Exploring The ArtistWorks Music Campus Dealer Program


A few decades back, there were few options for learning to play an instrument other than being in the school band. Students would find a teacher in the neighborhood or at a local music store, go in regularly for lessons and practice what they learned until the next meeting. Or, they’d pick up a Mel Bay or other instructional book for their chosen instrument, trying to apply it on their own.

If you were so inclined, a “Play Guitar with the Ventures” LP might have been on your turntable. For budding jazz players, Jamie Abersold’s “Play-A-Long” series of instructional books with accompanying LP offered a means to improve your chops. And if you wanted to learn a popular song, you would play the record until you wore out the grooves learning the changes and transcribing the lyrics, or you’d try to track down the sheet music.

While music dealers continued building their lesson programs and individual instructors kept teaching, the march of technology through the ’80s and ’90s brought instructional programs on VHS and DVD for a variety of instruments, along with a library of method books with CD or video enhancement. These books became a useful source of revenue from customers who already had their instrument, had a basic facility with it and had a desire to improve their skills on their own.

With the advent of YouTube and a variety of entrepreneurial music lesson sites, it has become even easier to pick up new concepts and techniques for one’s instrument at home, with little more investment than an Internet connection. However, two key items that a video or instructional book cannot provide are feedback on a student’s progress and an experienced critique that can lead to the mastery of skills with greater musicality.

Enter ArtistWorks
Continuing the paradigm shift, ArtistWorks launched an online “music academy” in 2008 where an internationally known staff of musicians offers in-depth music lessons and video feedback to their students, all for a quarterly fee. Started by an AOL exec who finally wanted to master jazz guitar but couldn’t locate an appropriate teacher in the vicinity, the program has grown to include more than two dozen world-class players/instructors serving thousands of students internationally.

The teaching staff reads like an all-star concert bill: Howard Levy on harmonica; Tony Trischka on banjo; Mike Marshall on mandolin; John Patitucci and Nathan East on bass; Billy Cobham and Luis Conte on drums and percussion; Paul Gilbert, Martin Taylor, Andreas Oberg and Jason Vieaux on guitar in styles that range from rock to jazz to classical; and many others. A sampling of other instruments offered includes violin, flute, French horn, trumpet, clarinet, piano, dobro and double bass. A multi-level class in music theory is also available as part of a student’s enrollment.

Once a student enrolls, access to the video lessons is available at any time of the day or night, and may be viewed in any order or repeated as needed to work on a particular concept or technique. Lessons are typically given in small snippets that cover one concept, ranging between five and 10 minutes in length. Multiple video angles highlight the teacher, as well as how the techniques being discussed are accomplished. The resolution of the videos is high enough that they can be viewed full-screen, and icons at the bottom allow the viewer to loop and repeat sections of the lesson to focus on a particular area.

The lessons are sequenced in a suggested learning order, with basics, applications and variations that are more advanced. At various points, the instructor will suggest that the student tape a video showing his or her work on the concept and submit it for feedback. The student submittals, paired with the response, are available for all to view and learn from.
Music Dealer Program

At the NAMM show, ArtistWorks unveiled a program that gives music dealers like you the opportunity to sell their online music lessons to customers. The offer gives dealers the option to purchase any quantity of lesson cards (similar in format to a gift card) at a 40-percent discount from the $90 to $99 retail price. They are formatted as point-of-sale items for display at the counter, and as a potential add-on sale with a new instrument or an accessory. When redeemed, the card entitles the student to three months of full access to one ArtistWorks instructor.

To date, the dealer rollout is in its early stages. Ian Alexander, VP of Marketing for ArtistWorks, during a conversation in mid-April, commented, “We have picked up a few resellers, and are in talks with dozens of others, large and small, who expressed interest at NAMM.” He said that one concern of music dealers with active lesson programs is how it will fit into—or compete with—what’s already in place.

For music dealers, the online lessons offered by ArtistWorks are a paradigm shift. It’s easy to see them as a threat to your in-house lesson program, and perhaps even as sending your customers to another vendor. Are there ways that dealers like you can benefit from adding online lessons to the mix of services you offer?

ArtistWorks highlights some potential benefits to adding their program to a store’s product mix. If customers have an interest in learning instruments that are not taught by a dealer’s teaching staff, that dealer can sell those customers lessons on dobro, flute, classical guitar, banjo, mandolin or other “holes” in the line-up. Someone who comes in for strings, accessories or an upgraded instrument can, during the sale, be turned on to the idea of lessons. Depending on his or her skill level and other factors, he or she can be guided toward either in-house or ArtistWorks lessons as an add-on sale. Selling the online lessons is especially relevant to more mature, experienced customers, according to the company. An additional benefit for the dealer, they say, is that store staff can receive complimentary access to lessons and ArtistWorks training.

So, who among a dealer’s customers are the most likely candidates?
Beginner, Or More

Advanced Player?
Beginners usually need a lot of hand-holding, encouragement, and work on basic technique and continuity to make practicing and learning a habit and—when enough skill has been gained to make “real music”—a pleasure. A weekly face-to-face schedule with a teacher often provides the push to break through the initial physical discomforts and doubts. Especially with younger students being “given” lessons by their parents, and with music in the schools near its nadir, the teaching program at the local store makes an important contribution.

Even for the intermediate player, the real-time interaction and playing with another musician with skills that are more advanced can often bring technical and musical benefits that a one-way video lesson cannot. Yet, this level of player likely has the motivation to gain new understanding with self-directed study.

The ArtistWorks online program was developed for those self-motivated, older, more experienced players who now have the time or inclination to enhance their skills, styles and level of accomplishment. I asked Alexander if he had any statistics about their current student base and how their program would enhance, rather than compete with, a music dealer’s lesson program.
Their surveys found that 70 percent of students are between 35 and 65 years old, and half have annual income of more than $60,000. Two-thirds are employed full-time (with another 10 percent retired), yet practice their instruments between four and seven evenings a week. Half have bought an instrument within the past year, and more than half have purchased instructional books or DVDs. And, almost two-thirds of their students haven’t had in-person lessons in the past year, whereas 20 percent take private lessons in addition to the online study.

Their skill level, both from surveys and from my observation of a number of student lesson videos, is intermediate to advanced; most could hold their own during a gig. Some might take regular or occasional lessons to learn new techniques or styles, but the majority would buy their instruments and accessories and then learn on their own.

Trying It Out
As part of the experiential process, I spent some time with several of ArtistWorks’ classes, checking out the lessons, materials and student/teacher video interactions. I participated more fully in Martin Taylor’s fingerstyle jazz guitar offering. Getting on is as easy as going to the site and logging in, after which I was connected to his page and ready to begin.

Martin Taylor’s fingerstyle guitar school offers more than 100 sequenced video lessons, beginning with introductory skills and concepts, exploring technique and musicality, applying these techniques to a variety of tunes with guidance on how to approach them and building upon these tunes to create your own music and improvisations. The primary lessons are supplemented with several dozen MP3s of the example tunes, which can be downloaded, listened to and studied off-line to absorb the feel of the music. Also, as these classes are interactive, student video submittals on particular lesson topics, paired with the teacher’s video response, are available for all students to view and learn from. Taylor’s site has almost 1,300 of them available for viewing.

As part of my exploration of the class, I sent a video (using a Sony HDR-VR1 music video camera) via the “Submit A Video” link on the ArtistWorks site into Martin Taylor’s inbox. He was on a U.S. tour when I uploaded the video, so there was a delay of more than a week before an e-mail came from ArtistWorks that the reply was available on the site; he apologized for the lag. Logging in, I viewed the musical example I had sent, and then watched Martin’s response and guidance. He took care to answer my questions and comment on the playing, and offered advice on the next steps to take. I can envision, over time, a viable student/teacher rapport being built.

In my judgment, the quality of the lessons—and the attention to detail in both the explanations and the video/audio descriptions of how to understand and perform the highlighted techniques—is quite excellent. For guitar, additional cameras are aimed at the left and right hands at angles that allow movements and positioning to be seen; in the edited videos, the particular moves are shown as they are explained. These observations hold true in both Martin Taylor’s fingerstyle jazz and Jason Vieux’s classical guitar lessons, as well as in Jeannie Deva’s series of vocal lessons. Those progress from breathing and warm-ups through vocal techniques, improving range and power, and working with tunes. The lessons are of professional quality, well communicated by masters of their instruments.

Dealers Respond
ArtistWorks is a few months into the rollout, but yet, to date, few music dealers have committed to offer the program. In Alexander’s conversations with dozens of dealers, the most commonly heard concerns were that the online lessons would compete with in-house teaching (perhaps a customer purchasing these lessons would mean one fewer student for their teaching staff) and that, by sending students to the Internet, the connection between dealer and customer would be weakened; they fear other vendors that offer the next instrument or accessory might entice them away.

Dealers like you have a vested interest in providing services to your customers that will enhance the relationship, so that you’ll be the trusted source for that next musical purchase. To learn more, I spoke with a few dealers about the ArtistWorks online lessons and dealer program.

Tim McFarland started American Music in Fresno CA in 1979, so he’s lived through many changes in the industry. He has offered lessons, stocked VHS and DVD instructional programs, run a “rock school” program, worked with local schools and in other ways promoted learning in the community. McFarland has positioned his store to offer the best package of customer service and knowledge, if not always the lowest price on a particular item.

Regarding ArtistWorks lessons and his customers, McFarland said, “I considered the online lessons program and talked to some of my salesmen. I think online instruction and education in music will continue to grow. Whether services are promoted in a retail store is doubtful, but not impossible.” He added, “We want to sign up customers to take lessons in our store, rather than somewhere else. Our efforts are to point them to us, whether to our online presence or to the physical store.”

Commenting on the value of the program and comparing it to most of the other music-instruction sources on the Internet, McFarland stated, “ArtistWorks brings personalization to the learner. That is more powerful and useful—something that folks are willing to pay for, obviously, given their success.” Even though he doesn’t consider remote and online learning a full substitute for one-on-one lessons, he added, “The logistics make it desirable to many.”

Foggy Mountain Music of Grass Valley CA recently celebrated its 40th anniversary in musical instrument retail. The modest full-line store, founded by Mary Ellen Sorci, carries acoustic and electric guitars, other stringed instruments, drums, sound reinforcement, recording equipment, accessories and more, as well as providing equipment rentals, repair services and a lesson program. After her first reaction that her music teachers might not like it, she took a look at the ArtistWorks site and said, “It looks absolutely fabulous!”

Describing her own teaching staff, she said, “We have guitar teachers here that people just love because they’re so personable, and they really work with each individual.” Noting that, for less than $100, ArtistWorks provides unlimited access to one teacher’s lessons and feedback for three months, she said, for some of her customers who are more advanced, “that’s much more affordable than a teacher.” She added, “If you can’t beat them, you’re going to end up joining them.”

Sorci surmised that the ArtistWorks teachers were only modestly compensated relative to their musical reputations, concluding, “It’s awesome to think that these accomplished artists would take their personal time to address everyone’s individual playing examples and questions to give them that knowledge. It would be very inspirational for more advanced adult students to access their interest in particular music genres.”

I then spoke with Mark Taylor, Owner of Portland Music (Portland OR), who had not yet learned of the ArtistWorks offer for music dealers. The store has a strong commitment to its music lesson program, with lesson studios in several locations around the city and an experienced teaching staff of more than a dozen across a variety of instruments. He acknowledged that the model of online learning would ultimately work (just think of all the university courses with online components), although he said he wouldn’t want to send his customers to another Web site. He added that, if these lessons could be embedded into his own Web site, he could see more value. He also mentioned that instructional DVDs used to be in demand, but, with surging competition from YouTube and other Internet instruction, they require heavy discounting to sell.

Another large dealer who asked to remain unnamed is in the process of checking out the ArtistWorks program. In his initial exploration of the online classes, the gentleman was impressed by the quality of the lessons and the presentation of the site, and his more skeptical first reaction softened. He has not yet decided whether he will offer the ArtistWorks program to his customers—or whether it would enhance or detract from his extensive music lesson program—but he acknowledged the value of what they are offering.

Many dealers like you are obviously concerned about selling a product that might steer a customer away from you and to another entity, even if there’s some profit at least in the initial purchase. Some people I spoke with had suggestions about ways to align the ArtistWorks online music lessons more closely with the needs of the store selling them.

Tim McFarland suggested having some of the artists—especially while they are on tour—go into supporting dealers and hold a meet-and-greet or a short workshop; it could promote both the ArtistWorks program and the dealer as a place to purchase the lessons. He also advocated some means of “registering” the customer with ArtistWorks so that the dealer gets credit for later sales; he said that some other manufacturers have similar programs.

Appropriately sized POP displays for the counter, instrument manufacturer co-sponsorship for their endorsee teachers and incentives for the ArtistWorks student to renew his or her lessons via the dealer are other possibilities that were suggested, as was having the classes appear to come via the dealer’s Web site. Another dealer suggested that some lesson cards initially be advanced on consignment to test the waters, and paid for as they’re sold to customers.

In The End
Online education for music, as for many other disciplines, will continue to grow and be more and more interactive. While traveling out of the country, I’ve even witnessed Skype music lessons for a class of teenage students in a rural area, with the teacher conducting them in real time from thousands of miles away.

Remote teaching is a given, and music dealers like you will seek ways to add an online component to your mix of products and services. Some might assemble the time and resources to develop their own competitive programs, or they’ll partner with specialists to “brand” externally created content on their own Web sites. Others will offer ArtistWorks lessons to their customers or embrace a competitor that provides them some assurance that they will continue to benefit financially from the relationship.

I don’t expect in-person lessons to diminish, especially for beginning and some intermediate students who benefit from the regularity and oversight a personal teacher provides, or for those advanced students polishing their skills with a master. In-store lessons will continue to be a resource for music students and the dealers that teach them, with strong supplementation from the variety and reach of the Internet.

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