Skip Maggiora: Changing Lives Music Through
Excited, the 15-year-old Sacramento kid with rock star ambitions had his Mom drop him off at the local music store. The burgeoning guitarist had slaved away at a paper route, earning money for his dream ax – a Gibson ES 335. He breezed through the doors and went straight to the cherry red beauty hanging behind the counter. He smiled big when he realized he was more than halfway to the amount of money needed to bring it home. The young Skip Maggiora got the attention of the music instrument storeowner and asked to try that guitar.
“His answer to me was serious and blunt,” Maggiora recalls vividly: “He said, ‘When you put the money on the counter, I’ll let you try it!’”
In addition to Maggiora never darkening that store’s doors again, the experience had a lasting impression on him. “That made me believe that someday I could run a music store the way one should be run. I really believe I learned more from those who taught me what not to do in business than those that taught me what to do.”
It’s been said that Maggiora has revolutionized the MI retailing industry, but what he’s really done is inspire. Since he first opened his doors in 1973, kids who wandered in soon found them being taught “Twist & Shout.” Later in the Stairway to the Stars program, they were put into bands. Later still, their boomer parents found themselves rediscovering the joys of music making through the weekend warriors program.
To honor all that he’s done, Maggiora will receive the third Don Johnson Service Award at the 2011 Winter NAMM show.
“To be honored in the name of such a great individual and industry icon as Don Johnson is truly the most humbling award that I have ever received,” he says. “I will cherish it as much as I cherish his memories and all that he did for this industry.”
Made for this Business…
“Three words: boundless, endless enthusiasm,” is how George Hines describes Maggiora. “And it’s contagious.” Hines, of George’s Music, has known Maggiora for over 20 years, first meeting him on at Audio Technica event on a cruise ship. “You figure some people slow down [eventually], but I don’t see that with Skip. He’s able to keep it at a high energy all the time.”
If he had just developed programs like Stairway and Weekend, he’d be deserving of this award. But his willingness to share them with other retailers goes beyond generous. “I think he’s a believer in Karma,” Hines says. “He’s not wanted to protect his ideas, but share, expand, and contribute. That’s one of the reasons he’s had the staying power he has.”
The strength of independent retailers has always been the passion for sharing the joy of music making. Unfortunately, savvy business sense isn’t as common. But Maggiora is different in that regard too. “Some people have a natural instinct for business and promotion,” Hines says. “He has it.”
“I don’t know if he was ‘chosen,’ but he was made for this business,” Joe Lamond says.
Lamond, president and CEO of NAMM and former Skip’s Music VP, says he first heard of Maggiora when he was working at a competing music store in Sacramento in the 1980s. “We were all envious,” he recalls. “When I got to meet, I immediately wanted to work for him.”
Lamond notes that when he celebrated the 30th Anniversary of Stairway recently he was struck that he was still the same guy who he met in 1989. “Same guy, same energy, all these years later – I hope I can do that! His energy is powerful, and that’s what makes a successful store.” Skip’s attitude of wanting to be the best retailer, not get lazy, and strive to be “exceptionally, even unreasonably good” is an inspiration.
Reflecting on his career so far, Maggiora says that his innovations with the store started early and not without concern. “I always seemed to be doing things a little different than everyone else,” he says. Reps would question the young man’s judgment. “At first that made me think that maybe I was doing something wrong. The reality was that things were changing and I was actually just a step ahead of the changes, rather than doing things the same old ways. In fact, that was exactly what inspired me to open my own store. As a player I found that the traditional stores of the day weren’t offering me what I needed and wanted as a musician.”
But Maggiora credits his dad, who he says always taught him to think on his feet: “No matter what the challenge, he would always figure out a strategy to accomplish his goal and then he would do whatever it took to implement that strategy. I learned the importance of thinking everything all the way through before I did it.”
“He’s shown this industry what it can be, what retailing can be, so you could absolutely look at him as being the Johnny Appleseed of this business,” Lamond says. “He’s shown us all what we can be.”
A Star is Born
Maggiora was born and raised in Sacramento. “I can remember always being interested in playing music,” he says. “I could always be found hanging out at the stage watching the band whenever there was live music, while the other kids ran around and played games together.”
His father was a sheet metal worker, and like his mom, had grown up during the depression, and thus appreciated hard work and the value of a dollar. This was passed on to their children, Skip and daughter, Marlynn. “One of the best things they ever for me was to not give me an allowance. It wasn’t because they couldn’t afford it, but they felt if I wanted something, I needed to understand the importance of coming up with a way to earn the money to buy it.”
Skip’s entrepreneurship emerged by the age of six, when he would pick flower seeds and go door to door with a tray hanging around his neck displaying the flower blossoms. “I would sell the seeds by the shot glass for a quarter,” he laughs. “And I closed nearly every sale.” He would write down all the addresses that bought seeds from him to follow up with the next week. Already appreciating the profitability of “add-ons,” he would then go to the nearby creek and catch frogs. Then he’d return to his customer’s doors with the “accessory” sales offer of three frogs for a quarter, pointing out that they would protect their young flower sprouts from insects. “Most would just have me release them in their garden and hand me a quarter or 50 cents.”
In fourth grade, Maggiora took his dad’s old suspicious-smelling trumpet and joined the high school band class. But as so common of those in the business of a certain age, he heard the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and decided that “it would be much cooler to play guitar in a band.”
Soon Skip was pursuing rock and roll dreams. Guitarist Tiny Moore was performing and Maggiora was so inspired he started taking lessons. Moore would come by his house for $3 and teach him. Within a year, Moore opened a small studio and asked Skip to teach beginners when he was just 14. As he got to know Moore well, he learned that he had played for years with Bob Wells and The Texas Playboys bandleader and string man. “He had me playing on TV and Radio commercials before I knew it. Tiny taught me to run his teaching studio and small store while he was away on tour with the likes of Merle Haggard. I couldn’t have chosen a better musical and business mentor than Tiny if I had tried.”
After high school Maggiora went to the Engineering School at Sacrament State College, and he played in several bands before landing a spot with The Creators, based out of Lake Tahoe. “I had a bunch of contacts for gigs in Sacramento and they had contacts in Tahoe. We would play the Sacramento jobs during the school year and then move up to Tahoe and play around the lake during the summers.”
School had increasingly become a distraction, for he had already decided that he wanted to pursue music. “We knew that if we wanted to be discovered, we had to be seen playing at the big concerts. We fought hard to get the opening act job at the local concerts and while we were willing to play for free, we only landed a few of the major acts. I knew there must be a better way.”
In 1967, one of the roadies he had met returned from Europe with a test pressing of an album. The album had “Hendrix” written across it in black felt pen. He placed his A7 PA speakers three feet apart and threw a blanket over the speakers (no, he didn’t have headphones). “After just a few songs I screamed, ‘We have to hire this guy to close for us!’” Stunningly, though he hadn’t finished the album left, they called up Hendrix and he agreed to play with them when he toured the U.S. “We had to send him a 50 percent deposit of $1,500 to play in February of 1968.” They finagled a venue – Sacramento State College’s gym – by answering affirmative to their question, “Would this event be culturally stimulating to the student body?” “No problem there with Hendrix!” Skip laughs.
Even though legendary promoter Bill Graham ended up booking Hendrix the day before for $30,000, Hendrix showed up for the $3,000 gig Maggiora had put together. “Jimi drove up in a red MGB sports car with his 200 watt Marshall head sticking up behind the seat. It was a night that I’ll never forget.”
Maggiora would also play with Janis Joplin a few times. “She never failed to live up to her reputation, and I can honestly say that she probably was the only woman to ever make my face turn red.” Canned Heat and the Grateful Dead were some of the other groups he managed to open for.
After becoming the supporting act for Johnny Winter in 1969, the band moved to New York. “When we first got there, we felt like real rock stars, meeting up with the likes of Led Zeppelin and having lunch with Bob Dylan.” While waiting for stardom, however, Maggiora earned his keep by being a roadie. He got a call to get Winter’s gear to an upcoming concert called Woodstock. “The freeways were backed up for miles and I can still remember the people’s faces when they would pull their cars off the pavement into the mud when they heard that Johnny [Winter’s] gear needed to get through.” He spent that concert backstage leaning against a guitar amp while the band played to a crowd of 500,000.
A Store is Born
By the decade’s demise, Maggiora ended back in California teaching guitar at Southgate Music, where he eventually became manager. The store became increasingly successful, and Maggiora’s life more stressful as he was back playing the Lake Tahoe gigs. “After the last song I would jump in the car and head down the hill to open the store in the morning only to do it all over again the next night.”
As the band pushed to go back on the road again, Maggiora, then married with his son Creed not even two, found himself at the proverbial crossroads. Real life responsibilities forged with an increasing desire to open his own music store and led him on his life’s ultimate journey. “I wanted to turn my creativity towards building the best music store around.”
Those following along with this tale won’t be surprised to learn that at this point Skip was not flush with cash. He scrapped together $5,000, cleaned up a room full of gear he was willing to part with, and rented a 900 square foot storefront next to a bowling alley. Without fanfare, Skip’s was born in 1973.
But before he opened his store, he attended a NAMM show in 1972 in San Francisco. “It all fit inside one ballroom, and most vender booths were 10’ x 10,” he recalls. At just 24 years old, the longhaired guitarist with no cash or credit was on the improbable mission to get instrument lines. He had an appointment set up with Bud Driver, Fender rep, and when he arrived for it at their booth Maggiora was told Driver would be found at the bar. “That later made sense when I found out he hadn’t opened a new dealer in my area for over 20 years.” Not knowing how futile the effort was, Maggiora hung out, drank, and swapped stories with Driver. It ended with Driver saying, “I like you, young fella, and I don’t know what I’m going to tell Jack [Jack’s House of Music], but you got the line.”
Skip returned to Sacramento where he went to work making it up as he went along. No fancy fixtures for him: The original operation resembled an antique store, complete with calculator and cash register that both sported large hand cranks. He chose his accessories carefully, and there not a lot of depth: As soon as someone bought three picks for a quarter or three clarinet reeds for a buck, he’d get on the phone and have a supplier stick some more in an envelope and mail them the next day. “Talk about just-in-time-inventory control and high ROI!” Maggiora laughs.
The day before he opened, he let a pair of peering faces into the store and proudly showed it off. On impulse he took a check for a set of guitar strings. “To this day, nearly 40 years later, I still remember the smile on that lady’s face every time I see Susan Reed’s bounced check for $4.30 next to my first dollar,” he says. “I believe that failure in judgment probably saved me thousands of dollars over my early years of accepting checks.”
Over time, Maggiora has collected plenty of stories. He remembers a persistent nine-year-old boy named Michael who took lessons at the store and who bugged his mother every week for a white Rogers drum set. Finally the mother caved and Maggiora remembers her saying, “Michael, you better practice every day or this kit is the last thing I’ll ever get you!” The boy, jumping up and down, promised. “I ran into Michael Urbano again last month at the AES Show in San Francisco. He’s currently traveling back and forth to Italy playing with Italian rock superstar Luciano Ligabue in front of crowds of over 80,000. He’s played drums and produced albums for the band Smashmouth and Third Eye Blind, as well as toured with Cheryl Crow and Todd Rundgren. He sure lived up to his promise to his mom!”
Stairways & Warriors
Maggiora himself was the inspiration for the Stairway program. “When I was a young musician I found it very easy to get in a band,” he says. “All I had to do was walk up any block in the neighborhood and I would hear a band practicing in a garage. If the garage door was open I would often ask if I could jam with them.”
Years later as his store grew and thrived, he noticed that it was increasingly harder for kids to hook up with others. “I knew just how much fun it was to play in a band but a lot of kids taking lessons were only playing alone in their bedrooms. So in 1981 we formed the first round of Stairway to Stardom.” Skip created the opportunity for kids to come to the store and trudge up the stairs to the rehearsal space (hence the “Stairway”). “That stairway has seen hundreds of bands come together over the last 30 years.”
Lamond was working for Maggiora when Stairway was in full swing, and says they started noticing not-so-kid-
types inquiring about the program. “We were like, ‘Wow, that’s kind of weird – suddenly some of these 30-year-olds are trying to get in these bands.’” Also they both astutely noted that the guy in the suit examining the high-end acoustics was not, in fact, shopping for a son or daughter. Lamond had to look no further than his immediate family for the trend: He says his brother at the time, a lawyer in Boston, had told him he was going into MI stores wanting to reconnect with music again, but was having trouble getting service. “All these things were happening at once, and we realized these boomers wanted a place to play and people to play with. They wanted to get in front of a crowd and at least for a few minutes, feel cool.”
Maggiora realized that when he first opened his stores, his customers were mostly his age, and surmised that not unlike him, they had hung up the guitar and focused on career and family. About 20 years later, some of those original customers started stopping by again, with “do you remember me?” and “I used to be a musician,” quips. Now doctors or dentists or business owners, Maggiora noticed with irony that when they originally came into his store they didn’t have any money all those years ago. But now they sure did.
All this pointed to the need for a new program, and Weekend Warriors was created.
“I knew I had to come up with a way to make it easy for [boomers] to put recreational music back in their lives,” he says. The program was designed to only take two hours, once a week for four weeks. The store would supply the instruments and a coach, and it would end with a concert.
“My favorite story from during that first round was about this rice farmer who was a bass player who was thinking about getting back into playing when he discovered the Weekend Warrior program. At the time, he was in a legal battle over the flooding of his fields, and remembered his lawyer had mentioned he used to play guitar. So the rice farmer talked him into doing the program with him.” As insecurity turned into joy, which morphed into nervousness as the concert approached, he noticed that the emotional state of the participants ended in extreme excitement when the time came to hand out tickets for the concert.
“By now the lawyer couldn’t wait to pass out the tickets to all the other lawyers in his law firm. They decided that it would be fun to all go to the concert, have a beer, and probably get a great laugh since their associate hadn’t played his guitar in over 20 years.” What happened next? Those who came to laugh ended up signing up for a program and nearly 20 years later, the band Four Lawyers and a Rice Farmer is still together.
He would share his success through NAMM, and today [scores of] programs exist around the world. “I have always felt that if everyone would promote playing music and help grow our industry that every one of us benefits from that combined effort. If nobody plants the seeds and nobody cultivates them, there is no harvest! I have always shared my programs openly with the hope that it would help others and ultimately make it better for us all.”
And it’s not peaked yet, according to Maggiora. “Baby Boomers are getting older. Many of them are re-evaluating their lives and how they are spending their time. Many have worked hard for years either in the corporate world or on their own business. I believe that work that they previously found enjoyable and financially rewarding may have lost that luster with all that’s going on in the world today. Weekend Warriors offers them that door way to put the fun of playing music back into their lives for good.”
Through the years he continued to be on the forefront of marketing. During the 1990s he had a Music & Sound Expo for consumers, and published the Valley Music News, a bit-monthly paper that boasted a circulation of 50,000 through newsstands. That gave way to a website with a presence on MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook. He’s one of the founders of Alliance of Independent Music Merchants (AIMM).
Maggiora himself has turned into one of those recreational musicians he’s so good at catering too. “I do my best thinking with an unplugged electric guitar on my lap!” His son Creed is a drummer and has been an active part of Skip’s Music’s staff for over 30 years.
Today there are three Skip’s Music stores in the central valley of Northern California. The main store is in Sacramento with branch operations in Elk Grove and Modesto. There are about 50 employees and 40 instructors. They are full-line now and service almost everything they sell. They also have a division called Systems Engineering Group focused at A/V and educational lab installations. Their rental division offers nightly to monthly rentals on most all instruments as well as handling concert sound and backline services.
Twice Maggiora has hosted and supplied the judges for American Idol auditions. “The interesting thing I discovered was that the majority of the contestants had never been in a music store in their life. We signed up many of them for vocal lessons and a few for instrument lessons afterwards.” He adds that Idol judge Randy Jackson was actually a judge for one of his 1994 Stairway to Stardom concerts. “I remember that he enjoyed the program so much that he mentioned that he thought there should be a national Stairway to Stardom.”
For Lamond, Maggiora has always been about getting others to enjoy playing music. “Once he determined he wasn’t going to be the guy on stage, he totally redirected his fierce passion to sharing the experience of making music. He got good at retailing and the business part, sure; but when I was working for him, so many times I saw this guy sitting on the floor with a kid showing him or her the three chords to ‘Twist & Shout,’ the Mom hovering, smiling right there … that’s what makes his day way more then sitting in his office trying to get another $10 off an order.”
To this day he still loves to sell on the floor. “I was always successful at it without really studying sales techniques. There is nothing like Mom seeing and hearing the young son or daughter play their first chord on a guitar. If a salesperson would just take five or ten minutes to prove to both Mom and the kid that they can actually play anything on a guitar in just a few minutes, the mother will usually take one home. It also is a perfect lead into talking about the lesson department. I think it also shows the customer that you care.”
“He’s Changed Lives”
“I’m really proud that the industry has recognized Skip’s Music and the accomplishments of my management team and staff on many occasions over the years,” Skip says of his many accolades. “My office is pretty full of awards from industry magazines and manufacturers. To be named The Retailer of the Year definitely means a lot. But the ones that mean the most to me are the ones for Best Customer Service, Best Sales Staff, and things like Best Clinics.”
And now this, the Don Johnson Service Award, given in memory of longtime MMR editor and industry stalwart Don Johnson, who lost a valiant battle with cancer three years ago.
“I feel very fortunate to have known Don [Johnson] for so many years,” Maggiora says. “That meant that I would see and talk with him twice a year at the NAMM Shows. But one day he called and said he was coming to visit me [in 1999]. I was really honored that Don would take the time to visit my store. It’s not like Sacramento is on the way to anywhere!
“I was excited to show Don around my operation and tell him about all that was going on at Skip’s. It was obvious that Don and I both shared a lot of the same passion for our industry. I only wish we could have had the opportunity to spend more time together. The few hours that we did get to enjoy that day have turned into truly special memories of a man I feel fortunate to have known.”
Hines says he’s always known Skip to be passionate about helping people become music makers. “He’s changing lives. When you think about something like his Stairway to Stardom program, and think of all the stores who duplicated that, he’s touched so many lives with just that program alone.”
“I feel so blessed to be one of the lucky ones that has made it through life, without having to get a real job!” Maggiora laughs. “I love this industry and am proud to be a part of it.
“I would hope that if anything, I have contributed to spreading the enjoyment of playing music. If I have accomplished making music a part of someone’s life that otherwise may not have had that opportunity… I feel like I’ve accomplished my goal.”