veddaOver the last few months, I’ve been talking about the fact that our real business—or, at least, our business moving forward—is selling not the products but, rather, the experience of making music, at least in terms of our mindset and approach to our customers. So, imagine my surprise when I heard “Shark Tank” billionaire Mark Cuban declare that selling “experiences”—immersive, high-quality, first-person, non-Web experiences—is trending like mad. The Delusional Me would assume he’d been reading my column, but I know we’re just tapping into the same stream of the zeitgeist. (Except he has, like, a billion dollars more than me, plus an army of consultants and staff to capitalize on this insight.)

Nonetheless, it’s a good time to be selling experience. Despite the hordes of people walking around towns staring at the devices in their hands, a large and growing segment of consumers is looking for first-person life experiences…and not simply as entertainment. The catchphrase concept of a personal “bucket list” has been embraced by more than just boomers concocting a Kerouac-inspired to-do list. Every week, I hear people in their 30s invoking the term to explain why they want to take up an instrument. But the people I talk to aren’t meekly asking for some help and a few lessons. They anticipate an ongoing relationship with music, not just dipping in their toe long enough to learn Fur Elise and check it off.

That doesn’t mean we can park them in a lesson room and collect the money in perpetuity. The trend demands high quality, interactive experiences. Although a good teacher can certainly help and inspire them, a weekly half-hour lesson is far from immersive. Their “music experience” can have the lesson room as the hub, but it must extend out in all directions: practice, socializing with others sharing their interest, playing in a group, attending live performances, trying out products, etc.—all the things an engaged music consumer likes to do. They’ll certainly find some of this themselves, but the more the store can provide, the stronger the bond between that person and the store becomes. (And the greater the likelihood they will continue to play, and to enjoy the experience long term.) That bond with the store also increases the chance of additional purchases, while decreasing the need to look elsewhere for enrichment of the experience.

This is where I fear for our industry, because we have let the skill set for this rapport atrophy over the last 20 years—if, indeed, we ever had it with anyone older than 18 who wasn’t a musician. Worse, the skills needed are not well represented in the general population, which means we need to grow and nurture a music retail talent pool at the same time.

My wife has spent her career at one of America’s largest retail chains. We often talk about the Big Retail picture, and one of her biggest gripes is the dismaying number of substandard associate hires. Incoming employees are inexperienced, of course, but that has always been an issue. More troubling is that so many are also unmotivated and lacking in interpersonal skills. Even so, employees can be trained and managed to become effective. Except…Big Retail no longer has the time, the budget or the interest to provide the training needed to turn drones into assets.

We mirror this in the music industry, but that lack is far more damaging here. I hesitate to call the person we need a salesperson, because selling is only one of the skills that is needed. We also need a person who’s passionate about sharing the music experience, empathetic toward a customer’s needs and open-minded enough to value them without prejudice. It’s a tall order for an industry rife with egos, stylistic prejudices, and age and gender issues. We can’t continue to greet our public with the baggage the industry has carried for the last few decades.

We are selling experience to a special-interest, high-maintenance clientele, hungry for that high-quality immersive experience. But where we need a combination of docent, mentor and concierge, many of the people in our stores are simply clerks…and barely effective at that. Clerks can greet a customer, (perhaps) answer a question and ring up a sale. But the big difference is that clerks respond; we need someone who engages. Clerks point out a product and walk away. We need a person who can demonstrate that the product will fulfill a customer’s needs. Clerks can sign up a student and match him or her to a schedule opening, but we need to welcome that person and get him or her excited, as well.

If you have a person with this skill set in your store, you can see the high-quality relationships created. But this person shouldn’t be the standout. Rather, he or she should be the template for everyone in the store—anyone with any customer contact, at least. The exceptional should be the rule.

Don’t confuse this skill set with that of a top salesperson…that great closer, remembers-the-dog’s-name, high-volume sales star. A lot of his or her talents and techniques will be useful, but we need a person who will put the customer experience first: not simply get them to buy but, rather, get them to play. Any good salesperson can sell a product; we must see to it that our customers get the most out of it—so much so that they think of other things they want, rather than responding to our pitch. Too often, we’ve sold a drum set that’s on the used market competing against us a year later. Too many horns gather dust; too many pianos drift out of tune; and too many guitars limp along on four strings. This is what happens when we only sell products and depend on someone else to provide the experience.

We need to begin training people, restructuring our programs and redesigning our environments. I guarantee that, if this trend has the billionaires sniffing around, we will watch them from the sidelines as they do our job, and we’ll see yet another episode where the big guys skim the money because we sat on our hands.


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