RPMDA Dealer Feature: Brass Bell Music – Milwaukee, WI


By Andrea Pelloquin, J.W. Pepper & Son

I recently had the opportunity to interview Tristann Rieck, owner of Brass Bell Music in Milwaukee, WI, about her store and how they stay relevant in the community. 

AP: Give us a brief history of your company and your mission.

TR: My father started the business in 1971 and I started working in the business as a teenager and then became an owner in my 20s. The business has definitely evolved over these almost 50 years.  Our mission is supporting music in our community. That’s our tagline and that’s what we believe in. We want to be able to make sure there’s access to music for everyone. That’s what we see our role as, and that’s what we look at when we do events and when we’re looking at initiatives.

AP: What is Brass Bell most known for?

TR: I think we are that place where that beginning student, the person who is launching into their music career, can go.  The step up, intermediate world is a big part of what we do as well, but we really cater to that beginning musician.

AP: Why is your company a member of RPMDA, and what benefits does it give you?

TR:   Well, I don’t know if I want to admit the truth about why I originally became a member…..but the fact that I AM a member is the important thing here. I originally became a member because I didn’t really enjoy going to the NAMM show…..

I saw that there was going to be this print music convention in Vancouver, British Columbia – that sounded amazing.  So I said, I’m going to go there and maybe I can learn a little more about buying print.  I had been doing print buying for the whole company for about six or seven years at that point.  All of that time, my brother and my Dad and I were the only ones working in the store, so we couldn’t all go to NAMM at the same time!

I’ve missed two RPMDA conventions since then.  One was because I got married, and the other was the very following year. I forgot to put it on the calendar and my brothers took a vacation during that week. Those are the only two I have missed in all of these years. I love RPMDA, and I think if I were to say, why do I go now? It’s what inspires me!  Being with my people, being with my friends in the industry and being reminded about the fact that this is hard, but what we do is so awesome. And so I go to RPMDA and I’m always reinvigorated to be back in my business after RPMDA conventions.

But RPMDA holds a really special place in my heart just because the size of it makes it possible to know everybody, and at this point if somebody comes in and they’re new, it’s like, “I know that that person is new because I know everybody!” It’s nice to be able to welcome them and say, “This is a new person!” 

And that’s I think the experience I had from the very first convention.  It’s such a welcoming group, and such an inviting, sharing group – you can’t help but want to keep coming back.

AP: Now I know you bring some of your employees with you when you can.  What do they take away? Why is it important to bring new people to the convention?

TR: I think one of the reasons I bring new staff is to let them see that they can develop a career in this industry. To show them that it’s a viable, legit career, that they can follow that path, and then to show them that there is a network.  To show them that there are resources, and also to do the same thing – to get them inspired, to get them excited about their job, and get them to buy in a little bit. So whenever we can, if we can afford it, we bring as many people as we can to the convention.

AP: At our conventions, you often get up and share during the Best Ideas session.  But is there a “best idea” that you could share with us that you haven’t mentioned at a convention?

TR: I guess one of the things we started doing this last couple of years is Make Music Day, which is sponsored through NAMM, and is really just about getting out in our community. We’re doing a lot more instrument discovery zones (which is what people know as petting zoos). 

And we’re really trying to be involved in ways to give people access to music.  Like if we have a daycare that wants to come into our store.  And I would say that I actually got really inspired to do that one day going to the NAMM Fly-in and learning about that advocacy work. But also because of Shawna Wingerberg – she is amazing with what she does with events and getting out into her community. I’m inspired in that way.  So, I took a cue from her and said, “We need to be doing stuff like that!” We need to be really involved with what’s going on and it’s hard because I think a lot of business people want to track the results of that and say, well okay, did you sell anything? Did you make any money? You paid to be there. And you really can’t track it that way.  You have to look at the long, long view of this as more people, more exposure of your name, but it’s getting more people involved, and Make Music Day is exactly that. Just getting more people involved in making music and celebrating, making music.  Milwaukee is kind of a polarized city right now, so we need something to unite our city.  We’re hoping for year four to be a great event that way.

AP: Let’s switch gears and talk about employee retention.  How do you keep your employees engaged with your store and with their work? Do you have specific things that you do?

TR: One of the goals I have right now is really to not be as needed for my business, right? Because if something happened to me tomorrow, it’s important to me that my legacy and the work that I put in for these last 28 years would go on.  I really don’t want to see it just ending up fizzling out or becoming something else, being bought out by another store that doesn’t have our mission and our purpose. And so, to me it’s important that the staff and the team could really sustain the business. And part of that process is to really learn to let go and also empower them a little more. 

It’s the best way I can take care of my business long term – teaching people to do the things that make the business run. Everything from the financial part to the marketing part.  I think empowering and working on the team concept – that is a little bit new for us now. The last 90 days we’ve really been working hard to develop this team idea, that it’s about coming to work and being proud of your job and what you do and what we do as a company – and not like you work for Tristann. 

And so I’m hopeful about that because we’ve had a rash of really tough turnaround with employees in the 20-something age. And I know that’s stereotypical, but it just happens to be the facts.  We’ve had the most turnover in that age group, and a lot of it is because they tend to be like, “Well, there’s something a little bit more exciting out there for me.”

For us, I think we’ll be looking for some folks that maybe have already had a chance to explore a couple of careers. The couple of folks that we just hired are coming from really strangely different careers but basically said, “I’m not happy doing this work anymore and I want to do something else. Maybe I can’t make quite as much money at it, but I want to do something that I feel proud of.”

AP: To follow up on that, what’s one of the things that you do to build more of a team concept?

TR: For our October staff meeting I knew we were going to do some team building, but I’ve never really done team building!  So, in this case, I really lucked out because one of my part-time office staff happened to walk in and asked how I was doing.  I said I was kind of stressed out because I had to plan an agenda for next week because it was a team building exercise with my team that really, really needs it, and I had no idea what I was doing. And she’s like, “Could I just run that for you?” 

Look within your staff.  My staff has said like the last two staff meetings have been the best staff meetings we’ve ever had!  They’re engaged and happy and they’re like, “Somebody wasn’t just preaching at us and telling us all these things.” So yeah, it’s been a lot more team spirit, which has been cool to be a part of.

AP: What kind of team-building activities did she do? 

TR: One of the things she did was to come up with a workplace contract with them, basically outlining what matters to them. What do they care about when they come to work? I was actually out of the room, I was not involved in that. It was not for me, this was for them to be able to talk about how they wanted to work with their coworkers.  We recorded it, so I got to listen to it later.  It was pretty cool because I listened to it twice – I listened to it the second time just because I wanted to let my husband hear my staff.  They’re so awesome. I came home from work and it was 10 o’clock at night. I did not go to bed for four hours, because I was so excited about the energy that they brought to the table.  I don’t think I could have even done anything remotely close to motivating them to let them know that they have a big say in what their work is going to be like.

So, she told them that this contract was written by them for them, but then they had to live up to it.  Then they talked about the things they wanted to do as a team. And she literally wrote this big contract and we have it up in our main office.

AP: So, does Brass Bell do any other community events on a regular basis?

TR: Yeah, we do actually. We now have an Outreach and Events Coordinator who plans three to four events a month for us. It could be as simple as going to Double Reed Day at the University with a little booth, to being a part of Dynamic Futures, which was a program for aspiring music majors.  Those happened on the same day, actually! 

So – if we can say yes to it, if we’ve got the resources, we send people. That’s kind of our thing. Sometimes it’s an event or a clinic or a booth, and maybe we have the ability to sell or to repair. But pretty much our philosophy is if it’s supporting some other musical organizations, then of course we want to try and be involved in it.

We also do a lot of the instrument “discovery zones.” We have libraries ask us to come do them. We have daycares that will ask us to come do them. We try to do one quarterly in the store, if not more often.  And  we have done a lot of work with music advocacy. We do the drive-in days where we’re going to the State Capitol and we’re talking to our legislators. We’ve been to the NAMM Fly-in. We’ve been active with the Milwaukee public school teachers to help fight for music to be kept in the schools – I testified in front of the School Board on their behalf, along with a bunch of other concerned citizens. Just being involved in that way is really important to our whole team. 

AP: I think that’s really a model for the rest of us.  We need to get involved in our communities.

TR:  Yeah. We went knowing that the testimonies would be long, and everyone was limited to two minutes of testimony. That was probably one of the best nights of my life.  To hear people saying how music has affected that many people and the variety and the way that – the reasons why they feel it. It is so important.  And it was just one person after another, just getting up there saying music’s important to me. It was real stories about how powerful music has been in people’s lives and why everybody felt so strongly about being there. I mean that room was just like, it was such a charged room. It was such an amazing feeling.

So then to have the school board vote two days later that it was going to happen. I mean that’s when you come back and you’re like, yep, yep. That’s why you go, that’s why you’re involved in this work, because it’s so important.

AP: Is there anything else that you’d like to share with fellow RPMDA members because you’ve been member for a long time?

TR: Keep coming to the convention! Honestly, even in the worst year for us, we were financially strapped, and it was not a good year and I really debated whether or not I should go to Boston. I only went by myself to save money, and that was the year I won the Kjos booth and it paid off!

So just keep coming back. I know sometimes it’s hard to justify, but I think the inspiration and what it means to us to share with other business owners – I don’t think you can put a price tag on that. So that’s my message.