Why B&O product sales and rentals are set for a resurgence.

We do not need to tell you that, thanks to COVID-19-related school shutdowns during the past year-plus and the continuing uncertainty regarding the return to in-person schooling, band and orchestra (B&O) sales and rentals have become a challenging part of your MI business. But there is certainly light at the end of the tunnel. The possibility of a more “normal” school year starting this September, the potential return of live events that music fans are clamoring for, as well as recent product innovations are all on the side of those who retail and manufacture B&O products.

With the help of the National Association of School Music Dealers, we reached out to some retailers to ask them about their B&O sales during the pandemic period. Respondent names are confidential. Here are some of the answers we received.

What are your best tips for band & orchestra rentals and sales based on your pandemic experience?

“You must be able to adapt regarding how your customers want to do business. Do what you need to get the instruments in the kids’ hands so they can learn, no matter what is going on in the world.”

“Emphasize the need for all students to participate in music. Few parents realize how important music is to their children in times of stress, and few realize what the Every Student Succeeds Act says about music in schools. Give options with easy returns, offer extras like bell covers with rentals, and be sure you use safe and sanitary practices. Use social media!”

“We really put more effort into the availability of access to our online rental program. We also did virtual/Zoom meetings. Our [band] directors struggled, and we kept encouraging them. We changed how we processed and packaged orders. The delivery system worked great, and directors loved it.”

“Make sure the online rental [process] is simplified and easy. I suggest directors move their rental meeting to the gym to ensure the meeting still happens.”

How should retailers plan for recruiting this fall?

“We are expecting most of our demos and testing/fittings to be done in store, with very little [done] at schools. We are doing this by appointment, so we can clean in between [sessions] and have adequate staff and spacing. We are expecting not to be allowed into schools, as is currently the case. We will also use social media to get kids excited about music class.”

“We are hosting ‘Spirit Nights’ for some of our schools in the store, so the students come in while the band director is there to test instruments in our COVID-compliant tryout rooms.”

“They should be creative in their marketing efforts so they can find new ways to reach the parents. The next step is to find new ways to get the instruments into the hands of the kids. Be it drive-through rental nights, delivery, shipping or in-store, we need to open every avenue to make it easy for the parents to get the needed instruments for the kids.”

“Have plenty of personal protective equipment (PPE), shields, etc. Tape instruments shut with ‘Sanitized by’ stickers to make customers comfortable. Anticipate what to do if you get a crowd: [Conduct business] out doors? Spacing? Take a number? Also promote online rentals to keep parents comfortable. Be prepared for any and all eventualities.”

“We are hosting ‘Drive Thru’ rental nights, where customers can rent online and then pick up their instruments at the school on a specific night.”

What are your ideas for preparing for the Fall 2021 semester when some school districts will have full inperson schedules while others retain a stay-at-home or hybrid approach?

“We must be able to adapt to the needs of our customers. If we need to, we will safely take the instruments to the students. It is all about adaptability.”

“Prepare for any and all eventualities. Be sure to promote private lessons, include PPE for instruments and musicians in rentals, encourage parents as to the importance of music for all children! Be positive. There is not one research study that shows anyone getting sick from playing an instrument!”

“I anticipate all our schools will be hybrid/stay at home, so we will be doing much of what we have already done this year: communicate with teachers, share information and help support their struggling programs.”

And concluded this retailer: “Full steam ahead! Why on earth would any retailer plan for diminished business? Schedule meetings. Be ready for all this quarantine stuff to go away, and plan/prepare to rent horns in full force come fall. If that’s not possible, change gears and do the best you can. Cross that bridge when/if you come to it.”

B&O Manufacturer Panel

We also asked some B&O manufacturers for their thoughts. Five panelists joined the Music & Sound Retailer to talk about the state of the B&O market: Dan Roberts, president, Manhasset Specialty Co,; Rob Hanson, director, John Packer; Tevis Laukat, president, Cannonball Musical Instruments; Keri Armendariz, marketing director, Lyon & Healy and Salvi Harps; and Brian Petterson, senior marketing manager, winds and strings, Yamaha Corp. of America.

Let’s kick it off with the tough stuff. Several MI retailers have reported a challenging environment during the COVID-19 pandemic due to uncertainty surrounding inperson schooling. How much has this affected your business? What have you done to weather the storm during the past year-plus period since the pandemic started?

Dan Roberts: “We all know that MI retailers in many states were under very strict guidelines about opening their businesses during the early months of the pandemic. At Manhasset, we recognized that filling our distributors’ orders even quicker than usual was important so that MI retailers could get the products that they needed to take care of their customers’ needs as quickly as possible. As a result, we ran up significant inventories of our best-selling music stands and stand carts. And concurrently, we ran larger inventories than we normally carry of other music stand models and related accessories so that we could fill orders faster. Our distributors have worked very closely with us during the pandemic to make sure that they had sufficient stock of Manhasset stands to fill their MI retailers’ orders. We also secured as much polycarbonate material to make as many protective shields as possible to meet the increased demand created by the COVID-19 pandemic. We did notice (and continue to see) that our export business has been steadier than domestic business. Many of the major countries that Manhasset sells into seemed to have been relatively less impacted by the pandemic, and as a result, they have been able to continue to do business on a more normal basis.”

Rob Hanson: “There is no question the last 12 months has been a challenge. The pretty much global shutdown of in-person lessons for wind instruments, combined in certain parts of the world with bans on ensemble playing or, at the very least, a huge reduction in willingness to take part in any kind of wind ensembles, has had a devastating effect. While we have done our best to engage with our customer base during these times, the most effective method has been to literally batten down the hatches and ride out this storm the best we can. The end is in sight, though, and we are looking forward to being let loose and getting back to what we all do best.”

Tevis Laukat: “MI is such a great industry to be in! We have all participated in lifting each other up during phone calls, Zoom meetings and other correspondence during this period. It’s been inspiring to me to watch the positive attitude that exists in our dealers’ approach. Music is fulfilling and uplifting, and they continued to portray this even through a challenging year. We are all ready to move on.”

Keri Armendariz: “We did have a decline in sales, but also our expenses were down due to cancelled events.”

Brian Petterson: “We believe these times call for proactive solutions. As soon as the shutdown started, we curated resources for teachers to shift to online teaching. Over the summer, we partnered with Disney Pixar to use promotion of the movie “Soul” to encourage parents to involve their children in musicmaking. More recently, we partnered with AMRO Music, the Music Achievement Council, Noteflight and educators to produce a 16-week program — the “Post-pandemic Planning Guide” — to give teachers easy-to-follow checklists, templates and success stories to enlist administration, engage this ‘lost year’ of students and recruit more. Right now, we’re giving dozens of webinars on ESSER, the federal COVID relief funds. It is billions of dollars that most music
teachers do not know they have access to, to improve their programs and address learning loss from this year. And of course, we’re using all our platforms to disseminate these resources and information as widely as possible in the dealer and educator communities.”

Many areas of the United States have now returned to in-person schooling or a hybrid system. There is an expectation September could bring a more “normal” school environment. If this is true, are you optimistic about the future for your company and B&O segment of the MI industry in a postpandemic world? Let’s first get the European outlook from Hanson, and then switch to a U.S. view.

Hanson: “In the UK and Europe, we are still a little way off [from] in-person schooling as far as wind instruments go, and there are still large elements of lockdown still in effect. Our retail store in the UK has been closed since December but could reopen. I think there is no doubt, though, of pent-up demand being unleashed, and I am hoping, with a following wind, that [during] this school season we could be seeing record demand.”

Petterson: “We remain optimistic about the future due to the resilient nature of the school music market. This community has overcome immense challenges in the past year! The educators, administrators, parents, students and dealers involved in school music are extremely passionate and resourceful individuals, and we are confident our music community can work together to drive growth in participation and student engagement. We are looking forward to assisting our dealers and educator customers with important recruitment and retention efforts this summer and beyond.”

Laukat: “We are very optimistic about the future and believe that school music will grow positively and with vibrancy before September. Families and kids are itching to move on to experience the joy and happiness of school band and orchestra. The absence of school music as we knew it before has made the heart grow fonder.”

Armendariz: “Yes, we are optimistic and have already seen more activity and inquiries.”

Roberts: “We are very happy to see children being able to return to school on an in-person basis. It was sad to see kids graduating from their respective schools without having been able to celebrate their accomplishments with their friends and families last year. We are bullish about the B&O segment in the future because we think that kids have missed the social element of school during the pandemic and the opportunity to participate in school band, as part of a team. Making music together will seem even more important to kids and parents. We think that parents will play an even more important role in encouraging their children to participate in music and the arts in the future so that their kids’ school experience is well rounded. We think there will be great interest in hearing live music again, too, when the opportunity becomes available. People are ready to go out and enjoy live entertainment! And that can help create interest in playing an instrument.”

Now let’s take a more positive outlook. What areas of your business have shown the most strength and/or growth recently and why?

Laukat: “In our business, we have unique opportunities for customers. We have many models and finishes from which to choose, as well as premium engraving options. This is always a great draw for customers.”

Armendariz: “In the first quarter of 2021, we have seen an increase in the number of student instruments being sold.”

Petterson: “Products that allow musicians to minimize the disruption to family members during a ‘play-at-home’ school and work environment have been very popular. This includes instruments like the YDS-150 Digital Saxophone and the Electric and Silent Strings series. It also includes accessory products like the Silent Brass mutes. Being able to plug headphones into your instrument to practice at any time of day or night without disturbing others in the household is a big benefit for these players and their families.”

Roberts: “The demand for Manhasset music stands has continued to be strong. Sales of music stands for home studios and for young musicians to practice with continue to increase every year. Manhasset now makes 20 colors of our music stands to give consumers an opportunity to choose the color and finish that they deem best for their home studios or practice areas. Manhasset introduced new models of protective shields in 2020, and they continue to sell well in 2020 and 2021. Music stand accessory sales have also been strong, as musicians have added LED lamps, accessory shelves and floor protectors to their music stand equipment for at-home use or for performances.”

Hanson: “UK retail web sales is really the only growth we have seen over the last 12 months. Mainly this is down to retail stores being closed extensively the last 12 months. And even when open, testing wind instruments when there is a mask mandate is pretty difficult. Web sales have been growing the last few years at the expense of traditional retail sales. One of the many legacies of COVID will probably be that the slow changeover to more web than retail sales has been accelerated by several years.”

Growing the Market

Although the B&O market struggled since the dawn of the pandemic, have you seen new B&O players enter the market like what has been seen in the guitar, keyboard and at-home recording markets? If so, how do we keep these new B&O players active and engaged in the market?

Petterson: “We were very excited to introduce the new YDS150 Digital Saxophone in the fall. This instrument is designed to help the player get a great sound from the very first time they play. It has been a great example within B&O of the ‘play-at-home’ phenomenon. The appeal of this instrument isn’t just for adult amateurs, though. The Digital Saxophone is also a great way for people who left the market to come back into it — reengaging people who were musicians earlier in life and quit because life just took them in a different direction. The next step is keeping these new or returning musicians engaged, and that’s by taking away pain points and building a community of users. On the Digital Saxophone, customers can play with a good sound from the start and easily adjust settings so they can focus on making music with friends and family.”

Roberts: “Manhasset has enjoyed strong demand for our music stands for use by guitar and keyboard players and home studio use during the pandemic. We all hope that new players will continue to practice to master their instruments or recording interests in the future. Judging from our distributors’ orders for a broad assortment of Manhasset stands and related accessories, demand has been increasing for B&O instruments in recent months. All of us in the industry need to keep up our communication links through websites and keep active with social media to keep these new players’ interest in learning to play music alive.”

Hanson: “We did have limited customers during the first lockdown that decided to fulfill their lifelong dream of playing the saxophone, etc. We would hope that has been successful, but I think it’s a little early to say. Wind instruments are a communal hobby. Until we can start playing as a community again, we won’t know for sure if those impulse purchases will be long-term investments.”

Laukat: “We have ramped up our social media, and that has engaged players. This community has encouraged each other to practice and to improve their equipment.”

One way to grow the industry is via trade shows like The NAMM Show and NASMD. Although both are expected to return as in-person shows in July, neither has been able to take place in person for quite some time. So what have your companies done to make sure their products are front and center for both retailers and end users during this time?

Hanson: “Communication, communication, communication. That’s all we have really been able to do. It has now been 14 months since I flew anywhere, and with the current travel bans across Europe, it’s looking like the summer, at least, before we can start face-to-face events again.”

Armendariz: “We have been sharing more video performances and sound samples, both on social media and one on one with customers, and have also offered online appointments.”

Laukat: “It’s our 25th Cannonball anniversary this year! We have done several special videos, including a concert, a tour of the factory, an engraving video, a flute video and a Cannonball Band virtual video, to remind people of our 25 years. We were happy that NAMM did a virtual show to support all of us in this industry and keep us together.”

Roberts: “In the last several months, Manhasset has focused on improving our product information and images so that our distributors have the most up-to-date information about Manhasset products at their fingertips. That will help keep MI retailers and consumers better informed about our new products, product improvements and other Manhasset brand-related news. In addition, we have participated in numerous video conference calls with our export distributors over the last several months to help keep them informed about Manhasset’s new products and product line details. These virtual meetings have been quite productive for us in lieu of being able to meet in person.”

Petterson: “Our biggest priority over the last year has been to maintain strong connections with the market and to understand the evolving needs of Yamaha customers. This meant investing quickly and efficiently in new and
existing digital communications and marketing efforts. Maintaining good communication with the dealer community has been critical, largely due to the uncertainty in the school music market. We believe that being a stable partner for our dealers includes constant two-way communication, adding even more flexibility to our programs and promotions, and working hard to execute marketing activities designed to drive customers to our dealers.”

Let’s conclude by looking at innovation. What products are companies releasing to help keep the B&O market strong and vibrant?

Laukat: “We are very excited about our 25th Anniversary model alto and tenor saxophone. We’ve sold out in three different manufacturing periods. It has a nickel-silver bell, bow and neck. It comes with a titanium neck and lyre screw. It’s my favorite model to play, ever!”

Roberts: “Manhasset has introduced several new colors with textured finishes: gold, hot pink, pink, purple, orange and yellow, for example. They look great, and their textured finishes are even more durable than our gloss finish colors! We have also added a new instrument hanger, the STANDMATE, which we expect will become a great seller. It holds two brass instruments such as trumpets, French horns and cornets. And Manhasset has added more protective shields to its product lineup (Clear Shield and Clear Conductor Stand), which have sold well. These products double for use as acoustic shields in B&O settings, and they help to protect against spreading germs. We added shelf systems that expand storage for our Regal Conductor Stand and for our Symphony stands. They hold cell phones, keys and other accessories that the musician or band director wants to keep nearby. Also, a Voyager portable stand is now available with a Tote Bag for convenience. Both of these popular models have been available separately, but the new combo provides a cost savings if bought in a package.”

Petterson: “The virtual Believe in Music event that was hosted by NAMM was a great opportunity for our dealers to experience and learn more about many exciting new products for Yamaha. During the event, we showcased award-winning products like the ‘Best in Show’ YDS-150 Digital Saxophone, which also won the Music & Sound Retailer’s 2020 B&O Product of the Year award. The Digital Saxophone will make playing a musical instrument more achievable than ever for amateurs and hobbyists due to its forgiving interface and features that make music-making fun and easy. We also highlighted products like the newly revamped line of Yamaha baritone saxophones and the new SS-3H concert snare drum stands, which won a ‘Gotta Stock It’ award. These products are designed for use in school music settings and allow the players using them to focus on what really matters: making music.”

Armendariz: “This past fall, Lyon & Healy Harps introduced the Drake, a light-tension 34-string lever harp. The Drake is strung with the new-to-market BioCarbon Strings, made using a blend of a recently discovered
bioplastic derived from sugarcane. The sound of these strings delivers a powerful and bright tone that provides superior acoustic projection and sustain. A new light-tension model by Lyon & Healy Harps had not been realized in 20 years, and we are proud to answer the demand from harpists for this high-quality, low-tension instrument. We are the North American distributor of Salvi Harps, who is introducing the new Delta C in carbon fiber in mid April. It is a lightweight (8.3 pounds) instrument with a 29-string range of second octave C to sixth octave C. It can be played while sitting or mobile, using a pyramidal base, stand or a strap. It was launched on our site on April 11.”

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