We’ve been talking about disruption in the last few “Veddatorials.” I mentioned last month that, while retail has seen channel disruption (big-box stores, internet, Amazon, etc.), what we’ve experienced is more a trickle-down from the general economy than a true disruption of our industry’s business practices. We still track a school market, combo market, piano market, etc. Our connection to consumers (what we do and for whom) hasn’t changed dramatically; there have been no recent tech breakthroughs in our products or manufacturing that changed the game, and nothing in our culture has profoundly altered the consumer landscape in a way that helps or hurts us.
In short, I believe we’re stagnant, and too many of us are waiting for some outside event to force our hand in a new direction. At the same time, too many are waiting for something to “save” us. (“We need a guitar hero!”) While we could still see a pop culture change that plays to our traditional functions, hoping for a next-gen Beatlemania (darn those Kardashians for not having a family band!) while expecting major bureaucratic support for school music funding (as opposed to pounding the D.C. pavement trying to keep what we have from evaporating) is as sound a plan as buying lottery tickets. Even winning those gambles will only prop up tired systems. We won’t get new life, just some life support.
I’ve talked with a batch of people in our industry this year — store owners, reps, manufacturers and pundits — about where we’re going in MI. Meanwhile, I’ve also talked to — no exaggeration — several thousand musicians, students, teachers, parents and hobbyists about what they want as music products consumers and music makers. Every day, I take the consumer pulse: on the phone, in person, and via email and social media. I do it 10 to 14 hours a day. Folks, there is often a serious disconnect between what we’re doing and what people want us to do.
First, I’ll send a shout-out to the stores and manufacturers peppered around the country who are thinking about this, too. I’m relieved that there are other people working on change, but dismayed that there are so few of them, compared to the many that moan about what’s gone wrong, rather than trying to come up with a solution that isn’t just the same idea with a coat of paint. Also, I get that some store owners don’t want to be pushed into a business model that strays into areas they feel neither competent nor passionate about. I also understand the difficulty of being a voice in the wilderness trying to push a new idea with limited resources and support. All duly noted.
But there are problems we need to solve. Many of our business models are as effective in today’s economy as an old copy of Microsoft Windows ME. Just like an old operating system, we use ever-more-kludgy workarounds to keep going, and we miss opportunities because the new stuff won’t work with the old. Here are just a few “blockages” to start the discussion.
Combo remains mired in the “boy’s club” mentality. Despite declarations to the contrary from some in the industry, the female players I know tell me it’s still prevalent. Oh, and there’s that sluggish electric market. And that sluggish drumset market. And that sluggish … well, you get the idea.
The piano segment is in the toilet. A piano in a middle-class home is no longer a widely accepted sign of affluence and education. All too often, it’s a white elephant that people can’t even give away. I get a call about a “free” piano several times each week, and we don’t sell pianos. Selling fewer, more expensive pianos to affluent people and institutions is a stopgap.
Without even thinking about dwindling school budgets and half-hearted administrative support, the school band and orchestra model is stressed. I’ve seen (and have corroboration from markets across the country) a shift in school attitudes about permitting “business on campus.” Band directors increasingly view store reps as either a nuisance or a lackey who can be made to jump on command. Even under ideal circumstances, the model is designed to extract the maximum amount of money out of each student over eight school years (grades 5-12), and there are no provisions to retain those customers for a potential 50-plus years of continued music activity.
Print is at a crossroads. The perceived need to push new technology to consumers has the potential to lose as much business as it adds. I have many customers who will no longer buy books with downloadable media, either because they don’t want the feature, or because they’re not up to speed on the tech.
This is a very brief start. Most of these problems could be mitigated by paying attention to consumer needs rather than our own desires. Even then, it will take us a few years to see a difference, because we have been so slipshod about retention that there is a vast market in competition with us: thousands upon thousands of our own products are on the resale market. These aren’t counterfeits, substandard or fraudulent items. These are the very products we’re so justifiably proud of, cast off because we couldn’t be bothered to keep people playing. We took short-term gains in lieu of a sustainable harvest. We’re the very personification of Aesop’s grasshopper, except in this fable, there are no ants.
That’s why I want to start talking, and acting, on ideas and plans to transform some of our honored, yet arthritic, business models. Over the next few months, I invite you to comment on my new Veddatorial page on Facebook. I’m hoping that it’s followed not just by retailers, but by individuals at some of our manufacturers and folks at NAMM.
Fixing these complex issues is not as simple as offering a new product, and it can’t be done by storefronts alone. So, let’s talk about ways to grow our industry, increase our profitability, and recast ourselves not as a purveyor of “recreation,” but as the source for an activity that improves the mind, body and quality of life.
We have the scientific evidence — in abundance. We know people want to play — most of them, in fact. Knowing that, how can we risk blowing this? I look forward to hearing from you.