Chuck Surack of Sweetwater Sound: 2018 Recipient of MMR’s Annual Don Johnson Industry Service Award

Christian Wissmuller • Issue ArticlesJanuary 2018 • January 29, 2018

Chuck Surack is, of course, best known as the founder of Sweetwater Sound (although he’s involved in a number of other business ventures, as well), but he’s every bit as notable for his philanthropic efforts.

While he and his wife, Lisa, don’t limit their generosity only to music-related organizations and causes (more than 600 nonprofit organizations are supported by the Suracks, annually), their contributions in that area are nearly unmatched.

The Voices of Unity Youth Choir, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, Arts United of Fort Wayne, and the Fort Wayne Philanthropic Orchestra are just a handful of the groups that benefit from Chuck and Lisa’s magnanimity.

The goal and spirit of the Don Johnson Award are well expressed on the trophy, itself: “In Recognition and Appreciation for Outstanding Advocacy and Support for Music Education at the Community and National Level.” In other words, we look to honor folks in our industry who go beyond simply running a good and successful retail or MI supplier business, but who care passionately about the culture of music-making and how it benefits individuals, families, and communities – basically, good men and women from all corners of MI who embody the best attributes of our industry. Chuck Surack is unquestionably one of those individuals.

MMR is proud to present Chuck with the 10th annual Don Johnson Industry Service Award. He joins a truly elite group of MI industry heavy-hitters whose dedication to the advancement of, and advocacy for, music education has helped keep the culture we all treasure alive and progressing.

Congratulations to Mr. Surack for an honor richly deserved.

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Chuck about his life as a musician, engineer, entrepreneur, family man, and philanthropist….

Okay so let’s just dive right in. You know, let’s start at the beginning. Can you talk a little bit about your own background in music? When did you first start playing? When you first started taking lessons? What was your first instrument that you started playing? Who were the some of the kind of early mentors that really nurtured your interest?

Y’know, I never took a lesson – I tried [laughs]. But I started in Fifth Grade playing saxophone. And I wanted to play trombone, but my dad was a frustrated accordion player and I don’t know if he was trying to live vicariously through me or what. He said, “Oh, no. You don’t want to play trombone – you never get the solos! You want to play saxophone.” So my dad basically made me play saxophone and bought me a tenor sax in a pawnshop in Columbus, Ohio.

You say you never had any lessons, not even at school?

Well, at school with the band director, yes, but never private lessons I guess I should say. I was so excited to play saxophone, too, with my teacher in Southern Ohio where I was born. I said, “Listen to this!” and he looked at me and I played some awful note. He looked at me an he says, “You have the mouthpiece on upside down…” So I started with the mouthpiece upside down, but played all the way through high school. In seventh grade my family moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana and in eighth grade I had a very, very inspirational teacher. He was the principal tuba player in our orchestra for nearly 50 years. He just retired last year. But he also played upright bass and trombone – low brass stuff – and what really inspired me was walking in a classroom one day and he said, “What is this instrument playing?” and I said, “Well, clearly its trumpet” and he said “No.”

I explained that I knew what a trumpet sounds like, yes, that’s a trumpet and we went round and round and he eventually showed me that it was actually him playing a trombone into a reel to reel tape recorder and he sped the recorder up and played it back twice as fast. And when it played back twice as fast it also jumped up an octave. Because he was a low brass, guy he was able to play trombone, but he couldn’t play trumpet, necessarily. And so he got me into the whole music and technology sort of thing and he was just a very good teacher. He played a lot of pizza places and things you could get into as a kid. His name is Sam Gnagey.

Very cool. Now you’re still, as I understand, an active performer. What is it about playing music that means so much and still resonates with you still to this day?

Well you know it’s my root, that’s how I started, and I do enjoy playing music. I play several times a month. I play in two different bands. One’s a little trio with a lot of technology and the other is a nine-piece rhythm and blues band with some just absolutely amazing superstar players who all happen to work in Fort Wayne – now in Sweetwater, but we brought them in from all over the country.

Music is just a great relief from my day job and its really why I got into everything, so it’s just its fun to be able to connect with the other players, it’s fun to be able to connect with the audience and share and play what’s really on your mind and on your heart.

What was the initial catalyst behind starting Sweetwater and how did things get to where they are today?

Right! Immediately after high school I took the year off thinking that I was going to come back and go to medical school or music school. I wasn’t sure which, but I wanted to be a pediatrician, a children’s doctor, as much as I wanted to do music. And so I went away thinking I would, you know, play for a year and come back. Well, I loved playing on the road so much that I didn’t come back for several years, actually. And when I came back I came back with my literally very beat-up old VW bus that my parents had given me – the only thing they gave me, frankly.

My mom had wrecked it, so I filled it in with two gallons of Bondo and I painted it with 99 -cent cans of K-mart blue spray paint. And I put two tractor-supply headlights on the front – like big fog lights, you know?

This needs to be a movie.

Yeah, exactly [laughs]. And I would take that VW bus after being on the road with it and on the road I always taught myself all the newest technologies. Back then, a lot of recording didn’t happen in a recording studios, it happened in radio stations. And so I always was the guy who knew how to run the mixer from the side of the stage. I could run the equipment in the radio stations and when I came home I’d gather a few, very modest pieces of recording equipment, but I would take my little four-track, reel-to-reel recorder, throw it in the VW bus, and I would go to the local school or nightclub or church whatever it was and I would mic the band or the choir or the speaker or preacher whatever it was and I would record them in the VW bus. And then I would take those recordings out of the VW and take them to the living room of my very modest 12’ by 60’ mobile home, then edit them and put reverb on, and make them sound better. And my goal always was to add value to try and make the music better than it even was, or make the artist sound better than they really were, and that’s the part that I’ve always loved and, to this day, we try and add value to everything we do. And that’s probably one of biggest Sweetwater differences; we don’t just sell the same product that all of our competitors do. We find ways to add value to it, either with technical support or with additional sounds with the keyboard or tools to set it up, and all those sort of things.

After having the mobile recording in my VW bus and working in the living room of my mobile home, eventually around 1979-1980 I bought my first little 1,000 square-foot house on the west side of Fort Wayne and I built a recording studio there I was mainly still a studio. But what really changed my business was, in 1984 I was invited by a friend of mine here in town that had a music store to go to Chicago to see a big show. I got to see a prototype of the Kurzweil K250. And, frankly, I was going back and forth between that and the Yamaha DX1, trying to figure out which big synthesizer I wanted to put in my studio and when I saw the Kurzweil K250 I thought, “Wow, that would replace my grand piano, plus provide 39 other sounds.”  And so I bought a very, very early one and when they came out the next year, I reversed engineered it. I had to teach myself electronics, computer stuff, and so I’d already been working on mixing consoles and amplifiers and that sort of thing, and it wasn’t a stretch for me to start digging into this Kurzweil to figure out how it works.

So I reversed engineered it and eventually designed my own set of sounds that were going in and my own computer software and I kind of became “the guy” around the country, around the world, that knew the K-250 pretty well. And I became friends with folks like Stevie Wonder and Kenny Rogers and all their band members, and Dolly Parton and anybody that could afford an instrument like this back in the mid-‘80s. And, next thing, my friends were asking me to help them put the latest sounds on their machines or send them my sounds because, having a recording studio, I recorded a lot of my own stuff.

And I remember when I started selling them additional machines, I sold them parts first. I became a parts dealer and then I sold them additional machines and by this point I’m going, man! $20,000 for a Kurzweil back in those days – why would you buy a second one? Well, famous musicians were putting them in their green rooms and on their buses and their lake homes and all of that. And it got to the point where Kenny Rogers had like 14 of these K250s on the road and Michael Kamen, the very famous composer, who died a few years ago had, like, 30 of the machines, and Paul Shaffer – until he went off the air a few years ago – was still playing a Kurzweil K250 on the air every night with David Letterman.

And I became the guy that knew the machine well and the next thing you know my friends are calling me back going, “You helped me with the Kurzweil, but I understand now there is music software that you can run on the computer.” I said, “I know how to do that because I’m already doing that in my studio.” So I started selling them software for their computers and then they wanted recording equipment and by the very late ‘80s my business had changed from being just a recording studio to helping my friends with recording equipment to being relatively famous all over the country and all that sort of thing. In 1990 I moved into my very first 5,000 square foot commercial building with five employees that who been coming and going all hours of the day out of my home before that. In ’91 we added another 5,000 square feet on and 20 more employees and we were in that location for the next 17 years.

That’s really impressive when you think about it – how this relatively brief this span of time, since that first commercial building lease in 1990-91 to get where you are now… I mean, wow! Well done.

Thank you. I feel very fortunate, very blessed. We moved out of that building on Bass Road only because we ran out of land in 2006. We moved over to our current building and we had 200 employees. You fast forward to today, 11 years later, and we have now 1,300 employees in our building and we continue to grow 20 to 25 percent a year. And in less than four years it feels kind of like we’ve doubled in size and we’re kind of doing that still… it’s crazy! But it’s all founded, it really is all founded on just honest-to-goodness customer service skills, treating people the way they want to be treated. I grew up as a Boy Scout and Boy Scouts are not real popular today, but a Boy Scout’s oath is that a scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. Those are amazing principles to live by, professionally. I think they’re also basic principles to live by, personally, and that’s how we operate our business. I teach all the employees to always, always do the right thing for the customer.

Don’t worry about whether we’re making money today or tomorrow – just do the right thing for the customer and ultimately the money takes care of itself.

I’ve got to interject here that I purchased a guitar from Sweetwater – a Joan Jett signature Melody Maker – back in 2007 and it always catches me off guard that my Sweetwater sales rep still calls every few months to see how I’m doing with that purchase and is there anything else I might have questions about, or other gear needs.

The goal is that we call every customer, depending on their interests and buying patterns. Some we call everyday, some every week, some every month – at least twice a year – that’s the goal. We just want to stay in touch and if we can help in any way that’s great. Everybody is always talking about how the way to compete is to provide customer service and everybody is aware of that, conceptually, but I don’t really see as many people actually enacting that so much. There are way more people who pay lip service to that philosophy.

Very few organizations actually embrace that stance and actually do it, so hats off to you guys.

Thank you. We would actually follow through and implement it. It’s a whole another thing and, you know, we can spend hours talking about what we do to truly provide customer service. There are probably 30 people that are doing technical support right now. “How do I use my Apple computer with pre-sold software in this particular set-up?” And we don’t charge anything for that – it’s completely free. None, zero, none of my competitors offers that. You know, maybe the sales guys will help do some tech support, but I know for a fact many of the retailers simply say, “Call the manufacturer.” You can’t call Apple and ask them how to use PreSonus software.

Try calling Microsoft and ask them something about music and stuff. You know it just isn’t going to happen. We provide that type of service completely, 100 percent free and it’s just a value that we offer and its back to trying to always add value to everything we do.

There’s a clear culture around Sweetwater and their customers, and there’s a reason why people go back and there’s a reason why you guys have had this sort of explosive growth.

Absolutely. We fit a real neat niche. I don’t mean this to be in any way derogatory to other dealers. There’s 8,000 other music stores across the country and a lot of them do a phenomenal job and are working really hard, but it’s no secret that many of the bigger ones today have minimum-wage employees or close to minimum-wage employees who are kind of there to like… you know, they’re playing a gig or something like that. And you have Amazon at the other end [of the spectrum] who does a really good job at overnight or same-day or two-hour delivery – or soon to be drone delivery – but you don’t call Amazon and talk to a human being and ask them again how to use an Apple computer with PreSonus software or ‘What do you recommend I buy?” And so we fit neatly between the traditional, old music store who doesn’t have the inventory today, doesn’t have necessarily the expertise, and Amazon who has great delivery systems, but don’t have the personal expertise you need. That’s one of the reasons we’re growing is we fit neatly between those two. And so, as long as we’re honest to our customers and offer true integrity and of value to them, we think our business is going to be strong for a long time.

Well, not to over simplify it, but just the notion that it really just comes down to customer service and providing the person you’re trying to connect with the sort of respect that is meaningful to them and makes them repeat customers is key.

And that you have to run the business in a modern, professional sort of way. As an example,  one of the companies that I own is called Mynett Music. It started in 1933 and they sell band instruments. That’s something we didn’t do at Sweetwater.

In fact, I don’t know if we ever will or won’t. I’m not sure about that, but they were good local stores, they called on all the high schools and middle schools, and had the road reps and all that. I’d taken my saxophone to them for 49 years through the original founder and then the son of the founder and then even just another technician that have all done phenomenal work on the horn, so I’ve always gone there for that kind of stuff. And the current owner had gotten really sick and I said, “Well, I hate to see your business go away because I think it’s important for the school systems and for local musicians,” so we acquired it. When I acquired it he didn’t have a point of sale system, everything was a hand-written invoice.

Inventory control was three-by-five cards, which would fall out of instruments as you picked them up off the shelf. You can imagine what the rest of the place was like. So we went in and we did put an inventory control system in and a point of sale system in and we cleaned the stores and painted the bathrooms and put nice new signs up and put the employees in a better position – improving their health insurance and did all kinds of things that a modern business really needs to do. But it’s been going since 1933. It’s kind of operating the business the same way. So it’s that kind of stuff.

Let’s now talk a little bit about yourself and your wife Lisa and your philanthropy. Your spirit giving is near legendary at this point. Why is this important to you both to give back to the community, to the area, to the country?

As I told you, my mom and dad gave me a beat-up, wrecked VW bus. My mom had wrecked the front of it and she blew the engine up so I learned how to rebuild engines and I rebuilt the engine. I mean, I was given enough. I can’t tell you I lived completely poor. My dad was an engineer, but it was a normal, middle wage sort of family and we didn’t have much. Lisa’s dad was a plumber and her parents divorced early and we both had nothing and we were able to build this ourselves without help from family. I can’t we haven’t had help from friends and very loyal customers and great employees and all those sorts of things, but we feel incredibly, incredibly fortunate, incredibly blessed and we just we know we can’t take it with us and we know we’re in a position today to help others. We love that we can help others, whether it’s our own employees or the other 600 non-profit organizations that we support around here and across the country.

It just feels like a personal responsibility. We want to do it and hopefully we’re trying to encourage others to want to do the same. I mean, how sad would it be to go through life and die with a bunch of money and you didn’t help others that you know are in need? And there are people that are still truly suffering.

Again, we are all human, we do make mistakes, but we try and do the right thing and if we make a mistake we say we’re sorry and we make amends and move on correctly.

We’re talking about the generosity of you and your family and your wife, in general, but specifically, you guys support music and the arts quite extensively.Why do you believe music education, music advocacy is important to our society?

There are two things that we support really aggressively and that is one: music and music advocacy. The other thing is we’re very involved in a human welfare sort of way is… We live in a country that’s considered by many to be “the best country in the world,” but people are still living homeless or still hungry or still have medical needs and issues so that’s an area of great importance to me.

The fact is, you can’t do everything for everyone. For example, we help do a lot with sports and I have nothing against sports – I think sports are great – I just don’t have enough money to support everything, so we draw a line there unless, you know. If it’s our employees’ kids that are in little league, we support all those.

But if it’s just an adult hockey league, I’ll tend to say no, unless that adult hockey league is raising money to help homeless people or something else of the sort. And so that’s the only place we draw the line. Otherwise almost everything else… if there’s individual person with a cancer story or a heart attack story or something like that, we’ll try and even help there at a personal level if we can. We’ve just have been incredibly blessed.

Back to music programs, I know what the music programs did for me, personally, and it’s pretty easy to connect the dots today. There have been so many studies done about how learning to play an instrument does all these things – not only was helping you with education and math scores and all those sorts of things – but listening to yourself and working on getting better at critiquing yourself, which is a great skill to have. Being in an ensemble, whether it’s a band or a rock band or concert band or an orchestra, listening to others around you and knowing how to play softer when it’s their solo time or how to play louder when it’s yours…

These are all great things and great skills, whether you play music for the rest of your life or not. You’ll clearly be a better artist or be able to appreciate the arts, but I would argue that those skills you learn as a musician, whether being in an ensemble and listening to others and getting along or developing great skills, benefit you in a church meeting or a being in a club or in your neighborhood association. If we had more musicians down in Washington D.C., things would probably be a little bit better.

There are also all kinds of physical and medical benefits that happen through playing an instrument and I use this fact. There are things going on with the brain that we can’t even begin to understand today and I can tell you, personally, that I can have a cold, I can have an upset stomach, I can feel bad and, believe it or not, I play the saxophone for a little bit and all of a sudden those symptoms are all gone and something has shifted in my brain and I’m in much better shape after I played just for a little bit. I think arts is just as important as the other subjects and skills that we’re teaching our kids today.

Absolutely agreed. You and your wife have received many acknowledgements, awards, and accolades for all your charitable efforts. Do any of those many stand out as being particularly meaningful and, if so, why?

Well I don’t want to be under-appreciative of this award and all of the others.

No, totally understood.

We are really humble, down to earth people and I’m embarrassed to get awards. I’d like quite often to say, “No I don’t want the award.”

The only reason we even accept the awards is we just hope that it would encourage others. There are no specific awards, but there have been some highlights. We’ve made donations to our local Easterseals Arc [of Northeast Indiana] several years ago put a whole music room into the facility. And I heard later that one of the clients of Easterseals Arc had never spoken and the staff didn’t even know if he could speak. And they walked in one day and he’s playing the drum set we donated and he’s singing words to songs.

Wow, that’s powerful stuff. Since the bulk of MMR’s readership are MI retailers, like yourself, are there any observations or advice that you would want to share with your colleagues in the world of musical instrument retail?

It’s actually really simple. Just do the right stuff. You already hit it right on the head. People can say “customer service,” but you can really do it. You kind of put as much energy and effort into that as into figuring out which guitar to order or which piano to stock. And, you know, I have a person here who is dedicated just to customer service at a vice president level. Back to the advocacy thing: I think as an industry – and we’re getting better at it and, clearly, awards like this help – we have a responsibility and I think we’ve been a little lax, historically. Maybe that’s because our industry as professional as some other industries for a long time.

If you look at the automobile industry, they’re putting millions and millions of dollars into not only local communities, but into growing tomorrow’s dealers and into all kinds of things to help the community because they know if their community’s not healthy they’re not going to sell more cars. It’s that simple. I think, as music dealers, we do have a responsibility to grow and educate tomorrow’s musicians, not necessarily to fill our pocketbooks at the stores, but to make better human beings. And, actually, I was asked to be on the inaugural NAMM Foundation board with four or five other really great people and we’re going to try and communicate to the music industry how it’s important to put money into this foundation so we can do more things to get more people playing music. I guess that is one thing I would say: actively support the NAMM Foundation. There’s just no downside to it. There’s just all kinds of upside. I think about the conflicts going around the world and if everyone played a little more music – whether there were musicians that were involved – I just think they would negotiate better, get along better, they’d find more peaceful ways to resolve things.

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