Ohio’s Skyline Music has only been able to do enough to cover the things that needed to be paid during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there are reasons to be optimistic in the future.

This isn’t a happy time for most of us. Whether someone is locked down at home, locked out of their business, or just trying to keep up with the alarming amount of both news and disinformation, it’s stressful.

As I write this on the eve of May, we’ve got about two weeks before we can reopen. Personally, I’m excited on one hand to be able to crank down on back-burnered projects like detailing our remodel and cleaning storage, and other areas that get neglected when things are active.

I’m working full days reinventing sections of the store, like figuring out seating options for the people who might eventually wait for students again (although waiting in the car is the logical first stage at reopening). It’s been a great time to redesign the layout (social distancing, y’all) and the signage (it acts as a “silent salesperson” and as a guide, so people touch fewer objects in a germ-wary time). If we hadn’t just painted the store, I’d be painting now, too. So we’re certainly trying to freshen everything up and emerge renewed for our customers when the lights come back on.

On the other hand, no small amount of burn time has been spent on applying for whatever assistance might be available. Unfortunately, the award criteria are focused on business payroll rather than business overhead, so small, owner-run businesses are left to scramble.

During this closure period, almost all of our market has shut down. The fact that we can do contactless repairs and ship or deliver products to our customers has not only saved a lot of school kids (who needed to complete playing tests from home), it has also saved us. Had more of our suppliers been shipping (or had product available), we would have done even better.

That’s not to say we did well. We did the absolute bare minimum to cover the things that needed to be paid. But we did it, at least for the first five weeks. We’ll see what happens next. But I’m (optimistically or desperately, depending on the day) already thinking about what the path forward will look like.

The encouraging thing is that people will not only still want to play music, but I believe they’ll come out of quarantine with a renewed or increased desire to do so. I’m hearing, even from the most fearful, a desire to do things out in the world again. (This is separate from those who are protesting shutdown orders from a “personal freedom” angle.)

People are eager to get back out into the world, but cautiously, to be sure. I already talk to people sick of screens, frustrated by online-everything, and craving the ability to move about. We’re going to be living with many of these new strictures for a long time, though; stubbornly waiting for the world to return to the old ways has been proven foolish time and again. Adaptation is key.

Personally, I’d get a kick out of going to a good old drive-in movie, but with surround-sound Bluetooth in the car. In Ohio, Swenson’s Drive-In Restaurants are doing gangbuster traffic now that the weather is better. What better social distancing is there than remaining in your car when you go out for a burger, just like your grandparents did? (I just hope the carhops re-institute roller skates.) And there are other examples of throwback ideas that would work well in a post-COVID-19 landscape.

The point is, we have to continue to think in terms of our customers’ mindset and put them at ease if we want them to return to our stores. What that means will vary with almost every market. Contactless online rentals delivered to the schools sounds perfect … unless a school says “under no circumstances will we allow student deliveries on campus” in their desire to avoid items of uncertified cleanliness (whether that includes people or instruments). Have a solution ready for these types of knee-jerk roadblocks, because if you argue the point, you’re the bad guy. Instead, listen to the customers’ concerns and do what you can to reassure them.

Affiliate links, though they only provide a pittance compared to actually stocking and selling the product, can be a boon. Perhaps you use affiliate links to capture ancillary online sales for products you don’t carry in-store. Hal Leonard has some great programs for dealers that might be worth a look, and there are others.

But that raises an issue I started to talk about before “Coronageddon.” Manufacturers: Consider the additional sales you might garner by using affiliate status with a broad array of progressive dealers rather than selling on “BezosMart.” If you’ve been on Amazon’s Marketplace … well, how’s that going these days? Remove the headaches that will only get worse as Amazon becomes the de-facto toilet paper dispenser, and tap into stores that are doing the work of growing the market.

While we’re at it, we know no two instruments sound alike. How do we educate the consumer to think of our instruments as items of unique character, rather than commodities? Taking them off commodity platforms might be a logical step. (Just a thought.) If we work to grow the market, and if we educate the consumer about the quality and individuality of our products, I think we can reclaim our audience and profit. Yes, it would require a lot of work. Sorry/not sorry, “we’ve-always-done-it-this-way” types.

As I write this, I’m about to do a Zoom/Facebook livestream for a local youth chamber orchestra. They’ve asked me to do a presentation and question-and-answer session on selecting instruments, the advantages of qualified repair, and the need for care and maintenance. It’s a great opportunity to get that message to consumers while raising the store’s profile.

But here’s the point I make that underscores the need to be involved in the community — and the benefit to manufacturers in finding community-minded stores to partner with: The youth orchestra approached me about speaking (before the stay-at-home orders, this was supposed to be a live meeting), and they did not ask any of the large local band and orchestra dealers. Why? They told me point-blank that they felt I was focused on the students and the community, not just trying to rack up sales. Perhaps that kind of service is what people will look for in the new normal.

Yes, the toll this crisis has taken — on our population, our medical community and our businesses — is horrific. But if we can hold out and work to position ourselves in alignment with peoples’ needs, I think we can do better than the economy at large. I think music will be more important, not less so. The path is twisted, but the destination remains the same. No fault if you’re just done, tired of the struggle and not interested in reinventing yourself yet again. I get it. But if you’re still in a position to flip on the lights and have the desire to do so, it can be an exciting and creative time.

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