Chicago is MI Kind of Town
They are playing the blues, but not necessarily singing the blues. For the MI industry, the Chicago area proves a microcosm of the good, bad, and the ugly aspects of making a living peddling musical instruments these days. Many make note of the city’s rich tradition of great music. Still, the Great Recession has hit Chicago harder than most cities, and the state it resides in has the dubious distinction of facing the worst projected state budget gap for 2011.
Yet most – but not all – of the dozen retailers interviewed for an up-close-and-personal look at this music making Mecca seem to be cautiously optimistic, though all are hedging their bets with new strategies to reach out to what, by all means, appears to still be fertile grounds.
“Tourists Love the Blues”
Tim Joyce of Old Town Music declares Chicago musically vibrant. “It’s amazing how many different people come through here, and how many local people are performing. I think live music is alive and well in Chicago for sure.”
“The Chicago music scene is doing well, and we’re trying to be part of it,” says Fat Tone’s Phil Vickman. “There’s a lot of new bands, and the blues scene is good for tourism. Tourists love the blues.”
Pete Biedron of Brand Source sums up the scene by pointing out its two operas, two orchestras, and a plethora of community bands in addition to nationally recognized jazz and blues scenes. “Live music has taken a dive at times, but the jobbing scene has picked up. With the Symphony, Lyric, and Civic [groups], all of which are still huge, it means we’re doing well.”
Chicagoan Rob Fitzgerald, who has been involved in the local music scene for years as a manager and promoter, says, “We have lots of club that play original music all the time.” Like many cities, original music is heard in the city limits, while cover bands are mostly in the suburbs.
And summertime is full of festivals: blues (of course), but also jazz, Celtic, and pretty much some neighborhood party featuring live music is going on every single weekend.
Specific to our industry, the town has a history of innovation and “firsts.” Gary Gand of Gand Music & Sound is the source of much of it. Gand became the first Moog dealer in the country. In the 1982, when he heard the LinnDrum on a Paul McCartney tune, he immediately called up Roger Linn and got that cool, but pricey item in his store. “We used to have this running gag for about 20 years where we were also searching for the $5,000 box,” he laughs. “If it was a box and cost $5,000 – the Moog, the LinnDrum, the Prophet 5 – we had to have it. But those days are gone and now it’s all $500 boxes.”
Gand was an early adaptor of Apple, and was the first music store in the country that was an Apple Dealer. He turned the company onto the music making possibilities of the computer, and was also on hand to put together a world MIDI band on the Internet – before the Internet was public and still in government hands.
“We’ve Lost a Lot of Jobs”
Yet the area is “rich” in challenges, too. Those seeking live music in the city have seen it become increasingly costly to do so. In addition to cover charges creeping up a few dollars, the cash-strapped city essentially quadrupled parking meter fees.
A pending city ordinance requiring all promoters to be licensed and insured could seriously jeopardize the live music scene. The bill has good intentions and is in reaction to a 2003 incident at a club called E2 where 21 people were killed in a stampede. But the problem is that the definition of “promoter” is so vague that it would include someone who just wants to rent the VFW hall and hire a band for a high school reunion. “The music community is pretty united against it,” says Fitzgerald.
Illinois is also plagued with high taxes. “It’s a big drawback,” says The Drum Pad’s Jim Streich. “Chicago sales tax is 10 percent, the highest in the country.” Consumers who drive to the next county can save themselves three or four percent. “That’s a deterrent.”
“Chicago had a lot of high tech businesses that have moved away,” says Peter Hix of Hix Bros. Music. Caterpillar, Standard BP, and Lucent use to all have operations there, specifically in Aurora, where his store is. “We’ve lost a lot of jobs, but somehow we’re maintaining.”
“Home sales in Chicago are still really bad, with commercial real estate going south next,” reports Chris Syllaba of Steinway of Chicago. “The stock market is up, but really the wealthy could always afford a piano. More recovery in the area real estate market needs to happen before Chicago enjoys a broad recovery.”
George Quinlan Jr. of Quinlan & Fabish notes that while his school-based business is tough, “kids still want to be in the school bands and orchestras and their parents want to see them there.”
“Our biggest challenge are the program cuts – and these are really good programs with a lot of support,” he says. “Individual school districts are getting funds cut, and not even getting paid money that is owed to them in some instances.” There have been plenty of schools trying to raise funds through referendums, making the plea for the sake of the arts, but they rarely pass, he adds.
Then again, Jake Fields of Jake’s Music Services says, while some school programs are struggling a bit, “the ones I deal with seem like they are making it. I even have a couple of guys starting new programs.” When people in the area are interested in music, nothing really matters – they find a way to do it. Parents want their kids to do it. If a school program does get cut, they find them private lessons.”
MMR finds Chicago full of innovative and exceptional retailers that offer a great variety of possibilities to those who call the town “sweet home.” Here are just a dozen of them.
Quinlan & Fabish, B&O Institution
Founded on the south side in 1959 by music educators George Quinlan, Sr. and Tom Fabish, this operation has grown to seven locations reaching from Chicago into Indiana and Michigan. Repairs have always been a big part of their business and in 2007 they opened a new state-of-the-art Repair Service Center in their Burr Ridge location. The new facility centralized their school rental program deliveries and logistics.
Through the years they have frequently sponsored workshops, clinics, and educational events for area band and orchestra directors, students, and student teachers. Artists, composers and educators like Doc Severinsen, the Canadian Brass, Jay Friedman, John O’Reilly, Sandra Dackow, John Paynter, James Kjelland, Sandra Mullins, among many others participated. The company has around a 100 employees.
Today, George Jr. runs the operation, having previously worked in marketing at Selmer and Leblanc. He’s currently chairman of the Board of Trustees for the VanderCook College of Music, and has previously served on the boards of NAMM, the South Shore Brass Band, and NASMD. He still plays trombone with a popular party band.
“We kind of go into survival mode during times like these,” he says. That includes offering fee-based programs to some schools, which they have resorted to during previous lean times. “We’re doing one currently, and over the last 10 years we’ve done a few and it worked in sustaining a program. When we make a proposal like this to a school, we stress that we want them to fire us as soon as possible!” Sometimes it takes a year or two for funds to return, though they are currently in their third year for one school. (The fee-based program has a 50-year history, when they would offer it for the many area Catholic schools.)
There have been “plenty of warning signs” regarding the current situation, and it’s likely to get worse. “A lot of districts are looking to cut more.”
Quilan & Fabish’s success has always been based on their service to music directors, and they have extended that with their online presence. “Renting online has worked really well. Sometimes on band day, the parents can’t make it to the school, or they can’t make up their mind on the spot. The director can e-mail the parent reminding them with a link and then they can go do it on the spot from home.”
For print, they focus almost exclusively on method books for bands and orchestras, and he says their directors are always interested in new products. “They like to see the changes with technology. DVDs have really changed things over the years.”
Chicago is a jazz town, and Quinlan reports that there are jazz programs in almost every school. “I think it gets equal attention to the concert and marching band program in most instances,” he says. “We’re fortunate in that way, and it’s good for the kids, too.”
Gand Music & Sound: The Pro Shop Reaches Out
Gary Gand has been a staple of the music scene in Chicago since the age of 10. In 1963, the height of the folk movement, his family formed a folk group with him on banjo. Eventually they hit the road performing on TV, Disneyland, and art/folk festivals everywhere. The family even opened for Peter, Paul, & Mary at a John Kennedy rally before 100,000 people.
Meanwhile, his dad opened Village Music in Deerfield, north of Chicago. “I became a techno geek, fixing and building guitars and amps, and even sound systems,” Gand says. “But my dad wasn’t interested in the rock and roll part of it, so I opened my own music store right next to his when I was 17 in 1971.” In the beginning he would hunt down hidden treasures at pawnshops, fix them, and sell them. He soon got a Fender dealership.
His partner in all his endeavors (including his band, as a keyboardist) is his wife Joan, who he’s been with since they were 17.
By the mid 1970s, he created a pro audio sound division. Today are now three Gands: Gand’s Music & Sound (and Internet), Gand Concert Sound, and Gand Sound Installation. The retail store is 10,000 square feet with 25 employees.
It’s a big full-line store with a rich assortment of products: Fender, Ibanez, Martin, Taylor, and Parker guitars; Fender, Ibanez, Line 6, Behringer, Gallien-Krueger, and Roland amps. There’s a big collection of keyboards including Yamaha, Ventura, M-Audio, Hammond, Kurzweil, Kawai, Roland, and Nord. There’s a huge selection of pro gear from Apple products to Digidesign mixing boards to Neumann mics.
“Business is not very good, honestly,” Gand says. “All the rest who tell you they are fine are lying! [laughs] I’m a realist. We’re doing things to combat it, but part of the overall problem is that equipment is now very inexpensive.”
They’ve instituted a band night at the store on Friday nights, replicating the “teen clubs” Gand himself played in growing up. The kids who come in get to play with full PA, backline, and lighting. “Kids have got nowhere to play, nowhere to hang out besides the mall. Society is not providing any outlet whatsoever. My manager said, ‘Let’s let them play here.’”
For 12 years they’ve been doing a Guitar Idol contest for shredders, putting out a CD of the top ten. Gand is proud that many have gone on to be professionals. “We try to promote things proactively, beyond just being a beer tent sponsor at the local festival.”
More immediately they’ve stepped up their lesson program, and today are seeing a couple of hundred students a week. He admits that they’ve had to reposition themselves from the long-time pro dealer, high-end shop. “We weren’t culturing the younger kids – just their dads building home studios.” In the process they’ve discovered that the majority of teachers aren’t as organized as they should be. Now their teachers have e-mail databases, good record keeping skills, and a merchandising scheme.
Gand also has an opinion about the quality of the teaching out there. “We get a lot of kids who are taking lesson from us and they are on their third or fourth teacher. A teacher taught them that Green Day song, and they know the chords to it, but are not really learning how to make music.”
Otherwise, they continue to try new things. “It’s very easy for guys our age to just sell the major lines, the stuff you’ve been selling for 40 years, but that can make you lethargic.” One of the new lines they’ve taken on that he’s personally excited about is the iTab, a 5-inch touch screen device that can hook on the guitar and scroll chord tabs, backing tracks, and video lessons. Another new product he’s trying is Jet City Amps, a company based in Woodinville, Wash. that is making high-end boutique amps at affordable prices.
“We’re probably the biggest dealer in the Midwest for Hammond B3, built in Chicago in the 1930s,” he notes.
An active player, he and Joan perform and record often with their blues band Blue Road. Gand also gets out and leads a lot of jam sessions at local clubs.
“The good news is blues is extremely popular now, and that’s put Chicago back on the map,” Gand declares. Hometown hero Buddy Guy is a fixture on the national scene and is moving his club, giving Gand Installation the contract on all the video, audio, and lighting.
“We’re entering our 40th year of business, and it’s our turn now,” he laughs. “Through all these decades, we’ve been around, and now most of our competitors are gone. I’m the last of the independents. There are a handful of new guys coming up, but I’m the last guy standing!”
Band Source – the New Pro Shop In Town
New to the Downers Grove neighborhood is a new band pro shop called Band Source. Founded by Pete Biedron, Jarod Bufe, and Matt Johnson, it strives to offer top line horns, top-notch repair service, and an extensive accessories selection.
Biedron says all three have united their industry experience, and Bufe and Johnson have stellar reputations as repairmen to the professionals, with Johnson catering largely to the symphony players and Bufe to the top jazz players.
Biedron admits that opening a shop like this in July of 2008 seems like a risk, but he maintains that the area’s pros were underserved. “We felt it would take off and it has,” he says. “Right now we’re succeeding more than we had planned, and it feels fantastic.”
Yes, Chicago has plenty of stores that carry band products, but Biedron maintains that so many cater to school business that they don’t carry the premium horns with extra features. “That they can come in and play the brass or woodwind has garnered a lot of attention. There’s a lot of ‘I’ve seen that online but never seen it in the music store.’” The store itself is a modest 2,500 square feet, half showroom, and half repair shop/storage.
The recent acquisitions and mergers have helped create this opening, too. When Woodwind & Brasswind became part of Guitar Center, their similar inventory was reduced.
“Before we founded the company, we knew we needed Conn-Selmer, and they don’t just hand out dealerships to anybody,” he says. After that anchor, they developed an impressive collection of brands including Azumi, Courtois, Yangisawa, LaVoix, Bach Stradivarius, Shires, and Besson. This is along side of higher end Jupiter, Buffet Crampon, and LeBlanc.
Because they are competitive on pricing, they are going into local schools with the pitch of having a pro shop cater to the pros of tomorrow. “We are able to treat every student musician who comes in the same as we do the pros.”
But the basis of the operation is clearly the expertise – and accessibility – of those in the back shop. “The great things with them being co-owners is they can give you a repair estimate right then, and even repair it while you wait. It’s a unique concept, extending an elite customer experience to everybody.”
Andy’s Music/Chicago Drumworks Go for the “Wow” Factor
If your musical instrument shopping list includes picking up a harmonium, a hocchiku, a harmonica, and a harpsichord, and you also wish to rent the world’s largest gong, there’s only one place in Chicago – nee, the world – for you. It’s Andy’s Music.
Andy Cohn started the operation 20 years ago as a “low-pressure store filled with musical treasures from around the world,” but today it takes up a block in Chicago’s Roscoe Village and has grown into a 4,500 square foot shop that has a full service drum store, electric and acoustic guitars, band and orchestra equipment, and a repair shop.
It’s actually four stores in one: Music Antica (old world instruments); Music Store (full line, with emphasis on the uncommon); Chicago Drumworks (Chicago’s only pro drum shop); and a pro rental shop. They are also one of only two Paiste Gong Distributors, and they themselves have one of the largest collections of gongs and sell them to customers from all over the world.
“We have this warehouse museum composers performance space that the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs is assisting in going public a few blocks from the retail store and a block from Andy’s Pro Hire, our concert rental company,” says Cohen. “In there we have as the world’s largest Gong, 14-foot tubular bells, harpsichords, grand pianos, 1826 Musical Glasses, endless exotic percussion, strings, wind, and all kinds of other great instruments.”
Matt Espy, a working drummer who now manages the drum shop, has been with the operation for five years. He describes the interior as a series of rooms so it’s “a bit of a labyrinth.” In front there are a mix of sitars, singing bowls, banjos, and guitars strings.
The store has a “wow” factor and Espy, who was a touring drummer and visited music stores all over the country, attests that he’s never seen anything like Andy’s.
In his department, there’s Gretsch and Ludwig kits, plus Spaun and C&C. They do well with Roland electronic drums. They have a wide variety of cymbals including Zildjian, Sabian, and “a huge collection of Paiste.” They also have Dream cymbals and are currently working to sell Bosphorus. They have a large collection of hand drums including a lot of LP and Tycoon. Selection is key to their success – noting that you really can’t have too much cowbell. “We probably have 40 different styles of cowbell.”
“We give drum lessons and occasional clinics, especially gong clinics,” he says. “There’s a good gong community because of the holistic application. There are a lot of yoga studios in town that cater to it.”
Business for the drum store is good, though, because of the economy, they are currently expanding their offerings of sticks, cymbals, and snares. “Drum kits are like cars – they don’t sell everyday. People come in and buy more cymbals, though, and I know we beat everybody in town on price.”
In addition to Matt, Ted Ceplina and Alex Devul manage the store too. Cohn strives to offer instruments not found in every store. “We have a small collection of Minarik guitars, for example,” Espy says. “Chicago is littered with guitar stores, and that’s not a bad thing, and I regularly refer people to them.”
They also have a huge selection of print music.
“The most common thing I hear people say when they walk in is, ‘Wow.’”
Flatts & Sharpe Music
The Spanish-speaking Central American woman noticed the Haitian French-speaking six-year-old girl struggling with a guitar, so she went over to try to show her a few notes. They had only a few phrases of broken English between them. The impromptu tutorial ended with more laughs then lesson.
“It was just a beautiful exchange,” recalls Chris Bell, who witnessed it all while discussing buying Flatts & Sharpe with owner Ed Mooney. “That’s when I knew I wanted to buy the store.” Bell was – and is – a union welder who has kept her day job. (She works construction 6:30 a.m. to 3:00, then gets to the store by 5 and works until 9:00.)
Located in Rogers Park, Bell knows well the opportunities and challenges that come with living in one of the most culturally – and musically – diverse neighborhoods in the country. “We’ve changed it pretty dramatically,” she says, noting that on April 1st she entered year four of her five-year plan. “There was 36 years worth of junk that had accumulated, and there was all kinds of dusting to be done.” Currently in the last phase of remodeling, the retail space has been cut in half, though the amount of inventory hasn’t; it’s all just better merchandised.
Today there’s a recording/rehearsal studio in the back and teaching rooms. “When I started, there were 18 students a week coming here for lessons. Now we’re up to 130.” There are seven teachers and five coworkers working the floor. (Current “American Idol” contender Crystal Bowersox is a former employee.)
The store has always been a good source for sheet music, and Bell has continued that. As she’s in no position to go after the big brand names, the neighborhood works in her favor. “People are all over from Latin America, Europe, Africa … they don’t necessarily know the brand names anyway!”
She focuses on the beginner with the entry- and mid-entry level in mind. Bell stocks Oscar Schmidt/Washburn instruments. “I really like [wholesaler] The Music Link products. Their Recording King acoustic guitar is only $300, has a solid top, and is set up well. That’s the kind of the thing we do well with.” There’s Johnson and VHT amps found in their store, as well as Tycoon Percussion and local Souldier Guitar Straps. But she’s always looking out for new products, saying she regular attends NAMMs always in “hot pursuit for a quality instrument for a decent price.”
With limited success they’ve tried to reach out to young kids with a Music Toddler and Musical Zoo program. They also sell local musician’s CDs.
Ben Henke handles their repairs, and Bell says he’s a great draw. She also sells his Henke violins and cellos, as well as the amps and guitars he makes. They also carry Palatino violins.
The heart of the operation is the teaching, which she’s passionate about. Bell also says it’s not just for kids: she tells a story of a 30-year-old dad who has been taking drum lessons for a year coming out from a lesson grinning ear to ear. “That’s really what it’s all about.”
Next up: the schools. Chris just got a vendor number from the Chicago Public School District, and hopes to branch off to serving them.
Bell says she’s gotten based the biggest hurdle – figuring out how to do business in this business. “As a newbie, I quite frankly had no idea how antiquated some of these [suppliers] are. I’m baffled that I put in these huge orders, but I’m not allowed to know how much it’s going to cost me until the order ships. It seems crazy to me!”
Jake’s Music Services Celebrates 10th Anniversary
Jake’s Music celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Located on the Southside in Alsip, Jake Fields, a working jazz and rock musician, opened the shop after having previously been a repair specialist at Quinlan & Fabish.
The operation started out as a repair shop only, but evolved and now the 2,000 square foot store sells accessories, stringed instruments, and brass and wind instruments. Today they see about 50 students a week, all coming to learn piano, woodwinds, bass, guitars, and some brass.
“We carry Selmer saxes and trumpets, and a lot of Yamaha [brass],” he says, adding that they just took on L.A. Sax products as well. There’s Johnson and Reynolds guitars, and Martin, Earnie Ball, D’Addario, and Red Label strings. “We were renting instruments, but we stopped; now we’re going to start that back up again.”
With the addition of five teaching studies, business has gotten better. Fields caters to the nearly a dozen schools in the neighborhood, providing music teachers with accessories and repair services. He also does well with print music, as the store carries a lot of Hal Leonard products, especially their band method, Essential Elements.
Jake’s Music enjoys good relationship with a lot of the more famous local musicians, and sax player Jimmy Ellis and members of the band Chicago regularly stop by.
Old Town School Music: “Nonprofit” – No Joke
Old Town School of Music is nonprofit. Tim Joyce, manager of the retail section, laughs when it’s pointed out a lot of independent retailers feel that way these days, before he notes that Old Town really is.
Joyce, who has been with the organization a decade, says they haven’t been immune to the general retail slump. “Last year was pretty rough, but things are starting to open up a bit. Student’s tuition pays a huge chunk for the operational cost, but the store’s goal is to contribute as much as possible.”
Old Town was founded in 1957. It boasts a 400-seat concert hall. About 200 teachers provide lessons to over 6,000 students a week. They are located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, which Joyce says has the feel of a small college town. They do many programs with Chicago public schools.
The retail section is around 3,500 square feet. “We carry a lot of low- to mid-priced products, catering primarily from the beginner to the high intermediate student. It’s mostly acoustic instruments plus a handful of electric guitars. We pride ourselves on the weirder stuff – the hammer dulcimer, unusual flutes.”
He says they do well with the less expensive Martin, Seagull, and Larrivee guitars, in addition to Oscar Schmidt. “We just took on Great Divide – we’re just figuring that out, but so far that response has been good.” They sell Fender Squire Acoustics for $99, Fender and Eastman guitars, and Aer, Fender and Fishman amps. Other acoustic instruments include brands like Deering, Gold Tone, and Kentucky.
They also carry some Korg and Yamaha keyboards, and LP hand percussion. They do well with print, particularly Hal Leonard, but also carry Alfred, Mel Bay, Jamey Aebersold, and other smaller publishers’ products.
“We try to have something for all folks at all levels, folks at ground zero to those playing for years and wanting to do advanced finger style music.”
They reach out to the community with a lot of direct email and during as many events as possible. Recently, Shure was in doing a recording and live micing workshop.
“We’re writing grants for programs all the time,” he says. The grants are as diverse as the people they serve. For example, recently they received a grant funding for a Tyco drumming concert.
Mostly their customers get it: “We have people come in and say all the time they know they can get something for a little less online, but they want to support the store.”
Fat Tone Guitars New Retailer Finds Success
Phil Vickman is one of the new guys in town – he opened his Fat Tone Guitars in 2007. Located in Northbrook, the former computer tech and bass player took a chance on the MI business, and despite the not-so-great timing, he’s making it work.
Fat Tone still looks to distinguish itself as the place that has guitars you don’t see everywhere else, but it’s more recently positioned itself as the pedal shop.
“Our 2009 was up 25 percent from 2008, and it’s largely because of some of the changes we’ve made,” Vickman says. “Our big shift in inventory from guitars and amps to effect pedals has accounted for the sales. Overall dollar amount, pedal sales are equal to, if not passing, our guitar sales.” Considering it takes five pedal sales to equal the sales of one $750 guitar, that’s impressive.
He realized that if players couldn’t get that next guitar, they could find a cool pedal that changed their tone. Of course selection was important: “I bet we have 40 manufacturers,” he says. It’s as deep as it is wide, as he carries overdrives, wah-wahs, delays, “you name and we have it.”
Found among the well-known pedals like Boss, Dunlap, Digitech, and Danelectro, are products from small boutique-like companies. He’s partnered with one, Ohio-based Earthquaker, to create an exclusive pedal only available at Fat Tone.
“When you come to the store, the pedals are all out of the box and featured in accessible display cases. We’re not in a high traffic location, but players know if they come they can try a bunch of pedals and get personalized service.”
Fat Tone makes good use of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. “We make coupon codes available and those who follow us take advantage of them.”
They also have monthly in store events. “We call it After Hours at Fat Tone. We have a little stage and PA system and lights built in where local bands, even some customers, come and play.” Vickman drives all those via social networking sites, too.
But he’s still selling guitars, and most recently high-end instruments from Nash Guitars and Fano are doing well. He’s also carrying DBZ, whose HQ is located in his neighborhood, allowing him the advantage of driving over and picking out whatever he wants. Otherwise he’s doing well with Eastwood, Gretsch, and Ampeg Dan Armstrong. “We’ve added Lackland, and those are great bases.”
Fat Tone has also gone the boutique route with amps: Port City and Egnater are doing well, as are Vox. Finally, Fat Tone is another local store supporting locally made Soulder Straps.
Hix Brothers Music Combo Shop Refocuses, Gets Employees More Involved
Peter Hix has been making music since he was five and, by the time he was eight, playing uke in his father’s Hawaiian band and getting paid for it, he knew he wanted to be in the business.
His father, John Hix, founded the store in 1946. In 1996, John and his wife retired and handed the keys off to three of their sons (they had ten children). Peter Hix runs the operation with his younger brothers Andrew and Carl. Sister Amy handles the books and event coordination (“a very difficult job which she does well”), and other family members work part time from time to time.
Today Hix Brothers Music has nine teaching studios, offers guitar and amp repair services, has a dedicated audio/tube amp room, and an acoustic guitar room. In 2003, they opened a second location in Batavia. They have four full time people and five part timers, and a variety of teachers who teach around 750 to 850 students a week.
“We redefined what we were doing recently, and we’ve cut back on some lines, focused more on others,” Peter says. “We needed to be strong in what we do.” Before the advent of big box stores and the Internet, they were the biggest Fender dealer in the state; today they aren’t even a Fender dealer. They carry ESP, Ibanez, Parker, Samick, Stagg, Art & Luthier, Godin guitars. “Tanglewood guitars are doing well and we do a real nice business with Hohner,” he says. “Our accessory lines have been strong.”
Drum-wise they carry Mapex, Ludwig, Tama, Taye, and DDrum drums, and Stagg and Zildjian cymbals. Line 6, Mesa Boogie, Roland, and Stagg amps are usually on the floor, and Gold Tone and Johnson instruments are found on their walls.
A key component to their success is their Rock U events, which bring out up to 600 people, and is held at a big local nightclub. “We do three recitals a year, featuring 35 bands of players young and old,” Hix says. Most recently, they did one with a “British Invasion” theme doing a lot of Who, with some Kinks and Rolling Stones.
Meanwhile back at the shop, they aren’t being idle in these times. “We’ve instigated more staff meetings,” he tells. By April they already had 12 such meetings. These are spurring employees to get more involved: Committees are getting formed, additional promotions tried, and ideas to build off of Rock U are coming out, including encouraging an all girl blues band.
As for the economy, “nobody knows. State’s broke. There’s been a lot of wasteful spending and graft. The pension fund for state workers is in bad shape. I just have to stay focused on what we do well.”
Steinway of Chicago Strengthens Operation, Sets Sites on Institutional Business
Steinway of Chicago is a division of Jordan Kitt’s Music, and the Windy City’s operation dates back to 1950. That was year it was awarded an Allen Organ franchise, and is today the oldest Allen Organ dealer in the world. The Steinway & Sons dealership was awarded in 1988, and 20 years later, Jordan Kitt’s Music bought it. Today they serve the Chicago area with two stores.
Executive vice president Chris Syllaba has been with Jordan Kitt’s since 1984, and moved to the Chicago area in 2008. “The area was underserved,” he says. “The sales, operation, and service staff was phenomenal, and we added three additional people to strengthen the organization.”
The continuing challenge though is Chicago’s geography – in theory they could have another eight storefronts to cover the area. Obviously, that’s not feasible, though Syllaba adds that they’d love to add a third store some day.
The Chicago store’s doing well, in part because of institutional sales. “We were able to increase it dramatically,” Syllaba says. Not that it happened overnight, and much of their work of the past couple of years is just now coming to fruition. Lee Maloney handles both institutional sales for pianos and Allen organs, and Ralph Cox was brought on to just focus on pianos.
In addition to the Steinway products, they also carry Cristofori and Roland products.
“I think one of the things we’ve done differently is we haven’t stopped the promotion machine,” he says. “We’re still doing a lot of outside promotions, and still spending a lot of money on advertising.” They also do a lot of “personal things” like piano buying seminars and free recitals featuring regional and national artist. “Last year we brought the Five Browns and that drove 500 people into the store. It was a phenomenal event.” Another event featured jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis and a visit by Steinway president Ron Losby.
“Since the beginning of this year, the high end market has started perking up,” he says. “The low end has stayed pretty good, with digital and vertical sales up. What has suffered is the middle price point, and that’s still challenging to a certain degree today.” He thinks that will return when home sales do.
“But the luxury market is starting to break open again.”
The Drum Pad Celebrates 25th Anniversary
“Business is getting better,” reports Jim Streich. “Hopefully it can’t get any worse. It’s been a struggle.”
About 26 years ago, Streich was a “just a teacher” for another store in the area, and was inspired to open his own teaching studio. With a little extra money, he started buying a few sticks and heads and slowly kept putting money into his operation. A quarter of a century later, the 7,500 square foot operation resides in a strip mall in Palatine’s downtown. In addition to Streich, there are three full time people, two part timers, and six teachers. They tutor 150 drum students a week and are open seven days a week.
There’s a lot of selection found here: Ludwig, Sonar, Yamaha, Pearl, Zildjian, Paiste, Grestch, DW, Premier, Tama, ddrum, and Meinl products. “We also carry things from some boutique manufacturers, like GMS, Brady, Trick… Porkpie is really popular now.” Electronic drum kits include Roland and Yamaha.
The hand drum products he carries include LP and Toca, but that market is “a little more than flat” right now. “We had a good run with that for a number of years, and now it’s different.”
Despite the selection of high-end kits, he says like many drum sellers, currently the action seems to be at the $1,000 price point.
Streich chooses not to do a lot of school business as the public school bidding process usually tilts toward the well-established band and orchestra retailers. “It’s hard to go up against that, plus the directors are all looking for rebates, and I’m not in the mood to just give stuff away.” That said he’s earned the respect of some discriminating band directors who depend on the Drum Pad for quality help with their percussion needs.
He says he benefits from Chicago’s good live music scene, and has built good relations with the drummers around town. This is helped by their sponsoring events featuring drummers like Simon Phillips (Jeff Beck, Toto, Pete Townshend, Stanley Clarke, et cetera). “Normally you can only see an artist like that in a club, but when someone like Simon come through and want to do something with us, and that’s kinda cool.
“I really believe in clinics, but we’ve been getting less support from the manufacturers so we’ve had to cut back a little,” he says. “I have seen attendance drop a little for them over the last few years,” but they may have saturated the market with them. “Maybe people got lackadaisical about them. They are hard to keep up.”
Family Piano Company: “A Happy Place to Be”
“We wanted to accomplish a couple of things,” says Alice Alviani of opening Family Piano with Mark MacLeod in 2006. “Our backbone has been in refurbishing, but we also wanted a recital area.” Add to that some used pianos they can finance, some new lines, teaching studios, a coffee house, and some “happy yellow” paint on the wall, and you’ve an uncommon operation. “We felt it was an underserved community,” she says of the North Chicago area. “It’s less affluent.”
Alviani has been a technician/tuner for 16 years, and MacLeod for 27, with her experience being primarily individuals and his institutional (he was formerly with Steinway of Chicago). They stated off small, but after their first NAMM visit in 2007, they came home and expanded to 3,600 square feet.
“We opened a coffee shop with free Wi-Fi, an idea we got from NAMM where we saw [Beacock's Music's] Gayle Beacock speak. It’s brimming with activity all the time with people coming in for coffee and be with friends. It’s made the store a happy place to be.”
MacLeod adds that the coffee house is a good marketing tool. “We’re the only coffee house on the planet where you can sit with two concerts grand’s that cost a half a million dollars! And it’s the best way to close a sale. You show off a piano, you sit down for a cup of coffee, ‘St. Louis Blues’ is playing in the background, and you make sale.”
“When we go to the NAMM show, we try to play everything, and we really like our Perzina and Hailun for the medium market, Sauter for high end, and then Falcone for entry level,” she says. “They aren’t the most well-known brand, but we find the ‘little’ guys have the most pride in their product and turn out a better product for the price.”
“Aside from product, Chris Vance of Piano Empire [Perzina] is the most honest guy in pianos,” Macloed says. “He never gives a bad deal.” He adds that the people at Hailun and Sauter are also outstanding to deal with. “Casilias Strnek, marketing director of Sauter, has provided us with a nine-foot instrument for a local university,” he says. “Now the Sauter is their primary choice for performances.”
Recently Family Piano started branching out into the band and orchestra rental business. Yet every move with these two seems personal: “When a kid from this neighborhood gets that shiny ‘new’ sax, it’s really special,” Alviani says. “We have a lot of two hanky moments going on around here.” They work with Veritas Instrument Rentals out of Florida, who are “really passionate musicians, and have top notch instruments.” The advantage is any additional instrument is just a day or two away. “You don’t have to tell a little girl who came in for a clarinet that you’re out and she has to play the flute.”
Marketing-wise, they also reach out to schools, scout troupes, etc., to make their place available for field trips, which they get regularly. They also spend money on advertising – from $20 PTO newsletter ads, SEO companies that get their Web site ranked high, to humorous radio ads.
“I think the unconventional is a successful business model today,” MacLeod says. “When the Sauter people were here, they took us out to dinner and said we’re the wave of the future: technicians selling pianos. Other sales people could be selling pianos one day, waterbeds the next.”