The Dallas Morning News
Wednesday, December 18, 1996
If you've attended a large holiday party or shopped for a CD lately, you
may have heard the clear, harmonious tones of an a cappella quartet called
The Living Christmas Card.
Today's Columns (front page)
If you've heard the clear, harmonious tones of an a cappella quartet called
The Living Christmas Card, you've glimpsed a growing business launched by
two young music educators from their Lewisville home.
- Diana Kunde
MUSICIANS COMPARE NOTES AND TURN HOBBY INTO PROFIT
By Diana Kunde
If so, you've glimpsed a growing business launched by two young music educators
from their Lewisville home. Sheri and Craig Marshall took a seasonal gig
and grew it into a thriving enterprise they estimate will gross $250,000
The Marshalls - each of whom has a master's degree in music from the University
of North Texas - dispatch quartets garbed in attractive Victorian-era costumes
to parties and concerts in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Detroit. Clients
include Delta Air Lines, Dallas Bankers Wives, Prestonwood country Club
and Frito-Lay Co., among others.
Next year, they'll expand to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Nashville, Tenn.; Stockholm,
Sweden; and Boston. A new, self-produced compact disc will earn an estimated
$20,000 this season. They are talking with a major classical label and a
publishing house that may print Mr. Marshall's arrangements.
The couple combined their musical talents with organization and perserverance.
The result: a success that may ultimately support two careers, all year
long. "Organization and attention to details have kept us going... It helps
that we love what we do," said Mr. Marshall, 32.
They're unusual, said Jim Progris, director of the music business and entertainment
industries program at the University of Miami. "More often than not, good
musicians don't find a way to capitalize on their abilities because they
don't think in a business way," he said. "The few who do, I think, are unique."
The Living Christmas Card began in 1987 when Sheri Marshall was teaching
music in elementary school, and her husband, Craig, was a grad student.
A friend asked them to join a holiday caroling quartet to have fun and make
The friend moved, and the Marshalls carried on the quartet. Bookings expanded.
The couple decided to clone themselves - auditioning other singers but staying
in control of the music, format and performance quality.
In 1991, Mr. Marshall landed a one-year teaching post at Prairie View A&M
University near Houston. "We thought, if this works in Dallas, Why not try
to outfit a group in Houston?" The organization that is now the Living Christmas
Card began to take shape.
There's now and 800 number in the Marshall's home that takes bookings, which
are logged on a personal computer containing a database of auditioned singers
in each city.
The business has a ready talent pool because many trained singers do other
things in their day jobs. "It's a great outlet for people who might be teaching
voice lessons 40 to 50 hours a week," Mr. Marshall said. Parents at home
with small children are also prime candidates.
The Marshalls audition and train in the fall. Mr. Marshall has created arrangements
of 64 carols, grouped in eight segments that take 15 minutes each to perform.
There are training tapes for each part.
Costumes are important, the Marshalls believe. "I pull out my glue gun.
I've got it down to three hours and about $100 worth of materials per bonnet,"
Mrs. Marshall said. Manufacture for the rest of the original designs - including
top hats for the baritones and tenors - is contracted out, then the goods
are stored in mobile cedar closets.
Expansion was serendipitous at first. They're adding Fort Lauderdale and
Stockholm because veteran singers relocated and wanted to keep caroling.
Singers earn $25 and hour, with the lead singer earning $35. Billing $200
to $250 for an hour's performance, The Living Christmas Card spends about
half of revenue on labor.
Mrs. Marshall left teaching this year to focus on growing the business and
caring for the couple's nearly 21-month-old daughter. Mr. Marshall still
works full time at the University of North Texas, where he is manager of
the One O'clock Lab Band. Every dollar they have earned thus far has been
plowed back into the business, which is one reason for it's success, the
The other reasons? Attention to detail and quality, both say. "Find one
thing you like to do, and then do it the best. I've yet to see another group
I like better," Mr. Marshall said.
It doesn't hurt to be a risk-taker, Mrs. Marshall said. "We did what our
budget would allow, but we went right to the edge," she said.
For now, success feels as shiny and new as a toy on Christmas morning. The
Marshalls tried last fall to place their CD with a couple of large retailers
on consignment. They said "Well, I don't think we can do that," Mr. Marshall
recalled. "Now," Mrs. Marshall said, "they're calling us.