Monday, May 21, 2007

Music, Prosperity and Legislative Priorities

During this state budget crisis, a lot of people are asking if the arts should receive funding from the state. Last month, arts advocates rallied in Lansing to protect funding already in the pipeline. The situation in Michigan is so grave that school funding will most certainly be cut next month. So why continue to advocate for arts funding?

I met with Charles Avsharian to get his thoughts on the arts, music and business in Michigan. A violinist, educator, entrepreneur and CEO of Shar Music Company, Avsharian was born and raised in Ann Arbor and has a unique perspective. His own independent spirit instigated what eventually became Shar Music Company.

Now in its 45th year, Shar began when Charles, a student at the Curtis Institute, managed to sell strings to Philadelphia Orchestra players at a discount unmatched by dealers at the time. The young conservatory student had the moxie to sell strings to the legendary ensemble renowned for its amazing string section. Chicago had brass, but Philly had strings–the “Philadelphia Sound,” cultivated by music director, Eugene Ormandy. Avsharian’s father, observing Charles in action, pursued this business idea and began selling strings by mail order from Ann Arbor.

At the age of 29, Avsharian brought his single-minded focus to the company and made two shocking career moves for a gifted violinist. In his second year as a violin professor at the University of Michigan, Avsharian resigned. Shortly after that, he declined the position of concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony. He made these choices in order to help grow the company with his father, Michael, and brother, Michael Jr. "At that point I made a full commitment to working for the company," he said. " Because I'm competitive by nature, it became my role to develop the company. I was lucky I had a brother and father in whom I had complete trust." Avsharian's son, Haig, is the current President of Shar.

Today, Shar employs over 100 people. A full service music company, Shar specializes purveying everything you could possibly need to play, teach or learn a bowed string instrument. They have an extensive website, a showroom in Ann Arbor and a booming mail order business.

Avsharian attributes Shar's consistent growth and success to being in the right place at the right time. "We offered a discount nationally when no one else did,"he said.

I asked Avsharian if he sees benefits to being based in Michigan. "I never thought about it that way. As far as our company goes, for mail order, we could be anywhere. All that was required in the beginning was a first class post office," he said. With the internet and shipping options beyond U.S. mail "we could be in a cave in Colorado and it would still work."

On further reflection he added,"Has Michigan been good for Shar? Yes. There are communities that have a lot of musical activity and interest--Grand Rapids, East Lansing, Okemos, Toledo, Ann Arbor. The Great Lakes states provide a significant component to Shar's business. There are a lot of school music programs and orchestras in this region."

"I think Michigan has a lot going for it. It is an attractive area. But there are short term problems. Mind you, short term could be 50 years. The Detroit area is changing; the surrounding areas are growing with new businesses. The government really needs to upgrade conditions for the underprivileged. We need to get things going to take care of people. But there are so many checks and balances in government, sometimes nothing happens,"he added.

On the subject of budget cuts to arts programs Avsharian remarked provocatively, "The arts are totally unnecessary. Man can live without music; he doesn't need it to live. He wants music. He can live without paintings. He doesn't eat them; they don't shelter him. He wants to look at paintings. He wants the arts."

Clearly an advocate for arts education, Avsharian said,"the only way the arts are going to make it is if the media steps up. In the U.S. the media makes things happen. We have to help young people get into the arts. Government is negligent in this. There are always other priorities. I would wish that our legislators might more carefully think over the important question regarding funding of the arts and education in the arts. I would ask them to help mold the political will of our government so as to embrace the notion that the Great Lakes State might also become the Great Arts State."

Can the market cultivate arts appreciation? Avsharian drew the distinction between active and passive responses to music,"You need to get young kids to feel the pleasure of making music. Not just putting it in their ears, but creating music." To this end, Avsharian would like to find a way to give back to the community. "I have an interest in getting kids started at no charge, perhaps through a pilot program somewhere. It's something I want to make available, a gift." But it is still in the concept stage.

As for Shar surviving in a tough economy, he said,"Oddly enough, in every economic downturn, and there have been some big ones in 40 plus years, Shar does better. I'm not an economics professor and I don't really understand it. More than likely we are dealing with people who can afford more regardless of the economy and who value developing musical skills in their children. They understand that studying music and playing an instrument are beneficial to brain development."

Shar emphasizes the role of teachers in its business. "The most important thing for this company are the teachers. We have a saying around here--the teacher is queen. They are the people we need to inform and take care of. They want convenience, variety, quality, free shipping. We need to help them better serve their students and students' parents."

So there you have it: the symbiotic relationship of the arts, business, education and government-self evident to entrepreneur in the arts. Now, how about the folks in Lansing? Could we really be the Great Arts State?