Not so Down-On-The-Bayou: Zeagler’s Music
“Ever since I can remember I was surrounded with some sort of music,” Grayson Zeagler recalls. “My grandmother and then my mother were piano teachers.” His mother tells him that as a youngster he frequently “marched” around the back yard with the old marching snare drum … for hours.
Zeagler is still marching for what he admits is a modest retail operation by “big city” standards. Zeagler Music is a full line operation located in northeastern Louisiana’s bayou country, between Shreveport and Jackson, Miss., and has become an important part of the fabric of this part of the state where the per capita income is lower then it is in most parts of the country.
There Grayson’s advocacy for music making and just old fashioned business smarts has made him a pillar of the industry, and a leader who others can learn from. He’s currently finishing up his term as president of the National Association of School Music Dealers (NASMD), and has served on several other industry boards. It’s all earned him respect from his peers. “I enjoy working with Grayson because he is a good team leader,” says colleague and fellow NASMD board member George Quinlan Jr. of Quinlan & Fabish Music. “He delegates tasks to board members that use their skills and strengths. This year’s convention was very well received by retailers and sponsors under his leadership.”
He’s leading by example, too: An active music maker, he plays trumpet in the local community band, conducts, and sings in a Barber Shop Quartet.
“Yamaha is proud to have Grayson Zeagler and Zeagler Music as part of our retail family,” says Yamaha’s Jay Schreiber. “They’re a great example of how a well-run, service oriented retailer can benefit their community, employees, and suppliers. We’re especially proud of Grayson’s commitment to music education through his work as president of NASMD.”
Yamaha’s Roger Eaton adds: “Zeagler Music’s family oriented style and community focus is a great example of best practices for music retailers. We’re happy to be a part of that success, and to help Zeagler Music continue their passionate support of their community and schools.”
“My brother Fred and my mother Dorothy opened the business in 1968, with my dad Everett, working part time till around 1995 or so when he was there full time,” Zeagler says. “All of my older brothers and sisters played in the band and I think we were all members of the church choir and some of us even directed.” Officially he started on trumpet in fifth grade, which he still plays today in his local community band.
Out of high school Grayson attended Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe majoring in music. During that time he had the “teachable moment” of getting a part time position as a school band teacher. It taught him that maybe he was better cut out for business. Three years into his degree, Zeagler Music’s band sales rep quit, and he took over calling on schools.
Brother Fred today owns the Baton Rouge store and, while they are separate corporations, they are friendly, and frequently buy together and swap inventory: “In 1976 Fred moved to Baton Rouge where he opened a small location and hit the road calling on schools.”
In 1997 they opened a New Orleans area store and were doing well right up until 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated the facility. “As you can imagine, with five feet of water in the store not much could be salvaged,” he says. Even when the water receded, authorities would not let them near the area. “If you know the south, you know there are 90-100 degree temperatures and loads of humidity. That grows mold and mildew.” To add to their woes, their insurance company informed them that they were going to cancel the policy if it was reopened. Meanwhile, their customers had disappeared. “Half the city had not returned after eight months still.”
Today the Monroe store has eleven employees five of whom are family, including his wife Kristina and son Daniel. They have two other children, Phillip and Maria.
They operate in a 10,000 square foot building on one of the main streets of Monroe. “We are full line operation with a good sales mix of all departments. I try to concentrate our effort on repeat customers and compete with Internet businesses.” He says school business is not as big as it once was. “Some declines are due to budgets but some are due to band boosters not raising as much money too.”
They deal with a diverse customer base: “We have every kind of customer including the pierced face heavy metal crowd coming in for that grunge sounding pedal, the blue haired ladies from the church committee to look at the digital piano, and of course the band students, weekend players, and knuckle draggers (drummers).”
MMR: Tell us about what lines are doing well for you.
Grayson Zeagler: The Allegro line from Yamaha is doing fairly well lately. I am having some trouble selling step-up clarinets for some reason. Yamaha and Cannonball saxophones are doing okay.
We have very few orchestra programs in the area, but I still sell a few to fiddler wanna-be’s. Bluegrass is fairly common in this area so we sell a few banjos, mandolins, and fiddles. For those we carry Alvarez, Fender, and Kentucky brands.
MMR: Is it safe to guess you do well with guitars?
GZ: Our acoustic sales have risen a bit, with accessories about the same. For acoustics we sell Martin, Alvarez, Fender, and Ovation; for electric it’s Fender, Yamaha, and Peavey.
We always sell the inexpensive guitar packages, but the high end seems to be hit and miss. We will have a strong week and sell four or five high-end guitars, then will not sell one for two weeks. I think the mix of brands is very important. I always have trouble with the second brand, not the first. For example we sell large number of Fender guitars, but I am always looking for that second brand to sell as well or close to that one. That is hard to find.
MMR: Is the piano market doing okay in your neck of the woods?
GZ: Recently we have seen a surge in piano sales – go figure!!! It’s always a guessing game with some of these products.
Pianos account for about 20 percent of sales and when it’s good it sure helps the cash flow. The brands we carry are Kawai, Yamaha, and Pearl River. Ron Payne is our piano salesman and he does a real good job.
MMR: How about drums?
GZ: We just hired a young gentleman that is a “knuckle-dragger,” [laughs] and he has really put some excitement in the percussion department. I have missed many sales in that department since the last percussionist was here. I now look forward to going into the drum department because everything actually has a place and is properly marked. What a concept!
MMR: Tell us more about the staff.
GZ: Employees are your most important assets. They are on the front lines everyday talking to your customers, and then the customers go out into the world telling everyone what kind of experience they had at your store. You better have a good relationship with your employees. I say this fairly often, but now I have the best staff I have ever had.
We have a manager that is gung-ho and can’t wait to see what will work this time, a piano salesman that could sell ice to Eskimos, a guitar salesman (my son Daniel) that will move half the store around to make a display look “killer” then sell the item and start all over…
I don’t want to forget the sheet music and accompaniment CD department where anyone can find anything because of my wife Kristina. The repair department that can fix anything, and my most versatile person in the store is my band guy, Joey Culpepper, who knows everything there is in the store. What else could I want?
MMR: What are the challenges you’re facing today?
GZ: Our big issue right now is just no one coming in. Traffic is really slow. My newly hired manager, Rhonda Black, has a great mind for marketing and I am looking forward to working with her on some creative ideas to get people in. I think the Internet is a huge tool along with email marketing. We have the capability to do these things and I am sure that will be our first step.
MMR: Any solid plans now?
GZ: I want to do a monthly newsletter and then send out special monthly deals to those on our email list.
MMR: All retailers everywhere are struggling, but it’s easy to imagine that it’s even a little harder in a place like Monroe.
GZ: I have learned real recently that you can make money even if your sales are half what they once were. Is it more fun when sales are increasing? Absolutely! Was I happier then? Absolutely! Do I want those sales back? Absolutely!
I am watching inventory like a hawk. I spend more time now examining what we buy and how many. That is the key. My goal today is to see how much sales I can get with the smallest amount of inventory.
But the focus for me is to always get the most out of everyone that walks in the door. People do not go to music stores to just look. They play something and that is our opportunity; show them something new and fresh.
MMR: You’re still active making music …
GZ: I love to sing barbershop harmony, especially with my two sons, Daniel, my oldest who runs the combo department in the store, and Phillip, who is graduating from high school. The fourth member is my insurance agent, Ken Dorsey.
Our quartet is called “Ripchord.” My dad, Everett, sang with our chorus for years and always said, “Here I am with the only hobby that doesn’t require any kind of musical instrument other than a pitch pipe, and I own a music store!”
MMR: You get high marks for your work with the National Association of School Music Dealers.
GZ: The NASMD board has been one of the best things that ever happened to me. The friends I have made over the years and the contacts with manufacturers and suppliers are priceless. The convention planning is grueling, but the product always seems to be educational and energizing. The president may be in charge but it is all the work the vice president and board does that makes it all possible. You know they say “To be successful you surround yourself with successful people.” That is exactly what the NASMD board is, a group of successful people putting a fantastic convention together.
MMR: There’s always been an up-and-down in school budgets for school music, how important is NASMD?
GZ: NASMD has close ties with the Music Achievement Council and NAMM. Both have many ways that dealers can participate in music advocacy. NASMD is the organization of School Music Dealers who have these tools and the knowledge to increase the awareness of the importance of music education. Many of our dealers have just that at the forefront of their business model. Every convention of NASMD has many sessions to express the importance and how to get more kids playing music. It is that important.
MMR: From where you’re standing, what’s your take on where the industry is today?
GZ: I think the combo side of the industry is very strong but the band instrument side has some more things to work out. The guitars have already gone though the overseas markets coming into the states and we have seen the good and bad of that one.
MMR: Have manufacturers responded to the economic crisis?
GZ: The band instrument manufacturers I think are still struggling as to how to deal with it.
The dealers demand a premium product. Now there is product that may not be premium but it is pretty close for one-third the money.
MMR: Are you discouraged by all the school budget cuts looming?
GZ: I think we’re on the way back up. We had a couple of years of down, but it seems the good teachers are getting more kids involved. And there’s more advocacy explaining why music is so important. I believe it will keep getting stronger despite cuts.
MMR: What’s a career highlight for you?
GZ: Being named president of NASMD is a true honor, especially being from a place like Monroe, which isn’t huge. I’ve actually spent six years on the executive board.
MMR: What’s your outlook going forward?
GZ: I look forward to the next few years. I think in our area we have some good news coming with more manufacturing and hopefully that will mean more jobs. I think we all have had a few rough years, but we who have been in business for 40 plus years know that you can come out of it leaner and more profitable.