It’s not uncommon for drum retailers to balance playing and teaching commitments with the myriad responsibilities of owning and operating a shop. But you’d be hard pressed to find a multitasker like Columbus Pro Percussion owner Jim Rupp, who’s managed to maintain a consistent teaching practice (Ohio State University and Indiana University) and gigging schedule (Diane Schuur, Maynard Ferguson, Glenn Miller Orchestra, and the Woody Herman Big Band, among others) since opening the shop in 1981. As if being a shop owner-performer-educator wasn’t enough, Rupp is also a clinician for Noble and Cooley, Zildjian, and Promark, and he started a farm with his wife eight years ago featuring fruit trees, cattle, and hogs—not to mention Amish neighbors who hand-craft leather cymbal and stick bags that he sells in the shop. Rupp took time out of his busy schedule to fill in MD on his nearly forty years in the retail game.
When I was on the road, I’d go into Ippolito’s in New York, Frank’s in Chicago, or Pro Drum in Hollywood…I’d hang out in those places. I got to know the repair guy at Ippolito’s, Tim Herman. That’s where I learned a lot of the custom work and repair stuff. Imagine that store in New York. First time I’m in there, a young kid on the road, and the teaching staff is there: Mel Lewis, Elvin Jones, Papa Jo Jones, and Michael Carvin. That was a good place to hang. And I thought, I’d like to do this myself if I get the opportunity.
I had a partner when I started, Bob Breithaupt. He’s a percussion instructor at Capital University here in town. He had a little bit of money, and I had saved a little from being on the road, and we just pooled our money. I brought my own vacuum in once a week to vacuum. We had one drumset and one tree of Zildjian cymbals, and we just built it from there. I was here a lot when I wasn’t traveling. I had friends at the time, like Phil Shipley, who’s now principal percussionist in the Columbus Symphony, helping us out. It was five years before I took any money out of the store. I made my living playing and teaching.
You have to have a good staff that you trust. I’m fortunate that I’ve got a great crew of guys here. That’s allowed me to have the perfect balance of teaching and being on the road throughout the years. I don’t consider myself a brilliant businessman. I just try to get good guys and stay out of their way. Our repairman who recently retired was here twenty-six years. So a guy who did repairs here before is back. Everybody kind of has an area, but still has to cover a bit of everything. We’ve got a couple guys who do most of the videos. My son Steve is the manager, and he tends to do the computer stuff and the database.
We sell to colleges and high schools all around the country. Bell-kit rentals, mallets, and sticks—that’s a big chunk of what we do. We’ve got a guy who knows that stuff inside and out. When people call up and want to know how to fix a carrier or a snare throw on a marching drum, he knows what to do. It’s a little different market from the classic drumset market.
We got smaller with the recession. Our staff is smaller. But Columbus isn’t so based on industry, so that helped our business. There are five universities or colleges in here, as well as the world’s largest private research institute. It’s stabilized the economy. When Cleveland was struggling, Columbus wasn’t nearly as much.
[There are] way fewer drumsets being sold now than there were ten years ago. And I don’t think you can attribute it all to the recession. I think there’s just less interest in playing drums. Part of it is school programs. I’m a big fan of school music programs. But there are some issues there. You have really good educators teaching kids, but they’re not teaching them drumset. They’re teaching them marching snare drum and marimba—which is good, but they’re not drumset players.
I think the other thing that’s hurt is that a lot of [school] districts have kids playing two years on a bell kit. I think it’s good to have a diverse skill set; a balance is healthy. But I’m sitting there thinking, Would I have done that for two years? I don’t think so. I think I’d have checked out of that. I think the bigger thing is that there are no drum heroes right now. No Beatles, no Zeppelin…and there’s no big movement in music inspiring kids to play drums. Even the big acts now—most people don’t know who the drummer is.