They opened a Starbucks on my route to work. Or, rather, they put up a new building and relocated an existing one. It’s on a busy corner at a major intersection—so busy, in fact, that it gridlocks at peak times, with cars queued up to 15 deep in turn lanes.
The building went up without hype; driving by, I didn’t know what it would be until they installed the signature lettering and logo on the façade. Even then, no notices proclaimed the opening date, and it was almost a month from the sign being installed to cold open. That day, only the lighted sign and a “NOW OPEN” banner signaled the event. No clowns, balloons or other hoopla called attention to the launch of another caffeine fuel depot.
Yet, a month later, I’ve still never driven by at any time of day, on any day (including Sundays and Memorial Day), where there wasn’t a line in the drive-thru. On a corner that is, at best, inconvenient to navigate, with little or no fanfare, replacing an outlet two miles away, they’re packing them in from Day One.
Oh, I’m sure social media was in the mix, touting an opening and sending coupons and reminders to the loyalists. Certainly, it’s highly visible, and almost anyone—even a non-customer—knows what Starbucks does. But the legions of java junkies found this outlet the way water finds a crack in a roof. I think this is much more an illustration of the ubiquity of the brand and our current infatuation with one of America’s favorite import crops.
As that Starbucks opened, I read an article in Wired about the streetwear brand Supreme, whose limited-edition logo-item drops (everything from skateboards, to co-branded Nikes, to quirky items like fire extinguishers) mobilize such a rabid following that flippers resell them immediately for five to 10 times the original price. Enterprising young coders have designed shopping bots to snag much of the drop within seconds, while earning five-figure incomes from bot rental or item resale.
This is today’s pop commerce…but it is not the music industry. And, despite the seductive Scrooge McDuck imagery of immeasurably wealthy plutocrats diving into cascades of lucre, we don’t want it to be—at least, not instead of what we do.
This breeds a different way of doing business. Imagine a new store—even the industry’s (relative) behemoth, Guitar Center—that could open quietly and, nevertheless, immediately have a steady checkout line day in and day out, even for small goods. Imagine Fender dropping a limited-run practice amp for less than $100 and having the entire run sell out in seconds, with those same amps showing up immediately on eBay for $500…and Fender doing it every Thursday at 11 a.m., as Supreme does. We would enjoy the money and the excitement, but I don’t think many of us would get much personal satisfaction from an amped-up existence (so to speak) that puts fashion or scaled-up commerce ahead of actually making music. I wouldn’t, at least.
The music products industry (in my opinion, and based on years of poll results) does have the potential for Starbucks-level ubiquity. Of course, that great increase will not happen if we sit on our duffs and accept the assumption that our destiny is shaped by band directors, pop stars, and hardcore musicians and collectors. We’ve been shown that most people want to play and, when our products show up in non-industry channels, people take action. The late-’90s landmark appearance and sell-through of Martin Backpacker guitars in the L.L.Bean catalog was proof of concept. Since then, we’ve seen how many instruments are snatched up impulsively when they show up on QVC, in Costco or in Target. Explosive growth could conceivably happen. However, if it did, you can bet that the big bankroll folks would swoop in and try to skim the cream while we look on. Remember CBS, and Casio keyboards, and band instruments at Walmart, and every other opportunist who saw us rising and said, “I gotta get me some of that!”
I think a way around this is to insulate our industry from opportunists. And I believe we need to take action, because I see a rising wave of consumers of all ages who want to play. I’m convinced this next wave will be more about mass participation (à la Starbucks) than about transient fashion (as with Supreme). To capitalize on this, we need an industry identity that sends the message that music is part of your life: not merely a genre lifestyle but, rather, something that transcends demographics. We need to drive home the idea that help is available at your community music store. We need a branding effort greater than any we have ever attempted, and we need to back it up with service, knowledge and personality in every MI storefront. We might have finally matured enough to make that a possibility.
We also need to reduce—or even stop—marketing our products on non-industry outlets. Now that we know the buyers are out there, we don’t need passionless grubbers diluting our identity. Reverb.com is an example of the success that’s possible by keeping music “in the family,” rather than splattering it across eBay or Amazon. Harley Davidson hasn’t been hurt by fencing distribution off within its own network, either.
Look at it this way: We’ve spent the last 20 years trying it the “easy” way, letting everyone with money buy and sell our products, regardless of whether they had an MI pedigree. We didn’t worry if they failed to address market development. We weren’t all that particular about customer relationships as long as they followed MAP (when we tried to enforce it). How’s that been working? Ask the companies plagued by counterfeits, depressed margins and eroding brand equity. Ask the scores, no, hundreds of retailers that have downsized, pivoted or closed. Finally, ask the successful retail outlets, like Sweetwater, Reverb.com, Alto Music and others, what is working. Brand identity is going to be on the list.
It’s time for us to actually do the job we were meant to do…but we need to get passionate, professional and productive. Now.