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Never Break the Chain: How Music & Arts Continues to Spread as One of the Country’s Largest MI Retailers

by Victoria Wasylak • in
  • Anniversary
• Created: June 14, 2017

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The great American chain is one of the most versatile parts of our culture, but adding music stores into the rapidly- evolving retail equation usually isn’t very common. Yet, Music & Arts – a company on the brink of turning 65 – has already accrued 150 stores across the United States (that’s about two new stores every year they’ve been open, for the record).

What Music & Arts isn’t about, however, is the never-ending chase for sales and expansion. As company president Steve Zapf says, “We are, at our heart, a music education company.”

This mantra reflects in their ongoing “Upgrade Your Sound” series, a nationwide tour of instruments for performers, students, and teachers to browse for free. Zapf answered some questions about the reaching the 150-store mark, trends in the MI industry, and what’s next for the still-growing company.

How did you come to be president of Music & Arts, and how did you initially get involved with the company?

Zapf: I was named president of Music & Arts and Woodwind & Brasswind in 2012. My appointment followed six years driving growth as an EVP with our parent company Guitar Center, first in sales & marketing at Musician’s Friend and then in multi-channel operations at Guitar Center. But my personal connection to the music business has lasted all my life. Indeed, my great-grandfather founded Musikhaus L. Zapf in Germany in 1918; ten years later he immigrated to America to join my grandfather, a master violin maker, and together they established Zapf’s Music in Philadelphia. In the 1960s my father joined the business and built a 20,000 square foot full line music store – the first of its kind in Philly. Then, in the 1990s my brother and I came along… we started in the stock room and worked our way up to become buyers, IT guys, managers, you name it. In 1999 Zapf’s Music would become the platform we used to launch our internet start-up, Music123, which peaked at $60 million in sales before we sold it to Woodwind & Brasswind. Certainly it was good preparation, but my connection with Music & Arts is, in fact, even more personal. In the year 2000, when my father was ready to retire, he contacted Music & Arts, believing that they were one of the only companies that had both the necessary experience and capital to acquire his business and pay a fair price. What was true then is still true today, and it is not only my privilege to be the steward of Music & Arts / Woodwind & Brasswind, but also of those many family companies like my father’s which we have acquired. Sometimes it is at the behest of a fine arts/band director, sometimes at the behest of retiring business owner, and sometimes simply because we perceive there to be a gap in the market which we can effectively serve. In all cases, we build growth into the our pro-forma for these new locations – and a lot of it – because we know that, as a music education company, we help train more and more new musicians every day.

Can you play any instruments? If so, which ones, and when did you start to learn?

I played piano and violin in grade school and later some guitar — but I’m not a particularly talented musician. I did sing with an a cappella group in college, the Duke’s Men of Yale. In truth, I think you could say that I’ve spent much of my life learning to play the business of music. My daughter, on the other hand, who turned 14 in May, plays the flute in wind ensemble, cello in all-state orchestra, and guitar, uke, and vocals in a band with four other young ladies. So, proud papa you could say.

With regards to your lessons, aside from the sheer number of students that Music & Arts teaches, what separates you from other dealers who also offer lessons?

Many of our instructors are university-trained musicians with extensive musical education and teaching experience. We hand-select them based on recommendations from the professional music community proximate to each store. Some of our instructors have won Grammy, Tony, or Emmy awards, and others have published books! In addition to this expertise and passion, every instructor must complete a thorough background check so we can ensure a safe environment for kids to learn.

What are the major brands that you carry?

We carry all major brands and many niche band and orchestral brands as well. The best place to search our brands is www. but, to name a few, some of our most well-known brands are Yamaha, Giardinelli, Buffet, and Bach for woodwind and brass instruments; Fender, Laurel Canyon and Yamaha guitars; Verve and Pearl drum sets; Strobel, Eastman, and Howard Core string instruments; D’Addario, Vandoren, Titan, and Jo-Ral accessories; and sheet music from Hal Leonard, Alfred, and Carl Fischer.

How many employees do you have now? How many did you have originally?

These days, we have about 1,500 people working for Music & Arts, but seasonally we peak closer to 2,000. Since 2012 when I joined, we’ve added nearly 50 stores and our ranks at our corporate headquarters in Frederick, Maryland, have grown to the point where all legal parking spots are gone before 8 am! Fortunately, we are moving into a new 50,000 square foot state-of-the-art office complex (with plenty of parking and collaborative work space) next month. The first Music & Arts store opened in a small house in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1952. Our founder Benjamin O’Brien sold printed music and art supplies, and offered music and dance lessons. It was just his family back then working the business.

What is the square footage of both locations? How has the business expanded (with regards to locations and brick and mortar stores) since it started?

A typical Music & Arts store ranges between 2,000-3,000 square feet and has six private lesson studios. We have been averaging about ten new stores per year, about half of which are organic stores and the other half acquisitions. We expect this to accelerate in the coming years and are actively looking for great family music businesses to join our team.

What are some trends that you have been noticing in the MI industry?

It’s not a new trend by any means, but omni-channel and e-commerce continue to shape the industry. To keep up, we’re streamlining distribution, sharing inventory across channels, interacting more directly with suppliers, drop-shipping, etc., all in an effort to reduce some of the inefficiency inherent in traditional retail store operations. This evolution has taken a toll on retailers in other industries where brick-and-mortar store closings are commonplace; as such, I’m especially proud of our growth in stores and in services during these times. I think we’re also seeing a renewed appreciation for the benefits of music education, thanks to the efforts of our fellow music store owners, NAMM, and new studies that link music with academic achievement.

What is the next big step for Music & Arts?

We’re finishing up a rather challenging year (and that is putting it mildly) in which we migrated from an old legacy ERP system to Microsoft Dynamics. There is no doubt that this conversion set us back in terms of our service promise to customers and our ability to grow. Finally, however, we are on the mend and ready to grow again. We have 10 organic stores and three acquisitions lined up for 2017, and are gearing up for much more to come in the next three to five years.



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