About 90 minutes south of Cedar Rapids, Iowa is the town of Mt. Pleasant. Hang a right onto highway 34 and go another 30 miles or so, and you’ve reached Fairfield–a picturesque little farm town that epitomizes heartland America. You’d expect to find a Sears catalog store here, along with a John Deere tractor dealership and a Purina Chows feed supply store–and you would. You probably wouldn’t expect to find a thriving drum business. Yet there’s one of those here, too.
Actually, it’s a few miles out of town–out in the genuine farm countryside. It’s Vintage Drum Center, a business that deals exclusively in rare and hard-to-find drums. Vintage Drum Center is the brainchild of owner Ned Ingberman, who is quietly making a name for himself in the international drumming community for the work he is doing in this super-specialized field. (Previous customers include J. R. Robinson, Jim Keltner, Anton Fier, Chicago Symphony percussionist James Ross, Brooklyn School for Musical Performance director David Kovins, and many other notable drummers and percussionists.)
The operation isn’t large; until recently Ned was the entire staff. He’s since added someone to help with the administration and paperwork. But Ned still does the selling, buying, cataloging, repairing, grading, shipping, and everything else pertaining to his ever-expanding and ever-changing inventory. He took time out from this exhausting task to talk with MD about his unique business.
RVH: How exactly would you describe the difference between Vintage Drum Center and other drum retailing operations?
NI: Vintage Drum Center is a rather unique and unconventional animal. First of all, it’s mail-order, and second of all, virtually all our equipment is vintage. We don’t handle any new equipment. I don’t think there are any other retailers that exclusively market vintage drums. A few shops around the country offer an inventory of vintage drums. However, that’s to supplement the already existing business of new equipment that they do. And there are collectors around the country who do trade and sell vintage drums, but they are not set up as businesses per se.
RVH: Why do you feel there is a need for a business such as yours?
NI: I’ve seen a real upsurge of interest in vintage drums over the past couple of years. Some day, I think, the market for vintage drums is going to get as active and widespread as vintage guitars are now. Drummers are just starting to appreciate the collectibility of vintage drums as a hobby; it’s rewarding, it’s satisfying, and it’s fun to do. You never know where a vintage drum will pop up. It might be in a newspaper, or at a garage sale.
RVH: The next logical question is, why are vintage drums more desirable than modern drums? What advantages do they offer over drums being made today?
NI: One thing about a vintage drum that automatically sets it apart from new drums is its historical significance. Some people want a vintage drum just because it has that charisma to it–that collectibility value. A new drum can’t compete with that–not until it actually has a chance to grow some vines.
Some of the people who buy vintage drums are collectors, some are combination collectors/players, and some are just players. Some of my customers tell me that they can’t find the sound they want from a newer drum; they can only get it out of a particular vintage drum. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of fine quality new drums being made; it’s really just a matter of preference in the sound–what a drummer likes or doesn’t like. It’s a very individual thing.
Some drummers–particularly studio drummers–are looking for a very specific type of a sound for a very specific purpose. They’re real meticulous, and some of them are very heavily into vintage drums. I’d like to add that vintage drums are being used in all styles of music: classical, rock, jazz, country & western, and pop. There is such a variety of sizes, shapes, shell constructions, etc. that if a drummer is really serious about finding the right drum to suit his needs, then he can find it. Some types of instruments get better with age. It’s a well-known feature of violins, like the Stradivarius. I think the drum is one of those instruments. Maybe the wood mellows or gains some deeper value of resonance over a period of years. Some drummers are tuned into the characteristic sound that they will get from an older piece of equipment.
There is also definitely something about playing a vintage drum that transcends the drum itself. Some of them go back to the Beatles and the ’60s. Others go back to Gene Krupa’s days: the ’40s-the big bands–and some go back to the Roaring ’20s. It is just an inspiring feeling to be playing such an instrument. Somehow, you get the sense of being connected with the great musicians from that era. For a musician, the feeling you get inside while you are playing your instrument is a basic element of the whole creative process. So, if a particular drum can stimulate that process and set it flowing, then it is an important thing to have. That’s my personal view on it.
RVH: Let’s step back just a bit and get some background information. How did you get into the vintage drum business in the first place?
NI: I had a retail drum business in Queens, New York. I started it around ’82, and did it for about a year and a half. I started out part-time and found that I could just continue to buy and sell more drums. I ended up with a warehouse, handling mostly used sets, stands, and cymbals. Once in a while I would run into a vintage drum, and it would sell quickly.
After a while, my wife, Carol, and I wanted to move out to Fairfield, Iowa. Well, I never got the drums out of my blood. I was trying to figure out how to get back into it and make it work from a tiny town in Iowa where there wasn’t a thriving musical community happening. I took a job with another company and worked a while. But I just couldn’t forget the feeling of being my own boss and working for myself. I couldn’t let go of that dream. I decided to try selling part of my own vintage drum collection as an experiment. At first there was only marginal interest, but some people did buy some of the drums. From there it just grew. It taught me a lesson: that you can actually do what you love and be successful at it. It’s a good thing to find out that it can and does happen.
RVH: Is all of your business exclusively in snare drums?
NI: We do regularly handle sets and toms and singles. But most of what I find is snare drums. I think there are more loose snare drums around than complete sets. Your average drummer usually has more than one snare drum; it’s an interchangeable flavor in a kit. From a metal piccolo to a deep wood, you are going to have a whole different story out of it.
RVH: Since you operate on a mail-order basis, your customers don’t have a chance to hear a given drum before they order it. Do you personally have a handle on the quality and characteristics of each drum in your inventory? It’s one thing if someone calls up and says, “I’m looking for a 1932 Black Beauty.” If they already have that knowledgeability, then you are miles ahead. But suppose they say, “I’m looking for a drum that is going to give me a certain quality, and I think it ought to sound like this….” Can you say, “Okay, if you want a deep tone, that would lead you to a Radio King rather than a metal Super-Sensitive,” Can you guide a customer in that sense?
NI: I’m glad you asked that question. When you are buying something over the telephone, sight unseen, you are going to want to be dealing with somebody who speaks the same language as you. I’ve had years and years of experience as a professional musician, and so I have that to offer to the customer. I’ve played in over a hundred different bands in all styles of music under all kinds of conditions–including various acoustical conditions, which is interesting. You can take a drum that will sound one way in one room with a certain amount of people in it, and it will sound like a totally different instrument in another room. There are a lot of variables involved. I do have a good working knowledge of drums and drum sounds and have a lot to offer in the way of advising prospective customers on what will do the job for them. I ask a lot of questions. I find out what kind of music they are playing, what they’re going to do with the drum, and how hard they play–what, specifically, their needs are. Musicians vary quite a bit in the way they play and what they expect and need from a drum.
RVH: How can people find out what drums you have to offer at any given time?
NI: I send out flyers that list my current inventory on a regular basis. All anyone needs to do is give me a call or write me a letter or postcard requesting the list. Vintage Drum Center is predominantly a mail-order company. Any time you are selling musical instruments through the mail you have to instill confidence in the buyer, because that person is making a serious investment in something he or she hasn’t had a chance to hear or play before purchasing it. That’s the main reason why I offer a guarantee. If the customer doesn’t like a drum, he or she can return it for a refund. This allows the customer to feel more comfortable and confident about going ahead with the purchase. I try to make the whole buying process as pleasant and comfortable an experience as I can.
RVH: Describing your drums accurately must be a key factor.
NI: It is a major consideration. I had one customer ask, “How do I know my description of excellence is the same as yours?” So I try to be conservative in grading drums and make sure it is a realistic representation of what the drum is. I would rather under grade a drum than over grade a drum. This way someone will be pleasantly surprised, as opposed to being disappointed.
RVH: On what do you base your knowledge of vintage drums? How do you assess their value, how do you learn about their history?
NI: The first thing is that I’m a drummer myself, and have been since 1966. It’s a basic qualification needed for anyone in sales helping drummers select the right equipment. I attended Berkeley College of Music and also taught private drum instruction. Over the years, I’ve been in a hundred bands, as I mentioned before, and played all different styles of music. I had first-hand involvement in what the drummer goes through on the gig. It’s been real valuable experience and enables me to get a realistic assessment and feeling for what the customer actually needs.
As far as how I come up with the pricing of the vintage drums, I seem to have a natural sense of what used things are worth in general. Of course, it takes more than just that. Other elements include being in continuous touch with the marketplace, knowing what the supply and demand are, and knowing what the items are selling for around the country. After buying and selling and trading several thousand used and vintage drums over the years, I’ve had a lot of solid, practical experience in pricing the value of the drums. Besides, if I’m really off, I will hear about it by way of feedback from my customers. From what I see, our prices are competitive. The number of drums we are selling confirms this. If you overprice drums, people won’t buy them. Vintage Drum Center handles complete drum kits as well as individual drums.
RVH: You are also being helped by the fact that in today’s snare drum market, many production drums are pushing $500, while premium specialty snare drums are priced in the $750 to $1,000 range. If people are willing to spend that kind of money for a new drum, then $375 to $500 for a drum with a historic character and a unique sound isn’t at all unreasonable.
NI: Another reason why people buy a vintage drum is the investment aspect of it. If you go out and buy a new snare drum for $1,000, and six months to a year later you try to sell, you may take a considerable loss on it. If you buy a vintage drum for the same price, chances are you will get your money back or even make money on it. Over a longer amount of time, you’ll make money. I even hear from some customers that they like the craftsmanship on the older vintage drums more than that of the newer drums. Of course, I don’t think they are comparing to the new premium drums coming out. Those are constructed very, very well.
When it comes to gaining expertise about vintage drums, the learning experience never ends. I learn something every day. I learn from my customers and vintage drum catalogs, and I learn something from drums myself.
RVH: Have you been able to amass a collection of catalogs and literature as well as the drums themselves?
NI: I’ve developed quite a drum catalog library. I haven’t counted them, but there must be over 150 different vintage drum catalogs, from the early 1900s through the ’60s, and some’70s. When someone has a drum set to sell I ask if they also have any catalogs that they want to trade or sell. Just like the drums, they come through that channel. I find them very entertaining to read, real educational, and irreplaceable for reference.
RVH: When you are negotiating with someone over the phone for the purchase of a drum to add to your inventory, what questions do you ask? There are a lot of old drums out there that, unfortunately, are not vintage drums: They’re just old, they’re junk. How do you avoid getting burned on a situation like that?
NI: What I try to do is avoid the problem before it even happens. I carefully screen the condition of the drum before I actually tell the person to send it. Sometimes I require photos, sometimes I don’t. When we agree on a price for the drum, the seller ships it. Once it is here and I’ve actually had a look at it, then I send the seller the money. It’s a different situation when I’m dealing with a retail store. Some of them don’t ship anything unless it’s C.O.D. But that generally works out okay. I feel more comfortable and confident about sending money to somebody in advance if I know they are an established business, rather than a private individual. There is enough suspicion in the world as it is; we don’t need more of that. I’m using every bit of experience from my past involvement with drums in order to run this business efficiently and successfully. I know drums extremely well. I know what to look for and what to avoid. I have a good sense of what people want–what the demand is. Running a vintage drum business is totally unlike running a conventional retail music store. There you can pick up a phone and call the Ludwig or Gretsch company and order such and such. You can’t do that with vintage drums. I have to keep searching and beating the bushes in order to keep up with the demand and keep my inventory up. We offer a huge selection. I like to let drummers know that there is a place they can go to exercise a choice in their investment in a vintage drum, rather than having to settle for something.
RVH: You also offer drummers who might have vintage equipment to sell a place where they can get a price that corresponds to its real value, rather than what they might get at a used drum shop.
NI: Used drum shops haven’t really developed a special clientele. So when they get a vintage drum, what often happens is that it just sits for years in their back room, until they wind up selling it as a second-hand drum. Frequently it falls into the hands of a drummer who isn’t necessarily looking for a collectible drum and is just using it as an ordinary drum, not knowing what he or she may have. I do get a lot of calls from people who have a drum and they want to trade it in and get something else, or just want to sell it.
RVH: That’s one way you would find new items for your inventory. You also said you have to “beat the bushes.” How do you do that?
NI: I do that by putting out the word that I’m looking for drums, through advertisements and by word of mouth. Many, many drummers know what I’ve done here, so when they find something, they call me. Sometimes my own customers sell me drums. Having been in the business for a while has established me as a known entity in this specialized area of drums.
RVH: Suppose I call you up and say, “I have a drum that’s been in the family for generations. My grandfather played with John Phillip Sousa. I’ll sell it to you for a reasonable price in its present condition; I don’t want to re-condition it. If you want to re-sell it, you are going to have to work on it.” Assuming that you purchase the drum, where do you take it from there?
NI: Well, first I should point out that it’s not always necessary that we re-condition or have all the parts on a drum before it is sold. There are some people who have parts for drums, or who might be willing to search out and find the missing parts once they had the drum. Once in a while we sell a drum to such a person in “as-is condition.” The price is adjusted accordingly. On the other hand, I have some parts here that I collect and save for drums that come in needing them. I do a considerable amount of repair work, getting drums back in shape and into working condition. I enjoy working with my hands and the challenge of getting a “handicapped” drum into perfect working order. There is a sense of fulfillment and reward from putting an obsolete, dejected old drum back into circulation and giving it a new life–kind of resurrecting it.
RVH: What constitutes a vintage drum? What will you look for, and what is not in your area? Suppose a drummer calls you, saying, “I’m trying to fill out this 1963 Ringo Starr kit. I need one 8 x 12 oyster pearl tom.” Will you try to find it?
NI: My business is based mainly on what the demand is. About the Ringo Starr drums, there are definitely high demands for those drums. I’m finding that people into vintage drums for either collectibility or sound value are mostly interested up to the year 1970, except for the Ludwig reissued Black Beauty. Again, the way I stay in business is that I give people what they want. I don’t get many calls for late or even mid ’70s drums, unless maybe they are Slingerlands. Somehow, when a drum company goes out of business it makes their drums more collectible. On the other hand, Ludwigs are very popular, and they’re still in business. I have a lot of Ludwigs.
RVH: It looks like you’ve got your business organized, you know what your goals are, and you enjoy what you are doing.
NI: I’ve put a lot of tender loving care into it. In the last several months it has become much more predictable. Volume has been increasing at a steady pace, our customer base is extending, and we’re getting a larger percent of referrals. I’m very happy to see it come to this point. Our business comes from all over the U.S., Europe, and Canada. Last week I shipped to a man in Tokyo, Japan. He got a birdseye maple finish Radio King and a Gretsch Broadkaster. I get to talk to people all over the world–and not just collectors or super pros, but also average players or professionals just interested in the investment of a drum. We have a wide range of customers: executives of corporations, doctors, sanitation workers, machinists–you name it. Occupation-wise, there is a huge variety of backgrounds. I would have never imagined this common love of drums. It’s kind of novel to be able to talk to a lawyer about drums. I connect up to a lot of people this way. I really enjoy that about the business.
I love what I’m doing; it’s like a huge extension of a hobby that I started. And it seems to be the right thing for me to be doing. I’ve gotten a lot of very positive and supportive response. A lot of people come back. Once they buy a drum they come back and order another one. That always makes me feel good.
(reprinted with permission of Modern Drummer magazine)