May 24, 2015

Teaching Music in Silicon Valley, a Saga

My music teaching business, Hope Street Music Studios, will be moving to a new location in Mountain View, in the next couple of weeks. Here’s a brief history of our studio, with some perspective on what it takes to be a self-employed music teacher in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Ten years ago, in 2005, I was teaching in the back of a music store in downtown Mountain View. The store, Mountain View Music Center, had been around for many decades. The store’s founder was an old friend; I used to buy reeds from him when I was a kid. But the store had changed hands - Tony had sold the store to his son, and a few years later, Tony’s son sold it to an ex-tech guy who had made some money on Netscape, and had always wanted to run a music store. 

Unfortunately, this was a period of shakeout in the music store business. Customers were using the store to try out instruments, but then making their purchases on the internet. It began to look as though the store might not survive this shakeout. I had been talking with one of my fellow teachers about finding a place to rent, so that we could be in control of our own venue, and in 2005, Frank Conrad and I leased a 1200-square-foot space in downtown Mountain View, about a block from the store. It had 6 small offices (it was former medical space), a luxurious teaching situation compared to the tiny, stuffy teaching rooms we had at the store. (A year and a half later, the store did in fact close.)

A couple of teachers at the store came with us, and over time we signed up other teachers, who sublease space from us on an hourly, daily, or monthly basis. We now have 17 teachers at Hope Street, covering most instruments (piano, guitar, bass, drums, voice, sax, clarinet, flute, violin, viola, cello, french horn, trombone, and trumpet). As a business, the studio partnership is break-even. Frank and I make little or no profit on the studio (we make our living on our teaching), but our business plan has worked out well - we are surrounded by fine teachers, and we have a pleasant place to work that is under our own control.

In 2005, we were still in a bit of a tech recession. Commercial vacancy rates were around 20% in Mountain View. The space we leased had been vacant for over a year, and as result we had been able to obtain a 5-year lease with a 5-year option to renew, at a very reasonable rate.

As we came to the end of our 10-year lease, we began to worry. Mountain View has changed radically. Tech businesses and their employees are putting huge pressure on the real estate market, both commercial and residential. Where commercial vacancy rates were 20% in 2005, it’s more like 2.5% now.

To say that this area is in an economic “boom” does not begin to describe it. Google is the business that dominates the city, with tens of thousands of employees and thousands more coming, but Intuit, LinkedIn, Symantec and many others are also located here. Apple is building a new HQ a few miles away, in Cupertino. New-construction 1-BR apartments are renting for up to $4,000/month; downtown office space rents for $4-$5/sf/month. It’s crazy. We were offered a new lease at our present location, but the rent would have more than doubled.

So about a year and a half ago, we started a search for a new location. We checked commercial real estate listings nearly every day. There wasn’t much available, and it seemed that every time we found a possibility, there was a problem with zoning, parking, affordability, location, or lack of a long-term lease. Then about a year ago, on a day when I was feeling too burned out to check, my wife saw a new listing. It seemed like it might work: zoning OK (but we would have to apply to the City for a Conditional Use Permit), parking OK, affordability OK, location good, and a 5-year lease with 5-year option to renew. The only drawback was that it was basically warehouse space, and would require an expensive buildout to be used as teaching studios.

We started paying rent on the space last October, while we worked on the Conditional Use Permit, then the architect’s plans for the remodel, then the building permit. There were expenses and hangups every step of the way. Only two parts of the process went smoothly: Our acoustical adviser (Malcolm Clark) has been terrific, and once we had the building permit, our contractor (Dan Riley) got the job done in record time, and kept our expenses from getting any more ridiculous than they already were.

I’m omitting a lot of details here. It’s been a long, involved process. But after all the hassle, I’m pretty sure that we didn’t have a choice, if we want to keep working as independent music teachers in Silicon Valley. The alternatives would have been: 1) start driving to students’ houses to teach, 2) teach in my living room, 3) become an employee of one of the for-profit or non-profit music teaching organizations in Mountain View, where management takes a cut of 50% or more of earnings or 4) try to find space in the back of a music store (not many stores are left, and their space is completely booked). These were not attractive options. In addition, Frank and I considered the other 15 teachers, and the fix some would be in if we closed the studio.

At the moment, we are feeling pretty good about it. If all goes well, we will be open for business at the new location in a couple of weeks. We won't be on Hope Street any more, but we're keeping the name, for the time being.

May 3, 2015

Tchaikovsky, Bing, and the Checkers

I guess inspiration can strike in unlikely ways. Here's Odette's Solo from "Swan Lake"(1876)...

And here's Bing (1943)...

As a side note, the composer of "I'll Be Home For Christmas," Walter Kent, is also remembered for "There'll Be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover" (1941), another wartime song of hope and home. Here's a cool version by The Checkers (1953). Stick around for the sax solo by Red Prysock...