Back to the Instrument Repair Business
In Part 4 , I talked about my initial job learning musical instrument repair trade and why I left that job. I came back, but under a much better pay scale. This time, I was paid just like all the other technicians and I felt like I could make a go at it. By this time, my former mentor had moved on to bigger and better things so I was the brass repairman. I enjoyed the work and I did it well.
I am not only a “fixer”, I am a “learner”. Doing the same thing over and over bores me, so I asked about learning woodwind repair. Unfortunately, this didn’t fit with the plans of my boss. He felt that they were well covered with woodwind technicians and he wanted me to concentrate on the brass. I didn’t want to switch jobs, just to learn. About this time, I began to get the itch to branch out and start my own business. I wanted to have the freedom to do the kind of work that I wanted to do.
A music shop in Dallas, Texas had gone out of business and was selling all of their equipment and supplies. I approached my dad and we entered into a business partnership in which he would supply the startup money and I would make the business go. He was a silent partner and I was the managing partner. My friend, Mark S and I flew to Texas, picked up a big rental truck, loaded it with all the stuff and headed for Charleston, SC. That was a fun trip. Long… very long, but fun.
To see my portfolio from Anderson’s music, click here. I setup Anderson’s Music in Ladson, SC doing everything myself (brass and woodwinds). The technician at Fox Music, Gene, and I were friends (even though they were my biggest competitor). Gene came out to visit fairly often and offer his encouragment. One time he brought a mellophone bell that was smashed flat by a bus. They had already ordered a new bell for it, and he jokingly asked me to fix it. However, to his surprise, I asked him to let me fix it. I knew I could do it, and this would give me some great before and after shots for my portfolio.
He left the bell with me and I proceded to fix it. After I finished it, I invited him back out to see it. He was amazed at how well it came out. Soon after that, he called me and wanted to know what I would charge for that repair. It seems that he needed to use that bell after all because the manufacturer sent the wrong part! I was excited that I got some great photos AND I got paid for the work too!
Being in business brought its own challenges. Doing excellent work was not a problem. Getting enough work to pay the bills was. I was Anderson’s Music; the salesman, the technician, the delivery person, the bookkeeper… everything. If there’s any one lesson that I took away from going into business, it would be that it takes more than being good at your craft to make a business work. Although I was a very good technician, I had no idea how to run a business. I was not bringing in enough repair work to keep the doors open. If it had not been for my dad shoveling money into the business and Jeanie working as a nurse, we would have gone under a lot sooner. After a few months, I realized that the best course for me was to get out while I still could.
I approached the folks at Fox Music about buying my equipment and supplies so I could just walk away from it all. (Secretly, I wished I could work for them. In my mind, they had everything that I was lacking: They were well established. They had plenty of work. I do the repair work that I loved without responsibility of finding it and billing for it). I was happy when they agreed to buy all of my stuff, but I was absolutely elated when they asked me to come to work for them! In fact that was a condition of their buying all the equipment and supplies. They wanted me as badly as I wanted them! I happily accepted their offer.
The Fox Music Years
I knew that I would enjoy being workmates with Gene, but I had no idea what a great friend he would be. We worked side by side every day for over five years and we talked about anything and everything. Although he was Catholic and I was Protestant, we had a bond in the Christ that was very real. I don’t know anyone who loves Jesus more than he. This photo was taken a couple of weeks ago when Gene joined my family for Veteran’s Day concert at CSU where Danae is the principle flautist. It was great to catch up with him. I miss him terribly.
Fox Music was very good to me, and I was very good to them. I had lots of ideas that I had thought of while I was in business, but didn’t have the resources to make them happen. At Fox, I was able to try them out (and some of them were quite successful). One of my ideas was to go into the band classes to do free inspections and estimates on the instruments. This was good for the parents (saved them a trip to the music store), it was good for our relationship with the band directors (created a sense of partnership) and ultimately good for Fox Music and me.
Although I could make more money doing the routine work, I found that to be boring. My favorite jobs were the challenges. Something that I had never done before, or rarely got to do. These didn’t pay as well because I was slower at them and could not charge the customer enough for the time I had in them. One of my very favorite stories is when I opened an old case to find an Albert System clarinet (an old, obsolete style of clarinet). My first thought was that someone has found it in their attic and wants fix it up for their child to learn on, which would be a grave mistake. Giving a child this clarinet would have handicapped them considerably. The right thing to do would be to talk them out of the repair (But I really wanted to work on it. I knew it was a rare opportunity). When I called the customer, an elderly lady answered the phone. When I asked what she planned to do with the instrument, I was so happy to hear her answer. It seems that she was the original owner and she understood just what she had. She knew that it was an obsolete system, but she wanted to get it fixed so she could play in the community band again! What a pleasure it was to work on that instrument! I am sure I didn’t charge her enough, but the experience was well worth it for me. It was the only Albert System clarinet I ever saw!
Once, a old beatup Tuba came in with the bell crunched and crinkled. It was full of cracks and holes that needed to be patched. Patching a brass instrument involves cutting a piece of brass a little larger than the hole, forming it to the shape of the instrument where the hole is and soldering it in place. This tuba was special because it had a lot of holes in the bell where the patches would be seen by everyone. So I got creative, I cut the patches in crescent moon shape and star shapes. Even though it was more work, it was worth it. That may be the only tuba in the world with the moon and stars in the bell.
A wise man told me that I would never get rich at this business and I was beginning to see the truth in that. The girls were getting older and supporting them wasn’t getting any cheaper. I soon realized that I needed to go back to school and get a skill that paid better than what I was doing. More about the transition from instrument repair to IT next time.
Workin’ for the Man Series