The Right Note: Orchestrating a business making musical instruments
In an erstwhile Chinese restaurant in Sandy, highly trained craftsmen put the finishing touches on the bells of saxophones, carving in swirling lines and shapes in the curved metal. Around the room, details are added and checked on clarinets and flutes.
When each instrument is finished, they’ll be shipped off to music stores across the globe—the newest members of the Cannonball Musical Instruments family—and bought and played by musicians from students in school bands to professionals.
Cannonball, a well-known name in the international musical instrument market, is as home-grown a company as they come: Its co-founders came up with the idea in the kitchen of their Utah home and continue to be based here even as it has expanded abroad. And it’s not alone—a small but sturdy collection of instrument-makers have found that the Beehive State is the place to grow their craft and business.
The saxophone-making giant had humble beginnings, recalls co-founder Sheryl Laukat. While tinkering with a saxophone that wasn’t producing a good sound, Sheryl’s co-founder and husband, Tevis, a professional saxophone player who had also trained with a master flute craftsman, and Sheryl, a saxophone-playing music educator, experimented with making changes inside the instrument to improve its sound.
The two were so impressed with the improvement in sound that they decided to put it all on the line to start a business making and selling instruments that sounded as good straight from the case as that first saxophone did after extensive tinkering.
“We wanted to take an instrument that’s fine and make it into something you don’t want to put down,” Sheryl says. “That’s always our goal.”
They considered moving the business to California, where Tevis grew up, but ultimately decided to stay in Utah because of the strong musical community, business-friendly economic policies and the family-friendly culture. Utah is also close enough to the West Coast so shipping is convenient, Sheryl says, and the surrounding landscape makes a big impression on visitors to the company.
“It’s a unique place and it’s a clean city. We’re always proud to be able to boast of our city being so clean,” she says. “People come here and they look at the mountains and are just in awe.”
The saxophones themselves are now manufactured in two plants in Taiwan, with trumpets, flutes and clarinets produced elsewhere using Cannonball’s designs, but all instruments return to the company’s Sandy headquarters for the finishing touches and quality testing. Those finishing touches include adding the polished stone keys, making sure there are no leaks around the keyholes, and the scrollwork that is hand-done in the old Chinese restaurant near the company’s main building.
Sheryl says, to her knowledge, Cannonball is the only company in the country that carves the embellishments by hand—a craft that takes more than a year of study before a craftsman is allowed to even touch a real instrument.
For many years, she says, the company was much more popular with musicians around the country or world than with those closer to home.
“Maybe there was some doubt because people knew who we were,” she says. “You have to start somewhere. You can’t start out with all the years of experience and perfection that we’ve worked on all this time.”
The company’s success over the last 20 years is due not only to its quality of instrument, Sheryl says, but also to its priority on customer service and standing behind each instrument. Part of that strategy means Cannonball (named for the projectile, not famed saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley) does not sell products online, meaning would-be buyers have to go to music stores that carry Cannonball instruments. Cannonball does have a strong online presence, but it’s built up of recordings, pictures, videos and specs, not retail.
The reason for that increasingly unusual practice is because of the nature of the relationship between a musician and an instrument, with a musician finding the instrument that has just the right sound and feel for him or her. At a music store, a musician can try out an instrument before purchasing it, which translates to fewer returned instruments. In addition, if something minor happened to an instrument in transit, the salesperson could diagnose and fix the problem at the time. If something more severe is amiss with an instrument, a buyer can work with the music store, as well, instead of contacting Cannonball directly.
“The saxophone is a lot more complicated than a hammer or a chair … it’s got a lot of moving parts and it needs someone that can take care of them. We find the customer is happier when they go to a music store and have someone to take care of them,” she says.
And if and when someone does contact Cannonball for an issue, Sheryl says, they try to correct it as promptly as possible. The same goes for any issues that go through music stores, she says.
“If I argue with you about $10 or $100, you’re going to have a terrible taste in your mouth for me, even if we eventually work it out,” she says. “If you know you’re going to call me with a problem and I’m going to say ‘yes, absolutely, what do you need?’ then you’re going to come back again and again and increase your orders.”
Farther north in the Salt Lake Valley, Daniel Prier, owner of Peter Prier and Sons Violins, says his business also thrives on customer communication and helping a musician find just the right instrument.
“The violin picks you, just like the Harry Potter wand thing. When you find the right instruments, you want to practice and you want to play better,” Prier says.
Prier eats, sleeps and breathes string instruments. His love affair began early, when he started playing violin at age 7, and when he turned 12, he started working as an apprentice to his father, Peter Paul Prier, who founded the store and an attached violin-making school. After what Prier calls a sabbatical snowboarding in his young adulthood, he continued his studies at the Chicago School of Violin Making before returning home to help his ailing father run the family business.
Making violins in the old style is a notoriously tricky and time-consuming business. A typical violin takes about $1,000 of materials and 400 hours of labor. Prier says a quick worker can turn out six per year, while multiple craftsmen working in an assembly line can churn out upwards of 20. Because he also manages the store and does restoration on customer instruments, Prier only makes one or two a year.
Prier finds himself with competition in the form of other graduates of the Violin Making School of America, which has since been sold but continues to operate in the same building, next door to Peter Prier and Sons Violins. The Utah market is also somewhat difficult because of the frugal culture and how it sometimes clashes against the goals and abilities of local musicians, he says.
“In Salt Lake City, everyone in general is very frugal. Everyone wants the best-sounding instrument for the least amount of money, and sometimes that’s not possible,” he says. “I have to constantly educate people on the value of an instrument. They want to spend the least amount possible but go against musicians trying out for Julliard. I tell them they’re trying to race against Formula One drivers in a Toyota Prius.”
Though he primarily considers himself a craftsman and musician, Prier’s role demands that he also work in the retail portion of the business. While he doesn’t feel that comes as naturally as making or repairing instruments, he uses it as an opportunity to share his passion with customers.
“Making it and selling it are two different trades. You never want to represent your own work. You always want someone to represent it for you. If you’re talking to a tradesman or craftsman, you’re your own critic,” he says, noting that he asks colleagues to represent his work when possible.
“I really have to be passionate about whatever I’m doing. If the passion’s not there, it just seems fake. It just seems like no one cares. It’s like if you were going to buy a violin from a pianist—they don’t really understand it. There’s a soul and a voice in each of these instruments and unless you have the voice to talk about it, you’re not going to be able to communicate that. I’m not a polished sales guy, but I can talk about these instruments with people, so it works.”
Utah is home to a slew of small-scale craftsmen, as well, including Marko Johnson, owner of the Round Door Gallery. Johnson primarily considers himself an artist and a craftsman, rather than a musician, but over the last 20 years has found a niche in a global market with his hand-crafted and self-designed compact didgeridoos.
Johnson started his career in the ‘60s making leather goods, and did that for many years while appearing in and helping promote galleries and artistic associations. Around 1990, he says, his leatherwork transitioned to making drums, on which he dyes, rather than paints, the rawhide in tie-dye patterns or featuring figures, animals or geographic formations.
But on September 21, 1993—Johnson says he’ll never forget the date—he was introduced to a didgeridoo for the first time by a customer at his Salt Lake gallery. Johnson was enraptured by the sound of the instrument and immediately set out to make his own. The Australian instrument is traditionally made from wood hollowed out by termites, but Johnson crafted one from a long piece of bamboo and a wax mouthpiece.
“From that day on, I’ve kept making them—I haven’t stopped. I’ve learned how to play, and taught lots of other people how to play and been obsessed with them ever since,” he says.
The didgeridoo has a cult-like following around the world, popularized by its unique sound and relative ease to play. The advent of wide internet adoption helped connect him with fans of the instrument around the world. “The didgeridoo phenomenon is worldwide,” he says. “Every single person around the world could play a didgeridoo, as long as you have a mouth and lungs. It doesn’t matter if you’re old or young.”
Johnson still sells didgeridoos today, made from thick leather—some finished with native-looking patterns, others with novelty designs such as animals or recognizable masks. “I went back to my leather roots. The first methods were just get a log and split it and hollow it out, but I tried making it out of leather and it worked great, so I kept making them,” he says.
In 1995, Johnson set about trying to make the instruments, which typically measure in at five feet long or more, more compact. He sent prototypes of his compact creation to enthusiasts across the globe and altered the design according to their feedback. Four years later, he applied for a patent on his “didjbox,” which fits five feet’s worth of resonant space in a five-inch-by-nine-inch block of carved solid mahogany that weighs less than a pound.
Johnson’s patent application was approved, but only protects his intellectual property in the United States. Soon, copycat businesses were cropping up internationally, making money off of Johnson’s design without compensating or even crediting him. However, Johnson says, while the infringement of his design was frustrating, it wasn’t unexpected, and one company, based in Bali, asked Johnson for the rights to sell their version of his product in the U.S. and does give him a small portion of the proceeds.
“I just kind of let it go. It’s just one of the many, many things I do, and I just keep making them,” he says. “I don’t really care. I just move on to the next creative idea. I get copied all the time; it’s no big deal.”
These days, Johnson considers himself semi-retired—though, he says, the harder he tries to slow down, the less life seems to let him. He continues to make his drums, didgeridoos and didjboxes, and has already moved on to his next project: finding a way to 3D print his didjboxes.
“Everything I do, I try to be completely original. I don’t want to copy everybody’s anything,” he says. “I might have to put a twist on something, but I have no desire to be a traditional craftsman. I just like to make things with my own ideas.”