Brian Gross: President & CEO, Bach to Rock

In most Five Minutes With stories, we zero-in on a manufacturer in the music products space, talking to an executive about the company’s history, strategic positioning in the market, new product releases and so forth. This month, we have something a little bit different—but equally valuable—for you. Bach to Rock is an innovative, passion-fueled music school that suits students of all ages and musical tastes. We go in-depth with Brian Gross, President & CEO, about its aggressive expansion plans, core beliefs, unique offerings and more. I, for one, can’t wait to revisit this article in a few years to see just how much Bach to Rock has grown…and how many music-makers it’s brought into the fold.

The Music & Sound Retailer: To start, give me an overview of your history—both personal and professional—and the journey you took on the way to becoming President of Bach to Rock. Do you come from the world of music and performance? Are you more from the business side? Tell me about the path you’ve taken.

Brian Gross: I definitely come from the business side. My background is fairly diverse. I’ve had roles in everything from banking to consumer marketing, with companies like Bank of America, Procter & Gamble and Kraft, and started my own company that my wife now operates. We design, manufacture and wholesale children’s shoes. I also spent time in franchising with Sylvan Learning Centers. All of my past experience has come together to serve me well in my role at Bach to Rock. We are a start-up, franchise system, service retail business in the education space. Each of the skill sets—from banking to marketing to running my own business, and certainly franchising with Sylvan—has enabled me to take on this challenge of getting Bach to Rock off the ground and growing toward a national brand and business.

On the personal side, an interesting note: I was the exact type of student whom we aim to help at Bach to Rock. As a child, my parents thought it would be of great value for me to take music lessons. For color and background, it was the early ’80s and I was into heavy metal. The teacher who came to my house was into folk music, so I had to play the acoustic guitar out of a John Denver songbook. Needless to say, after a year of hating music lessons, I was finally able to get my parents to let me quit. When we start to talk about how Bach to Rock approaches music, you’ll see why I wish this had been available to me when I was a kid. I probably would be a musician today.

The Retailer: What are your day-to-day duties and responsibilities as President of Bach to Rock? What's the best part of your job each day?

Gross: I'll start with the best part. The best part is that I work with a lot of people who have a passion for music, for what we do and for working with students. That is incredibly energizing and invigorating. It's similar to the passion I saw at Sylvan, with educators who are looking to help children. But that was focused more on remediation. Bach to Rock is about enrichment, and the passion and energy of the students is a lot higher. Students can't wait to come to Bach to Rock, and that energy and enthusiasm is contagious. Every day, you get a story from a parent, a video clip or a picture and it's always happy smiles, enthusiasm and love of what we do.

As for my day, it's really diverse. Being a small company, we all do wear many hats. I spend a lot of time working to expand the company nationally through franchising. We are constantly identifying, meeting with and cultivating new franchisees who have a passion for what we do and can take the brand and grow it across the country. We also work with franchisees who are currently in the system to ensure that they're successful in implementing our processes. I'm also involved in the day-to-day operations of our company-owned schools. In total, we own six schools, and oversee everything from marketing to the proprietary software system that runs the schools, making sure it's reflecting all the current business needs. And, as is the case for any President, managing personnel is the biggest responsibility. We do our best at identifying, cultivating, growing and keeping the best talent. In our company, we are fortunate to have great people. My biggest job is making sure that we keep those great people, motivate and challenge them, and identify new people to add to the team as we grow.

The Retailer: Before getting into the details of the Bach to Rock method, tell me a bit about its history. How long ago was Bach to Rock founded? What was the vision behind its conception? Has it mostly adhered to that vision? Has it changed over time? Give us a 10,000-foot overview of Bach to Rock.

Gross: Bach to Rock opened its first corporate-owned location in Bethesda MD in 2007 and, since, has grown to six corporate schools: two in Maryland and four in Virginia. There are also three franchisee-owned schools in Port Washington NY; Wayne PA slated to open this summer; and Sacramento CA slated to open this winter. Cambridge Information Group (CIG), a private equity firm that has a 40-year track record of growing education-focused concepts, owns Bach to Rock. Our brand philosophy since day one has been that students learn best when playing the music they love most. Our vision was to transform music instruction into a team sport by coupling rigorous individual instruction with band practice that keeps students motivated by playing in a group.

Our first school in Bethesda MD still exists in our system today. Since then, Bach to Rock and CIG expanded on it, opening five additional company-owned schools. The idea was to refine and professionalize the concept so that we could grow nationwide. Once we perfected that approach, we started franchising in late 2011.

The Retailer: Share some details about the Bach to Rock method, discussing why you feel it's "not just an ordinary music school." Zero-in on things that make Bach to Rock unique as compared to its peers

Gross: There are four core beliefs we have that make Bach to Rock unique. The first of which is that students should play music that they like. Because, at the end of the day, you can learn just as well whether you're studying classical, country, hip0hop, rap or anything else. The motivational factor of playing music you like engages students at a higher level and, therefore, students are more successful. The second is that students should combine individual instruction with group instruction. Whether that group is a choir, an ensemble or a rock band, the group component brings a lot of elements that, personally, I didn't get when I was taking lessons as a kid.

It provides everything from socialization to motivation to even some peer pressure to make sure you maintain your part of the team. We use a sports analogy to share the benefits of playing with other students. If all you did was stand in your driveway and shoot baskets, you might become proficient at shooting baskets, but your are in no way a skilled basketball player. It's not until you're learning to play with other people - whether it's passing the ball, cutting to get open, helping out another player on defense - that you truly become a basketball player, and the same is true for a musician. You become a better musician by playing with other musicians.

The third is, we're a performance-based school. All of our students play public performances. That can range from our own performance space, which each of our schools has, to internationally renowned music venues like the 9:30 Club and the Fillmore in the Maryland and Virginia areas. In fact, in June, we had our semi-annual Battle of the Bands, with more than 100 bands competing. More than 1,500 paying spectators came and watched the competition over three days. These kids can really hone their craft by taking lessons and participating in groups, but then really display their talents through public performances.

Our fourth tenet would be that each of our schools includes a recording studio. Our proprietary curriculum includes original songwriting, and we really leverage the two. As a student is learning to write original works, we also put him or her in the studio. The benefit is twofold: It's a great learning experience and it's also a great way to track progress over time. And as they grow, they even start working to record original albums.

The Retailer: How expansive are Bach to Rock's programs, with respect to age of students, breadth of instruments taught, genres of music covered and other variables? Is Bach to Rock appropriate for people from toddlers to senior age... whether they want to learn guitar, take up drums or become a DJ?

Gross: It really is for everyone, and that's the niche we wanted to carve out in the marketplace. There isn't anyone serving a broad spectrum of students today. We have programs from as early as six or nine months old all the way up through senior citizens. We truly have a full range of instruction in instruments ranging from classical to rock, and we are piloting a DJ school in two of our locations. Students can choose from a large variety of instruments, from drums, guitar, piano and voice to cello, trumpet, violin, clarinet and flute. The goal of all our programs is always the same; to have a fun, motivational and social approach to learning music. All our programs include a performance component as well. In our Battle of the Bands, although the competition is for kids in elementary, middle and high school, we do allow other bands to showcase during the sessions. We'll have adult bands that will perform, plus DJs and soloists. We really do take our core philosophies and apply them throughout our business.

The Retailer: You currently have locations in five states. How are they run and managed? Who operates each Bach to Rock location: an individual owner, a designated manager/supervisor or someone else? If I wanted to open a music school, could I open a Bach to Rock?

Gross: Our system is split into two types of schools: corporate-owned schools and franchise-owned schools. There are five states in which we either have schools or are opening schools this year. The corporate-owned schools are in Maryland and Virginia. They are run by a school director who is a hired employee of Bach to Rock. These are the schools that were opened first and used to refine our concept for nationwide expansion through franchising. The franchise-owned locations are in Pennsylvania, New York and California. Franchisees may decide not only to own a Bach to Rock, but also serve as the school director, or they may elect to hire a school director. At the end of the day, what we're looking for in franchisees are people who are passionate about music and children, who have a successful business track record and who have the financial wherewithal to open and support a school. We do have territories available nationwide. For anyone interested in learning more, they should visit us at b2rmusic.com or contact us at 855.227.7570.

The Retailer: If you had to articulate the value that music making and being part of a band or music ensemble presents, how would you describe it? Evangelize on behalf of being a music maker, discussing the benefits it can bring to people young and old.

Gross: I think the best way to answer that question is through a story of a parent who called me. She has two sons. The oldest was an "A" student, star jock, revered in social circles and was sort of the jewel of the family. The second son didn't do as well in school, wasn't very athletic and always sort of felt out of place... like he didn't have his role. He started lessons at Bach to Rock, took private lessons and, ultimately, joined a band. As part of our curriculum, he and his band performed at the 9:30 Club in our semi-annual Battle of the Bands. His band placed and he played well. His older brother actually became, in a good way, jealous of his younger brother. He viewed his brother as a rock star, and envied the success he was enjoying. He though it was so cool that his brother was able to get on stage in front of so many people and perform the way he did. The mother was telling me about the confidence that the younger brother had developed over his time at Bach to Rock. He had really found his place in life and found what made him happy, and was able to express himself artistically. It was life changing. It wasn't until he found his place in music that he really became the person he was meant to be. I think anybody who gets involved with and falls in love with music - whether it's playing it or making it or even just appreciating it - can relate. It is a really unique, very personal experience, and it's incredibly expressive and artistic and motivational. The emotions that music can bring out in people are unlike much else that you can experience in life. So, that's part of the passion I talk about with the people who work at Bach to Rock, and why it's such a great place to come to work every day. You get to experience this on a day-in and day-out basis. Very few people are fortunate enough to experience this in their entire careers.

The Retailer: Does Bach to Rock have any partnerships or working relationships with music products retail stores, whereby one might be able to funnel people into the other and complement each others efforts at creating new musicians?

Gross: We have partnerships with local, regional and national retailers. We work with partners ranging from Casio and Music & Arts and D'Addario, to local music stores that offer sheet music and instrument rentals. While we have some national partnerships, we also encourage all our local schools to develop partnerships with the retailers in their area. At the end of the day, we don't want to be a retail outlet. We don't want to sell or rent instruments. We'll sell some consumables, like picks and drum sticks, but very small, minor items. For everything else, we're looking to develop symbiotic relationships where we can refer people to them, so our customers can get quality products and services and customer service. In return, hopefully, they'll refer us for lessons and when people are looking for performance opportunities.

Our schools should be a focal point within the community when it comes to music, music education and serving the community. What I mean by that is, for example, one of our schools works with a local recreational council and provides a PA system for the local sports leagues. In return, our kids perform every Saturday morning before and after the baseball or soccer games. It's about being ingrained in the community, not only for our business success but also just to be a good community citizen.

The Retailer: Prognosticate about where Bach to Rock will be in five years in the future. What do you foresee? What would you like to see happen?

Gross: We expect to continue the rapid growth of our franchise network. We have multiple opening scheduled for later this year and are forecasting even more openings in 2014. Within the next five years, we expect to have 75 to 100 Bach to Rocks across the country. As I look further out onto the horizon, we envision 400 to 500 Bach to Rocks in the U.S. alone. But the beautiful thing about music is that it's a universal language. We could just as easily open a Bach to Rock in Europe as we could in Asia as we could in the Middle East. So, ultimately, I envision Bach to Rock as a global brand that has schools across the world. Additionally, I would expect our product offering to continue to expand. I mentioned earlier that we are piloting a DJ school in two of our locations, and that has show a high level of promise.

The Retailer: Is there anything I've forgotten to ask about that you would like to add?

Gross: I would add that you do not need to be a musician in order to own and operate a successful Bach to Rock. I am not a musician, and I couldn't even begin to enumerate the rewards I have received from this job. We are looking for people who have a passion for music and kids, but who are really business-centric. At the end of the day, you are running a service retail business. And that is the most important thing.

A similar comment also applies on the consumer front. Many people have a difficult time conceptualizing that relative beginner musicians can form a band and play together. But if you look at any other activity - particularly ones that kids will join - it is commonplace. First-year soccer players still have a wonderful time, learning and building their skills, because they're doing it as part of a team. The same holds true in music. Beginning bands are developing their skills, learning and growing as musicians.

In the end, we need to break down these barriers and bring awareness to the misconception that you have to be a really good musician to be in a band, or you have to be a musician to own a music school. Those are just fallacies and the more we communicate this, the more people will dive in and enjoy the learning experience.

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