Taylor Harnois and Carolyn Iga talk about what started as a love for music developed into an entrepreneurial adventure in music instruction.
Carolyn’s restless nature led her to look for a new way to blend a music school and retail music shop and how she found tools and models to help support her passion for music and her desire to serve and elevate her community.
- Let your business be an extension of yourself.
- Find a community that supports your goals.
- Decide what you can do and don’t worry about the competition.
- Support your business with tools and software that take away obstacles.
- Build relationships in your community and it will pay dividends.
- I didn’t go out looking for Spanish speaking or Chinese speaking teachers. Yeah. It’s just who we are.
- I’m very lucky in being in a great, central place in a musically oriented community. We get, you know, The schools from pretty much every public school in our area is starting at that age, and they’re needing instruments. So, one of the key things, of course, is to make those contacts with the public schools.
- I try to honor the other businesses, the other music businesses around me and just you know, build those relationships, keep just the normal human things going. Just ask how people are doing, caring for know, kids, the families, the music directors. so that’s definitely been an important part. And before I knew it, we’re like the oldest establishment around.
- Music Shop 360 has been phenomenal for us on the retail end. I mentioned that I didn’t know how to do retail. I know how to do education, so I think we got on board. I was so glad that I got on board. It was just everything I was needing, I was kind of praying for, and there it was.
- That relationship, that relational component is just really so important. And even something that as neutral as a thing that you buy I think you wanna buy it from somebody you know.
Carolyn Iga bought the Neighborhood Music School, & Store In 2007. Based on her study of music education and a desire to lift her community she built the business into a local center for music retail and education.
[00:00:00] Taylor Harnois: All right. We’re excited to be joined today by Carolyn Iga, who is with us from the Neighborhood Music school, and store. I need to add the store. I know that’s a big thanks. So, Carolyn, welcome. Thanks for joining us. Um, Tell us a little bit just to get started, a little bit about yourself, about your store and how things are going for you.
[00:00:41] Carolyn Iga: Yeah. First of all, it’s an honor to be asked. I really appreciate this opportunity and I think you guys are doing a great job. So, thank you. I got to listen to a little bit of your podcast and you’ve had some great people on here, so I’m honored to be here.
[00:00:54] Taylor: Yeah, we’re excited to have you.
[00:00:55] Carolyn: Yeah, I’ll just tell you a little bit about my journey and that I started with a passion for music as a kid that turned out to be a passion for learning and for entrepreneuring, and as a band geek in high school, I thought I was going to be some kind of music director in the public schools because those were who my role models were, but at the same time, I never had the confidence that I could hold down a nine to five job because I got so bored with the six hour school day. Anyway, as I was wrapping up my degree in secondary music education, to be a band director basically, I got called into Christian ministry and the church where I learned how to minister in a pastoral role for some 15 years. So I was often doing music within the context of a church, but was also always teaching piano on the side.
So I fell into the music business when an opportunity to buy a store came my way in 2007. There was a guy, Mike Kapable, who did a great job in constructing a facility in a great part of town really, and getting all the accounts opening and suppliers, and contracting some great teachers, which gave me a model to inherit.
But what I founded was primarily a music school, which is clearly a different company, and it’s a model that we have today. So, when I took it, Mike had only opened a year prior to deciding he wasn’t the right person to run it. So when I took it on and changed the company name and structure, it was pretty much a startup.
So, as far as how the challenges are that I, you know, I had to face at that point it’s like I had no idea how to do retail, how to budget for it, how to make money doing it. What was a reasonable amount of money to make on a sale? What I did know: it was being a minister and having an educational background, was how to teach basically, and how to build trusting teams, trusting relationships.
And I had in my previous career learned how to work with basically difficult people and how to have difficult conversations and how to hire and fire people. So, I leaned heavily on the education arm of our business or the school, and so retail was very much an afterthought or like a service that was provided to our students.
I’ll just stop there, but just to give you a background of where I’m coming from and just yeah to set the stage for this conversation.
[00:03:30] Taylor: Yeah. And that’s awesome. And you know, as I was getting kind of prepared to be chatting with you and connecting with you and talking about some of these things, I was really intrigued by a lot of the kind of charitable work that you do.
It seems like you’re very invested into you know, into communities and you know, providing education on a lot of different levels and, you know, I guess I would make the assumption that a lot of this kind of goes back to you know, the church service and that sort of thing, but you don’t really get into the church service side without having some of that inherently in you as well. So, maybe tell me a little bit about the journey on that front, like you know, why is that so important for you, and how does that play into what you do on the business?
[00:04:11] Carolyn: Yeah. I’m a really big believer of what we do coming out from who we are, and so the development of the music school and stores, it very much reflects my development in my own life. And as I, you know, I just had explained my trajectory went from passion for learning to a passion for learning, which is a, you know, bigger thing and as I developed a larger worldview, I tried to link all the parts of my life with my community and my world and I couldn’t help but bring it together.
[00:04:45] Taylor: Yeah.
[00:04:45] Carolyn: So, I can be somewhat of an activist at times and so, you know, just a few years after buying the business, I started working in, poverty stricken areas in communities in China actually, which led to the founding of another organization, which works with orphans of fatherless, motherless in China or rural communities, as well as after the pandemic, just our own community and the unhoused population that just exploded during that time.
Yeah. So, we’re, we’re in a, Well, we’re in LA county, but our own little city is a kind of a well protected area and you know, they take pride in their schools and their students a little bit on the upper class side. So, you know, there was some rub when I got involved. You have your, you know, people who wanna help the unhoused, people who don’t want anything to do it. So, there was somewhere up there and I clearly took a public stance and my teaching staff also just jumped in and they took care of things when I was gone, attacking more global issues in China and, then just really on board with our, our dealing with our local population, the unhoused. I always say this is a safe place. You know, everybody should be able to come in, play an instrument and, or I mean, you know, touch an instrument. You shouldn’t have to be asked to exit just because you don’t look like everybody else, or you know, you smell different And so I appreciate that the staff have really been behind me and it, I think it changes the environment and the attitude of the customers if they were in a different frame of mind that they can see, oh, you know, people are people.
[00:06:19] Taylor: yeah. I’m just curious, in your experience, what’s the power of music for these folks that you work with that maybe in other situations wouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity to be exposed to instruments and education, music education. What is the byproduct of that for these folks?
[00:06:36] Carolyn: Yeah, absolutely. Music is such a neutral place and it’s such a thing that, you know, everybody has music in their lives. They, you know, they listen, you know, everybody has it. It’s a language, right, that connects people. And it’s not discriminate of anybody, either.
So, I think it’s just for our community, and it’s not like I hired, you know, people that all believe like me. That’s not the case. Yeah. But we ended up attracting people as I became more verbal, I guess, and I don’t know whether they came to me because of that I don’t know to what extent that happened, but as I onboard people you know, I do make it clear where we have taken certain stances in the community and just, you know, if they’re okay with it, and I think it’s set a tone to come up with our own music videos. So one of the creative things we did during the pandemic was with all this government money. We had to keep giving, you know, employing our teachers and to create spaces and projects that made use of our talents and so we, we went into making a couple of music videos and we made some statements there, so.
[00:07:48] Taylor: That “heal the world” video you did was excellent! That was really well done. That was really great.
[00:07:54] Carolyn: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Yeah, that was all in-house. You know, we would never have activated that if the pandemic didn’t come around and we just said, Hey, let’s do something and it was all in-house, all our teachers, the down to the video, the recordings, everything.
[00:08:08] Taylor: Yeah. For anybody watching, you certainly need to make some time to go on over to the neighborhood music school YouTube page and see some of the videos that were produced during that time. They’re the boy, they’re excellent. They are really neat and to see the staff and faculty involved with that’s uh, that’s really great.
You had mentioned um, you know, music is kind of its own language and speaks to everybody. You know, they say America in general is a melting pot but boy, Southern California really embodies that. There are different walks of life everywhere you go in Southern California. And that’s really reflected on the way that you do business, even on your website. You know, you’ve got language translator on your website. Tell me, if you would, about your experience in working with people from different cultures.
You know, we’ve talked about, kind of, different economic backgrounds and that sort of thing, but what about the different culture side? How can stores… I guess two parts, you know, what’s your experience with it, but also how can stores that are listening to the podcast or watching the podcast, what’s something that you could suggest that would help them better interact with the different cultures that they’re likely surrounded by?
[00:09:11] Carolyn: Yeah. I think my previous statement about what we do, reflecting who we are, that’s basically where we came from. I didn’t go out looking for Spanish speaking or Chinese speaking teachers. Yeah. It’s just who we are. Yeah. And I didn’t go looking for any race in particular. We just happened to be multiculturally. I look up and like, oh my gosh. We have like, you know, almost every race represented here or skin color. And everybody, brings with them their history and their heritage and we wanna give voice. I think we try to shape cultures in terms of values, but not in terms of, you know, heritage and what, kind of who you are. You have to be who you are in the workplace, and that makes for the fullness of a work experience environment, and that just honors all people. So that’s what we’re after.
[00:09:59] Taylor: Yeah. And those values transcend everything, right? They transcend race and socioeconomic issues and all that. It’s, you know, the values of the individual really transcend all of that. And I think that’s awesome. And you know, in the world that we live in today, I don’t know how you get by if you don’t have that kind of attitude? I think it’s, you know, I think business is challenging enough, but then, you know, if you’re not really willing to, you know, engage all different types of people and walks of life. I, boy, you really put yourself behind the eight ball there and are making things a lot more challenging than they need to be.
I want to pivot a little bit. I want to ask you about, so you mentioned kind of the education side of the business and also the retail side and I think that’s how a lot of our stores that we work with kind of look at it, you know, we have the different components of the business on each side there’s kind of subcategories, you know, we do work orders, service and repair, and you know, all sorts of, kind of different subcategories, I guess I would say. How have you been successful in attracting students to your school? You know, there’s a lot of schools in the area. What have you guys done to be successful in bringing students into you and to work with your instructors?
[00:11:07] Carolyn: Yeah, I’m very lucky being in a great, central place in a musically oriented community. So, that was a key factor and just pretty much lucky there. So we have a space that’s in a semi business. Residential area. So we get a lot of walk-ins, but our community is so strong on music education that band and orchestra programs are started at the fourth grade level. So we get, you know, the schools from pretty much every public school in our area starting at that age, and they’re needing instruments. So, one of the key things, of course, is to make those contacts with the public schools.
You know, I’m all about relationships and I just looked at our staff and we’re just a solid group of people that care about people. And so just getting the trust of the public school, the band directors and keeping those relationships going were it was very important.
We do have I guess a competitive neighborhood, but I’m not one to look at competition. I get too threatened by competition, so I just try to stay in my lane. I try to honor the other businesses, the other music businesses around me and just you know, build those relationships, keep just the normal human things going. Just ask how people are doing, caring for know, kids, the families, the music directors. so that’s definitely been an important part. And before I knew it, we’re like the oldest establishment around, because all these older establishments started closing, to my shock and I thought, oh my gosh, like, are we the oldest ones that, you know, have a visibility? And so, you know, this year has been really phenomenal in terms of the public school support, like, I feel like people were just lining up at the beginning of the school year. So that was nice.
[00:13:59] Taylor: Yeah, that is great and you know, I think my takeaway from that is, you know, it really comes with providing a really welcoming experience, not just for the students, but also for you know, the band directors, you know, the people that you’re interacting with on the business side of it as well to make life good for them too.
What are some of the tools that you’ve deployed or utilized to make life easier for those band directors and make it easier for them to schedule you know, school nights or lessons for students or anything like that? What are some of the tips you can share with us on that front?
[00:14:40] Carolyn: Music Shop 360 has been phenomenal for us on the retail end. I mentioned that I didn’t know how to do retail. I know how to do education, so I think we got on board. I wanna say 2015-16. It was at the NAMM show. I think it was maybe one of the first people, the first music schools that ever signed up, because I think you were a sewing company. And so they were, somebody came, I think it was Brian, came out and made a presentation at the NAMM show and I was there, like right in the front of the line and I was so glad that I got on board. It was just everything I was needing, I was kind of praying for, and there it was. So.
[00:15:20] Taylor: That’s great!
[00:15:21] Carolyn: So on the retail end, you know, you guys have been awesome. Yeah.
[00:15:26] Taylor: Well, well that’s great. Yeah. I’m glad that we can be kind of part of your journey and to your point, I mean it’s been a lot of growth for us as well, you know, kind of from the beginnings that we had and till today. And, you know, it’s always an ongoing process. Just like at the store, you know, you’re always trying to make things better and make life easier for yourself and for your customers, and so yeah, we try to certainly do that as well. So that’s great.
How many districts do you work with? Is it primarily one district there or are there multiple districts that you work with? And how many students would you say you’re responsible for at this point?
[00:15:59] Carolyn: Yeah. In LA we have cities, right? We have about 30 cities in our region, which is the San Gabriel Valley. So, we’re just butted up against each other. So each of these cities, I guess, are quote districts. So, we have about six or seven districts that are just right up, butted up against each other. So I like to say we just serve the San Gabriel Valley, which is a region across LA.
Yeah not much. I’d say in a week we’d work with 250 students coming through I should say before COVID. So now I’d say closer to 150 or so. And a lot of those are private lessons. A lot of those we do have our ensembles going now too, so, Yeah I don’t know if that’s a lot or a little. I don’t think it’s very much.
[00:16:44] Taylor: Well, look it is a good volume especially when you, you know, you’re talking about stores who are maybe thinking about getting started or who had just recently started.
You know, if you could, what kind of advice would you give to a store who is considering or to an individual who’s considering starting a music education or music instrument sales type of business?
[00:17:05] Carolyn: I love just building relationships with “competition.” You know, I don’t like to view people as competition. Be who you are for sure. I mean, that’s at the core of my business model. Just be who you are and to do it well. I think like, the typical commercial out there is, oh we can do this and this for you. It’s like all the things that we offer. For me, I have a commercial, a YouTube commercial out there and I’m I don’t know if you saw it, but I say, And this is true, that love and care for people and the process of growing in good communication, integrity, character, respect, are the “why” behind why we do what we do.
In other words, we’re not spinning our wheels. We wanna make a difference in the culture of the community. Like we wanna use what we do, which is music. Our trade is music and education to bring about change, positive change in the community, and to have a positive voice.
[00:17:59] Taylor: Yeah. And that really kind of sums everything up. I mean, like I said as we were getting started here, you know, we at the Music Shop podcast, we have a chance to talk to a lot of different stores and stores that are primarily focused on retail or more focused on education, or more focused on service and repair, you know, every, everybody’s kind of doing something a little bit different, right? Trying to find a way to stand out and that sort of thing. And what it comes back to every single time. I think uh, without fail, it’s come back to providing a really high level of customer service, finding out what you’re good at and continuing to develop that and offering that and treating a customer in a way that they’re gonna have a different, a better experience with you than they would be from anyone else?
You know, I don’t, you know, to your point on competition, I definitely don’t want to single out anybody, but you know, in the music instrument space, there’s a couple really big fish that tend to dominate the whole, especially on the retail side, they dominate everything. Yeah. Yeah. And you’re not gonna do well unless you’re able to do something different from what those guys are doing, right. Yeah. And, so I think your whole mission, like I said as we got started, boy, just a really super interesting background. Super interesting focus on culture and community. And building people up and the value that music can provide. And so I think that’s all, that’s all fantastic.
I did want to ask you a little bit about, and you’ve mentioned it a few times, but COVID 19 obviously changed the way that a lot of us do work, right? The way that we operate. How did that impact your business and what did you do to survive and maybe kind of foreshadowing what you are doing to prepare yourself for, you know, the next challenge that comes down the pike?
[00:19:51] Carolyn: Yeah, for sure. You know, having that mentality of just needing to shift and pivot and Covid, it was a big relief to me to just take a break from the rat race we’re all on like, yeah. Globally, you know, just everybody working to death. And it just felt like how much more can we do this? Yeah. And it felt like, oh, finally.
[00:20:13] Taylor: Kind, kind of a reset, right?
[00:20:15] Carolyn: Yeah. A few weeks. Like you couldn’t, nobody could do anything like, oh thank you. But then just that need to pivot really, just this sense that we just needed to do things differently forever. Yeah. Not like we’re gonna go back. And so we’re pretty quick to just acknowledge that, okay, we need to retrofit. That’s gonna be the first thing. We’re not gonna sit this one out. We’re going to, we’re gonna provide a service, but we’re gonna take every opportunity to, to whatever the government’s offering. Yes, let’s go for it. Let’s, you know, and so, we jumped online, got everybody as many as we could just to keep going with the online lessons. But that’s what was a really a leveling field for us retail-wise actually, to be honest, because we had, like, like you said, there’s so many big fish out there, like we have no chance.
But just like. You know, now everybody’s doing the same game. And actually, you know, I had given up, you know, I, I had never gotten into the game. Really. It was just the service. Like, if we make money, that’s great. Yeah. But when COVID hit, when we started just looking at everything online and the prices, you just gotta, you price globally now? You look at what’s out there and Music Shop 360 had given us the tools, with the connections with Reverb and now pointy to be out there and just to, at least for us, we’re gonna limit it to our you know, our region. I’m not gonna try shipping things all over the world, but I’m gonna limit to my region and just get out there. So, that has picked up quite a bit. Yeah, so retail actually is now a player in. In our budget.
[00:21:52] Taylor: Yeah. I mean, it seems like a pretty big paradigm shift from maybe what you were doing before yeah. To, you know, have this opportunity to maybe go online a little bit more.
I’m curious about the education side of that. So obviously you’re, you know, Pre-Covid, you’re doing classes in person. I would. The bulk of your classes were in person before Covid. Yeah. How did you make that switch? Like, what was that process like? Like moving to more of a virtual education style or format?
[00:22:19] Carolyn: It’s not been easy. The neutralizer, I guess, is that everybody had to do it. So I don’t think anybody was ahead or behind very, by very much. But I think it was a game changer for the students that now everybody just has to take it online and to realize the value of that. So we did put some. money into cameras. Um, Oh. But, you know, it was, you know, it wasn’t that demanding in terms of what we had to research teachers for, but we did take a hit, you know, it was about, even at its lowest point was, like maybe 50% of what we normally had. At its best, it’s, it was still like, you know, we’re still like 70% as what we were Pre-covid. So, I don’t know that I have the answer to that.
[00:23:09] Taylor: Yeah. You know, to your point I feel like it really did kind of change everybody’s, you know, it was a big reset for everybody. Everybody had to kind of go back to, okay, what do we do now? Right? How are we gonna move this thing forward now? But it really has kind of had a permanent impact on. you know, how stores operate, you know, the ability to offer you know, and who knows? I mean, I, everybody’s crossing our fingers that we’re, you know, the ship has sailed on Covid and we’re not doing that stuff anymore, and we’re not gonna have to worry about lockdowns or things of that nature.
But who knows, right? I mean, who knows what the future holds. Yeah. So to be able to pivot like that and shift quickly you talked a little bit about, you know, different sales channels. You mentioned Reverb and Pointy your own website. I would imagine that was probably a big part of it as well, you know, being able to really kind of focus on that.
And maybe that wasn’t a huge thing before, but I think stores found very quickly that, look, unless we adapt, unless we’re willing to adapt, this thing is gonna be the end of it. Right. I mean, this, we’re not gonna have anywhere to sell. We’re not able to sell online.
So you mentioned a few specific tools. How has that shifted your retail piece? Are you committing more resources to investing in an online presence and you know, e-commerce and kind of reach out online or how has that shifted as far as, you know, resource investment goes?
[00:24:30] Carolyn: Gradually I think we’re realizing that, oh, people are finding us online, so there’s a point with having something that I don’t see a lot of, you know, the foot traffic buying. So I might buy, I think I’d say 10% more of the things that I wouldn’t buy otherwise. But I do believe that the brick and mortar has its place and the immediate community really is our asset. Those are the people. Again, that relationship, that relational component is just really so important. And even something that is as neutral as a thing that you buy, I think you wanna buy it from somebody you know, maybe. Like, you know, there, there is convenience and there’s price. But at the end of the day, you know, some people, we have people come in and, you know, they bought stuff on Amazon, like, can you fix this? And everybody in our community, including the public school directors are like, don’t buy on Amazon, just please go to Neighborhood Music. And so, you know, people want to know that somebody looked at an instrument or the product and is gonna sell you something that you can come back to if you have a problem. You’re trustworthy people and then, hey, let’s support local businesses. So I really believe that’s the asset.
[00:25:42] Taylor: Yeah, you’re right. And I think that’s really kind of, again, the mantra that we hear over and over is you know, shopping local, supporting local businesses who are engaged in good ethical behavior and employing the community and that sort of thing. I think that’s you know, that really resounds well with people. And I know as a consumer that’s who I wanna spend my dollars with or, you know, the people and businesses that are engaged in the community. So, I think that’s awesome.
I really want to thank you for spending a few minutes with us today. Before we absolutely kind of disconnect here, just a couple things I wanted to plug and ask you about. Tell me and tell the audience a little bit about Assignments International.
[00:26:22] Carolyn: Oh, thank you. Yeah. Yeah. We’re a nonprofit organization that resources those born into poverty or who have experienced, lost or devastation with spiritual, educational and basic needs in order to help individuals, families or communities find their economic engine. So that’s what we’re about and we’re about finding those people that we can work with that are, you know, at the stage of development more so than relief. We’re not as much into relief, although sometimes we get involved with that, but more so in developing people that we’re gonna walk alongside for a long period of time that we have a relationship with.
[00:26:57] Taylor: That’s awesome. The website is assignmentsinternational.com. So everybody, when you get a chance, go check that out. That’s really great. I love that about your store. Yeah. That’s awesome. And then the other one I wanted to ask you about is how can consumers and interested parties find Neighborhood Music?
[00:27:15] Carolyn: Our website is neighborhoodmusic.net. We’re also on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, under Neighborhood Music Arcadia.
[00:27:26] Taylor: Okay. And you guys are located down in sunny Southern California in Arcadia. We are what’s the address there at the store?
[00:27:34] Carolyn: It’s 25 South First Avenue in downtown Arcadia. It’s a great neighborhood to be in. It’s right off the gold line Metro.
[00:27:43] Taylor: Awesome. Yeah, it’s a great community down there. And then I guess I’ll just say from my own experience, everybody also needs to definitely check out the Neighborhood Music YouTube page. There’s some really cool stuff on there.
So, again, Carolyn, I really appreciate your time today. We wish the very best for you in the store and yeah, if anybody has any questions for Carolyn and her experience in starting a business and running a business successfully, Please feel free to reach out to her and we’ll look forward to uh, seeing y’all again at the next Music Shop podcast.
[00:28:14] Carolyn: Thank you so much.
[00:28:15] Taylor: Thank you.