I believe our most difficult job for the next few years—as an industry and, in particular, as retailers—is to educate the music products consumer. Traditionally, we have outsourced the job to band directors, rock stars, and assorted teachers and other tastemakers in the field. Oh, retailers have participated in the process, but that participation has often been skewed to selling brands a retailer carries or targeting buyers in a narrow niche. Far too often, “consumer education”—and I draw a distinction between consumer and music education—has consisted of waving ever-lower-priced shiny objects at susceptible individuals and turning to the next one in the pipeline after each sale.

Despite the growing attractiveness of music making as a leisure activity across all age brackets and demographics, many in our industry continue to pursue “traditional” market definitions (school, combo, piano), scrabbling for market share from one another rather than doing the (often decades-long) work of building an educated and aware consumer base.

Here’s an example of the market building we need to do. Jim Koch left a successful consulting career in 1984 to enter the brewing industry with his Boston Beer Co. The market had undergone dramatic consolidation: from more than 1,000 American breweries in its heyday to about 40 by the mid-’80s. He decided to launch with a product that was twice the price of the average beer…a little brew called Sam Adams. It would be nice to say he revolutionized the market, but it isn’t that simple. At the time, they were called “microbreweries,” not craft beers, and they made a product for the geekiest one percent of the beer-drinking public. And it certainly didn’t just fall into place. In his own words…

“I can’t tell you it happened quickly. It really took 20-something years. When I started, it was this radical idea. Beer was sold on the advertising and the marketing of a brand, not the ingredients, brewing process and the passion of a brewer. It was a long, slow process for the education of a consumer. I had been in thousands of bars, doing wait-staff education, where I’d come in with the ingredients in beer and show them the malt and the hops. I’d show them the hops extract and explain that this is the shortcut that a lot of imported beers use. These are real hops. This is malt.”

Thanks to Koch’s vision and perseverance, Sam Adams helped grow an industry and, today, craft beers represent a $3.9 billion industry that’s growing by about 11 percent annually. Many companies joined Boston Beer in the market, and they compete, of course…but not by racing to zero. Not unlike music products, it’s a little niche. But it took unrelenting, long-term consumer education to create and sustain it.

I try to educate consumers with every exchange I have, just as Jim Koch did. This is a properly set-up violin. This is flamed maple. Here’s why you should change your strings. I teach every hour of every day, and those who appreciate the education are my long-term customers. But I’ll readily admit that it’s the hard way. It takes more time. It’s not the easy “sell more than they need” package sale. I won’t make as much as quickly, and it’s sometimes depressing to realize that the education hit a skull and bounced off, even as the “low-price/shiny-object” message got through. I console myself that it will work out in residuals, like the guy who came in last week to start his kid in lessons, saying, “I bought my first guitar from you years ago.”

Ingredients. Process. Passion. These talking points, which Jim Koch used, could just as easily fit into our industry. Boston Brewing and its craft compadres bucked the established, tremendously powerful breweries, which could out-advertise them, under-price their products, and fence off shelf and bar space from them. Yet, nevertheless, their message and education took. Against so much adversity, it worked. So, why aren’t we all directing our message this way?
Amazon and a host of bottom-feeder independent sites “educated” consumers to treat our products as bargain commodities and, by participating, retailers and manufacturers gave them permission to do so. If buyers had to go to a dealer (brick-and-mortar or online)—one “qualified” by the manufacturer (much as D’Addario when it redid its authorized dealer network earlier this year)—the message, and the REAL education, could be clearer, profit-oriented and market building.

According to Koch, once consumers were educated and learned to appreciate the quality of a craft beer, they couldn’t go back to drinking the mega-brews. You could say the same thing about better wines, quality chocolate…and tube amps and a lot of the things we make. It even applies to the experience of making music. But if we don’t tell the stories—and tell them compellingly—no one will really care.

I have customers who scoff at my price quote for a student flute. “Huh!” they exclaim. “I can get one on Amazon for $149!” But when they bring me the $149 flute (or violin, or guitar, etc.) and I put it side by side with one of ours, they are educated without any criticism from me. Many can be educated. But it’s much more intense than the “selling the sizzle” that the sales gurus talk about. It also doesn’t culminate in a big-ticket transaction every time. This is farming, plain and simple, with a lot of metaphorical digging, watering, feeding, pest-eradication and, ultimately, (one hopes) harvesting.

School music isn’t farming, because we depend on others to grow the product and, if they don’t, we’re screwed. Jumping on social trends like rock stars or DJs is just gathering the stuff already around. And hunting down someone else’s market share doesn’t increase the overall supply. It’s high time we stopped being retail hunter-gatherers and, instead, adopted market farming. It’s the same move that allowed humans to develop a civilization that fostered art, music and other forms of creativity. There are some great examples from our industry that are peppered across the country. More of us need to do it—not for the holiday season and not for a year but, rather, for good.

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