Every business exists to be profitable and allow its associates to earn a living. However, in the music products industry, two other factors are also at play: a deep-seated passion for music, along with a desire to grow the market by trumpeting far and wide the joy experienced by music makers. In Larry Morton, President of Hal Leonard Corp., we find a respected industry veteran who exemplifies all the components of MI success: good business, sincere musical passion and a devotion to industry service. It’s no surprise, then, that he’s compiled an incredible career and earned the respect and esteem of his peers across the MI market. He’s even served as NAMM’s Chairman, playing an integral role in key industry initiatives.
In this month’s interview, Morton reflects on what has been—and, indeed, continues to be—a deeply rewarding career. He also discusses Hal Leonard’s unique competitive advantages, as well as the mentors who have shaped the person he’s become.
The Music & Sound Retailer: You’re someone who has dedicated his life to working in the music products industry. Tell me about how you initially became interested in, and passionate about, music. Did it begin in early childhood?
Larry Morton: Like most of us, my passion for music showed up early in life. My older sister was taking piano lessons and, when I was around five years old, my parents noticed that I would pick out by ear whatever my sister was playing. So, they signed me up for piano lessons. That got it all going, and it led to me studying music for all my school years, all the way through studying music theory and composition in graduate school. Beyond that, however, the most powerful force in my life was my parents’ encouragement to play music. They really valued and respected music, and they never tried to dissuade me from devoting my life to it. Having parental support of a child’s passion can be life changing and incredibly fulfilling for both the parents and the child.
The Retailer: How did you get your start in the workforce? Did a passion for music factor into your early jobs?
Morton: Music has been my absolute passion, and my entire career has been in the music products industry. I’ve never even considered any other path. After finishing graduate school, I got my start through a chance meeting with an industry legend, Lowell Samuel, who owned a chain of MI retail stores and a wholesale distribution company. Lowell became my mentor and somewhat of a father figure, and I’m incredibly grateful that he helped me get started. That early experience led me to move to Los Angeles CA and work for Roland Corp. in 1986, which gave me the opportunity to learn from Ikutaro Kakehashi, the visionary Founder of Roland. In turn, that set me up to join Hal Leonard in 1990, under the brilliant leadership of Keith Mardak, the company’s Chairman. Over the past 26 years, Keith has been the greatest mentor of my life—both personally and professionally—and I continue to learn from him day after day.
The Retailer: What initially brought you to Hal Leonard? Was there something in particular that attracted you? If so, what was it?
Morton: I had known about Hal Leonard since my earliest days of studying music, so I already had tremendous respect for the quality and scope of the company’s publishing output. Plus, as an established industry person, I was well aware of the fact that the company was extremely well run and loaded with talented, dedicated people. I really wanted to be part of that winning team, and I hoped to contribute to the company’s longer-term success. So, I made contact with Hal Leonard in hopes of getting my foot in the door. Again, though, it started with my first “official” interview with Keith Mardak, which is a hilarious story. Suffice it to say that, after the interview, I was blown away by Keith and I wanted to work for him!
The Retailer: Starting with your earliest days with the company, discuss your roles, responsibilities and achievements within Hal Leonard. What have been your highlights within the company’s four walls?
Morton: My first positions at Hal Leonard were in the sales and marketing areas. So, I got the opportunity to learn so much about working closely with our music retailers. That experience has really shaped my views and understanding about how to line up Hal Leonard’s interests with those of our retailers, as well as end users such as musicians, students and teachers. With that perspective, we developed and launched numerous industry-leading programs, including our Dealer-Access Web site, Rack-N-Roll (VMI) merchandising programs, our Full-Line Internet Provider (FLIP) program and many other important initiatives. We also developed the industry’s first seven-day-a-week Retailer Call Center, with extended hours to cover all time zones after hours. I’ve also been heavily involved in our digital programs, where we’ve developed in-store and online-affiliate programs that are industry firsts. In recent years, I’ve also focused on rights acquisitions and strategic acquisitions to help us expand our business to better serve all aspects of the music products industry.
The Retailer: What is the very best part of being President of Hal Leonard? What makes you most excited to get out of bed in the morning and go to the office?
Morton: Those are great questions! I’m so lucky to work with our amazing leadership team and so many dedicated employees. They are impressive people, who I love and respect, and they motivate me through their example to try to be better each day. I also get excited about the ultimate result of our work, which is that millions of people learn to play music because of Hal Leonard. We are continually nurturing the next generation of musicians to develop their passion for playing music. It’s incredibly rewarding to think about the positive impact we are having on people’s lives through better enjoyment of playing music.
The Retailer: What is the “secret sauce” at Hal Leonard that serves to distinguish the company not only from its direct competitors in music print publishing and MI distribution, but also from MI companies more broadly? Is there a key distinguishing characteristic you can put your finger on?
Morton: The ingredients of our “secret sauce” are not very secret, I suppose, because the secret sauce is made up of time-tested principles such as passion, work ethic, honesty, integrity, commitment and professional pride. We are absolutely a “team” company, and everyone values each other’s knowledge and contributions. We have such great people, and we’re capable of doing anything we set out to do. With respect to our retailer customers and our third-party relationships with music rights or distribution rights, we truly treat them all as “partners,” even though that word is overused. We feel that, if we do what we say we will do and meet our commitments, we can sustain those partnerships over a long period of time, which, fortunately, we have done over and over. Above all, I would give credit to Keith Mardak for setting that tone for the company and for leading by example. He’s a great role model for the rest of us.
The Retailer: How does Hal Leonard strike a balance between being a widely respected, universally known music print publisher and being the distributor of brands such as Samson, Tycoon, Loog Guitars, ZT Amps and Line 6? Do those business areas fit together neatly?
Morton: We view the two areas as separate but related businesses. Our core music print publishing business gives us a unique vantage point, having direct contact with thousands of music retailers. Therefore, we have the ability to give our MI distribution partners broader access to the music products market. Also, our music print business puts us in the center of music education, so we have powerful marketing reach to promote MI products to schools, teachers and students, creating opportunities for our music retailers. Further, we view the type of music products that we distribute, particularly recording and live sound technology, as yet another aspect of learning to play music; that’s very compatible with our published music materials. That said, however, in order to service all segments of our market properly, we do have certain parts of our sales staff focused entirely on MI distribution as Product Specialists. That ensures we don’t interfere with the needs of our music print publishing business.
The Retailer: What is the future of music print publishing, as the world increasingly moves toward digitalization of nearly everything? Do you expect tectonic shifts in your market segment?
Morton: The physical print music business is incredibly strong and stable, so we envision that area being important for the long term. However, we also have embraced digital technologies for many years. We launched the world’s first digital sheet music Web site, sheetmusicdirect.com, in 1997, which was five years before iTunes! In conjunction with that launch, we also pioneered a Digital Retailer program so that our music retailers could participate both online and in-store. That has been very successful.
As we look forward, we will continue to reshape the scope of what physical music books and methods can be by incorporating online content that can be accessed via unique codes that are printed in the books. That adds value to the books; it expands the capability of the physical book; and it bridges the gap to the digital world for both the consumer and the music retailer. Likewise, we continue to develop online subscriptions to music content and music lessons that can be purchased through participating music retailers.
The Retailer: Give our brick-and-mortar-dealer readers insight into Hal Leonard’s commitment to working through the dealer channel, as opposed to pursuing direct sales. To what extent is a firm commitment to the dealer channel a fundamental part of Hal Leonard’s core business approach?
Morton: Our company’s Founders had music retail stores. Keith and I, along with many of our management team, have come from music retail. So, there is a lot of dealer-centric DNA embedded in Hal Leonard. Further, many of our folks have served on, or are currently serving on, industry boards with music retailers. So, we try to stay in tune with the retailer’s point of view. Our business model is based on strong marketing partnerships with our retailers, whether it’s in merchandising programs, online promotions, live events, music-education shows, workshops, artist or author clinics, and much more. We don’t see that fundamental approach changing in the future.
The Retailer: Do you have any suggestions you’d offer to the brick-and-mortar dealers who are reading this interview…ideas that you think would help them bolster their business? Do you have any constructive criticism for your dealer partners?
Morton: I wouldn’t presume to advise retailers on how to run their businesses, but I will say that we encourage all music retailers to work with us on a local and grassroots level to help to create more music makers. That’s the key to success for the entire industry. It can take the shape of supporting school music events or encouraging live performance opportunities. As much as possible, especially today, we need to try to continue to elevate the retailer-supplier relationship to the level of joint stakeholders, building our collective businesses together. Too often, we let our supplier-retailer relationships become bogged down with minor trade issues. Of course, we need to resolve those day-to-day problems, but we all need to put more energy and focus into expanding the market together.
The Retailer: Reflect a bit on your work with the NAMM Board of Directors, serving the music products industry broadly and, in particular, helping to ensure we seed our future with good, strong music-education programs in public schools.
Morton: NAMM does amazing work, and our industry is so fortunate that we have successful trade shows that raise money, which is then reinvested in NAMM’s activities that support music education and the awareness of music making. As a non-profit, NAMM does so many important things from which we all benefit. I’ve not found any other industry with the same level of passion and capabilities as we have with NAMM. In my time on the NAMM Board and as NAMM’s Chairman, I learned that we must never take for granted the important role of music in society, especially in schools. It’s a message that has to be continually promoted and constantly updated to adapt to ongoing changes in the world.
It really becomes apparent in the work that NAMM does in Washington DC with respect to lobbying for music education and other industry issues. It was truly inspiring and incredible to see the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was the culmination of more than a decade of hard work by NAMM and its members. The ESEA, which began as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the 1960s, years later became the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. In December 2015, it was reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act and, thanks to NAMM’s efforts, a bipartisan group of elected officials added specific language covering “music and the arts.” That language ensures that music programs are entitled to use federal education funds. That victory will have long-term positive consequences for our industry.
However, there is much more work to be done at the local level. Every NAMM member should find a way to get involved in his or her local community. Small steps lead to big accomplishments.
The Retailer: As people watch Hal Leonard over the next one, three and five years, what can they expect? Do you foresee major changes, or largely a continuation of what we’ve seen in recent years?
Morton: We feel bullish about our company and the industry itself. The music products business is a resilient and strong market, and we think the innate desire inside people to play music will continue to drive our industry forward. There will certainly be more merging and blending of physical and digital, both with the products and in the retail experience. You’ll see Hal Leonard continue to focus on that evolution, especially with an eye toward how to engage our retailers during those changes. And, on the MI distribution side, we’ll continue our expansion by offering a wider variety of music products to the music retailer channel.