St. Louis Music, Inc. History

Address:
1400 Ferguson Avenue
St. Louis, Missouri 63133
U.S.A.

Telephone: (314) 727-4512
Toll Free: 800-727-4512
Fax: (314) 727-8929

Website:
Private Company
Incorporated: 1922
Employees: 350
Sales: $80 million (2001 est.)
NAIC: 334310 Audio and Video Equipment Manufacturing

Company Perspectives:

St. Louis Music's Mission is to be a worldwide music products industry leader in the development, production, distribution, and marketing of quality instruments, equipment, accessories, and related services that satisfy the needs of music makers. We strive to understand and learn from our reseller, end-users, suppliers, and associates, and whenever possible, establish mutually beneficial "partnering" relationships. Integrity is the centerpiece of our culture, and our people conduct themselves in a direct, forthright manner that leaves no ambiguity as to where we stand in terms of our actions, expectations, and policies.

Key Dates:

1922:
Bernard Kornblum starts a violin import business.
1929:
The Kornblum brothers travel to Belgium to start a short-lived European venture.
1941:
World War II interrupts the production of musical instruments.
1957:
Gene Kornblum joins St. Louis Music.
1964:
St. Louis Music becomes the exclusive distributor for Trixon Drums.
1968:
Alvarez-Yairi acoustic guitars are introduced.
1975:
SLM Electronics is established with the introduction of the Electra MPC Guitar.
1980:
The Crate amp is introduced at the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show.
1986:
St. Louis Music acquires Ampeg, a maker of guitar amplifiers.
1994:
A second manufacturing facility opens in Yellville, Arkansas.

Company History:

St. Louis Music, Inc. has a more than 80-year history as a manufacturer and distributor of musical instruments and accessories. Originally founded as a distributor of violins and violas, the company now has a diverse product line that ranges from hand-carved violins to guitar amplifiers. St. Louis Music has outlasted the vast majority of its competitors by adapting to upheavals in the music industry. In 1922, when the company was founded, there were 71 exhibitors at the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show. The vast majority of them were forced out of business as the music industry went through the Depression and the upheavals caused by the evolution of popular music from jazz to rock and roll. St. Louis Music survived by adapting its product line to take advantage of new musical trends. The company developed its own proprietary lines soon after the rise of rock and roll, including the respected Alvarez guitars and well-known Crate amplifiers. In addition, the company's Knilling String Instruments division carries on the traditional business of wholesale violin distribution, placing special emphasis on service and adjustments performed by skilled craftspeople. Other divisions at St. Louis Music include Ampeg amplifiers, sound reinforcement equipment under the Audio Centron brand name, and the SLM Omni Division, which focuses on importing and wholesaling musical accessories and instruments. The SLM Electronics division encompasses both a factory and a research and development center, while the company's International Division takes care of the technical adjustments necessary for supplying distributors in Europe, Australia, and Japan. All of the company's lines are represented by a single sales force and supported by a central administrative staff. The company is led by Gene Kornblum, whose father founded St. Louis Music.

Building an Import and Distribution Business: 1922-60

St. Louis Music was founded in 1922 by Bernard Kornblum, an immigrant from Vienna, Austria. Kornblum had nourished a love for music ever since he began studying the violin at age ten. However, his family's financial limitations, and the realization that his talent might not be truly exceptional, led him to abandon the path toward a professional career in music. In 1920, at the age of 19, he emigrated to St. Louis, Missouri, where some of his relatives had already established themselves. After short stints at a clothing and a music store, he got a job as a necktie salesman. Kornblum stayed in the haberdashery business for a few years but still yearned to satisfy his love for music. His chance came when the German music wholesaler Seibenbrun put an add in a Missouri paper looking for an agent to export musical instruments to the United States. Kornblum contacted the company and agreed to buy several hundred dollars worth of instruments and accessories to be paid for in German marks. His financial calculations did not take into account the fast depreciation of the German mark during that period, and by the time the shipment arrived it cost him considerably less than he had anticipated. As a result, Kornblum was able to offer the products to St. Louis area retailers at exceptionally low prices. The shipment sold out quickly, and Kornblum worked on establishing relationships with other European manufacturers. Soon he was importing a range of violins and violas from Markneukirchen, Germany, as well as harmonicas from Klingenthal. In 1922, he was able to quit his job selling ties and move his import business into office space in downtown St. Louis.

Bernard's sister Erna took over administrative duties at the business in 1923, and their younger brother David joined the enterprise the following year. The company took the name Kornblum Brothers Music. When Erna got married in 1925, her husband Jack Schoenberg also joined the company as a salesman. Business was good in the exuberant climate of the Roaring Twenties, and as the company's offerings expanded, the business made two moves to larger facilities by the end of 1927. In 1929, the Kornblum brothers' annual buying trips to Europe enticed them into establishing a business in Belgium. Eventually settling in Brussels, they sold instruments wholesale and imported Dixieland records from the states, capitalizing on the fact that, while Dixieland's popularity was waning in the United States, it was new to Europe. Meanwhile, their sister Erna and her husband Jack were running the business in St. Louis. The U.S. enterprise was small enough that the 1929 stock market crash had little negative effect on the company. In fact, Erna turned the crash to her advantage when she bought St. Louis Music, a sheet music wholesaler that was on the verge of bankruptcy. Kornblum Brothers Music took on the name of the sheet music company.

In 1933, Erna announced that she was pregnant, so Bernard and David abandoned their European venture and came back to St. Louis. Erna's husband Jack continued to play a major role in running the company. His conservative approach, however, conflicted with that of the Kornblum brothers, who wanted to adapt their offerings to changes in the music industry. The conflict ended in 1938 when Jack and Erna moved to California. Now the Kornblums expanded beyond violins and cellos to begin selling band instruments, sheet music, and music accessories. The business had about 20 employees at this time.

In 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the ensuing war put a brake on the music business. Not only were European import sources cut off, but restrictions in the United States made it impossible to manufacture instruments. The company survived by turning to alternative enterprises, including the sale of paint, leather goods, and fine writing instruments. The music business became profitable once again in the postwar period. St. Louis Music became a distributor for dozens of manufacturers. The company represented Harmony and Kay guitars, Regal ukuleles, York Band Instruments, Zildjian cymbals, Turner microphones, Vibrator reeds, and many other brand name products in the music industry. Electronic organs became popular in the mid-1950s, and the company became a distributor for the Thomas Organ Company in 1954. A few years later, St. Louis Music found a cheaper, portable version of the large home organs: Harmophone portable electric reed organs, which were made in Germany. St. Louis Music formed a separate company, Musical Products Corporation, to distribute the organs. The business capitalized on a brief craze for the product around 1958, then crashed when the fad ended.

Proprietary Products for the Rock and Roll Era

By the 1960s, both the national music scene and the people in charge of St. Louis Music were changing. David Kornblum had died in 1954, and three years later Bernard's son Gene agreed to try out the family business before committing himself to pursuing a law degree. The music industry drew him in: he became a full-time employee in 1961 and would be one of the major forces for change at St. Louis Music over the next several decades. Soon after Gene entered the business, the birth of rock and roll began challenging the music industry to adapt. At first, the development was a boon for the whole industry. "After the Beatles rock 'n' roll boom, we could sell anything that resembled a guitar or drum set," Gene Kornblum reminisced in a booklet celebrating the company's 75th anniversary. Firms that previously had little interest in the music business now tried to get a piece of the profits. CBS Corporation, for example, bought Fender guitars, and many small firms went public or were acquired by conglomerates. Inexpensive imports were gobbled up by an eager public. Meanwhile, leading manufacturers such as the Ludwig Drum Company and the CF Martin Guitar Company established their own sales forces, leaving wholesalers out of the picture. By the early 1970s, consumer demand leveled off, profits went down across the industry, and many of the businesses that were coveted during the 1960s rock and roll boom went bankrupt or were sold back.

Gene Kornblum had the vision to put St. Louis Music ahead of its competition. When he joined the company, there was little to differentiate it from other distributors with similar product lines. He realized that had to change. "A long time ago we decided that there wasn't much future in simply distributing other people's products," he told Music Trades in 1992, "To survive and grow, we needed to invest in developing our own product lines." The first step toward this goal was taken in 1964, when St. Louis Music became the exclusive distributor for German-made Trixon drums. The drums, in addition to being well made, had distinctive elliptical and cone shapes that Gene believed would appeal to the counter-culture attitude of rock and roll. His hunch was validated: although the drums cost more than alternative brands, St. Louis Music sold 3,000 sets in 1964. The next year, the company introduced a more affordable line under the Apollo name.

In 1968, a fruitful partnership began that gave birth to the Alvarez line of guitars. Gene Kornblum met the gifted Japanese luthier Kazuo Yairi through a Japanese trading partner. Yairi's fine guitar craftsmanship joined forces with St. Louis Music's marketing ability to produce handmade acoustic guitars under the Alvarez-Yairi name. The high-quality instruments, backed up by elegant catalogues and proficient marketing, gained a following among musicians, winning endorsements from popular guitarists such as Roy Clark and Waylon Jennings. Eventually, electric guitars were also produced under the Alvarez name, and the Alvarez Artist series was developed for entry-level players.

St. Louis Music was also making efforts to keep its traditional stringed instruments a step above the competition. Kornblum traveled abroad to solidify relationships with quality manufacturers, and in the early 1970s he developed a system to customize the company's products: stringed instruments were shipped to St. Louis without any strings or fittings, then completed in the company's assembly shop. Similar care was given to guitars: before being shipped to retailers, each instrument was inspected for its workmanship and, when necessary, adjusted for intonation and playability.

The company moved to expanded facilities on Ferguson Avenue in 1971. A few years later, electronic string keyboards entered the music world, and St. Louis Music managed to capture part of the market by becoming the exclusive distributor for Elka String Rhapsody keyboards, made in Italy. Sales of the product were huge for about a year. Soon, however, electric guitars would eclipse the company's other electronics activities. In the early 1970s, St. Louis Music offered several different electric guitars but had no breakthrough product. Then, in 1975, company salesman Curt Trainer implored St. Louis Music to create "a guitar that could make any crazy sound you wanted it to," according to the company's 75th anniversary booklet. St. Louis Music turned to John Karpowicz, a local electronics technician with a service and repair shop. Karpowicz designed a specially outfitted guitar that could accommodate two small signal-processing modules inserted into a back compartment. The prototype impressed the people at St. Louis Music, and the company bought out Karpowicz' repair business and took him on full-time. The prototype was refined into the Electra MPC (Modular Powered Circuit) Guitar and unveiled at the 1976 NAMM show in Washington, D.C. St. Louis Music formed the SLM Electronics division to support Karpowicz' design activities.

Surging Electronics Sales After 1980

Now that the company had its own electric guitar, the next step was to develop a proprietary line of amplifiers. However, there was so much competition in the amplifier market that only a product with distinctive appeal was likely to be successful. Inspiration hit when Gene Kornblum visited a Crate & Barrel store in Chicago, where merchandise was creatively displayed using packing crates. Kornblum believed the wooden casing could be adapted to house an amplifier. In 1978, the first Crate guitar amplifier was made: a 10-watt practice amp known as the CR1. St. Louis Music decided to establish its own manufacturing operation for the product rather then source overseas. With their competitively low price and novelty packaging, Crate amps sold well enough to strain the company's manufacturing capabilities. More employees were added as a full line of Crate amps was developed, including keyboard amps and a range of solid-state guitar and bass amps. The packing crate was soon replaced with a traditional Tolex-covered cabinet, but the Crate name and the recognition it had gained stuck with the product.

SLM Electronics was the engine behind rapid growth at St. Louis Music in the 1980s. The division moved into its own facility in 1980, and into an even larger space in 1986. It offerings were enhanced with the development of the Audio Centron line of sound reinforcement equipment, including PA systems and mixers designed for sound engineers. Another brand name was added to the St. Louis Music lineup in 1986 when the company acquired the Ampeg Company. Founded in the late 1940s, Ampeg had been a pioneer in the development of bass amplifiers. After changing hands a number of times, however, the company ended up in bankruptcy court. St. Louis Music was attracted by Ampeg's famous SVT all-tube bass amp, a product that was introduced in 1967 and still coveted by serious musicians. After buying Ampeg, St. Louis Music returned to the amp's original specifications, made some refinements, and reintroduced the product. Retro products were coming back into style, and many musicians were glad to see the classic amplifier back on the market.

St. Louis Music had moved far beyond the distribution business by the late 1980s. Manufacturing and design activities now held center stage. As a result, the company's official name was changed in 1987 from St. Louis Music Supply to St. Louis Music, Inc. Sales expanded at a 20 percent annual rate for the next few years, and the number of employees grew to 400. Continued development was ensured with the opening of a new research and development center in 1991. The 20,000-square-foot facility was located across the street from the company's manufacturing facility, so that engineers and manufacturers could work together to generate new products quickly. St. Louis Music characterized its production development philosophy as a "net gain" approach: in addition to an emphasis on reliability and quality, new products were designed to have useful features not available anywhere else. For example, the company developed a hybrid tube/solid state amp that had the warm sound of a tube amp combined with the lower price of a solid-state amp.

St. Louis Music now had six divisions: Ampeg, Crate, Knilling String Instruments, Alvarez guitars, Audio Centron, and Omni Accessories. The Omni division, which carried on the company's traditional import and distribution activities, was provided with a computer system that let salespeople instantly quote the price and availability of thousands of items. As growth continued, orders began piling up at the St. Louis manufacturing plant. Three shifts were not enough to keep up with production demand, so the company opened a second manufacturing plant in 1994. Located in the rural town of Yellville, Arkansas, the facility was designed to work more efficiently than the St. Louis plant, which had been renovated in fits and starts over many years. The company planned to manufacture high-volume entry level products in Yellville, while continuing to produce complex products like Crate Vintage Club amps and the Ampeg SVT bass head in St. Louis, close to the research and development center.

In 1997, St. Louis Music celebrated its 75th anniversary with a huge party at the NAMM show. The company singled out long-term, dedicated employees as the key to its success. One new employee was Ted Kornblum, the third generation of his family to enter the music business. Ted began promoting St. Louis Music as a high school student, when he would take Alvarez guitars to the stage door at a rock concert and offer them free to the artists. He joined the company officially in 1996 and eventually became the Director of Artist Relations. Gene Kornblum remained president, leading the company into the 21st century with a philosophy of quality products and knowledgeable service. St. Louis Music was still going strong in 2002, when it marked its 80th anniversary in the music business.

Principal Divisions: Ampeg; Crate; Audio Centron; Omni Accessories; Knilling String Instruments; Alvarez-Yairi Guitars.

Principal Competitors: Fender Musical Instruments Company; Gibson Guitar Corporation; Yamaha Musical Instruments.

Further Reading:

  • "New St. Louis Music Plant in Arkansas," Music Trades, October 1994, pp. 138-40.
  • "SLM's Investment in Future Growth," Music Trades, February 1991, pp. 110-13.
  • St. Louis Music: 75 Years, St. Louis: St. Louis Music, Inc., 1997.
  • "St. Louis Music Celebrates 70th," Music Trades, September 1992, pp. 90-4.
  • "St. Louis Music Marks 75th," Music Trades, February 1997, p. 45.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 48. St. James Press, 2003.