School of Rock Profile (MMR Magazine, February 2013)

Posted on February 10, 2013

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School of Rock’s Chris Catalano.

ties for self-improvement. It’s not just for budding rock stars – retailers have something to gain, too.

Last fall, financial consultant Chris Catalano found himself in a small backstage room in Chicago’s Wrigley Field, greeting a soaking wet Bruce Springsteen off the stage where he’d just performed a concert in the pouring rain.

“I don’t know how many thousands of performances he’s done in his life, but he was like a little kid coming off the stage,” says Catalano.  “He absolutely loves it.” Soon, the group was discussing the importance of music education throughout all school levels. Eddie Vedder, who’d joined Springsteen that night along with guitarist Tom Morello, told Catalano that kids need music so they’d have something to put their soul into.  Catalano felt vindicated.

A veteran of venture projects for years, Catalano has steered several high-profile brands to success on his own and in his former role with McDonald’s Ventures. There, Catalano and his business partner, Mats Lederhausen, climbed to prominence making household names out of Chipotle and the on-location DVD rental system Red Box.

Now, he wants to get music retail stores in on the action.

Catalano is now the chairman and CEO of the national music education program School of Rock, a 10-year-old program that was acquired by Chicago investment firm Sterling Partners in 2009.  The company is a network of franchised and company-owned performance-based schools across the country. Their thousands of students go on to perform highly orchestrated concerts in real rock clubs like Webster Hall in New York, Red Rocks in Colorado, and the Echo in L.A. National “AllStar” bands embark on regional tours and play dates on the Warped Tour.  For lots of kids, it’s a dream come true.

They’ve just opened their 100th location (a quarter of them company-owned), but Catalano’s just getting started. In the company’s projected 300-500 locations, he’s hoping to include local retail shops as musical hubs. Retailers might initially think of it as a streamlined lesson program with national support, but Catalano suggests they consider it a much-needed repurposing of what many are finding to be stagnant floor space.

“Retail is under attack,” he says. “The worst place to be is having a brick and mortar business that is selling someone else’s products that can also be bought through six different channels.”

“In my mind, any retailer that is not looking at services in general to validate their existence from a retail perspective, I think, is making a mistake.  Anybody with any vision realizes that a repurposing of your retail space to services can be really powerful.”

Live to Play and Play to Live

The School of Rock began in Philadelphia as the “Paul Green School of Rock.” A 25-year-old local musician, Green set up the school after he’d noticed kids in various music lesson programs of his were learning faster performing as groups than studying in traditional one-on-one lessons. Green expanded the operation to major cities across the country like New York, San Francisco, Austin, and Salt Lake City.

The school had made news from the start, garnering a writeup in Spin that first year and an interest from VH1 the next.  As the company expanded, the core curriculum remained the same – teachers with real-world rock experience would advance students’ skills by having them play together and depend on each other to successfully pull off real-life rock concerts. It was a left turn away from the typical student-teacher situation where progress tends to be measured in scales and theory.

Green left the School as Sterling Partners transitioned into ownership, and Catalano was careful to usher a more focused approach to the company’s expansion. Once a sprawling program that was, in a sense, growing beyond its organizational means, the School of Rock is now run out of Catalano’s office in the Burr Ridge suburb of Chicago with a financial team in Denver, totaling around 14 staffers.

When Sterling Partners bought the company in 2009, Green’s motto had been “Saving Rock’n’Roll, One Kid at a Time!”  Catalano had a different goal in mind.  “Our stated purpose now is to ‘Inspire the World to Rock Onstage and In Life,’” he says.  Every student is cast into a particular themed show. A base ability is required, but a “Rock 101” program is in place to get newcomers over that hurdle and a new “Little Wing” program is being rolled out for very young students. Shows could be centered on the music of Led Zeppelin, a genre like yacht rock, or a historical era like Motown.  The typical regimen involved a weekly 45-minute private lesson and a weekly, 3-hour band rehearsal. The shows, which happen several times a year, are designed by each school’s music director and will typically involve 20-25 students in all, rotating into the show for different songs.  “What you’d end up seeing, for instance, is 25 kids in various orders executing Pink Floyd’s The Wall show,” says Catalano.

Kids are organized into different skill levels and teamed with a mix of other levels to help develop inspiration and leadership qualities.  A young guitarist just mastering open chords can be assigned to a band with an older, advanced guitarist, giving them a chance to perform in a great band early on in their development.

Then there are house bands for each school, which Catalano describes as “SWAT teams – the best students in the school.”  A house band might get extra performance opportunities. For instance, in Los Angeles, the School of Rock house band was called upon by ABC’s Dancing with the Stars to serve as a backing band for the show’s rock music episode.

Beyond that are the AllStar bands, comprising of 125 of the best students in the nation, broken into five groups that tour different regions throughout the country, including festival dates like Lollapalooza, Summerfest, and the Vans Warped Tour.  “It’s funny because festival organizers won’t have high expectations for these kids. Then they realize that these kids are better than a lot of those other bands up there. The next call is something like, ‘Can you do three dates next year?’”

In the end, though, the key is setting up programs to get kids excited to learn their instruments and to start counting on each other. It’s a far-reaching system, but the main ingredient is the simple step of getting kids connected as peers and band mates on songs that challenge everyone in the band.

“The real trick is getting the kid focused, quickly as possible, on a song,” says Catalano. “They focus on playing the song instead of the theory behind the song. We get them out playing music as quickly as possible. That creates the motivation to practice. They don’t want to let their friends down.  What ends up happening is that we don’t just teach music – we teach teamwork and we teach self-confidence.”

Maneuvering into Retail

Another group Catalano would love to bring confidence to is MI retail industry.  Stemming from conversations he’s had with bigger chains in the past (many of whom have subsequently begun organizing their own education programs), Catalano hopes to get local brick and mortar stores in on the action soon.

“Everyone’s struggling,” he says. “Customers use shops as a showroom, then they search online for the best price. Then you have a price war between store owners (who are sitting on leases) and the Internet companies, who have a different price structure.”  He points to his success with Red Box as evidence of how some companies have shaken up the playing field by getting rid of their own showroom floors – while Blockbuster was going bankrupt paying rent on its locations, Red Box was able to charge bargain prices with almost no physical footprint.

School of Rock offers retail shops an opportunity to utilize more floor space for things that can’t be found online – namely, real-life band rehearsals and education. “Services can’t just be easily disintermediated through the Internet,” he says.

The goal is to utilize independent stores, who are already connected to their own music communities, to create thriving educational programs connected with the School of Rock brand.  “We’re not trying create McDonald’s here,” says Catalano. “We give people a lot of flexibility.” Guidelines exist about signage, safety, and customer experience (don’t put the drum room near the front door of the shop, for instance), as well as a psychographic data about where best to locate. A prototype build is in place from which franchisees can source material as needed, but it’s not required.

By the same token, schools will ideally have flexibility in their programming as well. Rehearsals could be more or less hours at a time, or meet at a lower weekly rate. They’re all details that can be tweaked, though Catalano says they will be keeping on eye on everyone to make sure quality results are being maintained.

“If a program ends up not getting us the same inspirational level, that will come out in the way of revenue over time,” he says.  “I would say the lion’s share of our schools really stay consistent with what we offer because it’s a proven model.”

As of press time, School of Rock has yet to solidify with any particular stores outside of longstanding location at a single Sam Ash in Charlotte, N.C., though Catalano is keen to see it happen. The brand already has 150 new school locations spoken for by eager franchisees throughout the country, and he sees a series of partnerships with local stores is ideal for the company thanks to their entrenchment in every local scene.

“In the end, I hope we’re able to inspire a good deal of new musicians, which is good for all of us.”

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