Fewer than 1% of companies in the United States have survived more than a century. By one measure, only 540 businesses meet that stringent criterion. Many of them are familiar names: Coca-Cola (started in 1892), General Electric (also 1892), Target (1902), Pillsbury (1872), and Procter & Gamble (1837).
But here’s a curious fact. When you search for even older companies—for example those founded in the 1700s or before—they tend to be much smaller businesses. For example, the Dixon Ticonderoga business, manufacturer of pencils, was founded in 1795, and King Arthur Flour dates back to 1790. In fact, the four oldest businesses in the US are relatively small farms.
And as you dig back further in time, the correlation becomes even more pronounced. You might assume that the best corporate survival strategy is to get bigger and bigger, but empirical evidence tells a completely different story. These long-term survivors are far more likely to be small, focused companies that do one thing very well, rather than ambitious growth-oriented megacorporations.
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Other trends jump out at you when you study these very old businesses. A surprising number of the oldest companies in the world are located in Japan—including the oldest of them all, Kongo Gumi, a construction company specializing in Buddhist temples founded in 578 AD. The second oldest company is also in Japan: Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, a hot spring hotel in Hayakawa founded in 705 AD and managed by the same family for 1300 years.
Another curious trend is the predominance of alcoholic beverage companies on the list of longest-surviving companies. These include Staffelter Hof, a Germany winery founded in the year 862 and Sean’s Bar, an Irish pub that dates back to 900 AD. The oldest English pub, The Bingley Arms, opened its doors in 953, and there are at least three breweries in Europe that are more than 900 years old.
You might assume that the music industry is a fickle business in which competitors come and go. And certainly that’s true for nightclubs, indie record labels, and other trend-drive enterprises. I’m not sure we can measure the half-life of a TikTok sensation, at least not yet, but I’m not overly optimistic.
Even performance venues that boast of their long traditions really aren’t very old. Many people assume that Preservation Hall in New Orleans dates back to the birth of jazz, but in fact it only became a music venue in 1961. I’ve heard people refer to the Blue Front Cafe in Mississippi as the oldest surviving juke joint, but it was opened in 1948, long after the glory days of Delta blues. The Village Vanguard, which is positively ancient by the standards of jazz clubs, was opened in 1935, but only started booking jazz full time in 1957—a full generation after the end of the so-called Jazz Age.
But there’s one sector of the music economy that is surprisingly stable, namely the manufacture of musical instruments.
Consider the piano business, where most of the premium instruments sold today come from companies that are more than one hundred years old. These include Steinway & Sons (founded in 1853), Baldwin (circa 1890), Yamaha (1897), Blüthner (1853), and Bösendorfer (1828). And many other leading instrument brands date back to this same period, for example Selmer (1885), Martin (1833), and Gretsch (1883).
Is there a music instrument supplier even older than these?
In fact, one of the oldest companies in Europe is in the music business, and boasts an extraordinary story. Zildjian, the world’s leading supplier of cymbals and drumsticks was founded in Istanbul in 1623—in other words, this company will soon celebrate its 400th birthday! Metalsmith Avedis Zildjian actually made his first cymbal—from a unique alloy of tin, copper and silver—as early as 1618. But at that point he still had a day job, working at the forge for the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Those weren’t easy jobs to quit back then, but five years later he secured permission to leave the palace and set up his own independent business in Constantinople (as it was known then).
Three hundred years late, the company (still run by the Zildjian family) set up shop in United States. Zildjian’s headquarters today are located in Norwell, Massachusetts. Today the company is run by Craigie Zildjian, executive chair of the company who was also Zildjian’s first women CEO, and current chief executive John Stephans. At least two other Zildjian family members are currently on the board of directors—a legacy that has now passed down 15 generations.
Until recently, I assumed that Zildjian was the oldest musical instrument manufacturer in the world. And I was very surprised to discover an even older one—namely the Marinelli Bell Foundry in Italy, established no later than 1339 AD. The early history is obscured by the passage of time, but it’s possible that a foundry existed in the Agnone village—still headquarters for the company today—even back in the 11th century. Nowadays the company is run by brothers Armando Marinelli and Pasquale Marinelli.
Those who are familiar with my research into the social history of music are aware how much I like bells. I’ve spent a ridiculous amount time over the years researching this subject—typically of little interest to most music historians—and have learned many fascinating things along the way. You would be surprised how many battles and uprisings have been fought for control of a bell tower. In many instance, the bells represented the center of the city, but they were symbols of power for a wide range of reasons. For centuries urban dwellers literally led their lives, from waking to sleeping, according to the pace of their tolling. But bells are also a useful indicator of a society’s technology skills. It’s not easy to cast a high quality bell, and by tracing the history of the oldest bells in the world you can find out quite a bit about the spread and advancement of metallurgy and other advanced fabrication skills.
So I’m not surprised that the Marinelli facility is not only significant in the history of bell-making, but it’s also the oldest known foundry still in existence. Many of those medieval and Renaissance churches in Italy got their bells from Marinelli. Just considers its remarkable legacy, which includes the bell in the Leaning Tower of Pisa. And how many times have you seen a priest intoning sacred words while a bell is getting forged?
Many will find the story of this old business amusing. But anything that lasts for 700 years really must be taken seriously. I’m not sure any of today’s music startups will match the longevity of the Marinelli or Zildjian businesses. But they should definitely try to learn a few lessons from them.
I’ve lamented elsewhere how much the current mindset in the recording business is driven by the the three L’s—Litigation, Legislation, and Lobbying. Let me suggest that these old survivors have focused instead on the three R’s: Reputation, Reliability, and Responsibility. It’s nice to see that those qualities win out over the long run.