusiast) needs in order to make music.

“My dad was a musician – a bassist and a guitarist,” says Reddy of his early interest in music. “Growing up from an early age, we always had music in our house. I remember the first time I played drums, I was about seven years old. I played We Will Rock You in our lounge; I’ll never forget that,” he smiles, adding that his interest in musical equipment and instruments only grew from there.

“I just wanted to know so much about music and gear because I absolutely love music gear; it really tickles my fancy. You get to have access to all these beautiful and wonderful toys and hear for yourself what makes everything so special, and feel it for yourself. And now, that’s one of the better parts of my job!”

Reddy joined the TOMS team in 2010 and got to immerse himself in his passion every day. With six shops nationwide and an online shop catering to modern shopping habits, Reddy explains what sets TOMS apart from other music stores:

“It's very easy to sell boxes these days,” he muses. “We’ve found quite a big increase on the online platform and a lot of stores are opening up and are able to provide customers with solutions. I think what sets us apart is the staff that we've got; we've got absolutely fantastic people working in the company. A lot of them are musicians and producers and have been with the company for quite a long time, so their passion translates into helping clients. The most joy we get is from helping artists develop themselves in the musical space in South Africa.”

It's really incredible to know that we’re a part of that journey and a piece of South African music history.

The Flagship store in Braamfontein opened in 1985, moving from its original location in Bree Street, which opened in 1978. This shop has since evolved into a three-floor music Mecca, encompassing all aspects of music, music production and pro audio, and has welcomed

Hugh Masekela, Sipho "Hotsticks" Mabuse, Jimmy Dludlu, Matthew Mole and Jeremy Loops through its doors, not to mention playing a role in shaping the careers of numerous emerging South African artists.

“One of the biggest changes that we've seen in the industry over a couple of years is the rise of independent artists without the need for massive recording labels,” Reddy notes on the way the South African music industry has changed over the last decade or so. “When I was younger, we used to sit with the radio and record songs on a cassette and make little mixtapes,” he reflects nostalgically. 

“These days, kids have smartphones with apps like Tidal, Apple Music, Spotify, which create playlists for you. They have access to all the old music and the new music – it's such a drastic change. Artists now can also express themselves on all these platforms on social media and the exposure and viewership these things get is crazy. It's why artists can record albums in their bedroom and make Grammy-winning hits. 

"In South Africa, we've got a lot of amazing musicians and now the world gets to see a lot more of that. TOMS helps these artists from behind the scenes in terms of reaching these goals. I could list the amount of South African artists that have walked through the doors. It's really incredible to know that we’re a part of that journey and a piece of South African music history, albeit kind of behind the scenes!”

Nothing can replace brick and mortar. Customers in South Africa would rather interact with someone than go online.

The next store to open was the Rivonia shop, located in the bustling city of Sandton. Perfect for the busy professional who wants to make music on the go, this sleek and modern location is regarded as a hidden gem in TOMS’ line up and is extremely diverse in its offerings, from broadcast to production, podcasting to venue installation. 

In the heart of Cape Town are two of TOMS’ stores – one in Bellville and one in the city centre Heritage Square, the latter offering a wide variety of instruments and equipment. Meanwhile, TOMS’ Bellville shop may appear quaint and intimate, but Reddy says it’s packed with passion for customer service.

Meanwhile, the recently revamped Durban branch is a musician's paradise, stocking everything for instrumentalists, podcasters, schools, and all types of venues – not to mention an impressive selection of instruments, studio gear and PA speakers. Finally, TOMS’ Bloemfontein location. specialises in PA, installations, houses of worship and DJing, and it is known to be the shop for those who love to turn up the volume.

“Since the late ‘70s until now, music – in terms of what you can get – has evolved quite quickly,” says Reddy on the company’s growth alongside the changing tastes of its customers since opening. 

“We started off as an instrument and speaker store and up until the mid ‘80s and ‘90s, it was pretty much what you could get in South Africa. If you needed to record something or wanted to work with really high preamps like Neve pres or record on really good systems, you'd have to go to big studios like BOP studios or the SABC. Since then, the technological boom has been so quick, and music gear evolved so quickly, that young kids these days have access to years of knowledge and experience at the click of a button. They can lay down complete tracks from their bedrooms, and these are the trends we're seeing more often. 

"These days, non-guitar players can lay down guitar riffs and drummers can lay down samples – it's just the world we live in. That's where our market is slowly heading. I don't think we'll ever move away from traditional instruments,” he stresses. 

“There's no replacing a guitar going through a valve head or feeling that kick drum on stage – some things you can't replicate. It's our job to advise clients and guide them. We offer so much gear, but it's the ability to help the client decide what is the right gear for the right purpose, and it's something we take very seriously. We've got an ethos that our customers are like our family; we treat them exactly the same way we treat our guys. Relaying that love, passion and information about instruments, gear and music and all of the different aspects of it is what we love doing.”

One of the biggest changes we've seen is the rise of independent artists without the need for massive recording labels.

TOMS understands that in today's digital age, content creation is vital, and its range of broadcasting and podcasting equipment is designed to help customers create professional quality audio content. TOMS provides a range of microphones, mixers, headphones and other related equipment from renowned manufacturers to cater to every wannabe podcaster that walks through their doors.

“Guitars come and go, in and out of fashion, and that is a constant. But since COVID-19, a lot more focus has been shifting towards podcasting and broadcast. In lockdown, people could really express themselves using these platforms. 

"That market just expanded and blew up; it got to a point when we came out of COVID and we just couldn't get enough stock to cater with the demand, the waiting period was so long,” he recalls. “That's what we've had to do as a business; we've had to evolve and adapt to the world and the change in circumstances for everyone.”

The times are changing, indeed. Despite building the company’s legacy based on its physical locations and the knowledge of the professionals within, TOMS recently opened its online store. Reddy offers his thoughts on the implications of the shift from brick and mortar retail to online, and what the future holds for South Africa in terms of online commerce:

“It's been a bit of a challenging one,” he acknowledges. “There are a lot more online stores these days, but nothing can replace brick and mortar. I suppose for certain things, people are comfortable with buying online. When the whole online boom started in South Africa, I caught myself buying a few things online, but I've seen myself actually slow down in terms of what I buy online. 

"I prefer to go to a shop and talk to someone. A lot of customers in South Africa would rather interact with someone than go online. So while it is a growing and fruitful avenue for us – and it's a platform for us to show ourselves to the world – nothing would ever beat the brick and mortar stores and the people in there and the knowledge that they have.”

I don't think we'll ever move away from traditional instruments; some things you can't replicate.

TOMS’ extensive inventory features top brands and the latest gear, ensuring its customers always have access to the best equipment on the market, all the while knowing its dedicated staff are its secret weapon. “A lot of people have this stigma that a music shop is just a music shop,” says Reddy. “But we do things like podcast rooms, studios, home theatres, Hi-Fi, production studios, podcasting, broadcasting – it's so broad in terms of the scope that we do, but it's because these platforms are now available to people.”

And what about the uptake in Dolby Atmos in South Africa; has he noticed TOMS selling more Atmos-enabled gear to accommodate this? “It's really great. It was such a niche thing to begin with – people having to mix in Dolby Atmos – it's such a daunting thing and the requirements are so high. 

"We have found a lot more people wanting to get into this realm. It is probably one of the best solutions available. It's a really cool thing and I have had a lot more producers starting to mix in Dolby Atmos because it's going to be supported a lot more on these platforms. It just keeps evolving and evolving.”

TOMS stocks the very best musical instruments (think, Fender, Gibson, Taylor, Yamaha, Roland and Korg), but the best in pro audio studio gear is accounted for too, including audio interfaces, studio monitors, headphones and recording software from brands like Focusrite, Presonus, KRK, Neumann and Genelec. Reddy recalls the first time he heard Genelecs in action:

“When I went to TOMS, the studio specialist at the time set up some 8050s with a 7050 or 7060 sub. Once he played it for me, I spent the next two months popping in and out of the studio just listening to tracks over and over again. Our sister company were Genelec agents and they'd set up a Dolby Atmos room kitted out with Genelec 1030As, and it was absolutely amazing. 

"Having heard the Dolby system there, I made a promise to myself: I said, ‘I don't care how long it takes, I will eventually have a Genelec system at home’. It was the goal I set for myself. The more I started researching Genelec and the way they designed certain things like the tweeters and the casing, the more and more I fell in love with them. I always tell clients, ‘It's very hard for me to explain what listening to Genelec monitors is like until you've actually heard them yourself’.

Genelec is the benchmark for me, and it's what I measure everything else against.

“What I want in a speaker is honesty; I want to hear exactly what I'm listening to, and that's what Genelec gives me. It's the honesty when I'm listening to things; the clarity, the tone, the bold quality of them and small things like the green footprint that they have – the power consumption and reliability. It's the benchmark for me, and it's what I measure everything else against.”

TOMS started selling Genelecs around 2005, and Reddy credits TOMS with having a small hand in the brand’s popularity in South Africa. “We were privileged enough to have access to these monitors, because they are high end monitors, and they've been in the South African market ever since. I think with a lot more marketing being done with us, more people are using Genelec and showing the versatility and the different applications that you can use the loudspeakers for. 

"Genelec’s grown in popularity for the discerning user and the demand has been growing steadily. It's obviously not a cheap monitor,” he acknowledges, “a lot more producers in South Africa tend to start off with more entry level, mid range monitors. However, a lot more people are becoming wise to Genelec due to the exposure in coming through to the stores where they can actually listen, understand and get advice on why they should choose Genelec.”

Reddy explains that Genelec’s room calibration capabilities make the speakers an easier sell, still: “It's not just the speaker themselves,” he enthuses, on a roll now.”They offer so many handy tools which make them so user-friendly. The Genelec loudspeaker management software, for example, is such a handy tool because the speaker is only as good as the room. 

"A lot of people have this misconception that they'll buy the best monitors in the world, they'll stick them in a room and that will sound absolutely amazing. It's not necessarily the case. The GLM software is an absolutely wonderful tool to keep that room under control in terms of what you're listening to from the speakers, tailoring those frequencies and tweaking it according to the GRADE reports that you get.”

Genelec’s grown in popularity for the discerning user and the demand has been growing steadily in South Africa.

TOMS doesn’t just sell the gear, the team also works with a team of trained installers to see projects through from start to finish. Despite working on numerous brag-worthy Genelec installs for high profile producers, one in particular stands out for Reddy:

“I have to be quite honest, my favourite Genelec project that I've done would be my home theatre,” he grins. “I’m a bit biassed, but it was a labour of love. It took me about five-to-six years to get everything together and I managed to put together a 5.1 system, and that's pretty much what I do on Sunday mornings. My wife is not happy because I keep moving things around, but she does appreciate the speakers, so at least that's one battle won,” he chuckles.

“I've been in this industry for so long, and you almost get desensitised towards gear and new products when they come out, like, ‘I've seen it before; it sounds okay’. Every time I listen to Genelecs – absolutely every time – I'm blown away. I get goosebumps. The soundstage that allows my brain to see (via my ears!) is something I can never part with. It makes me a bit of a snob with audio because when I hear something that's not as good as Genelec, I'm a bit put off by it,” he laughs.

With six stores to its name now and an online presence, what’s next for TOMS? “We've got a lot of plans,” he says. “People have this misconception that we're just a musical instrument store. We are in the process of showing our clientele in South Africa (and the world) that we are a lot more than that. 

"We've been getting more into the audio visual aspect of things: cameras, live streaming, podcasting, broadcasting, building podcasting rooms and studios. One of our goals is branching out a little bit. We've got some plans for some other things…,” he trails off, not wanting to reveal too much yet. “This is a brand we'd like to grow and bring more people towards to show them why our music stores have been around for 48 years. That's our biggest goal: to share TOMS with the world,” he smiles.