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Keeping MI Retail Contemporary: Menzie Pittman of Virginia’s Contemporary Music Center

Victoria Wasylak • Spotlight • June 14, 2017

Whether he knows it or not, Menzie Pittman has always been an entrepreneur.

Before his store Contemporary Music Center was even a thought, the drum teacher had 96 students, 20 students on a waiting list, and worked with a handful of school bands.

And that’s not even counting the bands that Pittman performed in.

Still, at the end of the day, the Contemporary Music Center owner finds it hard to unwind when there’s so much to juggle between the store’s (very successful) two locations in Chantilly and Haymarket, Virginia.

“I kind of knew in 1989 what to expect, as far as no ‘off switch.’ That’s the one thing they don’t tell you, when you go to open your own business, they don’t tell you there’s no off switch, they don’t tell you that the thing never sleeps, you don’t have an off switch, you’re just on all the time,” Pittman says.

But if anyone was made to handle the stress and duress of managing 8,000 square feet of store, it’s Pittman. With almost 30 years of business experience under his belt, and a lifetime of teaching and performing ingrained into his system, Pittman is the man you’d want as the captain of any ship – and he has the success and history at Contemporary Music Center to prove it.

Pittman Family Values

Pittman grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, surrounded by musical talent in one of the most pivotal periods of rock ‘n’ roll history. In the midst of the explosion of the British Invasion in the 60s, Pittman’s siblings dabbled in rockabilly, James Brown, and Elvis. His father, who played professionally in a jazz band until his 30s, stayed in music his whole life, playing about three days a week.

“My father was a professional saxophonist, so that was the catalyst to my exposure to music. I often joke and say my first gig was as a roadie,” Pittman says.

Between helping his father with his gear when going to shows, to seeing the frequent living room rehearsals of his dad’s 7-piece band, Pittman’s involvement with music grew rapidly by the time he was a teenager.

“In the house, it really affected all of us, because there wasn’t anyone who met my father who didn’t immediately revere what he did, so that spoke to me growing up,” Pittman adds. “We couldn’t agree on everything in the house, but we always agreed that music was reverent.”

When Pittman founded a band in high school, things never blew up for the young rockers, but every member of the group went pro at some point afterwards. While one member is now an actor, two are studio musicians, and one works in commercial music, Pittman went pro in an entirely different way.

When Pittman was about to take over the business that would become Contemporary Music Center, he had 96 students (with a waiting list of 20 students), worked for three high school marching bands, and was in two different freelance bands. From that point on, Pittman realized that freelance performances would probably be the best fit with his new schedule and responsibilities.

After performing in a total of fifteen-plus bands over the span of his career, Pittman doesn’t play for a living anymore, but the idea of starting a new project is never off the table. “I don’t perform for income anymore. I’ve closed that door but I never lock it – it’s always unlocked.”

The Seeds of CMC

Like most music shop owners, before Menzie Pittman was an entrepreneur and head honcho, he was a music teacher. With an impressive roster of almost 100 students, business was booming for Pittman in the store where he worked, while things in the rest of the establishment seemed kind of lacking.

“I was teaching for another owner. He was a repair guy, but he wasn’t running a great shop. I was a drum teacher in the back – this was in the late 80s,” Pittman explains. “My practice was exploding, and his front thing wasn’t doing so well, so he came to me and let me know he was going to go out and asked me if I wanted to pick up his fixtures and the location and whatever else. I was crazy enough to jump in in 1989.”

From there, Pittman started working on bolstering the business immediately, building up the store’s retail and expanding teaching. The store remained in its original location for five years, until it moved to its second Chantilly location in 1994.

Fast forward ten years to 2004, when Pittman opened the Haymarket location on Main Street. Because the building where Contemporary Music Center resides was being built at the time of purchase, Pittman was able to design the store as it was being constructed. Pittman designed the location so that the studios would be downstairs and the retail would be upstairs, a layout that he kept until 2012. Contemporary Music Center remains one of the anchors in the building, along with a restaurant.

When Pittman added venue @4410 to the Haymarket location, however, things really exploded.

Under 18 at @4410

Offering lessons at music retail stores is a fairly common occurrence, but where Pittman truly distinguishes himself is in the way that he pushes for exposure with his venue @4410, a small, all-ages club attached to the Haymarket location. The venue, which hosts open mics, benefits for high schools, and concerts for kids under 21 and 18, provides a chance for many young adults to perform in a realistic atmosphere without any age restrictions.

“It is truly a small club – no alcohol and no hot food – but other than that, there’s nothing that’s any different in that room than when I grew up playing,” Pittman says. “Kids get the experience to step on stage basically in front of the capacity of 100. They’re very motivated, and because of that, a culture has begun to take its own course and grow.”

Because of the all-ages venue, teens in the community were finally able to perform “real” gigs and Pittman was able to continue CMC’s Rock Camp program throughout the year, as opposed to just in the summers. 

Drawing from his experience of performing for a living for 28 straight years, Pittman wanted to create a place for teens to play that was a reflection of his experiences in performing as a professional musician.

“That’s my true background, I was in clubs every day of my life for 25 plus years. We speak from road experience,” he notes. “This mission was to re-create what I grew up with, and with authenticity – that’s one of my hangups, if it’s not authentic, I bore easily. It has to speak to me. Down here music is a religion. I wanted the kids to know that that opportunity quality was now up to them because the one thing I can’t do for them is play.”

Pittman cites the installation of the venue at the Haymarket location as the last major step that the company has taken, and as a result, the community has really accepted the new space as a much-needed novelty in the area.

“A lot of people do things because everyone else is doing it, and that wasn’t why we took this on. We took this on because no one was doing this right,” Pittman explains. “We don’t take it half-heartedly, it is a serious undertaking for us. We want to make sure that they get what we’re promising to deliver. We’re not trying to do a moment in the sun, we’re trying to develop young musicians to have skills that would give them the tools they need to really understand whether or not it’s the right career, or whether they want to be a hobbyist.”

On Location at CMC

When customers step into either of Contemporary Music Center’s locations, Pittman wants to bombard them with something, and it’s not sales pitches – it’s records. Before vinyl was back in vogue, Pittman decked the walls with iconic albums from his personal collection, another (decorative) part of his mission.

“The design of the store is [made] to impact you from the second you walk in. Whether it’s in Chantilly or Haymarket, I really try to use the impact of music history to stir your soul – that’s our job,” Pittman says. “Our job is to provide you with information, whether that’s on an instrument, or how to play the instrument, or doing it in front of people, our job it to give you that experience. We take that mantra pretty seriously.”

The original Chantilly location, which used to be a dance studio, boasts 3,000 square feet with a dozen sound-conditioned teaching studios, while the Haymarket location stretches over 3000 square feet, plus another 1500 square feet for @4410. Including storage, the Haymarket location is around 5000 square feet. All together, that’s 8000 square feet (in two different locations) that Pittman is responsible for.

“The upside to multiple locations is it widens your voice, but for every new undertaking you take on, it gives you a new psychical responsibility too,” he says. “You’re spread thin, so you have to have communication skills down to a science. Communication is the main thing. It’s hard, I won’t tell you it’s not hard.”

While both stores open at noon, Pittman’s business day starts at 9am with a call from the regional manager Jerry Hammack, and ends the same way with a business brief. The process is exhausting for sure, but it’s a price that Pittman is willing to pay for keeping up the quality of his stores. As he says confidently: “You have your bumps and bruises, but you forge forward.”

Testing the Teachers

When someone wants to teach at either of the Contemporary Music Center locations, they have to interview with Pittman – there’s almost no way around it. With a teaching staff of about 60, Pittman understands that just because a person is a good musician, they aren’t automatically a good teacher. The owner looks beyond the classical education of potential teachers, and seeks out musicians with good communication skills and a knowledge of more current and “popular” music. While Pittman realizes the importance of learning the fundamentals, he pushes for social relevance in his employees’ teaching.

“That’s something I’ve never given up. I’m like, ‘hey, if you want to teach here, you

interview with me.’ I want you to know what my beliefs are, and I want to know what your beliefs are, and I want to know if we match, and I want to know if your way of approaching students matches. I ask them what happens when a kid comes in and says ‘hey, I want to learn a Disney princess tune, I want to learn a Taylor Swift tune,’ because if that’s where the student connects, all the opera in the world isn’t going to resonate with them.”

The other factor that goes into Pittman’s interviews is measuring how well potential employees can communicate, especially in an age of constant distractions from technology.

“I don’t care if you’re 18 or 80, I want you to be personable…that’s why I personally do the interviews, because I want them to show me how they communicate. Moms don’t really care about how many degrees you have hanging on the wall, what a mom really cares about is how you communicate with her when her child has a question,” he adds. “Right now we have so much social distraction with our telephones. You’ve got to break through that electronic distraction and get to the people, and to do that you have to be really good at understanding both today’s methods of communication and traditional pieces that really matter, and how history plays into it.”

Altogether, Pittman cites the strong teaching staff at both of the Contemporary Music Center locations to be one of his biggest contributions to the stores – since he took over, the teaching staff has not only been hand-picked by Pittman himself, but has rocketed from 6 to 60.

An Award-Winning Philosophy

When Pittman looks back on his successes with Contemporary Music Center, he likens the entire experience to Sun Records in the early 1950s, the studio that blew up with musical giants Elvis and Carl Perkins, and Sam Phillips as their guide. For Pittman, the passion and innovation is the same.

The past ten years in particular have been an explosion for Contemporary Music Center, netting awards for being in NAMM’s top 100 the past seven years, as well as a nomination two years ago for “best online presence.” Last year he was also nominated for “best store design” and took home the award for “best store promotion,” “Music makes a difference,” and “dealer of the year.” The success is something Pittman chalks up to authenticity, a trait that he gleefully says is finally back in style.

“We have to fight for everything – we have to compete with the guys online,” he says. “We just try to stick to the idea that you came to play, so we want to show you how to do that, and I think we understand that probably as well, or better than some, and I think the industry has caught on to it.” For the past two years, Pittman has also been a vital contributor to MMR’s “Small Business Matters” section, adding insight to entrepreneurship in the MI industry.

From sharing tips on social media platforms to explaining the importance of having a “right hand man,” he covers it all, and isn’t afraid of sharing his secrets to success.

“I was thrilled when MMR asked me to write,” the store owner says. “I was like ‘this just keeps getting more and more fun.’ The fact that people actually like the writing is even more surprising to me! The fun part for me is when I get feedback from folks about the column.”

What makes Pittman such a good member of the MMR team is that he’s able to relate to every reader. Whether they’re a huge dealer or a mom and pop store, Pittman is ready to share his observations and apply them to any and all situations.

“Whether you’re a large store or a small store, you’re going to have challenges,” Pittman says. “It’s not the easiest thing I’ve done, but it’s amazingly rewarding. When I look back over the things that have happened for us – when NAMM gave me the grace of asking me to serve on the board – that was a moment when I was like ‘woah!’ The little guy can succeed, you just have to be really pure and really driven in what you do. It’s not a cakewalk, I promise.”

But what it all boils down to for Pittman is the essence of human relationships. As he puts it – why would you buy from someone else when you can buy from a friend?

“I try to look at human situations, not just graphs, so when I talk about business, I don’t talk about it in numbers, I talk about in philosophy,” he explains.

That exact same mantra reflects in every aspect of Pittman himself and Contemporary Music Center, from the way he writes his columns in MMR to how he views and treats customers. Truly, Pittman has a bona fide winning attitude.

“When you open a business, you have to be prepared that you simply don’t know what’s going to happen,” Pittman says. “We’re in here and we just fly by the seat of our pants and have the time of our lives.”


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