In the summer of 2003, Dave Simon took a job waiting tables at Sqwires Restaurant in St. Louis, where he and his wife, Keri, lived at the time. It wasn’t a bad job, but it wasn’t exactly what Simon had envisioned for himself at the age of 36. “I’ll never forget, all these old classmates from Clayton (High School) coming in, married with kids, attorneys, there lunching,” Simon said recently. “I wanted to say to them, ‘It’s not what you think! I can explain all this — I’m starting my own business!’”
That business, Dave Simon’s Rock School, was just getting off the ground, in the basement of McMurray Music Center in Overland. Simon had been working in IT for Savvis Communications (now CenturyLink Technology Solutions) but had recently traded in his career for the wait job, freeing up more time and mental energy to devote to his newly formed business.
Simon’s path up to the point of starting the rock school was, as the Beatles once sang, “a long and winding road.” From his teen years into his mid-30s, Simon trekked through the world of rock ‘n’ roll, in search of a vocation that would pay the bills while allowing him to pursue his passion for music.
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While attending Webster University, Simon and his band, Blank Space (which later morphed into Filet of Funk), gained notoriety as one of the few rock bands around town that played original songs, according to Simon, making his group the go-to band to open for big acts, such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Violent Femmes.
After college, Simon headed to New York, where he tried his hand at creating backing tracks for rappers. He also interned at Spin magazine, appeared in a pilot for MTV’s The Real Worldand gave bass lessons out of his apartment in Chelsea. “Nothing was going well, except the teaching,” Simon recalls. Later on, he moved to San Francisco, living there for five years, before settling down for good in St. Louis.
Since its founding, Simon’s Rock School has grown from a handful of students and Simon as the sole instructor, to the current roster of about 250 students and eight teachers. Within the first year, the Rock School had outgrown its original space and relocated to Olivette. Last summer, Simon added a full-time business manager to his staff, Jared Erlinger, so he could focus more on developing new programs, like Kidzrock.
For years, the Rock School has encouraged its beginning students to take private lessons on one of the traditional rock instruments, eventually gaining enough proficiency to join a Rock School band and, ultimately, put on a concert. More recently, though, Simon rolled out the program Kidzrock, allowing kids as young as 4, with no musical training, to start playing in a band from the moment they walk through the doors. The program Jr. Rockerz has followed, a similar concept for 7- to 10-year-olds.
In 2013, the Rock School’s revenue was $370,000, and that figure will likely grow to nearly $400,000 for 2014, thanks in part to licensing fees from Kidzrock and Jr. Rockerz, Simon said.
Simon’s ingenuity has been integral to the school’s success, according to John Eilermann Jr., CEO of McBride & Son Homes. Eilermann’s three children, now in college, are all alumni of the Rock School, and Simon and Eilermann have stayed in touch. “Dave is very artistic, but he also has a good business mind,” Eilermann said. “A lot of times he calls to share ideas or ask a question, but he often has the answer already.”
Simon, 46, lives in Olivette with his wife, Keri — a social worker for the Special School District of St. Louis County — and their three children: Levi, 9; Noa, 6; and Avital, 9 months.
In high school, what kind of music scene were you into?
I was obsessed with the Beatles, and I wanted to be a songwriter. My buddies and I put together a band (Blank Space). And I was also learning a lot about business. I’ll never forget — it was my senior year, 1985. There weren’t any underage clubs at that point; there was nowhere for us to play, so I went to the head of the Clayton Community Center and said, hey, can I put on a concert? There was a pretty well-known punk rock band here (B.I.G.). They were Clayton grads, already out of high school, and they were starting to get national recognition. I said, ‘Look, if you guys play, I’m going to pay you all this money — I think it was like $100 — and we’ll open for you.’ And they did. To this day, people still reference that night. Kids from Burroughs, Country Day — all these high schools — came together and packed the Clayton Community Center.
Have you always had a natural business sense?
I’m a third-generation entrepreneur. My grandfather (Bernard Kornblum) started St. Louis Music in 1922. It was geared toward wholesale distribution of brass and strings, and then my uncle (Gene Kornblum,) took it over and he brought it into the modern era in the ‘50s and ‘60s when rock ‘n’ roll was starting to happen. He started carrying amps and rock instruments.
What were you doing when you lived in San Francisco?
Our band (Solarcane) was doing quite well, but my teaching was really starting to blossom. I don’t know where I got this idea, but I really felt that rock ‘n’ roll could exist in an academic setting. In college, I had studied jazz. So I kept thinking why can’t rock ‘n’ roll go into an academic setting? So I started calling up private schools in San Francisco to see if I could put together a rock-music program for them.
What kind of response did you get?
They loved the idea but didn’t have the money. And I couldn’t afford a storefront.
So what did you do?
My band was good — my best band ever — great singing, great songwriting. Here I was in my early 30s, and we were starting to pack clubs again, but I realized it was the same feeling I had my freshman year in college, when I went back to a high school party: I don’t belong here anymore. I just felt so disconnected from that world — the nightclubs and bars — so I quit the band. I really wanted to settle down. I wanted to get married. I wanted stability. And I traded it all in. I was there (in San Francisco) during the dot-com boom, and there was so much work to be had. A friend of mine said, ‘You know, if you can get some basic Microsoft skills, starting salary is like 40 grand.’ Sure enough, I took some courses and landed a job for like 50 grand.
Back in St. Louis, how did the rock school finally get off the ground?
My wife, for our summer vacation, wanted to work at a therapeutic summer camp for kids, and she wanted me to go with her. So I went. And I don’t know how it came up, but all the staff was saying, ‘Dave, you should really get back into music.’ Someone said, ‘Why don’t you do a rock ‘n’ roll camp?’ And I thought, oh, that’s an interesting idea.
Talk about Kidzrock.
The recession did a number on us, and I had to reinvent myself quickly. I kept getting phone calls from parents with 5- and 6-year-olds, and we would turn them away. Then I thought, we’ve got to engage this audience. So I said, how do I give 5-year-olds a rock ‘n’ roll experience when they can’t play instruments? Then I had this idea: What if we take the rock band and strip the instruments down to just bare-bones basics and see if we can get kids to play together. So I started offering free classes to 4- and 5-year olds at the end of 2010. I said to parents, ‘Look, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I think I can develop a program here. I just want your kids to be my guinea pigs.’ The guitars had only three strings. Everything was color coordinated. The drums were small-sized. Then I found some really simple pop songs for them to play, but they couldn’t play even the most basic songs like Louie Louie — it moved too fast for them. So I started writing songs with them in mind.
by Julie Murphy, St. Louis Business Journal
Read the full story HERE about St. Louis’ original school of rock music