In Marketplace

This unassuming building near 77th and Bluemound Road is the headquarters of the world's largest music publisher.

In Marketplace

When Keith Mardak joined Hal Leonard, the annual sales were less than $1 million.

In Marketplace

Larry Morton spent six years playing piano bars and now helps get music in the hands of players worldwide.

Hal Leonard helps millions strike up the band

Ask people on the street to name the biggest, most successful businesses in Milwaukee and they'll likely rattle off companies like MillerCoors, Harley-Davidson and Northwestern Mutual Life.

Chances are, they won't mention Hal Leonard Corporation.

But, they should.

Whether on their way to work, school, a Brewers game at Miller Park or Gilles Frozen Custard, thousands of Milwaukeeans drive past Hal Leonard's corporate headquarters -- tucked into an unassuming brick office building abutting Honey Creek Parkway at 7777 W. Bluemound Rd. -- without an inkling of what goes on inside.

"We are kind of a well-kept secret," said Hal Leonard chairman Keith Mardak, who has spent 40 years guiding the company through expansions and acquisitions that have made it the largest music publisher in the world. The company has roughly 500 employees in Milwaukee, Minnesota, Nashville, New York City, Australia and Europe and annual sales are about $150 million.

And, still it doesn't come to mind?

If you've ever played an instrument -- be it the piano as a youngster, trombone in the junior high band or electric guitar in college -- chances are you've had your hands on a Hal Leonard music book. If you've been in a music store, you've probably seen the dizzying array of sheet music, songbooks, instructional method books, CDs and DVDs, or educational materials for bands, orchestras and choral groups all released under the Hal Leonard banner.

"We produce, on average, 12 publications a day," said Mardak, whose deals with Chicago-based organ manufacturers accounted for much of the company's early business in the 1970s.

"We do anywhere from 3,200 to 3,300 a year. Half of it is song-driven and half of it is educational. 'The Hal Leonard Guitar Method' is the No. 1 guitar method in the world. 'The Essential Elements for Band Method' is the No. 1 band method in the world and 'Essential Elements for Orchestra' is No. 1, as well. We're not No. 1 in piano. We're probably No. 3 right now."

Hal Leonard sells its products in 65 countries through music stores, big box electronics retailers, book giants like Barnes and Noble and Borders and through its own booming Web division. With more than 120,000 titles, Hal Leonard represents artists from Aerosmith to Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis to Justin Timberlake, Frank Sinatra to Hank Williams, Elvis Presley to Elton John as well as catalogs from Irving Berlin, Andrew Lloyd Weber, Rodgers & Hammerstein and Disney.

The company, which has a distribution facility in Winona, Minn., has deals with iTunes, RockBand and the Kindle.

"It's an interesting thing," said company president Larry Morton. "We sit at more or less an intersection between the audio part of the music business and the publishing business."

Either through acquisition or licensing deals, Hal Leonard -- the name is a hybrid of original owners Harold "Hal" Edstrom and his brother, Everett "Leonard" Edstrom -- acquires the right to publish music from artists and songwriters, who are paid royalties. What Hal Leonard does is look for ways to maximize its use of the music.

"If you take a big song, like 'My Heart Will Go On,' from the movie 'Titanic,' think of how many ways we can use that song," Morton said. "We can use it in a beginning level piano book, four or five different keyboard books, three orchestra books, different choral arrangements, we can put out a book of great long songs and another one of great movie hits. It's really amazing. We counted it up recently and we have about 130 million different uses of songs in our catalog. We're putting them out there, introducing them to new audiences. The thing about music, though, is that there is always something new. There is always a new song or a new band."

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Talkbacks

High_Life_Man | Nov. 5, 2009 at 9:51 a.m. (report)

Great article about a building I drive past everyday. I wonder if they are hiring...

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LegallyBlonde | Nov. 4, 2009 at 1:49 p.m. (report)

We are lucky to have such a well-run, internationally-recognized, company here in Milwaukee. I know a few people who work at Hal Leonard, and they are musically-minded professionals who go where the jobs are. Again, lucky to have a company that retains such people here in Milwaukee.

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