You hear people bandy about a particular phrase—“disruptive innovation”—a lot these days. Disruptions are everywhere: from new payment systems like Square or Apple Pay, to ride or lodging services like AirBnB, Lyft and the beleaguered Uber. At their most effective, they can transform an industry…even replace longstanding institutions. Although dwindling numbers remember it, television did this to radio. (An interesting parallel is that, despite iconic shows from Golden Age talents like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar, the vast majority of early programming was amateur, experimental and disposable. YouTube, anyone?)

Ninety years ago, talking pictures upended a big chunk of our industry, as thousands of theater orchestra musicians were suddenly out of work—just as The Great Depression hit, several years before the Big Band Era really took off.

Although such disruptive innovations are, it seems, increasingly common, I think we need to watch for disruptive culture even more. Disruptive culture can be triggered by a major news event. For example, 9/11 is possibly the most obvious one in our lifetimes. But the disruptions that sneak up on us are not the tech innovations or big news events but, rather, the cultural shifts that resonate through our society. Even when they are detected and discussed, they are subtle enough that many dismiss them as fads, anomalies or isolated issues. You need a longer timeline to see these disruptions develop.

For example, I was hearing about Wal-Mart many years ago, long before it had any presence nationwide or in my market. But my brother, then living in North Dakota, talked about Wal-Mart entering the Grand Forks region. There, close to the Canadian border, it spawned overnight growth. It seems that cheap goods, a weaker dollar and the lack of Canadian sales tax were so attractive that hotels sprang up adjacent to the new superstore to serve the legions of Canadian vacationers flocking to the area. Of course, restaurants and other services grew up around it, not unlike the colonies of sea creatures that congregate around warm volcanic vents on the barren ocean floor.

Yet, no one I talked to at that time had any idea about Wal-Mart and the disruptive effect it could have on local business. They sure had a lot to say once one opened locally a few years later, though.

The fast-food market has been disrupted dramatically. Although many people are aware that “fast casual” (Panera, Chipotle and many others) has siphoned off a chunk of the market, fewer have noted how the trend toward healthier eating is undermining what was once an integral part of American (especially teen) life. McDonald’s has shown four straight quarters of negative same-store growth and an overall 30-percent drop in profit. Wait…McDonald’s?! That’s cultural disruption. McDonald’s is in trouble not because people can download a burger to their iPhone but, instead, because they’re eating differently. That’s a trend that might not be obvious to you, or you might be part of it. It isn’t, however, driven by one event or one product.

Our industry is certainly affected by disruptive tech. The publishing portion of our industry is struggling with the move to digital. It isn’t just “will it happen” but, instead, when and how, and how to adjust to each layer: from licensing to production to distribution. After all, books are not going away overnight, if they ever truly do go away (a discussion for a column in itself). Books have a centuries-old installed base and, so far, very few of my customers have tried Kindle-style music readers. Fewer still have liked them. I’m not saying they won’t be accepted, but I AM saying we’re not “there” yet…and no publisher wants to be the Blackberry in an iOS world.

But, apart from the tech, how is disruptive culture affecting us?

I think it’s both helping and hindering us. The good news is that, like healthier eating, music making is viewed more positively than ever, and it’s on the radar screens of a dramatically larger percentage of the population. Woo-HOO! Finally, the recognition we deserve!

However, here’s the disruption and where it could hurt us: the real growth areas are adults and preschoolers, and a big chunk of our industry sucks at serving those demographics. Oh, there are great examples of very effective retailers at both ends of this consumer spectrum. But they are the innovators, not the mainstream. I still talk to too many teachers who see adult students as “off-mission”—as placeholders who are good for income but who (their words) “will never accomplish anything.” I still talk to retailers who feel like little kids are nothing but a pain.

What if these are the cultural disruptions that can transform our industry? We complain every year about school budgets, yet remain dependent on the vagaries of levies in every district. In our society, school security could wipe road reps off campus. Some school districts have already closed those doors. Digital pianos didn’t kill the acoustic piano, but lack of financing slashed it viciously. Electric guitars have fallen off, as have drum sets. Some will point to the used gear floating around, but that’s backwards: there’s used gear because the people who own it aren’t playing. We sold it once…and then we abandoned those customers, confident there would always be more.

I believe disruption—good and bad—is upon us. The question is what we, as an industry, will DO about it. In my opinion, there are opportunities to capitalize on these trends, but we need to change many of the models we’ve relied upon for a century or more. We have a history of adapting to the cards we are dealt. We survived the above-mentioned transition to talkies by creating the school music market. We found ways to make it through the WWII rationing and instrument shortages. We jumped on the opportunity that the Beatles provided. We can figure this out.

It’s not easy to jump out of our comfort zone, but it’s the way we survive. I guarantee that, if we don’t make the move, someone else will. And they’ll do it by standing on our backs and capitalizing on generations of our work.

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