Portland Music Company rocking in the free world since 1927
Portland Music Company has been the go-to place for instruments for nearly 100 years
Usually by the time a business hits the age of 90 it's been through several family generations, or has been sold and resold repeatedly. The Portland Music Company is different. Since 1927, it has had just two owners.
Maybe it's because its owners don't look at it as possessing a business.
"Owning Portland Music Company is sort of a stewardship," says current owner Mark Taylor. "I've looked after it for about 40 years." Taylor took over the store in 1978 and owns it today with partner Doug Metzker.
Maybe it's because their products have deeper meaning to their customers.
"Musical instruments aren't just things," Taylor says. "You develop a relationship with them." There are other music stores in Portland, but none carries the vast array of instruments, sheet music and production equipment that you can find at Portland Music Company's four Portland-area stores.
"We're the only place in town where you can trade a bassoon for an electric guitar," Taylor tells the Business Tribune.
Musician Bob Christiansen brought the music store first to downtown Portland in 1927 when he opened The Saxophone Shop along Southwest Fourth Avenue and Morrison Street. The depression hit the specialized business hard, but instead of closing the doors, Christiansen began selling a broader range of instruments, and the store took on the name it still uses today.
One of Christiansen's most successful and enduring legacies was bringing music into local schools. He'd present concerts at school assemblies to drive interest in music, and then he'd convince school administrators to start music programs for those excited students — even reaching out to bring local musicians as instructors in the newly formed music programs. Portland Music Company would then sell or rent instruments to the students and their schools.
"He really was the classic music man," says Taylor, though his goals were more altruistic from the outset than the character in the musical.
He went by the credo "The richest child is poor without musical education." The official company history also talks about how Christiansen and his employees would travel around the state in a number of "shiny black hearses" giving concerts at schools. A farmer in Madras, unable to pay for his son's instrument rental in cash, once struck a deal to pay with a truckload of potatoes, which Christiansen sold at a local market.
The company still provides instruments to local students and schools, though sadly the amount of music education in the Portland Public Schools has been declining in recent years.
Materials to produce musical instruments were scarce during World War II, so Christiansen pivoted the company into a booking company for local bands. When the war ended, demand for instruments again surged, as did the company's fortunes.
In 1974, Christiansen hired University of Oregon Philosophy major Mark Taylor, and the college gradate spent the next few years alongside Christiansen learning the music business.
"He changed my mind about what a business is," Taylor says. "I watched this old guy and his wife (Violet) get people engaged, and then sell them something for a fair price. We're the motivator, and we're selling a thing that makes people happy ... that makes their lives richer."
Christiansen retired in 1978, at the age of 78, turning over the reins of Portland Music Company to Taylor. A high school and college friend, Doug Metzker, joined the business as partner and Taylor's wife, Susan Tsugawa, launched the company's sheet music department.
After taking on the store, Taylor began to expand its footprint across the city, opening locations in the suburbs and adding the sheet music division. There are now four Portland Music Company stores, and each has a distinct personality based on its customer mix. The sheet music department is the last one remaining in the city, according to Taylor.
The flagship store bounced from downtown to Old Town, then across the river to the Central Eastside Industrial District. It operates among a cluster of longtime Portland businesses including the Sheridan Fruit Company, Miller Paint, Wentworth Chevrolet and Andy & Bax.
Staying in business today involves challenges that the original owner could have never predicted.
"It's us vs. Amazon vs. the internet," Taylor says. "Our future is the future of retail."
"You can't blame them," he says of customers looking online for better deals. "But we want to give them a reason to buy from us."
Taylor pins hopes on customers' need to buy local, to touch the instruments and to feel the instruments. It's up to his experienced staff to develop relationships with customers so that they don't just use the stores as showrooms to test drive musical instruments before they buy them on the internet. More than half of the staff has 10 years or more experience with the company.
In the same breath where he talks about seeing customers on their smartphones in the parking lot looking up the guitars that they just handled in the store, he talks about the customers who come back over decades, bringing their kids into the place where they bought their original instruments.
"It's a generational business, and seeing them bring in their kids is the biggest compliment that you can have as a business owner," he tells the Business Tribune.
Though the store counts many professionals among its ranks of customers, amateurs drive the business — people who want to play music, aspire to play music, but not be professional musicians. The store once filled with kids when school ended each day, but it now fills with adults interested in making music. Retirees come in looking to start playing again, and boomers are looking at acoustic instruments to fill their musical ambitions.
Taylor can't put his finger on why, but ukuleles are hot right now. The upswing started a few years ago, and now the store sells hundreds each year. They've also recently seen an uptick in the sales of keyboards.
Now with about 40 years behind him at the helm of The Portland Music Company, Taylor is starting to look to the future of the company and its succession. Whatever the saxophone, clarinet and guitar-playing leader decides, it's certain that the goal will be the stewardship of the company and its people, not just deciding who owns the four walls.