Every now and then, we get a misdirected shipment, or the packing list from another dealer’s order is attached to mine. We make sure the stuff gets to its proper home, of course, but I am always fascinated to look at another dealer’s order, marveling at how different it is from an order I’d have placed.

It’s kind of like looking into a stranger’s refrigerator. It’s easy to believe that we eat the same stuff everyone else does…but try a fridge inventory some time. Not one of your friends who tailgates with you but, rather, someone you’ve just met. (This could be awkward—bordering on creepy—I’ll admit.) Of course, there are brand differences: Heinz or Hunt’s ketchup, for example. Then we have the “lifestyle” choices: whole milk, two percent, Silk, Lactaid, etc. Then we have the general preferences: mayo or Miracle Whip, butter or margarine, and so on. Already, you find things you’d never buy.

And, finally, the daily eats, where we really find the departures: leftover Thai, five kinds of cheese, Dutch loaf (Dutch loaf? Seriously?). One person has enough veggies to stock a respectable produce department, whereas another stores nearly a half-cow. I’ve heard so many conversations dissing someone’s choice of body fuel and/or sub-standard upkeep of the preservation environment that I can recite them before the conversation begins. And, yet, we supposedly have the same basic nutritional needs.

That’s my point about our various stores. Walk through five stores and you’ll get five different inventory blends, without even talking about quantities. We’re not alike, even within the same market. One store cranks through boxes of guitar strings each week; the next store needs a box every few weeks, but needs more clarinet reeds each month than the first store will sell in a year. “Well, of course,” you might say. “One’s a combo store and the other is school music.” But it isn’t that simple, because those “categories” are pigeonholes, just like music genre labels.

Our customers and their preferences are what serve to define us. If you’re stocking your store (or launching your products, for that matter) based solely on your preferences, then you’re doing it the hard way. Sure, you can be passionate about a product and pitch it because you believe in it…but you still must offer the products your customers want to use. Otherwise, they’ll stop being your customers. We have a local guy who’s legendary for telling people they’re fools not to buy what he recommends. It’s astonishing how many former customers he has.

I could come up with a hundred examples of books, strings, rosin and other accessories that we order for one or two customers when needed, or keep on the shelf only because a few students come in regularly for them. It’s what you do for your customers…but it also illustrates the diversity among our music makers. Call it an “Organic Long Tail,” perhaps. But I fear that we can become so aggressive in chasing trends that we forget the astonishing diversity of the music-making public, and the staying power of “old fashioned” products.

Let’s assume that we’d like to grow the market and get as many people as possible playing. I have to mention this because I still talk to dealers who would prefer to exclude newbies and anyone else who doesn’t share the dealer’s brand/style/instrument preferences.

We’ll make a second assumption: technology and fashion will change steadily and relentlessly, but people, by nature, still want to make music in some fashion. Every poll over the last few decades has shown an overwhelming interest in playing “if barriers are removed.” And, during the last few years, many barriers of price, technology and lifestyle have been removed. We’re ripe for broad adoption.

That said, I’m concerned about the obsession over The Way All Things Will Be In The Future. Folks, “The Way” will evolve; it will not park in one spot. It will not flip like the page of a calendar. Not all old ways will crumble to dust. I use new technology to my advantage, and I can—and do—geek out over cool new gear. But I still play trumpet, piano and acoustic guitar; read from a printed page; and balk when new is forced on me by companies that want to herd me along their path of least resistance and greatest profitability.

Musicians of every stripe like what they like, they’re notoriously resistant to change and, often, they have goals at odds with the mainstream. They’re also often right about what they need to achieve their goals, which is why we still have tube amps and a resurgence in analog synthesis and acoustic drums—all of which, incidentally, at one point or another, were deemed “dead.”

In the same way, our customers—pros, students and hobbyists—have varied needs, including non-musical ones. Everyone is not yet using Apple Pay, a Kindle or, believe it or not, even e-mail. We can’t even use one way to contact all customers: phone, text, e-mail, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook all have their adherents, and more options crop up regularly.

So, how do we grow the market, tap into the vast numbers of people who’d like to play, and keep abreast of changing technology and trends to make it all work? We focus on our customers and end users, of course. But, critically, we stop assuming that they fit neatly into broad demographics. If you’ve ever complained that music is getting too corporate and homogenized, then you understand the problem. Not every new tech advance is a home run. It might not even be desirable. And, yet, some long-held assumptions are worthy of retirement. “We’ve always done it this way” is a giant red flag. The ability to find the path comes from an intimate understanding of people, not algorithms. And we must assess it in our own environment.

Sound obvious? Congratulations if it seems so. But, in my experience, too many people think unexpected results are mere aberrations and dismiss them as off-track or inconsequential. When I tell people that 22 percent of our students are adults, many say, “Hmmm…that’s weird!”

I say “The Future” is weird. Find your weird and address it.

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