By Dan Ferrisi
There are lots of people in the music products industry who can boast of having vision. After all, our space is teeming with product innovation, creativity and passion to make something beautiful. Michael Spremulli definitely has vision, which makes the name of his company, Vision Musical Instruments, quite appropriate. Spremulli essentially grew up in the music space, and it’s clearly in his DNA. In this extensive interview, we discuss his company, his products and what he thinks our industry needs more of. (Hint: It’s cooperation, communication and an abiding sense that manufacturers and retailers’ fates are intertwined.)
If you aren’t familiar with Vision Musical Instruments yet, you soon will be….
The Music & Sound Retailer: I’d like to start with your background as it pertains to music and audio. Talk about how you got your start, bringing us right up to the present day.
Michael Spremulli: I started playing drums and taking lessons at the age of five, during which time my father was busy repairing woodwind instruments at Norwalk Music, the only music store in town at that time. Today, 34 years later, it is one of the most respected music stores in Fairfield County CT, as well as in the music industry. As a kid, I spent almost every waking hour of my life in that store and had every SKU and price memorized. The reps would come in and review new products and features, and I absolutely loved being there and being involved. I got a kick out of how the older guys who worked behind the counter would constantly ask me—I was all of 10 years old at the time—how much the instruments were, how they worked and whether I could demo the products for their customers.
Customers would even come into the store and say, “Well, I’d prefer to be waited on by someone older and more knowledgeable,” until they listened to my sales pitch and experienced my demos! [Laughs.]
I spent almost all of my high school and college years working on the sales floor of Norwalk Music, and also Ridgefield Music, a store owned and operated by my uncle. The two retail stores were located in towns about 35 minutes apart that are very different socioeconomically and culturally. Each man ran his business very differently, as well. So, I was able to absorb a tremendous amount of information from each of them and learn some very valuable lessons.
My early retail experience was a springboard to my studying harmony and theory, percussion and jazz guitar at William Patterson University in New Jersey, where I majored in percussion with a minor in jazz guitar. I continue to play both drums and guitar today.
A decade later, I left the retail side of the business and launched AAA Band Rentals, which is a musical instrument rental program provider serving retail stores. We set up affiliate retail partnerships for companies that either could not afford to, or would prefer to preserve their capital and not purchase the inventory, thus avoiding the overhead, billing and collection side of the business. We helped to provide school-age children with quality instrument rentals and accessories, as well as repair services. Being on the supply side of the industry gave me insight and a slightly different perspective on the retail side of the industry, because I was made privy to our affiliate partners’ business dealings. It was at that time that I recognized a serious need for what I would consider a “true” partnership between manufacturers, distributors and retailers that was sorely lacking in the music products industry.
There are a few manufacturers that do a great job helping to educate retailers…that have a true, equitable partnership that serves to strengthen each of their businesses. We began to realize that, as a whole, there was a void in the industry that we could fill. Some of it was product related, but the essence of it was the manufacturing, distribution and retail relationship side of the business, which I thought could be enhanced. Over the past 30 years, I’ve witnessed firsthand the challenges that face music retailers in both strong and weak economies. The core mission of Vision Musical Instruments is truly to partner with our dealer network and become an invaluable asset to each and every one of our partners, no matter how big or small.
The Retailer: Elaborate on the Vision Musical Instruments philosophy and your approach to business with this company.
Spremulli: Coming from the retail side, dealers can greatly benefit from a more equitable relationship with a manufacturer and distributor. To that end, we’ve created comprehensive incentive dealership programs that include training our inside service reps to be so much more than order takers. Dealers are hired with the understanding that their role is to genuinely and effectively expand that relationship. In addition, our credit department is directly connected to our sales force. We work closely with the dealer to establish credit terms and credit lines that are designed to ensure our dealers’ success. Our vision is to develop and promote products that truly add value and prestige to foster the success of our dealer network.
In my travels, I came across Mérida Extrema guitars, which absolutely blew me away based on their build quality, sonic excellence and exquisite craftsmanship. In my entire career, I had not come across a guitar that was as superior or as value added. It is extremely well made, and it’s comprised of “the best of the best” in terms of quality, manufacturing process and value.
The Retailer: Tell me more about the products that are under the Vision Musical Instruments umbrella.
Spremulli: Vision Musical Instruments offers music retailers true, bona fide value. So, Mérida guitars and LuLu ukuleles offer what I truly believe to be the finest products in their product category in a highly saturated and intensely competitive market. Mérida guitars are unparalleled, handcrafted instruments made from solid woods that offer superior sound quality. Every serious musician who has picked one up has been incredibly impressed.
LuLu ukuleles, too, are what serious players want. It is a fine, handmade instrument that is very different from any other ukulele on the market at its price point. They’re moderately priced and offer significant value. LuLu ukes are manufactured using all solid woods and the best available third-party parts: Grover machines, Graph Tech nuts and compensated saddles, and D’Addario Nyltech strings. It also comes with an absolutely gorgeous hard shell case and a complimentary Planet Waves small humidifier, which is a unique offering in the industry. It’s a beautiful package that a dealer could easily showcase at retail and earn an attractive profit from.
These are just a few of the key benefits that differentiate Vision Musical Instruments. Having been in the business for as long as I have been, I’ve been exposed to just about everything that the market has to offer. When we started the company, my goal was—and still is—to make it stand out from the competition with instruments that are exceptional in every way as compared to the current market offerings.
The Retailer: I’d like to get a sense of what you do day to day within Vision Musical Instruments. If somebody else were to do your job for a day, what would the key duties and responsibilities be? What’s the best part of your job?
Spremulli: The best part of my job is overseeing a product line that I’m really proud of, and working with people whom I have handpicked to work alongside me. We all work very, very hard, and we have a great time doing it. We have some really terrific products that I’m proud of, and we continue to develop and perfect each of the lines. It’s where my heart is. I’m still very hands-on, and I love the products and the industry. I’ve been going to NAMM shows since I was barely 10, and I still look forward to going to them today. I’m really involved in the nuts and bolts of what we do here, in terms of offering superior handmade products to the music products industry.
The LuLu ukulele line is my brainchild. On a day-to-day basis, I oversee the operations. We have people in place who are the best at what they do: from our U.S. Sales Manager, Greg Sotire, and his exceptional relationship-management skills to our credit department, which, as I said, will work with dealers to help make them successful, plus our rep teams, which are very carefully chosen. And I interface personally with each of them, as well. I spend some time on the road going out with the reps to make sure they’re conveying the same message and philosophy, so that it is consistent from start to finish. I continue to employ best practices that I learned from a very early age when I was cutting my teeth in the music products business.
I find the most effective business-building strategy is to surround myself with the best the market can bear. The most challenging aspect of my job is to deal with the part of the business that is not necessarily that much fun: bill paying. [Laughs.] The nuts and bolts of the business, like, say, a leak in the roof. The non-glamorous parts of the business. My role as CEO is much more than a trade or a job; it’s something I’ve been involved in since I was barely 10 years old. It’s become a way of life and a labor of love.
The Retailer: What would you say you’re the proudest of with respect to the company? What sets the company apart from others in the industry and makes you happiest to have created it?
Spremulli: It’s the focus that we have on our dealers. Having come from the retail side, I have experienced firsthand what I would consider less-than-equitable relationships between manufacturers and distributors. I’m proud that we put a strong emphasis not only on superior products, but also on the dealer relationship. When a retailer reads this article, it is my hope that they will be able to connect with me. From the beginning, we set out to make this company different, with a laser focus on maximizing the value of our partnerships. That makes me proud. That’s why I started this business.
The Retailer: Can you make more concrete some of the ways in which you foster a mutually beneficial relationship with retailers? What do you do to ensure that you are helping them?
Spremulli: We’re putting programs in place, such as stock balancing programs. Never will a sales rep, either an inside sales rep or an outside sales rep, put pressure on a retailer to buy something that’s not right for them or to meet a quota. We are only successful if our retailers are successful. And although that sounds clichéd, we live and die by that.
I can’t tell you how many times I felt that the relationships were not equitable. Our number-one priority is that relationship. If something is not right, they pick up the phone and call me personally. We are here to make that relationship a strong one. There’s no disconnect between our sales force and our credit staff. We will not have a salesperson go out and start beating someone up and then have the credit department pick up the pieces. The entire process is seamless.
The Retailer: What could the dealer channel do that would be helpful to you, as a manufacturer/distributor? Do you have any constructive criticism for music products retailers?
Spremulli: Yes. In any relationship, open and candid communication is most effective. I’ve seen retailers run away from the phone when a manufacturer calls, either looking to collect a bill or to speak to them about something else. A manufacturer has to be open-minded and willing to listen. A retailer has to make sure that they’re communicating and truly hearing the manufacturer. Our goal is to stay connected. And I think the retailer needs to do the same. The retailer needs to reach out and let us know what they need, what they want, what’s working and what’s not working. For example, if you are going to be late on a bill, then call. Don’t run away from the phone or hide. Pick up the phone and say, “Hey, this is our situation. We’re not running from you, but this is where we’re at.”
It makes for a more effective and efficient working relationship…one of mutual respect and honesty.
The Retailer: How has the economy affected you and your business? What is it like working in the music products space at this point in time?
Spremulli: We certainly considered the economy when we sat down and started putting this company together. We felt the time was right, even in a compromised economy. Actually, we thought it was the perfect time for a company with a philosophy like ours to offer music retailers true, bona fide value. We don’t see the economic climate as necessarily detrimental to our growth strategy. We feel the current market is an excellent time for a company like ours to flourish: a company that offers premium, handmade products manufactured both internationally and domestically.
We have taken proactive steps to create a climate for dealers to want to do business with us.
The Retailer: Do you feel like the music products industry is in a strong position right now, overall? Are you optimistic, pessimistic or cautious right now, with respect to the industry as a whole?
Spremulli: I think we all need to be cautiously optimistic. The industry and the economy have seen some very difficult times, yet there are clear signs that the economy is slowly turning around.
With value-added and cost-effective products like ours, we believe that our dealers will be more successful. I think part of the job we do as distributors and manufacturers in helping dealers with their business is not putting the pad down and saying, “We need an order.” We need to put ourselves in their shoes; we need to help educate them. We’re in a better position to do that. Also, it is important to note that a lot of music stores are owned by people who aren’t necessarily businesspeople. Some are excellent businesspeople; yet, there are many, many stores that I’ve visited where the owner is a fantastic musician, but may not be a strong businessperson.
Again, with my background of more than 30 years in the business, my overriding goal is to reach out to retailers and help them to be as successful as they can be. I can’t run their business for them, but I’m certainly more than willing to help in any way I can to guide them, as well as to learn from them.
As I said earlier, there are some companies that do a fantastic job, setting up seminars and inviting dealers to benefit from tried-and-true practices. And it’s not just to push their product line and jam it down their throat but, really, to have them understand how to buy, when to buy, how much to buy, etc. Dealers must ultimately make these decisions for themselves, but with intelligent guidance. I think, if more of us on this side of the chain did that, we could make a significant impact on the industry as a whole. I’d like to see more of that.
The Retailer: If someone is going to be watching Vision Musical Instruments from here, what could that observer expect to see in the future? Looking at everything from the market segments in which you’re involved to the product pipeline to business relationships and company strategy, what will the future hold?
Spremulli: Mérida guitars and LuLu ukuleles are just the beginning for Vision Musical Instruments. We’ve got many, many new and exciting products in the pipeline and innovative programs in development.
I’m constantly looking for quality and value to bring to our industry. I won’t bring a product to market until I’m absolutely convinced it offers unparalleled value and prestige. So, we’re working very hard, and are actually extremely excited to be putting the finishing touches on a fantastic lineup of orchestral strings, woodwind and brasswind instruments, premium quality cases and bags, and a wide assortment of attractive accessories.
The Retailer: Is there anything I’ve not asked about that you think would be important to share with our readers?
Spremulli: We are working now on setting up well-qualified endorsees or brand ambassadors. Here, too, we are looking for both established and emerging artists who represent a wide variety of music genres and who genuinely love our instruments. We recognize how powerful these endorsements are when promoting a brand, which is true not only with musical instruments but also with any consumer product. Brand endorsees, as well as a well-planned national advertising campaign, are just a few of the ways we plan to aid our dealer partners in the sale of our brands.