Hardly working for living

Unlike most people, Frank Burnett is delighted when any deal has strings attached.

Burnett plays just about every stringed instrument there is: guitar, piano (yes, it’s a stringed instrument, he is quick to assert), banjo, mandolin, ukulele, bass, violin — you name it, Burnett loves it. His basement studio houses more than 40 instruments and two fully equipped studios.

He especially loves the guitar, but it never occurred to his practical side that a person could make a living at it.

“‘Work’ is a funny word,” says Burnett, 56. “I never thought of practising the guitar as ‘work,’ it was just ‘playing,’ and I just couldn’t fathom that I could ‘play’ for a living.”

Burnett’s uncle introduced him to the guitar when he was 15. “He had this beat-up wreck that was really a mess. The action was terrible but I played it anyway and I fell in love with the sound of an acoustic guitar.” That day began a love affair that has lasted Burnett more than four decades, but like any true love, its path didn’t exactly run smooth.

“As you get older, you want to do things. I wanted a car, so I had to find a way to afford one. At 25, I got married. It wasn’t the time to be going on the road, to be away from my wife, so I had to make a decision. Even though I loved her, it was really difficult not to give it a shot, go on the road. I put music in the background.”

He began to work in sales. In barely a blink, 30 years had gone by, and Burnett was at the top of his field, but watching that field crumble.

“Technology was putting my business out of business,” he says. “I was having to work 10 times harder for the half the result. It just wasn’t working anymore and I knew I had to make a change.”

Now or never

Burnett was by then pushing 50. “I was still playing a bit here and there, and I told (my wife) Wendy that it was now or never. If I didn’t try then to do something in the music industry, I was going to be too old. I knew I had to try.”

It’s the great irony of Burnett’s life: “My father always told me I would need an education to fall back on. In reality, it ended up that I needed my music to fall back on.”

With the help of a local music store, Oshawa’s Wilson & Lee, with whom Frank had developed a relationship through his hobby, word of mouth began to spread, and he picked up a few students.

“The first year was tough. It was hard getting used to not getting that paycheque every Friday. There were days I didn’t make a cent. But little by little, business picked up.”

Burnett’s business, Frank’s Music & Repair, now has more than 90 students, and employs two additional teachers. His knack for fixing battered and beaten instruments has become another income stream.

“I can’t see me ever retiring from this,” he says. “The business is growing to the point where I can work a little less, and my teachers a little more, but I love every second of it.

This business is my pension fund!”

Rewards are so great

To fellow entrepreneurs, Burnett says to be prepared to struggle, but “the rewards are so great. It’s hard to see that at the start, but there is a feeling of pride that I’ve never gotten from anything else. I get to spend every day doing what I love with people I enjoy — does it get any better than that?

“I spent 30 years in industry, never feeling passionate about what I did. I did it to make a living and I was successful at it, but I wasn’t driven. Now my life is totally different.

“If you can make your livelihood from something you’re passionate about, it simply isn’t ‘work’ anymore.”