In this Musicians’ Soundboard column, Ricky Olmos relates the true tale of two stolen guitars – and bemoans the all-too-common problem of instrument thievery for touring, hard-gigging bands.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is one of a series of essays giving a voice to West Michigan musicians on topics dear to their hearts — assessing the highs and lows of the music scene, in their own words. Here, Ricky Olmos examines a frequent frustration for touring musicians: stolen gear.
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Last Saturday, my band Watching for Foxes played an ill-fated show in Traverse City.
I wasn’t at the show because of a family gathering downstate, but I received a group message from our frontman Joey Frendo stating simply: “I called the police.”
My thoughts raced. Did they get into an altercation at the venue? Did someone get hurt? What happened?
A quick call to Joey revealed the bad news: During load-out after the performance, two guitars had been stolen as they sat beside our beat-up, 15-passenger van, waiting to be packed inside for the drive home.
“There one moment and gone the next,” Joey said, trying to make sense of what happened. “We responded quickly. When I realized they were gone, I asked if anyone had moved them, and when they said they hadn’t, I called the police immediately.”
The band scoured pristine Traverse City streets and quaint alleyways to no avail. Disheartened, they made their way back to the venue, somberly finished loading up the van, and began the two-hour drive home, minus those two precious instruments – guitarist Conner Brogan’s Martin acoustic and Gibson Les Paul.
In hindsight, band members may have let their guards down due to exhaustion after a three-hour-long set. Or maybe there was a gap in the load-out rotation.
Or it could have been simply a matter of location: The band was in a tourist-friendly, relatively safe northern Michigan town. Regardless, it only took a matter of seconds for Conner to lose his guitars forever … or so we thought at the time.
By some miracle, we recovered both guitars two days later.
Hours after the incident, West Michigan’s music community flooded us with support.
An initial Facebook post about the theft was shared nearly 800 times in less than 48 hours. Additionally, Amber Buist, manager of the popular Traverse City band The Accidentals, offered a $300 reward for any information about the stolen instruments.
“I’ve never felt more embraced by the Michigan music community,” Joey later told me.
TIPS POUR IN AND ONE OF THEM PAYS OFF
Countless tips started to fill our inbox, one of them from an individual who claimed to have purchased the Martin acoustic guitar for $20 and a beer.
Under the assumption that it was stolen, he bought the guitar in hopes of finding its true owner. The claim was enough for a few members of our band (Joey, Jared Meeuwenberg, Cameron Barber and Geoff Kartes) to venture back to Traverse City for a second time, sparking a whirlwind of events.
The band recovered the Martin (sure enough, the man had indeed purchased the $700 guitar for a pint of beer and a $20 bill). His description of the seller led the guys from one bar to another, where they pieced together more information about the man who allegedly had their guitar, described by a number of individuals as a weathered man in his fifties with peppery, silver hair.
While inside Union Street Station, they spotted a man matching the description they’d been given. Joey and Jared followed the man down the street, while Cameron and Geoff stopped to talk to Nick Seeley, who was standing outside the bar. He told them the man had just tried to pawn off a Les Paul guitar that he had stowed behind a burger joint four blocks away.
Adrenaline set in, the police were called and the guys raced to the location they hoped was the guitar’s hiding spot.
The police, the culprit and band members converged simultaneously in the burger joint’s parking lot. A police officer pressed the man about the stolen instrument and he eventually led the group to a cluster of bushes alongside the restaurant. He rummaged through the foliage and pulled out a gray hard case.
“The second we saw the case,” Cameron said, “we were like, ‘That’s it, that’s our guitar!’ ”
Overjoyed and victorious, they returned home.
“It’s a sense of relief. I was sure they were gone for good,” Conner said after getting his guitars back. “It’s a strange feeling, coming to terms with one thing and then all of sudden another happens.”
He held up both guitars while posing for a photo on his front porch, then turned to the red mahogany Les Paul. “This guy,” he said, brandishing a smile, “has been through a whole lot with Watching for Foxes.”
A CHRONIC PROBLEM FOR TOURING BANDS
We were lucky, astronomically lucky. Determination, dumb luck and a massive amount of support from the West Michigan music community resulted in our recovering, not one, but both stolen guitars – something which almost NEVER happens.
Most of the time, these stories end with band members driving home without a trace of their missing gear.
As a performing musician, I’ve learned that stolen gear is a far too common occurrence – another blow for musicians who already endure long hours on the road, low pay and other frustrations.
An unsuspecting musician wanders out to his van in the morning, only to find that a window has been smashed in and the vehicle ransacked. Or the padlock on a trailer is cut clean through and all the instruments inside are gone. Or perhaps, the whole rig – van and trailer both – have vanished into thin air.
Not surprisingly, instruments hold a special place in the hearts of musicians. It’s all about the richness of tone that a maple drum set billows out, the distinctive crunch of a Stratocaster guitar when it’s plugged into the perfect amp, the rich timbre of an aging acoustic guitar. There’s a sentimental attachment to the gear that travels with you across borders, helps you write songs and captivates the imagination.
These instruments, at times, are a musician’s only companion. So when such a dear possession is ripped away, it’s heartbreaking. There’s overwhelming frustration, anger and a deep sadness that comes with the realization that this instrument may be gone for good.
Popular Detroit-based indie-rockers, Mike Mains & the Branches, had their van stolen in 2012 while on tour in San Antonio, Texas, along with all of their gear, personal items and hundreds of dollars in cash.
In 2013, West Michigan indie-folk band, Breathe Owl Breathe, had its vehicle stolen during a tour stopover in Oakland, Calif. Inside the van was nearly every instrument the band owned, an extensive list that included an Amati Cello, a Lowrey Wandering Genie keyboard, a Larivee acoustic guitar, a 1965 Fender pedal bass, a Lyle semi-hollow body electric guitar, three amps and an entire drum kit. The van was found in an alley days later, interior trashed, locks corroded with acid and every instrument long gone.
Countless artists have fallen victim to crime, including Ivan & Alyosha, Lower, Brolly, Lower Dens, not The Black Lillies, Love Canon, Poison the Well, Lovedrug, Butchered, 76 Juliet, The Ghost Ease, Vundabar, The Georgia Flood, The Gillis Silo and False Flag. And that list barely scratches the surface.
Stealing musical equipment is no petty crime and no small task. It requires resourcefulness, ingenuity and time. Sometimes, it’s even a carefully planned, highly organized operation: In 2013, Houston, Texas, police arrested 130 individuals during a sting operation that pinpointed a massive crime organization that made the majority of its income from stealing and selling music gear.
Few things are more infuriating than being victimized by theft, that feeling of being extremely violated.
A COMMON SENSE APPROACH IN SECURING INSTRUMENTS AND HELP FROM FANS
But stealing from an individual or group whose goal it is to bring joy, hope and healing to the world through music is nothing short of despicable and an act of cowardice. To performers, these are the priceless tools of their art, often-times vintage instruments with which they have a special bond.
So how do musicians prevent it? There’s the cautionary wisdom of folks who tell musicians to make sure they bring their gear inside wherever they’re staying, no matter what. Of course, that’s unrealistic for a large touring band with tons of gear.
But there is the common sense approach: Make your instruments as difficult as possible to swipe, park in well-lit, high-traffic areas, know your instruments’ serial numbers, don’t leave gear unattended and out in the open even while loading in or loading out, take photos of all of your gear.
On the plus side, there’s one constant when these crises occur: an outpouring of support from fans, fellow musicians and music lovers.
Mike Mains & the Branches were able to raise enough financial support to continue their tour. More than 130 people donated funds to Breathe Owl Breathe so the band could recover and get back on the road.
And, of course, we found our guitars with the help of some amazing people.
Thieves can try and steal our instruments, our vans, our trailers. But they should know that the folks in this line of work aren’t faint of heart. We’re no strangers to adversity. And we definitely aren’t strangers to hard work. We grind it out every single day, drive for miles, play for hours and put our hearts into every show.
So rest assured, we – with help from our fans and fellow musicians – are more than willing to put in the overtime to get our stuff back.
Copyright 2016, Spins on Music LLC