Changing his tune: How a classical guitarist became Core’s top producer

Michael Graves on writing depressing music, his father's congressional race — against Michele Bachmann! — and selling $80M of NYC real estate

Michael Graves
Michael Graves

Many New York sales agents have come to the business of real estate from a wide range of other professions. In an ongoing series, will profile brokers for whom selling properties represents a major career transition.

Updated at 12:05 p.m. Michael Graves — Core’s top producer last year — is a classical musician, who had planned to be a composer and write film scores. Then two years ago, he found out his wife was pregnant with twins, and transitioned into real estate “to feed my family.” He recently sat down with The Real Deal to discuss the future of the Upper East Side residential market, what he listens to with his fellow musician friends, and his father’s run for Congress — against Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.

I sometimes get the sense you are disappointed with your choice to be in real estate.
I was supposed to be composing music and traveling the world, but I ended up having a wife and two kids and needing to make a few bucks.

Which Core office do you work in?
I will probably be moving to the new Core office [next spring]. That will be on 61st and Madison. I kind of see the Upper East Side as a new frontier for downtown brokers. I think the old guard is changing; families in FiDi and Tribeca want to move uptown, while the empty nesters want to move downtown. So there is a crack opening up in the glass ceiling of how business is done, on the Upper East Side particularly.

Where did you grow up?
A small town called St. Cloud, Minn., just outside of Minneapolis. While my brothers were very young my parents made a living as folk singers in bars. My father then left and started teaching grade school and… [eventually] became a hotel developer.

What is his company called?
Graves Hospitality. I’m not wearing my “I dig Graves” pin, which I was wearing earlier today, because my dad is running for Congress. The sixth district of Minnesota. The congressperson from that district is quite notorious: She’s Michele Bachmann.

Your dad is running against Michele Bachmann?
Yes. He’s a free-market guy, successful businessman. Bachmann has become such an eyesore for Minnesota. 

Are you a Democrat?
Well, I’m an independent thinker. But when I watched the conventions, it’s like, good people and bad people — that’s all I see. There are people … who are only caring about protecting their bank accounts, and then on the other side, a bunch of people who … want to help the little guy.

Do you ever find people in real estate too conservative?
At the end of the day you have to have a separation between … business and state. There are things the government does not do well: The government does not do free market well. I’m not for big government or small government; I’m for efficient government.

Did you want to follow your dad into the hospitality business?
My real passion, which I discovered when I was about ten years old, was always music. … My mother was a pianist. I also grow up in the Catholic Church, and of course you are exposed to all the music that goes along with that environment. By the time I was 11, I was writing music.

I’ve dabbled in piano and bass and the fiddle. But the only instrument I ever had serious formal training in was classical guitar. I studied at the Mannes College of Music. And I was a junior there when the economic ramifications of 9/11 started to deeply affect my father’s business. He was opening a four-star hotel in downtown Minneapolis. My wife was just completing her master’s degree.

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Where did you meet your wife?
In college. We were engaged within five months and married within nine. But anyway, at the time, the writing on the wall was that it made sense to move back to Minneapolis, and go home and help my dad open his hotel. I had also developed a horrible case of tendonitis.

Given your father’s business, in some sense you’ve been in real estate forever?
Yeah, people sometimes say, “wait, you’ve been in real estate two years and you have sold $80 million worth of real estate? Something doesn’t add up.” But really I’ve been in real estate my whole life.

So you came back to New York?
I did, with a … plan to continue with music. So about the time I was finishing my undergraduate degree [at 27], my wife wanted to have kids. I had left dad’s company and completed a degree in music theory and composition. [I tell myself] “I’m a realistic person. I want to have a family. I’m not going to be a classical guitarist — I’ll be a composer.” But that’s about the stupidest thing I ever thought of. So my wife suggested film scoring. So I did a double master’s in music composition and film scoring.

Did you ever write a film score that was used?
Sure. It was called “Brothers in Arms.” It was not a big Hollywood production, but it was internationally distributed at a lot of festivals and stuff. [The film was] very… depressing.

Do you write depressing music?
I do. What I consider depressing and what other people consider depressing are two completely different things. The audience for classical music is something like 3 percent of the world’s population. For contemporary classical music, it’s what? .2 percent? It’s a very small audience. My concert music is quite intense. It’s not the kind of thing where you sit around and drink a glass of wine. So what’s heavy to most people isn’t heavy to someone who listens to this kind of stuff. I have friends where we stay up and listen to [Dmitri] Shostakovich until 3 a.m. These people live in the grimiest circumstances. I spend hours in $20 million apartments, and then I go see my friends in a $600 studio apartment that’s a rental.

What does your wife do now?
My wife is a concert violinist. She is also a mother of twins.

So when did you make the final call to transition to real estate?
So, I’m finishing my master’s degree, and I’ve written what I consider one of the best works I’ve ever composed. Some of this sounds narcissistic, by the way [laughs].

What was the piece called?
“Currency.” It was my sort of dissertation. I write this piece of music that gets its premiere at Carnegie Hall. And it is going to be played by Alexander Moutouzkine — one of the greatest living pianists. I am there at the concert for the world premiere, and this is happening on January 15, 2009. We found out we were pregnant on December 25, 2008. But, it was two days before the concert that we found out we weren’t just pregnant, she had twins.

So I was sitting at this concert, losing my mind. It’s a packed house, sold out. I crossed every finger and toe hoping that somehow this piece of music is going to create such a stir that my phone will ring off the hook, commissions will come in and somehow I will be able to support my family of four as a composer. So my music is presented. Thunderous applause, standing ovation. Everybody is raving about this piece, and I’m thinking, “we’ve done it.” I leave hoping I get a commission for $150,000 the next day to write something for an orchestra. And the phone doesn’t ring. [I was a] dreamy-eyed composer, thinking I had a shot at something.

Well, does that ever happen? Are their composers who aren’t writing film scores who get huge paydays?
It doesn’t happen. The most successful living American composer is Philip Glass, financially speaking. But other than him, most serious composers working today have to teach to get by and most of them don’t get by very well. And most of them don’t have kids. And if they do, they live in near-poverty conditions. But I was getting calls from world-class musicians, people are asking me to write music for them. But if I amortize what they are paying me for the amount of time I’ll spend, I’m making like, $0.37 per hour. You can’t live in this city with kids — in a way that is healthy for them — without making at least $100,000 per year.

Where do you live now?
Williamsburg. That was strategic because I had a relationship with a developer, and I got a steal.

What building?
135 North 11th. I bought something that is now probably worth $1,200 per square foot and I bought it for $700 [per square foot]. In one year, I almost doubled my money. I figure there have to be some perks to being a real estate broker and humiliating myself this way [in jest].