People want to and will play music whether or not a traditional outlet is available, something that is making Dan Vedda feel hopeful.

I’ve seen an uptick in our activity, despite summer surges in the pandemic. Certainly, it isn’t the back-to-school rush we’re used to, scrambling for rentals, repairs and marching supplies. It’s more a product of grim determination: marching practice without the guarantee of a football season, instrument refurbishing to be ready for whatever scraps of band and orchestra are available, and the sanity balm of music whether or not a formal program exists.

That last reason is the one that makes me hopeful, because it illustrates that people want to and will play music whether or not a traditional outlet is available. Over the last couple of weeks, we have signed up students complete with rentals and supplies because a percentage of kids — and their parents — want music activity, and they will search for it if the school doesn’t provide it. I’ve even had adult students try an additional instrument just because they have the interest and time.

Of course, non-school instruments like guitar, ukulele and piano aren’t affected by cancellations as much. While remote learning is sometimes the preferred format, there still seems to be plenty of interest in these instruments.

Sometimes, the cancellations even drive families to us, like the kids starting guitar because they were looking forward to the school’s now-postponed guitar unit. Parents are doing what they can to stave off disappointment; we’re trying to help.

If your market is more rural or urban than ours, you may have a different set of challenges, which is why I’ve been stressing the need for us to be creative. By definition, this means we have to come up with new approaches, and yes, they need to be tailored to the situation. Grasping at straws isn’t creative, it’s desperate.

Our industry has faced this much turmoil before. If you’re at all a student of MI history, you know the story of the disruption that radio and talking pictures wreaked on music products in the first third of the 20th century. (Solution: diversify to carry radios and phonographs and jumpstart the national school band program). You know we survived the Great Depression and the shutdown of instrument manufacturing during World War II. (Solution: private and group lessons, financing and hard-core repairing of even trash-picked instrument carcasses.) When rock ‘n’ roll bum-rushed the big bands, innovative dealers pivoted to carry guitars, amps and drum sets. It was unthinkable to many stores, but it was the path to success for those who understood the opportunity.

The list goes on through the second half of the century, with synthesizers, DJ equipment, software and even ukuleles. Now, post-millennium, COVID-19 is our biggest checkpoint. Creative businesses have begun to pivot again. I’ve seen virtual birthday parties hosted by a lesson academy, complete with faculty performances via Zoom. I’ve noticed small, COVID-safe ensemble classes that meet in a carefully controlled setting. You may have come up with a new twist that helps fuel your business. The key is to act, figure out what works and turn on the proverbial dime when you need to. Putting everything in stasis “until this blows over” is a template for failure, because the ripples from this will fan out through the rest of our lives. Just what do you think will happen when flu season starts? And come November, everything will hit the fan for better or worse, no matter the outcome of the elections. Don’t expect “normal” or even “new normal” to show up for the next year. This is like the volcanic eruption that sends enough dust into the atmosphere to change the climate.

So, what can we do while looking for opportunities and inspiration? There are two things I am pushing hardest on, no matter what programs I can come up with:

1. We are doing everything we can to keep our name in front of people inexpensively. Social media, particularly our own performance videos, have been highly engaged. We’re keeping all channels open to communicate with our customers. Email blasts only reach a portion of the audience. Facebook, Instagram and other social platforms each reach a portion. We still have people who need a note or a phone call to prompt them to action, and no  matter how much we do in every direction, we will miss some people. We answered the phones every day during the two months of Ohio’s shutdown, and we’ve been back open since May 14. Yet, during the first week of August, I still got a call from someone I would consider a regular, asking if we’re back open. There is NO amount of exposure that’s enough, so never let up.

2. We are constantly reworking our sales floor and studios to follow best practices for safety, always with an eye toward what makes our customers and store personnel feel comfortable. As new products or ideas surface, we are looking at and analyzing everything. Plexiglass barriers will help in some situations (our wind studios will get that treatment, but masked piano teachers and students find them an annoyance that doesn’t make them feel any safer, for example). We’re always pushing for safety, but we also let our customers know about it to reassure them that we are doing all we can to address their safety and comfort. That has paid off when teachers have announced changes or new features to their student list. Some families and students who don’t like remote lessons felt reassured enough to reactivate, for example. the good side of these networks, you can’t just market your way into them, and you can’t join and praise yourself without being outed. Really, only doing the work
gets you the gold sticker.

Addressing both these issues keeps you in the game. Listening closely to customer needs and keeping an eye out for new opportunities will allow you to survive, and hopefully, thrive.

If you’ve found a “best practice” that helps, feel free to share it on the Veddatorial Facebook page, or drop me a message there.

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