When I first entered this industry more than 30 years ago, I was struck—and charmed, really—by the adults I encountered who wanted to make music. As a person who began playing as a student and never stopped, I didn’t really think about being a former player, let alone what it would be like to have missed the opportunity. The tentative, almost wistful nature of these encounters surprised me. I would hear, “I’ve always wanted to play…do you think I could still try it at my age?“ and “Boy, I miss playing in a band. I’m sure I’ve forgotten everything by now. Is it even possible I can play again?”
Notice that the questions are phrased to soften rejection and disappointment. I always encouraged people to give it a try, because I had seen adults starting or resuming an instrument later in life not only with success, but also with real enthusiasm and enjoyment. As an adult myself, I also refused to believe that I was personally poised at the top of a giant downward spiral. The “old” people asking these questions were in their 40s. It made a big impression on me, because the sheer regularity of the questions hinted at a much larger number too timid even to ask.
Jump ahead a few years to the counter of my own store, where I began fielding such questions every day. Perhaps I was more approachable; perhaps the numbers grew. But the tenor of the questions also changed and became more technical. I would hear, “How much would I have to practice?” and “How long would it take before I could play with people?”
Although all the former questions still come up, by the time I considered it a bona-fide trend 15 years ago, the majority were simply coming in and saying, “I’ve always wanted to play—sign me up!” It’s now to the point where an adult inquiry comes in several times a day, and more than 20 percent of our students are adults. Note, too, that these adults aren’t just playing keyboard or guitar; they’re on every instrument. “Adult” doesn’t mean “retiree,” either. Our measurement considers an “adult” someone who has graduated from school and no longer has access to a school program. When we run the stats, half our adults are older than 45 and half are younger.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, because I’m seeing difficulties in traditional school music programs locally (failed levies, pay-to-play, awkward schedule restructuring and retirements of directors creating both a leadership and a recruitment void). Yet, this week, I encountered two adults who serve as perfect examples of the potential market many in our industry are misserving, if not completely ignoring.
Adult #1: A mother whose kids came through our lesson program approached me and told me that she had secretly wanted to play the saxophone all those years when she was bringing the kids in. Now that they are grown, she pulled out her son’s old sax and started to play. After a few “toe in the water” attempts, she signed up for lessons this week.
The length of time people will harbor the desire to make music is astonishing. Perhaps it’s put on the back burner as life intervenes; perhaps the financial situation has to be stable. However, music is a bucket list item of the first order…all the more so because it’s so achievable. We need to find ways to stir up that desire and remove the barriers to participation.
Adult #2: A woman brought us her 86-year-old father’s guitar—for a restring. He can’t get around much, and he was complaining about how bad the strings were. At 86, and despite other restrictions on his life, he still plays regularly. His instrument is a handmade Manuel Contreras classical that he bought used in the early ’80s. And, his daughter tells me he didn’t start playing until he was PAST 50.
So, here’s a person who started as an adult and who’s been an active hobbyist for more than 30 years. Even if you clock a school music student from 4th grade to college graduation, you have a 13-year participant—less than half that length of time. Why do we continue to define the market as “school” when it’s so obvious there is musical life after graduation? If students continue to play post-college, they are potential customers for another half century, actuarially speaking. What nutcase abandons a good customer who can stay active for decades, if properly served?
One answer, I think, is that band and orchestra stores have relied too heavily on school directors to funnel them business. Once the director is out of the loop, there’s no real relationship with the stores and no program to replace the school’s. And yet, so many come back seeking music, even without that support. Our industry needs to address this.
Another answer: combo shops and boutique dealers have chosen their demographic and are not poised to welcome someone who doesn’t fit their concept of a customer. That’s their choice—but I think they’re leaving money on the table.
Perhaps you noticed that both of these adults didn’t buy new instruments. That’s true—but not the issue. The important idea is to get and keep these folks playing. If they’re excited, they’ll buy what they need. For those who feel that the school kids are ripe to buy a lot, and fast, you’re right. But, metaphorically speaking, you’re eating the frosting but leaving the cake.
I think of this as a “long tail” sort of situation. If all you want is blockbusters, you get the big numbers—but the smaller numbers extend out far enough to be substantial, too. It’s great when you can get the big-ticket sales. But when things go sour (like losing a band program or a crashing economy), it’s the small, sustainable purchases that keep you going. And, if you have enough of them—because you’ve cultivated not only the school kids but also the whole human race—you’ll do OK.
To me, the market potential is staggering. I believe not only that it could easily double or triple our industry’s size, but also that we can do it using skills we already have. We don’t need to herd adults into a classroom for watered-down quasi-music-making. We just need to do the usual job well, and make sure the doors are open to everyone with a pulse.