Music City builds reputation on pianos, organs, keyboards
Imagine trying to sell cars never having driven one. Then imagine running the auto dealership for five decades, and still not driving.
In a way, that’s Sonny Wittkopp’s career in a nutshell. Fifty years ago this month, he was working toward a business degree at Eastern Washington State College (now EWU) when he was asked to build some rooms for a fledgling music business. Once it opened, Wittkopp kept the books and occasionally sold instruments on weekends. After graduating in 1964, he began managing the business.
Today, Wittkopp is chairman and CEO of Music City Spokane, which specializes in pianos, organs and keyboards, and where each week 350 students come for music lessons.
Wittkopp’s wife plays piano - the couple have two in their home. Their son, Darrin, company president, is an accomplished pianist. Their daughter, a Walla Walla accountant, plays piano and organ. And their granddaughters both play piano.
Every day, Wittkopp strolls past a $180,000 Yamaha concert grand - the musical equivalent of a Rolls-Royce - in his own showroom. Yet somehow he has never learned to play. Anything.
During a recent interview, Wittkopp reflected on how he backed into his career and built a successful business through trial and error.
S-R: Is “Sonny” a nickname?
Wittkopp: Yes. My given name is Martin. My father was also Martin, so my grandfather called me Sonny, and it stuck.
S-R:What was the first instrument you played? Wittkopp: (pause) I don’t play an instrument. I never got the opportunity as a child. I was brought up on a farm in North Dakota. When I was 12, my parents decided to move to California. My mother had a brother here, so they stopped to visit, and he talked them into staying.
S-R: What was your first job?
Wittkopp: At about 14 I started working at the West Wynn Motel. Coming from a farm, I’d become pretty handy, so I had one up on other kids.
Across the street from the West Wynn, Bob Shepler ran Bob’s Motel, and he asked my parents if he could talk to me about coming to work for him, which I did when I was 15. I worked there after school and weekends while going to Lewis and Clark High School.
Later, the state condemned Bob’s property to make way for the new freeway. By this time, 1961, I was married and going to Eastern, studying business management and accounting. Bob called and said he was putting money into a little startup business called Hammond Organ Studios of Spokane, and wanted me to build an office and studio space. I was managing an apartment, and was eager for whatever work I could get.
S-R: Why did Bob choose a music store instead of, say, a restaurant supply business?
Wittkopp: My uncle, who was a great piano player and organist, managed a store in Wenatchee for Sampson Ayers Music in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. When he came to Spokane, he stayed at Bob’s Motel, knowing I was connected with it in a small way. He met Bob and they hit it off. Bob knew his motel was closing, and my uncle talked him into going into the organ business.
S-R: And you were hired as a carpenter?
Wittkopp: Yes. Then when the store was about to open, Bob asked me to keep the books. So I’d go there after school each day, and on the weekend I’d do a little selling.
S-R: How could you sell organs and pianos if you didn’t play?
Wittkopp: I read books and went to lots of training sessions to learn how the instruments were built, what produced the sound and all of their features.
We were taught that the less you played, the better. You wanted to get the customer on the bench, let them feel the keys and make the music. Salesmen who were expert musicians would sometimes overplay, and customers would say, “I could never play like that.” It’s important for customers to see how easy things come. That’s especially true with today’s technology.
S-R: When did you join the business full time?
Wittkopp: When I got out of school in 1964, Bob hired me as manager.
S-R: Was the business successful from the start?
Wittkopp: The first year, I knew nothing about business except what I’d learned in books, so it was pretty skimpy. But we actually made a profit. The second year we doubled what we did the first year, and we gradually connected with a lot of music teachers, particularly in the rural areas. They didn’t have music stores, so we would load up a truck and take the products to them.
S-R: How far did you go?
Wittkopp: We’d go up through Colville and Kettle Falls, west to Tonasket, down into Omak, Grand Coulee and Wilbur. We would usually arrange something in a teacher’s home. We’d bring a couple of pianos, but organs were stronger than pianos in the ‘60s, ‘70s and into the ‘80s.
S-R: How has your product line evolved during the past 50 years?
Wittkopp: Organs went through various stages on their way to becoming digital, and as they did, they became too complicated. They were terrific - they’d do everything - but customers were intimidated.
Also, very inexpensive portable keyboards started taking over the market. At one time we kept about 75 organs in our inventory, but now we only have three or four.
S-R: How about pianos?
Wittkopp: Yamaha invented the digital piano back in the mid-‘80s, and that was the big change. They sampled the sounds of all different instruments.
Now 97 percent of our sales are pianos, and the technology has driven more customers toward digital models.
S-R: What’s the price range?
Wittkopp: Digital pianos start at $1,000 and range up to about $20,000. Acoustic pianos go from $3,500 for a console to $180,000 for a hand-built, 9-foot Yamaha CFIIIS concert grand.
S-R: Do you sell many of those?
Wittkopp: It’s a piano that Yamaha supplies to us for artists who come through the area, and we’re allowed to use it for our events. But, yes, we’ve sold a few.
Now Yamaha has come out with a product called the AvantGrand that is a hybrid - it has a very small footprint, but plays like the 9-foot concert grand and costs $20,000.
S-R: When did you buy the business?
Wittkopp: We incorporated the business in 1966 as Music City Spokane Inc., and a year later moved to the corner of Monroe and First Avenue. Bob left the business in 1980, and I bought his stock and the building. We eventually moved when parking became a problem, and we bought the old Thornhill Funeral Home at 1322 N. Monroe in 2004.
S-R: How many pianos do you sell?
Wittkopp: Back in the good days - the early 2000s - we’d sell about 1,200 to 1,500 keyboard instruments a year. With the recession, we’re down about 40 percent.
S-R: Who are your customers?
Wittkopp: It used to be the 34- to 49-year-old bracket, because they have kids, and kids are the driving force. But since 2008, we’ve seen a lot more grandparents buying products for family members.
S-R: Do you still load pianos in trucks and travel around your territory?
Wittkopp: Yes, we still do what we call road shows. For instance, we do a lot with the Columbia Center mall in Kennewick. We’ll take 20 to 30 pianos down there for a promotion.
S-R: What is the biggest challenge your business faces?
Wittkopp: To stay on top of technology - to be on the cutting edge of what people are looking for today.
S-R: What’s your business philosophy?
Wittkopp: I joined the Downtown Rotary Club 42 years ago this month, and I have pushed the four-way test all these years: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build good will and friendships? Is it beneficial to all concerned?
S-R: What are you most proud of?
Wittkopp: I’m proud of our people, and I’ve tried to make this a great place to work. I have a salesman who has been with us 50 years, and his daughter has been with us 12. One of our piano technicians, who’s semi-retired, joined us in 1976, and my bookkeeper was here 38 years before retiring.
S-R: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Wittkopp: Yes. When things were so easy in the business, I tried too many different things at the same time, just because I could. I wish I had zeroed in a little bit better, which I finally did when we took on the Yamaha brand about 28 years ago.
S-R: What advice would you offer someone interested in opening a music store?
Wittkopp: I would tell them this is not the time.
S-R: How do you relax?
Wittkopp: I love automobiles, and have a collection I work on. My favorites are a fully restored ‘55 Chevy Bel Air - the same model I owned when my wife and I got married - and a ‘75 Corvette I bought brand new.
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.