Some quesitons and answers …

Recently I had a great conversation with a long-time harmonica friend about the SPAH election. He shared his take on the tone of the campaign and the approach suggested by Warren and me. He said, “Your campaign statements … painted Winslow (via his association with current management) as a conservative stick-in-the-mud.” Winslow, is a nice man, he has done a great job with the entertainment, and it goes without saying he’s an accomplished player. With all due respect, his campaign motto speaks volumes about his management style, “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are now.”

On the surface that approach sounds sensible. Yet, that is exactly the policy that has led to a decline in membership and relevance to the harmonica community. It also bespeaks an aversion to risk that does the organization a disservice. Where would any of us be as musicians and human beings if we never ventured beyond “do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are now”?

Whoever runs SPAH for the next three years must have his feet planted firmly on the ground, but he should also be willing to try new things. He needs to have faith in his ability to reach beyond the organization’s grasp. Otherwise, we’ll stay just where we are.

Warren and I hope to build upon the foundation laid by the members and management teams of the last 50 years. We want to create a more transparent and financially secure SPAH that does more to accomplish its mission than hold an annual convention

This effort requires expending resources on membership development, creating mutually beneficial partnerships with industry stakeholders, and a capital drive program. Thus enriched, we’ll be in a position to make SPAH better than ever.

My friend suggested Warren and I “were willing to take large financial risks to expand SPAH’s reach, with references to all that money just sitting there in the bank.”

We have no intention of taking a hammer to the piggy bank. Our statements were more nuanced. Read SPAH’s BoD meeting minutes for the last four years and look at the tax returns which describe many of the organization’s business expenses. A pattern emerges. The current management team, of which Winslow is a member, has devoted neither money nor intellectual capital on membership development. They have likewise spent very little on infrastructure.

The SPAH convention has been successful for a long time. But it’s coasting on inertia. Unless we make a consistent effort to attract and retain members, it won’t be forever. Indeed correlating convention attendance with membership numbers over the last four years reveals interesting insights.

Without tangible membership benefits, convention locations are critical because  membership increases when the convention is held in areas with a strong local harmonica scene. Sacramento was case in point. Our membership numbers and convention attendance curves bulged. Why?  Primarily because there are a lot of harmonica players in California who could drive to the convention. To the best of my knowledge, Winslow has expressed no intentions of addressing this issue.

So yes, we might use some SPAH funds to pay for marketing efforts but as an adjunct to other strategies–not as step one. For example, there’s been a long standing practice to send many members on site inspections. When there, the organization treats  local club reps and themselves to dinner. This past year, we spent some $1,500[1. This number was originally misstated because I relied on my middle-aged memory instead of my notes. According to an email from Tom Stryker dated 11/10/2011, the expenses were as follows, “Winslow, $380.00 Airfare, Tom $380.00 Airfare, L.J. & Elizabeth  $300.00 Vehicle expense at gov. rate ($.75 per mile)”] on that program.

Site inspections aren’t really necessary any more. That work can be handled over the Internet and by phone. Trimming this expense will not affect the quality of the convention but will free up the funds for other programs like membership development. To the best of my knowledge, Winslow does not intend to discontinue that practice. Likewise, our conventions are only held in cities with local clubs. That model made sense when there were many more clubs. Now that practice limits our choices of cities and our ability to sustain growth.

My friend went on to say, given the apparent choice between, me and Winslow,  he said he, “Went with the stick-in-the-mud ;-)” It was both an honest answer, and in keeping with his gentle personality, a wry way of chiding me for some of my earlier campaign statements.

If all voters heard was the  “entrepreneurial vs. paralysis by analysis” trope, they missed the important points of our case.

Elections present a challenge to those who want to make a responsible choice, particularly in an organization like SPAH.  Most members are (rightfully) there for the party and do not care about the business end of the organization. Or as I like to say, few people want to know what goes into the sausage so long as it consistently tastes good. Therefore, emotions and friendships become the biggest factors in their decisions.

The SPAH election is not about whether the convention will “taste the same,” it will. It’s not about who is the better harmonica player or who has been around longer, or who has more friends or who “deserves” it.  It’s about deciding who will be the sausage chef, which is to say, who will do the  best job running the business and whose ideas, if executed, will most benefit the organization on the short and long term.

SPAH on Video

The SPAH convention is a singular and amazing experience. Those who have not attended can scarcely imagine what it’s like to be in a hotel full of harmonica players who make music from the early morning to the wee hours of the night. One can pack a life time of memories into a few days. Since not everyone can attend, enjoy these videos posted on YouTube by attendees.

It’s all about the numbers

Data Source: Roger Bale, SPAH Membership Director

Without people, a membership organization cannot pursue its mission. Failing to attract new members and grow the organization signals either a lack of interest in the mission or problems with membership development.

SPAH’s issue is not a lack of interest in the harmonica. The 21st Century harmonica market supports more manufacturers than ever: Hohner, Suzuki, Seydel, Herring, Lee Oskar, Bends, Huang to name a few. The market also supports a robust craft vendor movement that includes instructional material, harmonica customizers, amp builders, microphone techs and accessory manufacturers . Folks on harp-l and elsewhere describe these days as the golden age of harmonica gear.

There are plenty of harmonica players worldwide and therefore plenty of potential members.

Nevertheless, membership numbers trended down over the last three years as well as over the last 11 years. The difficult economy no doubt affected the situation; however, the current administration’s priorities and spending practices have conspicuously ignored membership development in favor of a near total focus on producing the convention.

Some observations about the data:

  • a 2% drop over 11 years.
  • a 7 % drop over the last four years,

Is a seven percent decline over four years and 11 years of net negative growth an accomplishment? The best face anyone can put on these numbers is SPAH more-or-less maintained the status quo. Personally, I would be disappointed with that performance.

The data illustrates clearly the inevitable conclusion of the current management team’s paralysis by analysis and its convention-centric policies.

Warren and I believe the organization and the convention will not be sustainable over time if future management teams continue the practice of ignoring growth. We plan to make membership development a priority. And we will not to fall prey to paralysis by analysis.

(A Note About the Data: The numbers for the graph come from Membership Director Roger Bale and have been given to both candidates.).

A note on campaign rhetoric

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, elections are the worst form of choosing a leader except for all the others. Elections are messy. They have winners and losers. They pit well intentioned people against each other and force candidates to struggle with balancing the greater good against personal ambitions. They require friends to pick sides and set the stage for emotional debates .

SPAH’s founders chose elections as the means to pick its leaders. It took 50 years but there is finally a contested election. There’s no point in having [them] if they “… cannot give a [an organization] a firm sense of direction [or] if it has two or more [candidates who] merely have different names but are as alike in their principles and aims as two peas in the same pod.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

The good news is for first time, there are two people who love love the organization and its mission enough to volunteer their time to serve. Because Winslow and I are not two peas in a pod, the members are now in control of SPAH’S destiny instead of a small group of people chosen by the current president.

Everyone agrees the convention experience is the heart and soul of SPAH’s identity. We all want to preserve and advance our instrument. We also agree SPAH should be the premier harmonica organization.

The road diverges, as it were, at management style and goals for how to carry SPAH’s legacy into the future.

We need someone willing to till new fields and grow different crops. Every farmer knows he can not grow the same plant in the same field in perpetuity. Looking back over the last ten years, we have not grown. Staying the same is not an accomplishment, it is maintaining the status quo.

Were the presidency about being rewarded for time in rank or accomplishments in musicianship, the choice would be clear and I would not have run.

Alas, the office of president is not a ceremonial role nor is choosing a new leader a popularity contest. We do not have an executive director who can run the business while the president presides over plates of beef, chicken or fish and gives out awards.

I am not running for president to be master of ceremonies at the annual banquet, or to get a place on the stage during the convention, or because it will help me sell books or get gigs. I am running because I believe in the mission and I believe I have the right experience for the challenges facing us today.

Civil competition, especially among friends, requires utmost care. The challenge we face as candidates is to illustrate the differences in ideas without hurting feelings. This requires both meticulous language and the ability to distinguish between differences of opinion and judgment of the person.

When the dust settles and the choices are made, governing begins. At that point, I hope we can set aside our differences of opinion and and labor together for SPAH’s benefit. And I hope we can get back to the real matter at hand: music.

Chromatic vs. Diatonic: Harmonica Politics

The choice of instrument flows from our taste in music and what we have to say as musicians. Chromatic, Diatonic, Bass, and Chord all deserve a place in SPAH.

Most of my playing has focused on the diatonic and blues. But for the last two years I have studied Jazz and music theory with Mike Turk. For that application the chromatic is my instrument of choice.

Please be assured that Warren and I will preserve all the harmonica traditions. As listeners and aficionados of our instrument we find pleasure in the full spectrum of harmonicas. Under our administration, the shows and seminars at the convention will continue to reflect tradition and embrace diversity.

The changes Warren and I hope to bring to SPAH are related to how the business is run. We take the “Preserve and Advance” mission very seriously. We also believe SPAH needs business minded leadership to accomplish that mission in the future.

Winslow is an amazing musician , well known in SPAH, and has served the organization with distinction. He has my respect and gratitude. If being president was a reward for harmonica street cred, Winslow would get my vote. In my opinion, however, the job of president is to run the business and to have a vision for the future.

In those areas Warren and I offer an alternative worth serious consideration. SPAH will benefit greatly from a management team with a can-do mindset instead of a “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are” approach. (source: Winslow’s candidate’s statement) Bien pensant. The literal transition means “good thinking.” In other words, going along to get along.

The music we all listen to did not spring from a culture of bien pensant. At one time  originators were the agitators and boat rockers. Thank God for outsiders. If SPAH’s members aspire to being more relevant to the entire harmonica community in the 21st century, Warren and I are the choice.

SPAH Election 2012

Members now have an opportunity to choose SPAH’s future direction. In the 2012 election SPAH members will have a choice in leadership instead of being asked to accept the hand-chosen successor of the current management team.

Our predecessors have done a good job organizing the convention and putting SPAH on a path toward financial security. However, we think broadening the organization’s focus and adopting an entreprenurial approach is necessary to take the next steps to reinvigorate SPAH.

The convention is the heart of the SPAH experience but as Warren and I became involved in the governance and operations, we came to believe that we could do better than an 800+ member organization and just planning a convention.

Vote for Bob Cohen for President and Warren “Bee” Bachman for Vice President.

Cohen-Bachman SPAH Roadmap

  • Creating and implementing a robust marketing program designed to increase and diversify our membership.
  • Adding tangible benefits to our membership.
  • Increasing attendance at the convention.
  • More actively developing useful content for the web site.
  • Forming stronger partnerships with manufacturers, vendors, and other stakeholders.
  • Implementing a Capital Drive Program.
  • Decreasing our reliance on volunteers to perform vital tasks.
  • “Opening the books”

A Note on Transparency

In addition to our vision for growth and professionalization, Warren and I believe SPAH should be a fully transparent organization. The current management culture has been disinclined to make available important information to the membership like our financial status meeting minutes, which document the decision making process. In token of our promise for transparency, click the links below for some of that information..

SPAH Financials

Because SPAH is non-profit organization, SPAH members and the public have right to know how the organization’s money is spent and how decisions are made. The U.S. and Michigan laws require the organization to furnish information about its finances to whomever asks. This is in return for relief from corporate tax, sales tax, and the ability to accept tax deductible donations.

The current management team has been reluctant to release financial information After numerous emails requesting financial data, the management team finally released its tax returns for the last three years. (FYI, this is publicly available on GuideStar) Requests were made for P&L reports (Profit and Loss) and detailed information about transactions–both were refused.

Warren and I believe SPAH should be a fully transparent organization. We will release a Financial Report at the annual meeting during the convention as well as on

In token fulfilling that promise, below are links to PDFs of the last three tax returns.

Download SPAH Tax Returns