One thing that any regular reader of this column knows is that I’m often dismayed by the many market opportunities we seem to ignore or marginalize in our quest to preserve the revered industry models that we’ve cherished for decades. Of course school music is important, but using it as a platform to sell step-up horns without regard to retention is simple strip mining. Ignoring the “opportunity gap”—the legions of kids who wish to play but cannot qualify for rentals—also squanders students who might become players, music advocates and supporters of music for their own children in the years to come.
We still hear stories, albeit fewer of them, of women ignored in our stores, minorities given sub-standard service and “newbies unwelcome” attitudes in stores nationwide. I’ve been grousing about all those things for nearly 20 years in this space. When I started talking about it, it was long overdue. So, frankly, if you’re changing your culture to correct those inadequacies, good for you…but bear this in mind: You’re 30 years late. You’re not being all progressive and innovative, y’all. That’s like Chipotle asking for a pat on the back for improving its food-handling procedures.
Our industry marketing is far behind and the economy is projecting so many future views that it’s bewildering; if we aren’t even living in the present, then we might never catch up. From IoT (Internet of Things) applications, to “circular economy” (where resources are preserved, recycled and shared through networks), to the “convenience economy” and more, we need to rethink every aspect of what we do. Rather than casting our lot with one future view—“All lessons will be online” is one I’ve heard espoused—we need to be ready with a plan for a variety of scenarios.
One area I think we are woefully unprepared for is the convenience economy. We have seen incredible growth in consumer willingness to pay for convenience, whether it’s fast-track rental car access, grocery delivery or (my personal fave for the narcissistically entitled) Dufl (dufl.com). For only $10 a month, plus $99 per trip, they’ll make sure a suitcase of your very own clean clothes is shipped to your hotel, assuming you have extra clothes, extra money, and want to spend phone app time selecting your travel togs and directing them through your itinerary. Travel once a month? You’ll pay more than $1,300 a year for this convenience.
Our entry into convenience, though, is both more practical and of greater benefit to our consumers. However, we are decades behind in growing the culture to accept it. We have huge potential in consumables and maintenance. Reeds, strings, drumheads and all the other wear-and-tear items are constant. Maintenance—piano tuning, bow rehairing and instrument setups—is a steady need. Yet, we seldom stress, at any level, the regularity of the need, the benefits for playability and instrument longevity, and, of course, the convenience of having it done by your qualified local dealer.
It’s appalling to see band directors get all anal about a particular brand and strength of reed for their students, even to the overbearing extent of “case checks,” while never saying a word about how often to replace reeds. We see kids come in for lessons with moldy reeds. The parents are clueless, and then grossed out. They were the right friggin’ brand, though….
The same goes for guitar and orchestral strings. We have to overcome the attitude that only broken strings need to be replaced. Bow hair ages. Pianos shouldn’t be tuned only before the holidays.
We know this, but we’ve sucked at getting the message across. Sure, our power users are on board with the idea. How many millions of customers does that leave out? Even though local dealers work to increase awareness, we need a concerted effort on the part of manufacturers and dealers to educate both consumers and educators about the benefits of regular maintenance, fresh consumables and well-adjusted instruments. This is a “top to bottom” job and a constant need. Only when consumers are aware can we be their convenience purveyors. Right now, convenience is “ignore it” and, when it doesn’t work, “replace it.”
That’s stupid and shortsighted, and it sends consumers the message that our products—once proudly touted as lasting a lifetime—are obsolescent pieces of crap. Some dealers are actually encouraging this, telling students a horn that’s “more than five years old” should be replaced. I’ve had customers who were told this about a flute or clarinet that only needed cleaning and regulation. It makes me ashamed of that part of our industry, and manufacturers can’t be happy when their own dealers diss their products like that.
It would be profoundly better if we were to cultivate a culture of care, reinforced from the manufacturer on down. Of course, there is a bit of a slippery slope where individual “experts” spew dogmatic care rules that, if they are not followed absolutely, threaten more bad luck than a Facebook chain post. We don’t need “rules.” We need simple clarity: Change your strings regularly. Clean and maintain your gear. For best results, have your dealer inspect your instrument yearly.
From there, we can offer everything from simple restrings to turnkey maintenance plans aimed at optimum performance, rather than the current model of “insurance plans” that simply cover you for equipment failure. (Those encourage ignorance because, if there’s a problem, you’re covered…but who knows how impaired the instrument was leading up to a crash?)
Until we educate our customers, we’ll just spin our wheels. The time to initiate that change was…oh…2001. But there’s still time to get some traction in the convenience economy. This isn’t an “extra”; it’s one of the fundamental changes we need to make to keep our industry viable.
As much as we still want to sell the benefits of individual lines and brands, creating consumer awareness of wear and tear and maintenance will also make them more likely to try a new product. If they’re going to replace consumables regularly, a little experimentation here and there isn’t such a big thing.