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Working for All of Washington: Ted Brown Music Remains an MI Stalwart of the Northwest

Victoria Wasylak • Band & OrchestraJune 2020 • June 1, 2020

President Whitney Brown Grisaffi and vice president Stephanie Brown Howe

If you ever try to explain the Washington state music scene, make sure to include Ted Brown Music in the mix. Amongst all the churches, youth groups, schools, bands – oh, plus that little gem called Seattle – the six-location music retailer is where many bands always return to in their time of need, literally.

“We’re not far from a large performance arena, so when a show comes to town and they need something, we are the place for them,” store president Whitney Brown Grisaffi shares with pride of their flagship Tacoma locale. “Outside of schools, we support the hobbyist musician as well as the pros. There is a thriving music scene in our area, and we’ve partnered with a lot of places to help support live music. We’ve always said, ‘When people think of music, we want them to think of Ted Brown Music.’”

As the Washington company quickly approaches 90 years old – a milestone they’ll reach in 2021 – with 180 employees strong, it’s clear that mission still sticks across the board at the store’s locations in Tacoma, Richland, Yakima, Seattle, Silverdale, and Puyallup.

Founded in 1931 by Ted Brown with only 11 employees, the company weathered the depression and WWII at its original Tacoma location, where pianos and print music were the main items in stock. In the years to come, Brown would be one of the stores to quickly welcome the newfound craze of rock ‘n’ roll, stocking radios, phonographs, and records (“Even those scandalous titles that had to be kept below the counter!” Grisaffi chides).

The company didn’t expand to multiple locations until Ted’s son, T. Warren Brown, took over in 1960. He added a storefront to a Washington mall to capitalize on the home organ craze. Ted Brown Music can also credit Warren with one of their most impressive components: educational service reps.

“Warren was always looking to progress and grow the business and started to participate in an [idea] group,” Grisaffi explains. “That’s when he learned about having educational service reps call on schools and he introduced that in Washington state.”

To this day, Ted Brown Music employs 10 full-time educational service reps who “strive to be the music director’s able assistant” for music educators across the state. The benefits remain twofold: Ted Brown Music gets additional business, and band directors and music teachers have help maintaining and growing their music programs.

“It allowed us to help service all the small school districts that were too far from Tacoma to come in regularly,” Grisaffi reflects. “Our investment in ed reps made us indispensable and we’ve been an integral partner to schools across the state ever since. Having our ed reps on the frontlines has helped us support and grow our reach. We ask, ‘What do you need to help you do your job?’ and then try to get it for them. We help break down barriers, make connections, bring the things they need and get creative in getting more students into their programs.”

Garrison Grisaffi, manager of the Puyallup location and the fourth generation to be involved in the Ted Brown Music family business

Garrison Grisaffi, Puyallup store manager and great-grandson of Ted Brown, says that the educational reps “play a massive role” in Ted Brown Music’s work with school districts: “They serve the band directors and the students at the schools. They also encourage the directors and the students to head into our stores for the same great in-store experience that they try and create on the road.”

In the 1980s, Ted Brown Music introduced another key part of their service roster as they began to develop a pro audio department, which now spans audio, video, and lighting expertise. Currently, the company’s AVL services employs three designer salesmen/project managers, three full-time installation techs, and one part-time installation tech.

“The 1980s saw the introduction of MIDI and we opened our pro audio department to support those products,” Whitney Brown Grisaffi explains. “The pro audio department lead us to working with churches beyond their print needs and we started to do audio installations. A number of years later, this helped us expand that service to full-on audio, video and lighting installations. We’re now a general contractor and work on initial construction projects.”

Speaking on the store’s current audio, video, and lighting services, Grisaffi says that Ted Brown Music’s specialists design and install systems in every part of Washington, from churches and casinos to courtrooms and school buildings. The standard fare of lessons, repairs, and rentals round out Ted Brown Music’s services.

“We’re now involved in many initial builds and are onsite when the construction starts,” she says. “Each of our locations has full time repair techs in-house. We can handle the quick on-the-spot, walk-in customer repairs as well as institutional (school) repairs without having to send them out somewhere else.”

Now, 40 years and four additional locations later, Grisaffi represents the third generation of Ted Brown’s family to operate the MI company, and she takes the store’s reputation seriously. “Being a school music dealer, we feel our first job is to help children discover the joys of making music with others,” she emphasizes. “With that said, we are big supporters of school music programs and have gone to bat for them more times than I can count. We are currently helping a district see the error of their ways in cancelling 5th grade band.”

Serving band and orchestra students is truly such a core part of Ted Brown Music’s business, and their inventory and expertise demonstrates it; The company is also a Shokunin dealer for Yamaha, a first chair dealer with Conn-Selmer, a franchisor of Accent, and is Straubinger-certified for flutes.

On the shelves of each Ted Brown Music location are an assortment of instruments from Jupiter, Eastman, St. Louis Music, Cannonball, Buffet Crampon, Maple Leaf, Getzen, Howard Core, Fox, Trevor James, and Gemeinhardt. Grisaffi has her own, sentimental ties to school music programs from her own experiences as a teenager and young adult: “I was given lots of opportunities to participate in music – I didn’t really appreciate it until junior high when I met a very inspirational band director. He made band fun and even managed to make playing the bassoon sound cool! I played that through college.”

To this day, the granddaughter of Ted Brown doesn’t play instruments much, but still enjoys making music with her voice; she’s active in her church choir and sings tunes from around the globe. “I can say I’ve sung in at least eight different languages,” she shares.

For both beginner and advanced players, Ted Brown Music offers a host of community gatherings. The company’s weekly drum circle (now suspended due to COVID-19) has been going for 20 years, with famed percussionist Arthur Hull sometimes dropping by as a guest facilitator. Recently, the company hosted their first online all-ages “open mic” night, welcoming talent from across the country.

The centerpiece of the store’s community events, though, is the Ted Brown Music Outreach, a 501c3 organization founded in 2007 “in order to help bring the joy of music to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it.”

Offering rock school camps, instrument exploration camps, and free instruments to students in need, the outreach program has grown significantly in 13 years. “2007 was the first Outreach summer programs – four exploration camps and one middle school summer band,” recalls Stephanie Brown Howe, VP of Ted Brown Music and director of the Ted Brown Music Outreach. “We also started gathering instruments our customers wanted to donate to kids who could not afford to rent or buy. In 2008, we collected about 10 instruments and sent them through our repair shop and gave them out to students who asked. We quickly came up with a form for the students’ parents to fill out, because we were getting lots of requests.”

Last year alone, Ted Brown Music collected 250 instruments donations, and distributed 195 of them to students who couldn’t have been in their school band programs otherwise. Since the start of the instrument distribution program, the company has given away over 600 instruments to children in need.

“The best news is these instruments belong to that student, and they can play for life,” Howe says. As the years have passed, the formats of the outreach programs have shifted; the original middle school band program is now two jazz improvisations camps, and a keyboard exploration camp has also formed.

Nine years ago, Ted Brown Music’s “Live it OutLoud” rock school launched, offering students eight weeks of immersion in the music industry. As students form four-to-six person bands, they learn skills like band management, music promotion, songwriting, and recording. The camp also includes an opportunity for the newly formed bands to record an original song at London Bridge Studio in Shoreline, Washington, where artists like Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, and Macklemore have recorded parts of their catalogue. Kids between the ages of 12 and 18 are able to sign up, and the rock school welcomes players of all kinds, from vocalists and keyboardists to bass players and beyond.

The program culminates with a “Final Red Carpet Award Show,” where each new band performs two songs to an audience of their friends and family.

“We are so proud of our students and what they have accomplished, personally, and professionally,” Howe says. “The Live It OutLoud program encourage the students to take charge and find their ‘people.’ They come into the program unsure and sometimes a very vulnerable stage in their lives (a number have tried to commit suicide prior to the program) by the end of the summer they have a group they can call on and confidence to stand up and be who they were meant to be. One past participant went on to graduate from Renton Instrument repair school and now works for us in the repair department.”

This summer, the programs will adapt to the COVID-19 crisis and the new reality of social distancing by hosting very small classes or hosting sessions virtually. Ted Brown Music has already started to adapt as public health concerns keep “non-essential” brick and mortar stores closed. In the interim, Ted Brown Music offers limited hours for curbside pickup so musicians can still grab the gear the need on short notice. Looking ahead, Grisaffi says that that this new pickup trend will prevail in retail long after the pandemic has passed.

“The world has changed due to COVID-19,” she notes. “Curbside service was already gaining popularity, especially in grocery delivery. I believe it will continue to be a service which customers want and may even expect from retailers. We plan to make it a regular option for delivery on our website.”

After all the major historical events that Ted Brown Music has seen in 89 years – a World War, recessions, and the trauma of 9/11 – adjusting to life in a pandemic is just one of many hurdles that company has overcome. And, like in all times of hardship, the current struggle of life during the COVID-19 crisis reminds everyone just how important music and entertainment can be.

“I think this, like the most recent recession, will help people remember how important music is in the lives of everyone,” Grisaffi notes. “I think our industry is resilient and most of us will come out on the other side stronger having utilized our creativity to show people that music is essential – and to use a NAMM phrase, #MusicISLife.”

“While Ted was a visionary, I’m sure he never could have dreamed of some of the things Ted Brown Music is doing today,” she adds. “My father modeled that and when I took over as president, I inherited excellent leaders. I have to say I’ve also hired some excellent leaders. I hope to be able to do that for Garrison when he’s ready to take on leadership of TBM.”


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