Music Connection celebrates 40 years in business
“Making music makes life better.” It’s the motto of Charlie Ollmann, the owner of Music Connection in Forest Lake. “What we’re doing, since music is such an exciting thing: We’re selling magic. This is magic. We’re selling instruments, but what people can do with those instruments is really something.”
In junior high school in South Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Ollmann was a wrestler and football player who played guitar and sang in a garage band. Soon, Charlie found a new place for his love of music: He was pulled out of the hallway by the music director into the high school’s choir program. That set him on a trajectory that landed him in a career of music, and he set out for college at St. Olaf, where he’d obtain a music teaching degree and meet his wife, Barb.
Charlie and Barb both relocated to the Forest Lake area after graduation. Both taught music — Charlie, in the Forest Lake school district — for five years before opening the store.
“I was much more brave in those days,” Ollmann said.
Both Charlie and Barb left their full-time teaching jobs to open Music Connection in June 1981 while Barb was pregnant with their first of two daughters.
“But we saw a need in the community,” Charlie said.
He said that, at the time, there weren’t any music stores servicing the north metro area. So that June, the couple opened the store in the current side space of Lake Shoppes Shopping Center, currently the spot of Stewie’s.
At the opening of the business, Bruce Abbe was brought on to handle the business’s music lessons.
“In those days, people from Minneapolis didn’t drive to Forest Lake to buy stuff. We knew we had to build our clientele from the ground up, so [it was all about] lessons, lessons, lessons. Get people involved,” Charlie said. He estimates about 20,000 students have come through the lesson programs since the business opened 40 years ago, and now parents who took lessons at Music Connection when they were young are bringing their children in for lessons. He credits that work to Bruce Abbe.
Running the store was “a labor of love,” Charlie said. “Nobody opens a music store to get rich.” The Ollmanns wouldn’t take a check out of the store to pay his family for the first five years. Instead, he supplemented his family’s income by performing five nights a week, playing piano and singing at local venues in the Minneapolis area. Charlie still performs around the region, mostly because he enjoys it, but it does also help supplement their income.
Between bringing in local students for lessons and developing a local clientele, Charlie also focused on developing relationships with school districts across the region. Music Connection services school districts from Hinckley to Apple Valley, providing them with rental instruments, assisting in productions, sound set up, and other equipment servicing.
“We try to partner with directors who are interested in working with us and we do a really good job with them, and that way we don’t get spread too thin,” Charlie said.
He said he also gets around to the schools and listens to the bands play, which he says is one of his favorite parts of his job.
“When [kids] go to school, they look for the things that make them keep wanting to go back to school. Sometimes that interest is music, that thing that touches them. I think it’s important. I see it as I go out to visit schools, and I see these kids playing, and watching the joy they get from performing in their band or with their orchestra. Those are the things that make it worthwhile,” Charlie said.
In 1995, Music Connection got another big client: the University of Minnesota marching band. On a Friday late afternoon on a fall day, Charlie received a call.
“It was the director of the band, who we hadn’t worked with very much,” Charlie said.
One of the drums needed repair the night before a home football game during which the band would be performing, and the company who the director worked with wouldn’t be able to service the drum until Monday.
“He asked, ‘Can you do anything.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be down there in an hour,’” Charlie said. Since then, 95% of the instruments in the marching band come through Music Connection.
“We know we’re the little guys, but they know they can call us and we’ll do whatever it needs to make it happen,” Charlie said.
Charlie said that what has made the biggest difference in the business’s success is his staff. Half of the twelve staff members of the store have been there for over 25 years, and another two have been there since 2004.
“The people we have are dedicated. They’re of the same mindset of wanting people to make music,” Charlie said. “I think part of it is everybody that works here really knows the value of music. Everybody who works here is a musician. Everybody here knows how powerful music can be, and they want to share that.”
Owning a music store in a small outer suburb may not seem like it would lend itself to one-of-a-kind experiences with famous musicians, but Charlie has had more than a handful. In 1984, the age of the piano synthesizers was at its height, and Music Connection was one of the few stores that could get the equipment and keep some in stock. It was that same year that Minnesota musician Prince was preparing to launch his “Purple Rain” tour and needed two synthesizers for the show.
The synthesizers were “hard to get, but we had them,” Charlie said. However, the equipment would require some training, and so as part of the sale, Charlie drove down to the Metropolitan Sports Center in Bloomington and showed Prince how to use the equipment.
“He was very nice. He had a lot going on. He was really creative, really busy,” Charlie said.
Music Connection had a second location in Edina from 2004-2012, which sold Yamaha pianos. That led to Charlie also working to provide pianos for artists like Brandi Carlile, Bruce Springsteen, and Alicia Keys for their tours, as well.
And while the memories of working with those artists bring him a smile, one of the greatest points of pride and joy for Charlie are the students who have come in and out of the doors of Music Connection.
“When you are a musician, you kind of know there’s some magic involved here, and if you can teach that and pass that along, sharing that gift of music with people, that’s something,” Charlie said.
It was t hat impression he made on students, both of Music Connection and music students around Forest Lake, that has meant a great deal to him. He was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in the spring of 2018 by the high school’s Tri-M club, a music honor society. And while he’s been in the business for a number of years, he says retirement is still a ways off for him.
“After 40 years, it’s really gone fast. You know the saying ‘Time flies when you’re having fun’? It’s really been a lot of fun.”
Music Connection is located at 77 8th Ave SW, in Forest Lake, and sells various music instruments and equipment and offers lessons to all ages.