The music man: Bill Shivelbine talks about life in the music business

Friday, January 19, 2007
Bill Shivelbine poses at Shivelbine music store. (Fred Lynch)

There's a bass guitar propped up next to the desk in Bill Shivelbine's office. A banjo on the floor.

A clarinet and saxophone sitting atop book shelves.

Not the kind of shiny, untouched instruments you might see in a museum. Real instruments, well-worn and respected by the touch of rhythmic fingers.

A black and white photograph of a man next to a piano is framed on the wall behind Shivelbine's desk.

Most people who enter this office need no introduction to the man in the picture -- William August, the original music man behind Shivelbine's Music Store.

The store has been in Cape Girardeau since 1947. Shivelbine has been in his position as president since 1991. But through all those decades, through old and new Shivelbines, the focus of the business has remained the same: musicians.

Between interview questions, the 43-year-old Bill keeps up with incoming calls, financial statements on his laptop and employees popping in and out with questions. He's a flurry of activity, partly because there's so much going on right now, and perhaps partly to shift the spotlight a little.

"This, and photographs, it's torture for me," he admits.

No doubt about it, Shivelbine says, he prefers behind-the-scenes work to seeing his name in lights.

But between the post-holiday craziness and first-of-the-year inventory, he found time to sit down with Business Today for a Q&A talk about his lifelong relationship with music, the history of the family store and why he's scared for future generations of musicians.

BT: Has music always been a part of your life?

Shivelbine: I grew up with a mom and dad who played. I came home to music and stories of the music business every day. The customers who frequent this place are musicians -- they always have a story to tell.

BT: What's your earliest memory of music?

Shivelbine: For me, it was like a duck to water. It's not my earliest memory, but one that always stands out is a summer break as an adolescent. My dad brought home a clarinet, a flute and a sax and had me dismantle all of them and put them back together as a summer project. It took all summer to put them back together.

BT: What's changed about Shivelbine's store since 1947? What hasn't changed?

Shivelbine: What's changed is today's music business. What sets a music store apart is that we still employ musicians. What we sell isn't a box or even an instrument. What we sell is the dream of being a musician. It used to be that we educated the customer. Now, with the environment today and the Internet, people come in and know about the product. But we understand the art of music, the love of being a musician.

BT: With much of the city's retail growth taking place on the westside these days, what is it about downtown area that keeps you here?

Shivelbine: Specialty stores. We're a point of destination. When someone walks in the front door, they're here for a reason. Music is becoming more of a commodity; that's what scares me the most. My biggest fear? Someone goes into a box store, buys a guitar and gives it to a little girl. But because that instrument wasn't loved before it left the store, maybe it's not in tune. It's not a quality instrument. The little girl tries, but she just can't make it work. So she gives up, thinking she just can't play and decides to take up volleyball or something. And maybe we just lost the next Sheryl Crow because of it. And worse, the little girl thinks it's her fault, when it's really an inferior instrument. That's my biggest fear.

When you walk in here, you know you want to play; you know there's something musical at the end of the tunnel. There's someone here to say, "loosen your hand", or "this is a C chord". If you want to fly with the birds, you've gotta get in the flock.

BT: In 2006, you were awarded the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri's highest honor, the Otto Dingeldein Award. Given your family's longtime involvement in the local music scene, what did that award mean to you?

Shivelbine: It wasn't until it was all over that it really sink in that what we do is appreciated. To have the leaders of the community and the people directly related to the arts say, 'What you do is appreciated' -- that makes it all worthwhile. Sometimes you do things and think they're for the right reasons, but you don't really know. At the end of it all, to look at that plaque and hear them going down the list of things I've done and think, 'hell, I forgot about that, and I forgot about that...' Still to this day I get comments about it.

BT: Why is music important in a community?

Shivelbine: Turn the hands of time back. Music was what brought people together before TV and video games and all the crap that rots our minds. It brought families together.

I think about my grandfather, playing for the silent movies. That brought people together. Music has always been a magnet. The municipal band on Wednesday nights; Tunes at Twilight on Friday nights. The clubs downtown. Music still has the power to bring people together. Let history be our teacher. The more we use music in this way, the better society will be, whether it's the microcommunity of Cape Girardeau or the macro United States. It's a universal language.

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