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Two-Part Harmony: The musical legacy of Richard Dowling

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Success, one song at a time: life partners James Li (l) and Richard Dowling’s Dowling Music businesses in Houston and New York offer their customers sheet music the old-fashioned way—in retail stores, on racks, where people can actually browse through the sheets.

by Rich Arenschieldt

Houstonians traveling on US 59 near Kirby have no doubt seen the 54-foot-tall sign that marks one of the city’s premier music establishments, Dowling Music.  What most of us don’t realize is that this business is the culmination of an amazing journey by pianist Richard Dowling and his longtime partner, James Li.

A native Houstonian, Dowling studied locally with renowned pianist Abbey Simon, Cullen Professor of Piano at the University of Houston. Dowling subsequently received a master’s degree from Yale, the only Ivy League school with a music conservatory. During his time at Yale he studied with Claude Frank, one of the world’s preeminent piano pedagogues.

“While at Yale I met my partner, James Li,” Dowling says. “He was also a pianist, but switched his field of study to economics and eventually became an investment banker. After graduation we had to separate; James moved to New York and I returned to Texas to pursue a doctorate at UT Austin. Our plan was for me to finish my studies and return to New York as soon as possible.”

In the meantime, Li landed several high-profile banking positions and, in 1989, Dowling returned to New York so they could establish a life together. Shortly thereafter, they relocated to Asia—a move necessitated by Li’s steady climb up the corporate ladder.

In 2008 Li accepted a position in Florida with the now-infamous Stanford Group, headed by billionaire bilker R. Allen Stanford. Li quickly became a casualty of the resulting corporate implosion, after which an unforeseen series of events occurred.

“Since Jim wasn’t working during this time, he was accompanying me to all of my concerts,” Dowling says. “I had a recital in Houston at the end of 2008. While there, I stopped in at the city’s most established sheet music store, Pender Wadler-Kaplan. The shop was managed by a good friend of mine, Rick Valentine, who had worked there for almost three decades. Rick informed me that the store had lost its lease and would be closing in two weeks.”

That brief visit irrevocably altered the path Dowling and Li would take. “Jim and I began discussing the possibility of purchasing the store from its current owners. Since he had extensive experience in advising and managing large enterprises, and I was already working as an editor of printed music, we possessed the skill sets necessary to run this business. We presented a proposal to buy the store, and it was accepted.

“After purchasing the store in November 2008, we discovered a perfect new location in the Upper Kirby district, one with excellent visibility. It was my dream to have a concert venue there as well—now a reality with the 100-seat ‘Recital Room at Dowling Music.’” The space was a harmonious mix, with 3,600 square feet divided between retail and recital space.

Music wasn’t the only thing that mattered. Dowling’s partner also realized that a broader retail focus was necessary for financial viability. “Jim’s idea was to expand the scope of the space to include musically themed items—CDs and gifts. Visitors attending events at the Recital Room always want to purchase gifts for their friends and family. Through Jim’s foresight, we’ve established ourselves as a specialty gift store as well as a venue for printed music,” Dowling says.

The local success of the musician and magnate didn’t go unnoticed. In an odd coincidence, New York City’s legendary Patelson’s Music House, located in the venerable 85-year-old Steinway Hall on West 57th Street, was also closing. The Steinway Company had heard about Dowling’s success and contacted him, seeking a new tenant.

“Out of the blue, they called and offered us 2,000 square feet of space—I was speechless. Since Rick Valentine was managing our Houston store, we knew we had the expertise to accomplish this. We met the executives at Steinway, negotiated a lease, and began working to develop the new space. We utilized our Houston contractor who measured the space in New York, built the store in Houston, delivered it in an 18-wheeler to Steinway Hall, and installed it in one week.”

Unlike the Houston shop, the New York location had no existing inventory of sheet music—a formidable obstacle. “We were very fortunate,” Dowling says. “We accessed what we call the ‘Rick-ipedia’—the 29 years of experience that our general manager, Rick Valentine, possesses—something that has been invaluable to the company.”

Accomplishing so much in such a short time has been difficult. “There are risks involved in any endeavor,” Dowling says. “We have stretched our finances to the limit. The thing that gets me through this is that Jim is the smartest person I’ve ever met. The two of us complement each other very well. Now is the time for us to take the risk, while we are still young enough to do so.”

Entering the print-media market at a time when every publisher is in decline may not seem like the best strategy, but Dowling addresses this by citing the uniqueness of the product he delivers. “Sheet music can’t be read on a Kindle or other digital device. Music is printed on 9 x 12-inch paper, double sided—something not possible with most computer printers. With few exceptions, most musicians purchase their own copies and need to make notations on the pieces they perform. While we do sell items through our Internet site, we also realize that, much like a Barnes & Noble, people enjoy browsing through music. Additionally, in a time when large corporations seem to be running everything, our store is owned by musicians who understand what artists require.”

While many partnerships would suffer as a result of this whirlwind of activity, this endeavor has actually improved their personal relationship. “For Jim and me, it’s been beneficial,” Dowling says. “When he was an investment banker he was traveling constantly, as was I, performing concerts. Often we would see each other only one week out of a month. Now we’re together much more.

“We pinch ourselves every day—being co-owners of an enterprise like this is amazing. Not even in our wildest dreams would we have anticipated this kind of expansion in New York City and success in Houston. We now have homes in both places.”

Even though they had initially chosen different careers, music is still important to both Dowling and Li. “People are surprised to learn that James is an accomplished musician,” Dowling says. “When he sits down to play, people are amazed at his ‘hidden’ talent. Music is the thing that has kept us together all these years.”

Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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