Inside Milwaukee’s Hal Leonard Corp., the World’s Largest Sheet Music Publisher

There’s a niche but star-studded heavyweight based in Tosa, and its leader has a killer handball serve.

Beyond the lobby of green marble, purple furniture and neon lights in a sleek but unassuming office building on Bluemound Road in Milwaukee lies the corporate headquarters of a business empire built on, of all things, sheet music.

Hal Leonard Corp. is the world’s leading publisher of sheet music and music-educational books (think Hal Leonard Guitar Method), churning out 50,000 new pages of sheet music each year through deals covering a dizzying collection of artists, from Hendrix to Gershwin to all things Disney. Music from Frozen sells so well that Hal Leonard has sliced and diced it many different ways, as choral, solo and string arrangements.

The office is a cubicle maze filled with instruments and keyboards played by editors who arrange music, later laid out and given a memorable cover by graphic designers. It all happens within the same building, often within the same day.

Under the lead of chairman and CEO Keith Mardak, who has helmed the company for decades, Hal Leonard has grown into a conglomerate with a printing facility in Winona, Minnesota, about 650 employees worldwide and $300 million in annual sales. Mardak, now 78, joined the company in 1970 as part of a new division called Learning Unlimited that he and a few friends cooked up to develop cassette-based courses for band and piano. A natural salesman (if not a natural musician), Mardak has reveled in coaxing big-name artists and their licenses to the Hal Leonard family, one phone call or dinner meeting at a time. His office is decorated with signed photos of Paul McCartney, Fred Rogers and Mr. Rogers’ deliveryman, Mr. McFeely.

In 1985, Mardak and several other managers bought Hal Leonard from the three original founders. Thus began a career in both consolidating the sheet music business and collecting cool stories.

One of them: Turns out, not all stars can read music. When Hal Leonard first presented U2 with their own sheet music, the legendary Irish rockers were taken aback, Mardak says. “They looked at it, and they said, ‘This is what I play right here?’” Other artists, however, want to review and approve every note.

“We’re basically the archivists for the music industry.”

— Brad Smith, Hal Leonard Corp. vice president of musical instrument products

Signed photos of celebrities, such as this one of Paul and Linda McCartney, adorn the walls of Mardak’s office.

Just now beginning to wind down his career, Mardak sold the company in 2016 to a private equity firm, Seidler Equity Partners, for an undisclosed amount. He remains chairman and CEO, describing Seidler as a “holder” outfit, not a flipper looking to turn a quick buck.

Personal struggles have also encouraged Mardak to slow down: In 2014, he tripped and fell into a burning fireplace at his winter house in Phoenix, suffering third- and fourth-degree burns to his neck and face. He has undergone more than 30 reconstructive operations and could yet have another. In more recent days, knee and shoulder surgeries have sidelined him from what had been a dedicated amateur handball career. He was known for his devastating “Mardak serve,” a deceptively lazy lob that boggled opponents used to more aggressive strikes.

But in business, the beat goes on. In April, Hal Leonard bought its largest counterpart in Europe, The Music Sales Group, in a $50-some million deal that included 11 music shops it now hopes to spin off. “We’re not overly thrilled about being in the retail business,” says Mardak. “We’re looking for someone who would be interested in them.”

Hal Leonard is, at its core, a publisher. “We’re basically the archivists for the music industry,” says Brad Smith, vice president of musical instrument products and brother of Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith. (He insists he taught his famous brother to play.) He pulls out a slick Hal Leonard hardcover book on Fender guitar amps, with an introduction by Keith Richards. “It’s really cool,” he says.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the city in which Hal Leonard Corp.’s headquarters lies.

“Music Maven” appears in the October 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.