UB Insider #25: Making Sweet, Sweet Music in the Beehive State
About this episode:
Along with worldclass skiing and breathtaking vistas, Utah is known for its abnormally musical population. The wealth of talent is as true for craftsmanship as it is for performance, with several makers of high-quality instruments calling the Beehive State home. In this episode of UB Insider, Utah Business‘ Adva Biton and Lisa Christensen discuss three—Cannonball Instruments, Prier & Sons Violins, and instruments crafted by Marko Johnson—profiled in The Right Note in Utah Business magazine’s August issue. Subscribe to our podcast or download this episode on iTunes and Stitcher.
Adva Biton: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Adva Biton, assistant editor at Utah Business magazine. Music is ever-present in our lives. Whether you’re in a car listening to the radio being transported by the sounds of a symphony, or say, listening to the intro on a podcast, there are few of us who don’t enjoy having music playing while we go about our day.
As omnipresent as music is, we very infrequently wonder where musical instruments come from. And while, alas, there’s no musical stork that brought Prince his purple guitar on his doorstep, there are a lot of instrument makers that reside right here in the Beehive State. Lisa Christensen, UB’s online editor wrote a piece on these businesses for our August issue. Hello Lisa.
Lisa Christensen: Hello. It’s a little different being on this side of the microphone.
Adva Biton: Glad to have you anyway. For each of the three businesses that you profiled, the proprietors have a completely different background, but essentially came to music instrument making the same way: through love of music, and of course, the instrument.
Lisa Christensen: Right. So I profiled three major instrument makers here in our state, Cannonball Instruments which is based out of Sandy, Prier & Sons Violins based in Salt Lake City, and then Marko Johnson who is an artisan here in Salt Lake as well. And the proprietors of Cannonball, Tevis and Sheryl Laukat, they were originally a professional musician and a music teacher respectively. And they both played saxophone. And they had a problem saxophone that was giving them fits and so they tried tinkering around with it.
Tevis used a technique that he had seen used on flutes before. They were just trying to improve the sound and they made it so much better that it was almost an unrecognizable instrument. So they felt they couldn’t just not do that anymore. They wanted to bring that sound quality to more instruments and to more people. And so their love of that sound and of that instrument and making the best instrument that they could led them to leave their lives as they knew it and, you know, go all in on this business. Even though neither of them had had business experience before.
Daniel Prier who is the current owner of Prier & Sons Violins, he apprenticed with his father. And his father was Peter Paul Prier who made a huge name for himself here in Utah and abroad. And so, he came to music at a very young age and always had that love instilled with him and, you know, has built a legacy all of his own.
And Marko Johnson is primarily an artist. In fact, when you talk to him he doesn’t consider himself to be a musician or even a music craftsman. But he was introduced to a digeridoo and he says he’ll never forget the date. It was September 21st, 1993. It’s just burned into his memory because he heard it and he was just astounded, as few of us are when we hear the digeridoo. So he immediately set upon trying to make an instrument of his own and learn how to play it and has crafted his own instruments and put his own spin on it, and has a patented design for a compact digeridoo. And again, it’s just his love the instrument and of the sound that it produces that has led him to make this a big part of his life.
Adva Biton: That’s interesting. It seems like all of them had some sort of innovation that they brought to the table when they started making their instruments.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah. That’s an interesting connection that I hadn’t really put together before. But being a musician is kind of a funny thing. Because you spend so much of your time in a little practice room and no one hears what you make. So you and your instrument are so intimately connected for so much of your time together, because the performance is such a little part of what you do. And so when you find a way to make your instrument sound better, I can imagine that you would just want to help everyone sound so much better. Because, I mean, there really is a huge difference in one instrument to another.
I’m sure we’ll talk about that a little bit later. But not all instruments are created equal. And when you are, you know, engaged in that learning process and that performance process, the right instrument can make all the difference.
Adva Biton: Making an instrument does seem to be kind of a labor of love. You know, it’s a really laborious process. And all three of your profiled businesses seem to do a lot of work by hand. You mentioned Johnson with the digeridoo. That’s an instrument that originally came about by termites hollowing out a log, isn’t that correct?
Lisa Christensen: Yeah. But the way he does it, he does not have a container of termites. For his compact digeridoos, he calls them “digboxes,” it’s a block of solid mahogany that he bores out by hand. And then he does make full sized digeridoos, but he actually makes them out of leather. So that’s all hand done. He decorates them and embellishes them all by hand.
The instruments at Cannonball, they’re known mostly for their saxophones, but they also produce a number of instruments – both woodwind and brass. They’re made primarily in Cannonball owned factories in Asia. But they are brought back to Cannonball headquarters in Sandy to have the finishing touches put on all of them. That’s the key stones. The stones on the keys where your fingers actually go, or the scrollwork in the metal. And that’s all done here by highly trained craftsmen.
And then, of course, at Prier & Sons Violins, Daniel Prier himself is a craftsman. And a lot of their violins are made there, either by Prier or by others who have gone through the violin making school which used to be part of the business but has been sold to someone else.
Adva Biton: And you said that Prier currently only makes one or two instruments a year?
Lisa Christensen: Yeah. So I wrote about Prier making his own instruments. And again, he apprenticed with his father from a very young age. And then afterwards he was kind of a journeyman violin maker at a school in Chicago. And he still makes violins. He has to also run a business and sell violins and such so he doesn’t have a lot of time. But it is an extremely time consuming process.
He says it takes $1,000 worth of materials and at least 400 hours of work hand-making these instruments. So he only makes one or two a year. But he says, you know, if someone is really, really hitting the craftsmanship hard, they can make up to 20. But that’s still only 20 a year and that’s all that someone’s doing and they’re incredibly fast at it. So making a violin is just a really time consuming process and it just takes a while. And if anyone has ever tried to buy a violin, that’s why they’re so expensive.
Adva Biton: I can absolutely imagine. I mean, can you think of any other business where you would only make one or two of your product?
Lisa Christensen: Yeah. There wouldn’t be very many. Most things have been so automated. Most things are made so efficiently. You know, our electronics, our furniture that we get from Ikea, those things are just made quickly. And so these handcrafted things take a lot longer and I guess it’s kind of mind boggling to think about.
Adva Biton: That actually kind of brings me to my next question. Prier has mentioned that the frugal nature in Utah has made it a little bit difficult for him to sell instruments, whereas Cannonball has said that they prefer remaining in the state and chose to stay in the state over going out to California.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah. So Utah is known for its frugality. But that can kind of be frustrating for people who make these really high-end things. So, yeah. When something takes 400 plus hours to make and $1,000 worth of materials, and that’s just for a violin. It goes up from there for violas, cellos, string basses. So we have a very, we have a very strong culture of music in Utah. A lot of people play instruments. I heard a statistic somewhere that there are more pianos per capita in Utah than in any other place in the world. We just, yeah, we just have a lot of musical people and a lot of people who value music.
But when you are getting a violin for your kid and you see a price tag for something that takes 400 hours to make, I mean, it can be kind of a shock, you know? Because these instruments can run upwards of thousands of dollars. Actually, the instruments that Cannonball makes too. They can be incredibly expensive. And it’s just, it’s really, you have to be kind of serious about music to want to purchase some of those high-end instruments.
And of course there are lower end instruments, but like Prier mentioned, there are a lot of people who want to compete on a national or a global level in terms of musicianship and performance. He compared these people who don’t want to shell out for a high quality instrument but they’re competing against people who have studied at Julliard, to trying to race against a Formula 1 driver in a Toyota Prius. I mean, it’s a lot cheaper, but, I mean, that cheapness is going to come at a cost.
Functionally, a lot of instruments, the cheaper versions are functionally the same. But there is just a polish on fine instruments that you just don’t get with lower end instruments and, I mean, that’s why they’re priced accordingly. And I should say that I have a music background. I have a music degree. And so I have been that person that looks at a sticker and is like, oh my gosh. This is more than I pay on housing a year. Am I really serious about this? And I’ve also done the whole thing like, you sit in a room and you play an instrument and you’re like wow, this is an amazing instrument. But this instrument that is glorious and wonderful is $1,000 more than this other instrument which is pretty okay. So it’s just one of those things that you kind of have to weigh.
And Prier had another thought about that. He compared finding the right instrument, even though sometimes it’s really expensive to, if you’ll remember in Harry Potter, Harry Potter goes to the wand shop and he finds the right wand. And like, the wind is blowing and there are magic sparkles in the air. He said when you have the right instrument, it makes you want to practice. Because it’s true. If you play something and every note that comes out of that sounds like gold, you’re going to want to play that a lot more even if you’re just playing, you know, scales or really elementary things. You’re going to want to practice more if you think you sound good or if you like the feel of an instrument. So it’s just kind of a clash between values, right?
Adva Biton: Of course.
Lisa Christensen: Because in Utah yeah, we value music. But we also value being frugal.
Adva Biton: Right. So you’re paying less in money, but you’re really paying for it in sound quality.
Lisa Christensen: Right. There’s a balance that you have to strike. On the other hand, as you mentioned, Cannonball decided to stay here. They considered moving to California where they’d be a little bit closer to shipping outlets, but they decided to stay in Utah because it’s so business friendly. It’s so much easier to start a business here than in California or some other regions. So there are absolute advantages to starting a business here. Even if you have maybe a harder time selling your product here.
Adva Biton: While there may be some complaints about selling locally, they’re certainly not having a difficult time selling globally. All three of the businesses that you profiled seem to have their own global followings.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah. When I was talking to the people at Cannonball, Sheryl said that they have quite a few more global customers than they do here. In fact, when I was studying music at Utah State University, I remember hearing that Cannonball instruments were made here in Utah. And I was like, no they’re not. I didn’t believe it because you know, you see a global brand that is well recognized and used by a lot of, you know, kind of well-respected professionals. And you kind of assume that they’re made somewhere else.
Adva Biton: Right. Strasburg or somewhere with a little more glamour.
Lisa Christensen: Exactly. And she said they actually had a really hard time building a reputation in Utah. Because people were just like oh, them. Well I know them. They can’t make anything great. But, you know, elsewhere they had a really big following.
Similarly, Prier & Sons Violins is a widely known and recognized name and people come from all over to go to the violin school. Which again, is not connected to Prier & Sons now, but it was started by Peter Paul Prier. So it’s kind of still that legacy.
And then, Marko Johnson, his digboxes and his digeridoos are wildly popular all around the world. Apparently there is a very strong digeridoo community in certain parts of the world. I believe he said there is a festival in Germany for digeridoos? And he has had real problems actually, with that, because he has a patent on his design in the United States. But patents don’t count internationally. So if you have a patent here, it doesn’t matter in Mexico or whatever. So he’s had a lot of people steal his design and make their own versions of it elsewhere.
Adva Biton: Yeah. I think that you wrote that there’s a company in Bali that’s at least paying nominal fees to him for using his design.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah. There’s one company in Bali that is using his design and producing their own version of his product. But they are giving him a little bit of a kickback for every sale. So that’s good that he’s being paid for his intellectual property, but it’s just really frustrating.
Adva Biton: So what he really needs is for there to be a greater digeridoo following here in the United States?
Lisa Christensen: I guess so, yeah. I guess that’s the solution.
Adva Biton: So go out and find your local digeridoo festival and go to Marko Johnson to get your digeridoo. So there’s some challenges, obviously, with finding the right instruments and with selling instruments as a business owner. And some of the companies said that they prefer not to do business online, which kind of flies in the face of how a lot of retail is done these days.
Lisa Christensen: Right. Actually, Marko Johnson does almost all of his business online. He says that he sells very little in terms of his drums, which are beautiful. We haven’t really touched on his drums but they are magnificent works of art. You should really check them out, and his digeridoos. It’s done entirely online. And those businesses really took off when he started selling online.
But at Prier & Sons Violins, they prefer to have people come in. They prefer to be able to tell them why their instruments are, you know, worth as much as they are.
And Cannonball doesn’t sell online at all. They just sell through retailers. They have a website, they have a heavy online presence and that’s something that Sheryl tells me is really difficult for them because everything is online now. But they don’t want to sell online because there is so much that can happen between looking at an instrument online and ordering it.
Again, going back to the Harry Potter reference, so much of choosing a musical instrument is personal. You know, how your mouth is built or how your fingers are built, and maybe this instrument that has minute differences from this other instrument will either work marvelously for you, and it might not work so well for someone else. Or it won’t work at all but it’s perfect for somebody else. So, you know, there are just tiny details that come with craftsmanship or slightly different designs. And you really need to find what works for you.
Adva Biton: Well, harking back to the sound quality debate, I mean, it’s hard to sell somebody on an instrument that’s $1,000 more but has superior sound quality if you sell online.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah, exactly. So she said that they rely on salespeople and authorized dealers to, you know, when you go to an authorized dealer, they take you into a room that’s got really good sound quality with really good acoustics in there. You play a little bit from different instruments and you see what feels right to you, you see what sounds right to you. So you do kind of get that Harry Potter moment. And then if you have questions, you are able to just ask the sales representative, well what about this? Hey this seems a little bit weird. And then the sales representative can communicate with Cannonball about that. As opposed to someone getting an item and having it shipped to them. And there are always risks in shipping even with the mostly tightly packed and padded boxes. There’s always a risk of something being bumped loose. Especially with instruments that are, you know, really, really delicate things.
Adva Biton: Of course.
Lisa Christensen: So you order it and it comes and maybe it gets bumped around, and maybe something doesn’t sound right. And maybe it’s just a spring which is a really easy fix, or maybe it’s something a bit more labor intensive. And so if you have a dealer that you’re working with and you see something wrong, you can just take it back to the dealer and the dealer can communicate again with Cannonball. Or the dealer can fix it themselves if it’s a minor fix. And so she says that it just saves so much time. And if it’s something that the salesperson can fix, they don’t have to ship it anywhere. Which again, saves on that risk of being bumped or knocked around.
So yeah, it’s a combination of having someone there to explain the instrument and that superiority of the instrument and also, you know, to have that moment with the instrument to see if it’s a good fit for you. And also to solve problems before they come up. Now, because everything is on the internet, and everything is online and everyone is online, Cannonball has had to really work hard to have a showing online even though they don’t sell online. So they have a lot of pictures of their instruments.
Adva Biton: Of the hand-done craftsmanship?
Lisa Christensen: Of the hand-done craftsmanship of the different lines of instruments, and they also have a lot of recordings from professional partners who play on Cannonballs. Or they have musicians who come in just to record. Like, oh hey look, this is our new horn. We’re going to play it. This is what this sounds like. It has a little bit of a darker tone as you can see because of blah. You know, so they have a lot of recordings so that people can go into a shop with sort of an idea of what they want. But they can’t just buy it online. So it’s kind of a balance between, they want to stand up for their product, and they do. She said that’s really, really important to them to stand behind their product. But they also want to give their product the best chance that it can to make someone happy.
Adva Biton: Out of curiosity, are their brand ambassadors for brands, musical instrument brands the same way that there are brand ambassadors for like, outdoor companies?
Lisa Christensen: Yes. There really are. In fact, I had a saxophone professor when I was at Utah State University who was a brand ambassador himself for one brand. And for Cannonball, Branford Marsalis is one of their featured artists in one of their videos that they have. So yeah, musical brands absolutely have their own brand ambassadors like any other niche or fairly close-knit community. So, like any close-knit community, maybe you don’t know any of the rock climbing names. And maybe you wouldn’t know any of the violin playing names. But within that community they’re pretty big and well respected.
Adva Biton: That’s really great. Well if you would like to read the article, it is in our August issue and it is called “The Right Note”. Thanks for joining us today, Lisa.
Lisa Christensen: Absolutely. It’s been a great change of pace.
Adva Biton: Yeah. Looking forward to having you back on this side of the mic. Thanks to Mike Sasich for production help, as well as Chris Sasich. Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org or on our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages at @utahbusiness. Thanks for listening.