“It’s been challenging in many ways! But we are working our tails off and pivoting, literally on a daily basis, to take advantage of new opportunities and create different formats of product to respond to musicians’, teachers’ and students’ needs during these challenging times,” says Hal Leonard’s Doug Lady.
It is fair to say a lot has changed in the more than five years since we last interviewed Hal Leonard senior vice president Doug Lady. We kick this interview off by discussing the last five years, then shift to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hal Leonard’s distribution deals and much more.
The Music & Sound Retailer: We last interviewed you for this same feature five years ago — September 2015 to be exact. Can you tell us about some of the things you are most proud of at Hal Leonard in these past five years since our previous interview?
Doug Lady: I can’t believe it’s been five years! There are many things we’re proud of at Hal Leonard that we have accomplished since then. We have diversified our offerings with our growth in the distribution of product beyond print, which I can touch on in a minute. But even with our core print product, we have been continuously evolving. Our product-development team has been setting trends in the print music publishing area with cool, hybrid publications featuring unique codes to access accompanying online audio tracks, teaching content and videos. We also completed the acquisition of Music Sales in 2018, the largest European print music publisher at the time, which now has enabled Hal Leonard to become an 800-employee global company. Beyond just the top-line growth, we have been able to bring in even more talented people formerly with Music Sales who are contributing to our collective expansion and creative output. Now with our seven offices throughout Europe, our Hal Leonard Australia office in Melbourne and five offices in the United States, we have built this company of talented, smart and creative people around the world, who are working hard to give people tools to participate in the beauty of music-making!
The Retailer: On a personal and company basis, how difficult has it been handling the COVID-19 pandemic?
Lady: Here we go with the understatement of the year: “It’s been challenging in many ways!” But we are working our tails off and pivoting, literally on a daily basis, to take advantage of new opportunities and create different formats of product to respond to musicians’, teachers’ and students’ needs during these challenging times. Although areas like our MI business, our digital and e-commerce areas are doing extremely well, our school music business has been naturally challenged due to the various incarnations of music programs going back to school. Although we have been impacted like almost all companies around the world, we swiftly “reforecasted” our budgets early on in the pandemic. We factored in an immediate downturn followed by gradual recovery through the year. Knocking on wood, we are happy to say that we have surpassed our re-forecast each and every month since we put the plan in place in early March. So, we are hopeful that we will get through this without being impacted too severely.
The Retailer: Hal Leonard has inked a plethora of huge distribution deals recently. Can you tell us about them and why they are important for the company? And can you discuss your partnerships for face masks and shields as well?
Lady: Happy to! We paused for a few months on kicking off new deals because, frankly, we were just trying to adjust to this new reality and figuring out what the market was going to demand. We felt, even if we signed a new distribution deal, it would be difficult to get much bandwidth with our customers to give it proper kickoff in those early months. However, most recently, we laid off the pause button and resumed some of our pending deals from the beginning of 2020 — one of which is representing an incredible, quality line of cables: the German-made Cordial line. It is one of Europe’s top cable lines but have had little presence in the U.S. until now. We’re very excited about Cordial, as it fills in a much-needed offering in our technology/gear area. We also took on the beautiful, boutique line Michael Kelly Guitars, which is actually part of Samson, one of our most important distribution partners.
As far as pandemic-protection product, we have worked with our partner Gibraltar in developing new shields to protect both school music and private music studio students and teachers. In addition, for singers, we are now representing the Singers Mask — which is designed by professional Broadway singers and seamstresses — that protects spread by singers, but does not muffle their singing. And lastly, through our new Gator distribution deal, which we kicked off earlier this year, we are representing [Gator’s] innovative wind instrument bell covers and face masks for horn players. We feel it’s important to help our future music-makers so they can safely make music together whenever possible during these times.
The Retailer: On this same note, these partnerships prove Hal Leonard is so much more than a publisher. But how do you get the word out about your diverse offerings?
Lady: You know Brian, we have been distributing products in the MI area for 11 years now, but we still run into dealers who had no idea that Hal Leonard was representing gear, recording, live sound, drums and other instruments. We have had a big presence at The NAMM Show and done countless ads and marketing, but I guess we can’t stop banging the drum! (Pardon the pun.) We pride ourselves on being a one-stop shop for MI and thankfully have an incredibly efficient distribution center in Winona, Minn., that enables us to service dealers coast to coast, and gives them the flexibility of ordering MI products right along with their print orders.
The Retailer: The Hal Leonard PROF-IT (Preferred Retailer Online Fulfillment) Program has received plenty of praise from MI retailers. Can you tell us the idea behind the program and what has made it successful?
Lady: Of course! We have had a dealer referral program for years; however, there have been challenges handing over customers in recent years, with privacy issues related to credit card transfers, and just the continuity of a seamless order transfer. So, we kicked off PROF-it right at the beginning of COVID, which was perfect timing to help support our dealers. We simply now handle an order from consumers, but we ask them to choose their favorite dealer when they check out. The dealer receives a commission on the sale, as well as the consumer’s name for further follow-up. Dealers have been extremely appreciative of this new program.
The Retailer: Speaking of diversity, can you tell us which segments of the business saw strength and which areas may have declined during the height of COVID-19?
Lady: Great question. As mentioned earlier, we have found ourselves “fast-tracking” some previous initiatives to support our customers during these trying times. One is obviously enabling teachers to pivot to more remote learning. Our “Essential Elements Band” and “String” methods are already the No. 1-selling methods worldwide, but there are many existing “Essential Elements” directors that have been teaching from it for years but didn’t realize the plethora of online content and tools that they and their students had access to for free with the purchase of physical books. As I mentioned earlier, these physical books have unique codes that give teachers and
students access to the Essential Elements Interactive website (EEi), which has become an invaluable tool during their rapid switch to learning online.
Are we seeing a different group of end users now buying our products? We have indeed. In addition to EEi, our new online subscription-based Essential Elements Music Class (EEMC) was just released a year ago August, but once COVID hit, there were thousands of new teachers who gravitated to EEMC for online learning for their classroom music programs. They were not only attracted to the lessons, but also to the 500-plus popular songs that keep the kids busy and entertained while they learn remotely. Also, our Noteflight company just added SoundCheck, which is an incredible assessment tool developed with the Match my Sound company and is also quite timely given these times of teaching/learning remotely. I should mention that most importantly, dealers can sell these EEMC and Noteflight subscriptions to their school customers.
The Retailer: You also launched Hal Leonard Digital Books. Can you tell us about this program and how feedback has been?
Lady: I’d be happy to! This was a direct result of dealer feedback. While companies such as Amazon and Apple have been selling ebooks for the last several years, dealers have asked how they could also sell these from their sites. Since the big guys have their own proprietary technology to sell ebooks, we decided to come up with our own system where music dealers could represent this digital content. We kicked off Hal Leonard Digital Books in the summer, and the feedback from dealers has been incredible. Again, this was a “fast-tracked” project that obviously was perfect timing for musicians staying at home, with dealers looking for ways to sell teaching and playing materials digitally to their customers. We currently have nearly 1,000 Digital Books titles and are adding more every day. This includes everything from songbooks to educational publications.
The Retailer: Following up on publishing, have you had to make changes to your offerings due to the pandemic? For example, the industry has sadly had to deal with the loss of Broadway shows for much of the year.
Lady: It is indeed sad that no Broadway shows or live concerts will be performed for the immediate future. However, in our voice and choral area, our school chorals are now available in our Digital Learning Voice Class that will allow choir teachers to continue to work on vocal technique with their students, even when they can’t sing together. We also are very excited to be working on Virtual Choir bundles that will give choirs everything they need to prepare virtual choir videos for their programs. Thankfully, the release of “Hamilton” on Disney + has given a whole new audience access to that incredible work of art, so we have seen a big resurgence in our Hamilton publication sales, to no surprise. Also, in the equally hard-hit school instrumental market, we are creating more publications in our “Flex Band” series, which enables schools to work with flexible instrumentation, which is valuable with smaller and modified class sizes related to the pandemic. Lastly, we are creating more solo publications that are ideal for playing and learning from home.
The Retailer: Let’s switch hats to NAMM, for which you are a board member. Of course, it is very sad there will be no NAMM Show in January, but are you excited for Believe in Music Week as a way to bring the industry together?
Lady: No doubt I am! NAMM has done an incredible job of finding the most innovative virtual event platform called SwapCard and has come up with a very well-thought-out alternative to the in-person NAMM Show. Although nothing replaces the legendary in-person gathering of NAMM, I am convinced this is the next best thing. By this time, we have now all sat through countless Zoom and virtual conference meetings. However, Believe in Music, I think, will prove to be an event like no other. There are options for companies of all sizes to present their wares, set up meetings, conduct webinars and live performances/demonstrations with artists and experts in the industry. As we know, unfortunately live concerts are on hold for now, but the benefit is that there are many artists who are available, and many are already excited about participating in the event. The silver lining is, we will be reaching many potential customers around the world who have never been able to attend in the past or may never be able to attend a NAMM Show in the future in person. However, they can partake in Believe in Music week for free. For Hal Leonard, we will have a big presence for our publishing, as well as our MI divisions, at Believe in Music week. Hope to see you all there!
The Retailer: Let’s conclude by looking ahead to what we hope is a post-COVID world. Are you optimistic about MI’s future once the coronavirus is in our rear-view mirror and why?
Lady: Brian, thanks for the opportunity to comment on this. Thankfully, our MI business has been incredibly strong during the COVID-19 crisis, with huge demand for wireless mics, interfaces, instruments and recording gear. Given that, coupled with this already being a fast-growing division for us pre-pandemic, we are optimistic for future growth. In fact, we are, as mentioned earlier, cautiously optimistic for our entire company getting past this crisis and enabling our dealers and their customers to get back to making music in person, together. In the meantime, music can be the great elixir in crises like these. Our recently stated vision is that we aim at Hal Leonard to “enrich people’s lives by making music.” And our mission is to be “the best global provider of tools and resources for learning, teaching, creating and making music.”
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