Waukesha — White House of Music has been a stable family-owned business for six decades largely because of one thing: band students.
'Our strength lies in school music,' said Chris White, White House of Music president and CEO.
The store sells musical instruments and sheet music, primarily to students or school programs. It also offers instrument repair and private lessons.
Much has changed since White's 'great-great-cousin' founded White House of Music in 1953. Popular music has evolved from rhythm and blues to electronic beats. Downtown mom-and-pop shops have largely been replaced by suburban warehouse-style stores.
School music maker
White House of Music has stayed in business in part by adapting to those trends. But, more than that, it has seen success by consistently making school band and orchestra students a priority.
'Back when the store was originally founded, it was definitely with the thought in mind of being involved in school band and orchestra,' White said.
He has a communications background, but the family members who founded the store and ran it for the first several decades, including his father, were all music teachers.
In the 1960s, his dad in particular 'really reached out to the schools and made weekly visits to help them with their musical needs, whether that was repairs or accessories or print music,' he said.
Downtown to crosstown
That helped White House of Music outgrow its original downtown Waukesha location in the 1970s. The store moved from Clinton Street to Grand Avenue. Then, in the 1980s as downtowns across the country started to decline, the Whites made plans to move again.
'Downtowns were not as happening,' White said. 'And retail in general was changing. You used to be go talk to a storekeeper and ask them for what you need. Now you want to find it yourself and just read the box.'
In 1993, they opened their current location at 2101 N. Springdale Road in Waukesha near Interstate 94.
That location was closer to where students and parents already did their shopping. It offered more space for displays so customers could easily find what they needed on their own. And there was also almost twice as much space available for student lessons, plus a recital hall, White said.
White House of Music now has that location plus four others, largely through mergers with other music stores.
The expanding space meant White House of Music could also expand its inventory as popular music and students' tastes changed. In the 1960s, it added guitars, amps and drums. Today it's starting to carry equipment for music recording and sampling, White said.
Local orchestra teacher Courtnay Gildersleeve has noticed that evolution. Right now, for instance, some of her students are interested in electronic violins. White has let her borrow them for holiday concerts in which students play Tran-Siberian Orchestra pieces.
Gildersleeve teaches at Les Paul Middle School and at Waukesha South High School. Her students rent instruments from White House of Music, and she also brings her personal instruments and school instruments there for repairs.
'If a student or parent has a problem, Chris and his staff are right there willing to help them right away,' she said. 'I really enjoy that place and they are an asset to Waukesha and our schools.'
White is humbled by the compliment.
'We're just trying to listen intently to our customer base and what the schools are doing to figure out how we can support them,' he said.
School music booster
Lately, that support has included lobbying school boards to increase funding for music programs. It helps the teachers and is also a business strategy.
'One of our districts last year was threatening to get rid of elementary band,' White said. 'We quickly got to the school board and the customer base in that area and the music booster parents.'
Elementary band stayed, he said, declining to name the district.
White House of Music has also started a nonprofit foundation to provide loaned instruments and music lesson scholarships to students who couldn't otherwise afford them.
White knows if you hook students on music when they're young, you'll have customers for years to come.
'Our slogan is 'music for life,'' he said. 'Every year a group of kids are starting in music, and a group of former music students think, 'I miss music. I'm going to return to music.''