Rock Island Sound Hears The Sound Of Success

You don’t hear Dylan, the Stones, or Pink Floyd on the airwaves the way you used to, but they’re still playing at Rock Island Sound. Find yourself talking to the store’s owner, Paul Bessolo, his blond curls recalling Roger Daltrey in the 1970s, and you may hear “Lay, Lady, Lay” or “Wild Horses” playing in the background among the gleaming Fenders and Gibsons hanging in rows on the walls.

But if that style of music has passed its prime in the popular scene, Bessolo’s stores are only becoming more vital. Over the past decade, Rock Island Sound has grown from one store to three—one in Rye and two in Tarrytown—surviving the struggle with big-box stores and navigating the challenge of Internet sales by also offering music lessons and a full range of services.

Customers can learn to play a wide range of instruments, have instruments repaired and rent all the sound equipment needed for a wedding gig. “We have everything you need for a band to perform,” Bessolo says.

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His business started with the lessons. Bessolo began playing guitar and piano as a child growing up in Argentina. After arriving in the United States 23 years ago, he was eking out a living playing in rock and blues bands and doing studio work. But he wanted more security.

“You can make a living as a musician. You can get by,” he says. But if you want to get to the next level, you’ve got to do something more. “So you teach to complement your income,” he explains.

Bessolo took on students even as he went back to school and studied classical composition at Purchase College in the 1990s.“I would go to school in the morning, then teach in the afternoon and play at night,” he recalls. “So in those days, I didn’t sleep much.”

He opened the Rye store first, in September 2005. Many of his students lived in that area, and a friend of his in real estate knew of a small shop available on Milton Ave, near Rye Playland. (He named the business after a speck of land, Rock Island, which he’d spied on a map of Long Island Sound in a Rye diner.) It cost him roughly $100,000 to open the shop, and when he did, he was teaching 50 or 60 students himself, working seven days a week. Two years later, he hired a drum teacher.

Beating the Chains; Mastering the Internet

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In 2009, he expanded and opened the shop at 6 Main Street in Tarrytown in what had been a shoe store. Bessolo did an extensive renovation. Then, three years ago, he opened his largest shop, at 54 Main Street, a couple of blocks away from the second. Formerly an attorney’s office, the 2,000-square-foot space includes five soundproof rooms for teaching. He estimates that each store took another $100,000 to open. Along the way, he added more teachers and took on a luthier who repairs instruments. 

When it comes to competing with the giants in the field—chain stores such as Guitar Center and Sam Ash—the Internet is a help for smaller, local stores, like Rock Island Sound, says Allen McBroom, president of the 450-member Independent Music Store Owners, a trade group. He says Rock Island Sound is doing all the right things online: offering items through eBay, Amazon, and on the store’s own website.

“His website is well organized,” McBroom says. “His name is in every listing related to Rock Island Sound. So he’s got the Internet figured out.”

Good thing—Bessolo says 80 percent of his sales now come from online channels.

McBroom says personal service can turn a buyer into a loyal customer, especially when selling an item that might be cheaper at a big-box store. But Bessolo is not convinced that a handshake and a helpful attitude are enough to convince people to spend more than they would online.

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“I don’t think that’s going to do it,” he says. “People want to pay less.”

The industry follows a policy called Minimum Advertised Pricing, in which suppliers require retailers to agree not to sell items online at a price below a certain minimum. But a store owner can offer a lower price in person or over the phone, and that’s what Bessolo does. He can also throw in extras, like free strings and other accessories.

Bessolo urges his customers to call Rock Island Sound before buying anything they find on Amazon. Recently, a customer almost paid $999 online for a Yamaha keyboard, but he first contacted Bessolo, who sold him the instrument for $950. He also sent a teacher to the customer’s home to set it up, a service he also provides when a customer buys a drum set.

That strategy may make sales, but it doesn’t make it easy to get by. To sell more merchandise in this climate, Bessolo may accept margins of 10 percent or less, when they used to be about 50 percent, he explains. All of this is difficult while paying Westchester rents, as well as his staff of about 20. “Of course it’s difficult. It’s hard for a small business to stay afloat,” he says.

The lessons are what keeps the business thriving, Bessolo says. It’s not that he makes more from the lessons—the retail end and the lessons are about even in terms of the money they pull in. But they feed each other, particularly when combined with the other services Bessolo offers.

A customer may enter the stores as a complete novice, for instance, try out some guitars, then select one after tapping from Bessolo’s vast product knowledge, from the ever-popular Fenders and Gibsons, plus high-end Taylor acoustics to the collectors’ instruments, like a semi-hollow 1962 Harmony Rocket. That same customer can take lessons, get advice on upkeep of the instrument and bring it back for periodic maintenance. Bessolo explains: “A guitar needs an occasional ’set-up,‘ which aligns the guitar and tunes it, and it costs $65; a more intensive grind-and-polish, which reshapes distorted frets, costs $150.”

Staying with the store, the musician might graduate to a higher-end instrument. And maybe even rent all the equipment to put on a show. Bessolo’s commitment to his business is not lost on his students.

“If a student wants to learn an instrument, and Paul doesn’t teach it, he’ll go out and find someone to do it,” says Marian Hoffman of Irvington, who is learning bass at Rock Island Sound. “He’s very entrepreneurial. He’s got a big vision.”

His drive to accommodate anyone looking to learn any instrument has helped expand his base to about 180 students, taking lessons in clarinet, trumpet, even voice. About 90 percent of the business done at the Rye location is in lessons, with 10 percent of the business in retail. That ratio is reversed at the Tarrytown locations. 

Tapping Into Advertising

The stores are bringing in 10 times the revenue of when he started, Bessolo says. His growing numbers of students are taught by 15 teachers. Five salespeople work the counters. But he still shows some frustration at the difficulty of getting the word out.

“That’s the eternal question: How do you let your customers know everything you do?” he asks.

Bessolo’s newest approach is TV and radio advertising. He demurs when asked how much that will cost but he says there will be 250 ads a week on local stations.

The business is getting marketing help from Amy Ormond of Irvington, who is not only taking lessons (as are her two teenage sons) but is also creating promotions for the stores, using her experience as a marketing-and-design professional. “The draw for most people is that it’s a great place to learn,” Ormond says. “Some people may be intimidated by classical music, but who doesn’t enjoy learning a Rolling Stones song?”

Over the past five years, Bessolo has noticed a slight shift in sales. Ukuleles and mandolins have become more popular, with their use by groups such as Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers. They make up about 10 percent of the instruments sold. “Ten years ago, I don’t remember anyone walking in an asking for a mandolin,” he notes. 

Other trends? Acoustic guitars are popular now; whereas, in the past, electrics were all the rage, he notes. It’s a reflection of how many pop songs now can be strummed with relative ease, versus the intricate guitar solos that turned guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page into rock gods. 

But whatever changes may come, there are some things Bessolo expects to stay the same, and to keep him in business. “The guitar, the piano—these are the instruments that will always be popular,” he explains.

Ken Valenti is a freelance writer with many years of experience in Westchester and the region. Having covered all four corners of the county as a longtime reporter, his is a fan of the region’s many and varied downtowns.

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