Unless you have blinders on, it’s almost impossible to miss the stream of stories in the news media about the so-called “Death of Retail.” More correctly, it’s a narrative about the decline of brick-and-mortar retail. The stories document the parade of store closings by retailers large and small and the poor fiscal results of even the biggest companies. Usually, they conclude that online shopping and changing consumer behavior have all but nailed shut the coffin.

Although I believe the shopping experience is ripe for transformation, I don’t believe that the details of the “new order” are a foregone conclusion. Further, I think that our industry can be positioned to win and grow, provided that we play to our strengths and leverage the vast majority of humans’ wired-in desire to make music.

We know from years of studies and polls, and from our own experience, that music appeals to most people. Indeed, a Gallup poll underwritten by NAMM in 2009—“Public Attitudes Toward Music” (see NAMM’s Web site for more details)—indicated that 85 percent of those who do not play a musical instrument say they wish they had learned to play a musical instrument; seven in 10 report they would like to learn to play. So, we have our existing customers…and almost 70 percent of the rest of the population who want to be our customers.

In that light, let’s forever retire the idea that “the market is small.” It’s not because people don’t want to play; it’s because we have consistently failed as an industry to get and keep them playing. Despite strong individual efforts from retailers and manufacturers, we, within the industry, have primarily relied on others to recruit: band directors and rock stars, for example. We’ve made little effort to retain players once we’ve sold instruments.

A glimpse of the unrealized market came when Martin Guitars dropped the Backpacker guitar into the L.L.Bean mail-order catalog in the late ’90s (pre-Amazon dominance), and L.L.Bean proceeded to sell more units than all Martin dealers combined. That is the earliest example I can remember of a major brand bypassing the MI retail network to reach consumers, and it showed us the potential.

However, in the years that have followed, the conclusion often seems to be “Dealers can’t reach those consumers, but there’s money to be made, so we’ll try other outlets.” That’s instead of “Whoa! There’s a vast untapped market. Why aren’t they coming into our stores, and how can we change that?”

Now, in some defense of the manufacturers, there were, at the turn of the century, many dealers that would have never changed a thing about their stores, and that foolishly dismissed the Backpacker sales as novelties unconnected to “real” instruments. However, frankly, most of those dealers are gone 20 years later. My point is that, rather than looking upon the evidence as a growth opportunity, most manufacturers began to make arrangements to skim sales through Amazon and other non-MI channels. I wish that, instead, they had worked with their best—sometimes newest—dealers to capture customers, rather than mere sales. We’re paying the price today in the retail and wholesale camps. To recast a popular adage, we’ve opted to be given fish, rather than learning how to fish.

But, it’s not too late to attract long-term music customers and make them ours, not Amazon’s. We have one wild card in our hand that we’ve never played properly: the music experience. A growing trend across all markets is to emphasize the retail setting as experience-specific, as contrasted with product-specific. Apple has even rebranded its retail outlets as simply “Apple,” not “Apple Store,” to play to the trend.

How better to address this in MI than (once again) to cast music stores as “music centers”? In our best incarnation, we don’t just sell product. We teach. We demonstrate. We repair. We act as the nexus of music activity in our community. All those facets of our work bring people in, keep them engaged and bond them to us. I believe our job, moving forward, is to sell the experience of making music. Manufacturers and dealers should embrace that approach as partners. I haven’t talked to anyone on either side of the fence who likes the way things are in the marketplace.

So, let’s figure out a multi-level approach to education and recruitment. Forget the old models of high-profile, yet fickle, endorsers. Don’t depend on the band directors (who, in my market, sometimes turn away as many people as they recruit). We need to take charge of our destiny and include all ages and all styles. But we need to do the work and be visible. If we do, the market will look to us.

Manufacturers need to step up, too. I hope that, in this new and changing market, they try to offer some good, old-fashioned exclusives, whether it’s a limited-edition guitar, a drum set color…something that can only be purchased in a brick-and-mortar store. It doesn’t have to be big-ticket. But, they should pick the dealers based on a sense of how they’ll support it, not based on who can manage a $5,000 order. Suppliers might be surprised by how hard some small dealers will work if they know their effort won’t simply showroom for a big-box store or Amazon.

Above all, everyone, from the top to the bottom of the supply chain, needs to EDUCATE. Demo the products, sure, but also talk about maintenance, hand out samples, provide live performances, and encourage players to improve and perform. Those activities should be the biggest chunk of our workweek. I’ve said it for more than 25 years: If we get people excited and playing, they’ll buy stuff—and they’ll thank us for it. Some of you might say, “Well, I am doing that!” Congratulations, and well done. I will counter with this: “So, how can you do it BIGGER?” Because bigger is where we have to go with this. Millions of people out there need to hear the message.

This is everyone’s job, not just that of the dealer, NAMM or the manufacturer. Imagine if everyone made getting and keeping people playing Job Number One. Our potential customer base is about 80 percent of humanity. No one needs to get greedy; there’s plenty to go around, and we’d be the ones best qualified to handle it, because Job Number One takes knowledge and empathy, not just boxes of commodities.

This isn’t a competition. It’s a mission.

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