As a consumer and a business owner, I rebel against being herded into new technology just because a company says I should use it. I have no problem with new gadgets…as long as I feel they help me do what I’d like to do. Save me time and money? Increase my productivity? I’m all in. But I have a profound distrust of larding my lifestyle or business with added “overhead” costs: from leasing a car, to subscribing to entertainment channels, to data plans, to software I buy by the month. Oh, I’ll do it when it seems reasonable (or I have no choice), but I tend to chafe under the subscription yoke.

Maybe this brands me as “too old,” but I remember when you could buy something, take care of it and use it ’til it wore out or you wanted something new. We complain about price creep on subscriptions, but, to a lot of people now, those are unquestioned “cost of living” expenses. I think a backlash is possible. Just look at the number of people “cutting the cable.” (Although trading one subscription for another might be a lateral shift, at best.)

I think our industry is one that needs a more thoughtful and even-handed approach to progress, rather than chasing it headlong. Sure…we sell cutting-edge tech. But we also sell violins, whose basic design tenets haven’t changed in 200 years. This is a category where tube amps still exist, analog synthesizers are hot again and third graders learn their first tootles on a recorder that’s fundamentally the same as ones unearthed from the 14th century. Despite repeated predictions, acoustic guitars and drums have not disappeared. World music instruments—even the most primitive ones—have global awareness and use. Then there’s that vintage thing. We are NOT only about the new, the now or the novel.

Let me clarify that I’m talking about the products we offer and the way we market them. I’m aware that technology has (for example) made entry-level guitars a mass-market item, and I wish more MI suppliers would enter the 21st century…or, at least, leave the 1980s. But that’s a subject for another article.

It’s important for us to understand that, on the product front, nothing we’ve ever made goes away forever. Oh, it might disappear for a while, live in the shadows or be supported by a splinter group of zealots. But we must never say “never” when it comes to music products. If I had told anyone a dozen years ago that the ukulele would be “a thing,” there would have been laughter. Synths? ANALOG synths? Please. Yet, here they are. I have friends who are playing Bach on instruments that were considered obsolete before America was a country. I think it’s fascinating. What an incredible wealth of product for us to (potentially) address.

So, I cringe when I see us jump on the proverbial bandwagon by offering new formats and removing others, instead of letting consumers choose. Of course we need to offer the new. But I don’t believe “the old” has to go away unless we see unmistakable abandonment of earlier models. In print, I have seen a new “decade by decade” piano series, for example, that provides downloadable playalong tracks. Cool…except the price went up several dollars as compared to the old version without backing tracks. No one asked me for this feature; when it’s explained, although some like it, most actually buy a less-expensive book without it. Will that change? Perhaps. But our industry does not have a mandate to modernize all consumers or leave them behind. We would do well to remember that.

While still offering new products and features, we shouldn’t disenfranchise long-term or less tech-savvy players. We grouse that more people should be playing, yet we subject them to our tastes and convenience, and we get frustrated when the numbers don’t jump. Sure, it’s not efficient to offer too many items in inventory, but this is a transitional time and every prediction could dead-end or veer off wildly. (Mobile payments? Hack into the American banking system spectacularly and people could be hiding money in their mattresses again.)

I think the best touchstone to determine our course is to watch consumers. Screw the white papers and economic pundits! What are OUR customers doing, using and asking for? It might be cutting edge—but, given our history, it could be retro. Most likely, it will be a blend of the old and the new. We don’t need a Kickstarter for every product to figure this out. Manufacturers: you have hundreds of potential focus groups out in the field, walking into your dealers every day. Harness swag and incentives and marshal your independent dealers to provide answers to your questions. Use the Kickstarter-esque pre-buy model through your dealers, perhaps. It will strengthen all relationships and benefit everyone. It WILL grow the industry.

Dealers: we should already be doing this without spiffs. We have a unique ecosystem of customers. If we’re not checking, we’ll miss shifts, opportunities and the warning signs of trouble. If we can partner with manufacturers to do market research, we might also be able to gain additional leverage through data sharing and influence.

Perhaps, then, we can really picture how broad and varied our industry is, and we can adjust our products and business models to take advantage of the vast opportunities I see for the music products industry. We should stop assuming that everyone has the same demographics because they’re a “combo” or “school music” store—labels that, I think, are inaccurate or outmoded in today’s market. We should also abandon the idea that everyone is using the same model for rentals, lessons or promotions. Even the most brilliant idea is a product of its environment and it won’t work across all markets—not, at least, without specific adaptations knowingly implemented in other iterations.

Let’s use technology to do our jobs better, rather than as the job itself. The best suggestion I’ve heard for successful entrepreneurship is “to find a problem and solve it.” We’ve spent the last 20 years trying to solve our own problems. It’s time we externalized that and moved forward.

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