Dan Vedda recaps some lessons learned from 2020.

By the time you read this, 2020 will be long over. It’s almost certain that none of us will look back wistfully at all the good times we had this past year, because we left the good times way back in 2019. But if nothing else, there were lessons we learned this year, and those stores that are still kicking have emerged with a survival kit that will be needed for a long time to come.

That said, what did we learn? First, that even in the toughest times, people will turn to music. For our industry, this is the most positive news we could hope for. In the direst circumstances, we still sold the things people needed to start, resume or continue playing. Reports of high demand for guitars surprised no one who was paying attention. Even big-ticket home items like pianos fared better than many product categories.

All of this was driven, though, by the hobbyist or casual music maker. So the second thing we learned is that our “traditional” school and combo markets are beset with all the chaos of a kicked-over anthill. The pros have had no money for months, and relatively few have been able to create satisfactory alternate revenue streams within music. Schools have responded haphazardly, lacking guidance, resources and solid information. Some schools have made it work; others have thrown in the towel and suspended arts activity entirely. For the dealers who have made these segments their bread and butter, it’s a nightmare.

Third, we have found that a significant percentage of new and returning music consumers will not automatically seek us out for help. Whether because of the fear of contagion, an excess of shyness or force of habit, many have sought products, information and instruction online. The businesses in our industry with strong e-commerce have captured a portion of that online business, but far too much of it goes to places like Amazon, where the emphasis is on simply moving products, in some cases without regard for repeat business or the niceties of intellectual property law.

Having learned these things, what do we do about them? I have been watching the overall society’s reaction to the pandemic as the disease cases rise and fall. While there will always be those who refuse to consider COVID-19 a reality, fewer each week can say they don’t know someone who has contracted the disease, and more and more
know someone who has died or become seriously ill. Overall, more people are being cautious. I know, more than three million people flew over Thanksgiving weekend. But that was about half the 2019 total, and out of a population of over 300 million, it still shows a change in activity. Certainly, the airlines aren’t happy at the drop, and are still losing money even though the number of flyers that weekend was the highest of the pandemic year.

I have been watching at the micro-level, too, taking the proverbial pulse of my customers through whatever means they contact us. Over the last quarter, these observations have led me to keep a couple of things in mind as we look to the “post-vaccine” period, where people will start popping up like green shoots from the ashes of a forest fire (and just as slowly — there will be no “all clear” signal that will start everything up again).

First, the worst thing we can do is hunker down, in the sense of cutting hours or just dealing with incoming requests. We have to make some noise. This is a crucial time to capture people’s attention while they are still open to trying music and bored-beyond-binge-watching (and while they’re making their New Year’s resolutions). We need to launch ads, social media, email bursts, anything that gets the word out. If we fall in the forest and no one hears us, it won’t matter if we make a sound.

Consider also being hyper-present in the community via outreach. We’ve gotten good response to things like our “Music for Shut-ins” random videos, and others across the country have done a much better job with greater regularity and seen the benefits right away. We did our “Music Against Hunger” Performance Day for the Greater Cleveland Food Bank (after this issue went to press), and based on the local buzz we’ve already seen, it will both help the food bank and get our name and character out in front of a lot of people. Thanks to COVID, it was not just a live event; we streamed a telethon of sorts, combining live performances with prerecorded ones.

You may find that your best avenue to community involvement might be acting outside of the industry, helping with shelter for those in need this winter, or furnishing your logistic, web or design resources to groups in need of help. Or maybe it’s safe and distanced pop-up concerts. Only you can decide your best course of action. What we need to do, though, is take the reins and get involved rather than waiting to be asked. The needs are there; show some leadership and make some noise.

Speaking of pop-up concerts, that reminds me of the second takeaway I get from talking to people these days: OUR customers are starved for live music, and we can use that fact to our advantage.

We need all the advantages we can get right now. Of course people are tired of the pandemic restrictions, but they’re not necessarily tired of shopping online. Some are on the fence about returning to the local music store, but we will have to win them back, rather than assume they’ll revert to pre-pandemic activity patterns. That’s where the built-up desire for live music comes into play.

As restrictions loosen (likely closer to late spring according to current estimates) we should be ready with live music events. The musicians will need the support — and their income will bounce back slower than ours will — and the consumers will be aching for a fun musical experience. Again, let’s make some noise! It doesn’t matter what genre or level of performance you present. Anything that meshes with your store identity will draw the people you hope to see. But if you’re looking to reinvigorate our market, we have to explode as we launch our efforts.

On the downside, we’ll have to plan meticulously to pull these types of live events off, and timing will be hard to predict. On the upside, the joy of music is baked into our business, and our people get what we do. Dropping a live band in front of a day spa won’t create the desired effect. For us, it’s magic.

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