We had the good fortune of connecting with David Beery and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi David, what led you to pursuing a creative path professionally?
I didn’t really know what kind of career to pursue in high school but I loved music. So, I decided to get a music degree. In college (CSU Long Beach) I joined the steel drum band. I loved it! And I loved all of my music classes. However, I didn’t really want to teach. As time passed, I became interested in making steel drums. A friend and I geeked out about it and we tried making a few of our own steel drums – just for fun. Steel drums were very rare back in the early 1990’s. There was no internet, no websites, and no PayPal. If you wanted to buy a steel drum, you had to order one from Trinidad (via a risky wire transfer) or find a tuner in the USA. But there were only a handful of tuners in the USA. After learning to make a few steel drums, people started to ask if I could make one for them. It took YEARS to learn the craft. It is not easy and requires a lot of dedication. I found myself in a position that was good for business. Low supply and high demand. I started to get orders from schools and universities. This is what compelled me to start my own business. I’ve been making steel drums since 1991. A new instrument has taken over my business called a “handpan”. Handpans are similar to steel drums so I was able to shift and learn to make them within a few years. Handpans are now the centerpiece of my business and are very popular. I’ve been making handpans since 2010. In general, I did not go to school to learn my artistic craft of making musical instruments. It was a hobby that was associated with my passion for music. Because I learned a skill that was very scarce, I was able to create a career from it. Low supply, high demand, quality products, and reliable customer service have been what keeps me in business through the years.
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
I am the owner of Dave’s Island Instruments (aka Dii). The business is essentially a boutique musical instrument retail store. We sell handcrafted handpans, ukuleles, and steel drums. Each instrument has developmental roots from an island (Trinidad or Hawaii). We do not sell typical instruments that are sold in most music stores. Ukuleles are very popular now, but most music stores do not feature them as a main instrument. Handpans and steel drums are very rare and are basically not available in most typical music stores. We also provide service and repair for handpans and steel drums and some basic services for ukuleles. Dii is not a typical music store, thus we get business from local, national, and international customers. Dii is actually my second business. I originally got a DBA as Smarty Pans, and I focused entirely on making and selling steel drums. I leased a spot in Signal Hill and tried to make a manufacturing business. It was difficult to maintain the business. Cash flow was a big problem. Material costs were high, the process of making and tuning the drums was slow, and receiving payment from schools was also slow. I found that I had to spend lots of cash during the job then wait for weeks to get paid. It was a very boom and bust style of business. Eventually, the 2008 recession hit the business hard and I closed the shop and moved into my garage at home. I built steel drums in my garage from home for several years after the recession hit. Along the way, I got to know a local ukulele manufacturer and made a good relationship with the owner. Ukuleles were becoming very popular at the time. Also, several customers introduced me to a new instrument that looked like an upside down steel drum, called a “handpan”. It was only being made by a few people worldwide and demand was huge. I also started to get more foot traffic to my home from steel drum customers, which was a little odd since it was a residential location. With all of this action going on, I decided to rebrand my business and open a new store called Dave’s Island Instruments. The store was based on three unique instruments: handpans, ukuleles, and steel drums. Overall, I’ve learned that being passionate about my craft has been one of my biggest assets. I love what I do and customers know it. Being on the cutting edge of new and unique products has also been essential to my success. Supply and demand has been in my favor for years. I was doing business as Smarty Pans Music for about 10 years, and now Dii has been in business for about 10 years. 20+ years in the industry! I’ve seen other music businesses come and go. I am really proud that I’ve been able to maintain a business for so long.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Ha! Well, truthfully, I don’t take friends out on the town much. I enjoy a good meal and a good discussion with friends and customers, of course. But I am frequently drawn to work on projects. I get nervous if I am unproductive for too long. Many of my “vacations” are centered around business. I will get a service job (schools will hire me to tune their steel bands, sometimes in very picturesque or unique locations like Alaska or Colorado) and then fit in some sightseeing while I’m in town. However, with this being said, I have taken friends and family with me to Alaska several times on business trips. Here is how it goes: I’ve been traveling to Alaska for tuning service trips for nearly 15 years. Early on, the locals encouraged me to get an Alaska airlines credit card because the flight miles add up and I can use them to book free flights and get other perks. So, I did. Typically, the customer reimburses me for my flights to Alaska. I would buy the ticket up front with my Alaska Air credit card (which gives me a benefit of accruing flight miles). Also, Alaska Air credit card allows a companion fare option once a year. The companion can fly for just an extra $99.00. So, on occasion, I would bring my wife along for $99.00. I would get reimbursed for my flight so both of us were able to go to Alaska for a total of $99.00! Ha! I love it! One time I had accumulated enough flight miles to pay for my entire family (2 adults and 2 kids) to go to Alaska with me. I think it cost a total of $700.00. I have also taken my father, mother, and friends with me over the years. Always for just $99.00. I LOVE IT! Once we are in Alaska, I take them to my favorite restaurants and show them the sights that I have become familiar with. Ultimately, I’m there to work. So, I will work several long days to get the work done. My friends or family take it upon themselves to find activities to do on their own while I am working. But the days are long (typically in June it is light all day and all night) so it is easy to work for 8 hours and then explore together during the evening. Not to mention, that the customers I have in Alaska are typically very friendly and great hosts. We are frequently invited to dinner, to go on a boat ride down a river, or see something special like a Midnight Sun baseball game! One of my favorite activities to schedule while in Alaska with friends is a trip on the Alaska Railroad and a boat ride to see some glaciers in Whittier, AK. So fun, so unique, and so relaxing! I feel very blessed to have these opportunities! None of this would be possible if my trade and skill was not so rare. The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Dr. Michael Carney. Michael was the percussion professor at CSU Long Beach. He got me involved with playing the steel drums in his college class. He was very much a classic mentor. He was highly motivated himself and I got to see how he approached life and his own musical career. He invited me to play in his professional working steel band in the early 1990’s. We played gigs and concerts all over Southern California. We even played with numerous Pops orchestras in multiple states around the nation. Michael did not know how to make or tune steel drums. However, he was very supportive of my interest in making steel drums and allowed me to use practice rooms at the school to hone my craft. Above all, he showed me “how” to be self motivated, responsible, and professional in a music career. He showed me “how” to be dedicated and passionate to my craft. These lessons were not taught in a classroom. They were taught by observation and classic casual mentorship. I was very fortunate.