From playing the oboe to teaching kids their chords, Angie Coates has lived her life in music. And, since 1993, children and parents have been singing the praises of Monkey Music, her pre-school music franchise
Monkey Music’s founder Angie Coates always seemed destined for a musical career. “I always had music at home,” she says. “My mum is a very keen musician and her grandmother was an amazing pianist.” However, Coates didn’t pick up the bug straight away, as evidenced by her first taste of playing the recorder. “I wanted to leave because it was all boys,” she smiles. “But I’d been thrown out of Brownies the week before, so my mum said I couldn’t.”
Coates’ attitude soon changed and her passion for music has flourished ever since. Attending classes at London’s Guildhall from the age of 12, she went on to be accepted as one of only two oboists at the prestigious school. “I went through this hideous audition process to get into the top school,” she explains. “[But] I felt like I’d arrived in the right place; music school was definitely where I was supposed to be.”
Yet it wasn’t long after leaving Guildhall that Coates had a change of heart about her career. “When you go to music school you are primed to perform,” she says. “Quite quickly, I realised that I didn’t want to spend my life charging around the country.” She took a teaching role at Thomas’s London Day School in Battersea, which didn’t have a music department at the time. Within 18 months, she became the school’s first ever head of music, recruiting a number of her friends as teachers. It was an impressive achievement for the 23-year-old Coates. “Looking back now, I realise how big a responsibility that was,” she admits.
While the school catered to kids aged three to 13, it was evident which classes Coates found most rewarding. “It was the kindergarten and creche that I got really involved in,” she says. “I realised that pre-school music-making was my favourite part of the job.” The birth of her first daughter also gave Coates some personal insights into children’s relationship with music. “For me, music was like a drug,” she says. “And they seemed to feel like I felt about music at that age.”
Equipped with these observations, Coates started constructing the music curriculum on which Monkey Music is now built. But it wasn’t just children that Coates had in mind when developing the programme. “I used to tell parents that their children enjoyed music but they weren’t witnessing it themselves,” she says. “So I thought there was an opportunity to create something for parents and kids – to use music for something amazing.”
The first Monkey Music class was held at a community centre in Dulwich, where Coates was living at the time. “I remember putting an advert on a noticeboard asking parents to come along and try these classes,” she says. “When I got home I had loads of messages on my answerphone and I thought: ‘Oh god, what have I started?’” Nonetheless, Coates is nothing but grateful for the families who turned up in their droves. “I don’t think we’d be where we are now were it not for those amazing parents,” she says.
With the classes proving so popular, Coates decided it was time to step away from her role at St Thomas’s. “Being a teacher is very demanding and I knew that I couldn’t keep up that commitment,” she says. “I wanted to be a little more free.” The classes had also grown to encompass children aged three months up to four years, which was keeping Coates well occupied. “I wanted to make sure I was providing the right thing to different age groups,” she adds.
The Monkey Music curriculum currently comprises over 500 songs and compositions, all tailored to a certain stage of a toddler’s development. As Coates explains, teaching a three-month-old baby and their parent is very different to working with a four-year-old on a xylophone. “For a three-month-old, it’s about getting them familiar with sounds,” she says. “It’s also a real bonding exercise for parent and child.” Certainly the focus isn’t on priming children for musical greatness. “Monkey Music uses music as a foundation to support all aspects of development,” adds Coates. “It is using music to develop and nurture life, social, language and physical skills.”
Given the value of the programme she’d created, it wasn’t long before Coates set her sights on expansion. “I was thinking there’s no point just doing this for myself,” she explains. “It could be a curriculum that thousands of children and families could benefit from.”
Coates’ relative lack of business acumen meant she was unfamiliar with franchising. But, fortunately, she had a younger brother who was a lawyer. “I remember going for dinner with him one night and saying: ‘I can’t do all of this myself. I have got 500 children at my classes and I’ve got this business to grow,’” she says. “He just looked at me and said: ‘Why don’t you franchise it?’”
Recognising that franchising was the right way forward for Monkey Music, Coates’ brother Tim Underhill left his job as a lawyer to become a partner in the company. Today, he is a non-executive director. “He was brilliant at building the foundations of the business, which would have been very wobbly if they had been left to me,” Coates laughs. “We invested a huge amount of time and energy into making sure that the business model was totally bombproof.”
Monkey Music’s first franchisees were friends of Coates who initially joined the company as teachers. “They were teaching for about a year or two,” says Coates. “Once the franchise model was established, we offered them the opportunity to become franchisees.” And it was a couple of years before the company sold any more franchises. “It was a very slow, organic process at the start,” she adds.
Although many of Monkey Music’s franchisees have previously been teachers or customers, it hasn’t lessened the need for due diligence. “If somebody wants to be part of Monkey Music, I find it difficult to say no,” says Coates. “But it’s not always fair to say yes because it isn’t right for everyone. That’s why our recruitment process is very strict.”
As they take the classes themselves – at least in the early stages – being able to sing in tune is a minimum requirement for prospective Monkey Music franchisees. That’s in addition to certain personal traits. “We look for a lot of qualities but ultimately it’s passion, drive and energy,” says Coates. Once recruited, a franchisee is put through Monkey Music’s bespoke teacher training programme before receiving ongoing support from head office.
The franchise opportunity is also markedly broader than it was back in the late 1990s. In addition to the compulsory 36 weeks of term-time teaching, franchisees have the option of running holiday workshops and parties. It means that a single territory is generally enough for a Monkey Music franchisee. “Our model has grown to such an extent that one territory is a very ripe business opportunity,” says Coates.
Now with 47 franchises under its belt, Monkey Music is starting to ramp up its rate of expansion on these shores. “At the moment our aim is to recruit ten new franchisees per year,” says Coates. This growth will be managed by Hannah Garcia, who was appointed as franchise sales and recruitment manager last September. “We had almost reached saturation point in some areas,” Coates continues. “So we recruited Hannah to help us spread our wings and be more strategic with our sales.”
But, despite some interest from aboard, international expansion isn’t currently on Monkey Music’s radar. “We haven’t ruled it out but it’s impossible to do everything at once and do it well,” says Coates. “There is still so much to do in the UK.”
And that extends beyond growing a franchise network. Monkey Music has recently signed a deal with Campbell Books, the specialist pre-school division of Macmillan. It will see Monkey Music’s first book – Let’s Sing and Play – published this July, with a second set for publication in June 2017. “It was fantastically rewarding to have that recognition from a publisher,” says Coates.
Recognition has also come in the shape of awards. As well as scooping a number of gongs from the pre-school and parenting communities, Monkey Music was named Express Newspapers Brand Builder of the Year at the bfa Franchisor of the Year Awards in 2005. “The awards have helped enormously,” says Coates. “We are providing a service for children and families so it’s really important that we are taken seriously.”
The importance of family to Coates’ own story certainly can’t be overstated. All of five of her daughters have been through the Monkey Music programme, with her oldest, Millie, going on to teach music professionally. “Monkey Music wouldn’t be what it is today without my family because it’s come from me being a mum and a musician,” says Coates.
Her husband Duncan, a Bafta-winning TV producer, has also leant his creative input. “He pushes me, challenges me and takes me out of my comfort zone,” says Coates. “He has given me a lot of confidence.”
And how does he cope being the only man in the family? Coates smiles. “He loves it.”