Report From RPMDA: Adapting To A Digital World
...to grind out modest growth by remaining vigilant to the many specialized details that keep their customers satisfied. Beyond last year’s rare 1.2% sales dip, the sector has been troubled by previously unseen hills that not only test its players’ fitness but also partly obscure the path ahead. Developing strategies to meet these obstacles gives the industry an even greater incentive to meet and confer. Held May 1-4 in Columbus, Ohio, RPMDA’s 2013 convention assembled members to share best practices and war stories, learn from peers and qualified experts, and recharge their professional batteries.
More than at any previous RPMDA convention, technology’s impact on print, both promising and threatening, was top of mind in Columbus. The convention air was rife with concern that new generations of internet consumers and web-based enterprises are eroding the relevance of print and traditional print music retailers. Digital “sheet” music and especially tablature for guitar are ubiquitous, for sale and often free, on the web—much of it ignoring copyrights. Much as the availability of single-song MP3s cannibalized full-album CD sales, à la carte music titles, easily downloadable, have dulled some consumers’ incentive to buy mixed folios and songbooks. A good number of RPMDA’s instructional sessions were aimed squarely at this issue.
In the “Future View” panel discussion, Mike Watson of Remenyi Music in Toronto admitted his initial reluctance to offer print-on-demand capabilities in his store for fear that they would undermine mixed folio sales. His “eye-opener” came when a customer sought six songs that were available in two songbooks—which included “20 more songs and nice color covers”—for the same price, but she still preferred to buy them individually, in a store-printed format. iTunes and Amazon should have taught us, he said, that this technology is no longer just for last resort, emergency purchases, and that realization is affecting how his store is stocked.
Constant Contact’s Steve Robinson conducted a pair of sessions on “engagement marketing.” The first focused on best practices in email marketing to engage customers in ways that multiply a business’s connections with more consumers and instill trust and loyalty. Email campaigns should, he insisted, focus “on your customer, not your business.” Robinson’s second session addressed social media marketing, which he dubbed “word-of-mouth marketing on steroids.” Using tools like Twitter, with its 300 million users, and Facebook, with its one billion, he said, establishes a two-way conversation with customers, humanizes the retailer’s brand, and facilitates word-of-mouth communication. Content should include tips, practical advice, and perhaps questions frequently asked by customers. He advised retailers to include links to: polls and surveys; their website and event homepage; blogs (their own and others’); and product or service reviews.
While publishers such as G. Henle, Bärenreiter, and Breitkopf & Härtel are exploring the past to create ultra-authentic urtext editions of classical works, others are tapping advances in the latest technology to create more competitive products. Doug Lady, Hal Leonard Publishing’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, reports that Hal Leonard has invested heavily in digital distribution capabilities for print, all of which are executed through its dealers. It has also created a range of value-added hard goods, for example, play-along titles that along with a book feature audio that can be slowed down for easier learning, plus video and “cloud” software that can’t be illegally downloaded.
Hal Leonard’s Essential Elements Interactive series, now being beta-tested and scheduled for launch in August of this year, combines traditional school band book studies with enhanced cloud-based materials. David Jahnke, Hal Leonard’s vice president of national sales, explains that Essential Elements Interactive can accommodate far more content than any book, CD, or DVD, and its content and features can be regularly updated for end-users. “Today’s and tomorrow’s children will have smartphones and tablets,” he adds, “and they’ll expect much of their media to be accessed from the cloud.” However, standard 9"x12" books remain the preferred format for music study, particularly in schools; hence the series’ printed book component.
By logging in to the Essential Elements Interactive website, teachers can create rehearsal and activity calendars that can be automatically sent to students’ and parents’ email addresses and smart devices, as well as additional instructional content. One example is a play-along feature that allows the student to choose from up to seven different backup track styles including classical, urban, country, and metal. The idea, says Jahnke, is to create more ways to engage the student, encourage practice, and raise band retention rates. Using their smartphone, tablet, or an inexpensive USB microphone, students can record their practice session to the cloud and email it to their teacher. The system can even accommodate video uploads, which could help teachers monitor their students’ posture, hand position, playing techniques, etc. (For more information, visit www.EssentialElementsInteractive.com.)
Essential Elements Interactive may provide a template for broader applications, but it is currently designed to serve one of print’s healthier corners—the rock-steady school band market. Other challenges, related but of a more cultural nature, defy known remedies. Historically, piano study, with its classical roots, led most pianists to learn to read music and purchase a steady flow of new books and sheet music. The declining number of new piano students drags down print sales accordingly.
On the other hand, many guitarists—especially those focused on pop music styles—tend to learn by ear, by experimentation, and by observing their favorite players. This informal approach is served amply (if not always on the soundest pedagogical footing) by the abundance of free videos and tab available on the internet. A casual search for “guitar lesson” on YouTube alone accesses nearly 1.9 million results.
Hal Leonard is combating guitarists’ and guitar teachers’ inclination to bypass copyrights—and print music dealers—with a new “tab” series. Lady explains that the new tab books are built around licensed versions of classic rock and modern pop guitar hits, making it possible to accurately teach the songs and the playing techniques associated with them.
All the free guitar instruction available online has caused Carl Fisher Music to “dial back on video content,” says Chris Scialfa, senior vice president. “A lot of the illegally downloadable sheet music is pop, and it’s mostly affecting PVG [piano-vocal-guitar sheet music] and guitar tab. With our history as an educational publisher, we’ve refocused on producing very solid printed material.”
Alfred Music CEO Ron Manus says his company is offering “products that are so great, the lower-quality stuff online isn’t that appealing”—for example, iBooks with embedded audio and video with user-definable camera angles. Also, Alfred’s TotalSheetMusic resource makes it easy for consumers to buy, through its dealers, downloadable sheet music that’s affordable, legal, more accurate, and higher-quality than what’s available on unlicensed sites.
Observing some print retailers’ alarm over fast-evolving technologies, Jahnke warns, “Perception is reality. When store owners fear that the popularity of tablets will make children lose interest in [traditional print formats], I point out that kids can get all kinds of musical instruction online, but they’re still coming into stores for lessons. Retailers have to give the customer the full store experience, which includes making impulse purchases [of printed music]. If dealers don’t keep print available because they think people will just get it on the web, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Not all of RPMDA’s sessions were focused on technology. Citing the well-documented ukulele sales explosion, Middle C Music’s Myrna Sislen pointed to the instruments’ potentially big margins and the flood of new uke-tailored titles, covering artists ranging from Bach to Adele to Metallica. “Ukes are for every single demographic,” she said, adding that uke circles bring in customers of all ages, and her store’s fastest-growing class teaches uke to three-to-five-year-olds. With help from Kala-sponsored video, Sislen taught the session’s “class” to play a few simple tunes, and most of the attendees walked away with a free ukulele!
In “Surviving, No, Thriving in a Down Economy,” Musical Innovations’ Tracy Leenman offered many practical tips toward developing an “austerity mentality.” Consider changing your store’s hours of operation—for example, Saturday and summer hours—she said, as well as maintaining a smaller staff during certain times of the day. She also urged retailers to: “negotiate everything” including shared utilities charges if fellow tenants (for example in a strip mall) use resources disproportionately, as well as bank fees, phone plan rates, and freight charges on returns; check every invoice to ensure negotiated discounts and terms have been applied; dispute questionable shipping and finance charges; update price lists and product price tags to reflect suppliers’ price increases; consider not accepting high-transaction-rate credit cards; and pay bills with American Express Plum-type card to accrue valuable rebates.
Senseney Music’s Lori Supinie and Hartland Music’s Ellen McDonald led separate sessions on running effective, profitable lesson programs. Hartland’s 50-70 instructors, paid and managed as independent contractors, teach approximately 2,000 students per week. McDonald oversees even the operation’s tiniest details—from teacher background checks to training the dedicated “coffee ladies” in the in-store snack and coffee bar—but the business is structured on a real estate premise: “Buy property; have your retail store rent it from the property; and have your teachers rent their studio from your store.”
The annual “Speed Dating with the Publishers” session gave publishers a brief shot at impressing dealers and inviting them to their booths. In a wacky mish-mash, Alfred highlighted incongruous pairs of its featured songbook title artists: Alex Ordoñez, in costume as Super Mario, sang “Satisfaction” as Mick Jagger; Andrew Surmani, attired as Bruce Springsteen, and Renée Cunning, wigged as Paul McCartney, joined for “I Saw Her Standing There”; Elisa Palladino, dressed as Dorothy (with Toto, too!) from The Wizard of Oz, did a mean “Black Dog” à la Led Zepplin’s Robert Plant; and Antonio Ferranti, dressed as Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, sang Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” In Tri-Technical Systems’ presentation, Bill Steppan performed a highly technical yet deeply nerdy rap extolling the benefits of his company’s point-of-sale inventory management software. (He now goes by “The Fresh Prince of Software.”)
Among the convention’s social events, a “Tailgate Party” hosted by RPMDA charter member Stanton’s Sheet Music gave fellow members a chance to visit one of the largest print music dealers in the country. The evening concluded with a fine big band featuring some of Ohio’s best musicians.
The 1-Mile Fun Run/Walk attracted ten entrants, fostered further intra-organizational bonding, and raised more than $1,000 for the RPMDA Foundation. The fastest time was set by Jeff Curran of Jeffers Handbell Supply in Irmo, South Carolina. The top fundraiser was RMPDA Executive Director Madeleine Crouch, who single-handedly raised more than $500.
Following a “team spirit” theme, the convention’s closing night party and dinner invited members to wear jerseys of their favorite teams, and an all-member band, assembled just for the party, played fight songs. RPMDA also recognized numerous members for exceptional contributions to the organization and the print music community: Hal Leonard’s Maribeth Barrons was named the Don Eubanks Publisher Sales Representative of the Year; Becky Lightfoot of Brass Bell Music received the Sandy Feldstein Service Award; and Madeleine Crouch won the President’s Choice Award. RPMDA’s most prestigious honor, the Dorothy Award, was presented to Hal Leonard’s Bruce Bush.
Attendance at the 2013 show topped 200 including 47 new members and first-time attendees, and exhibitor participation rose 10% over last year’s show. RPMDA is reaching out to all dealers—not just the ones focused on print—to join its ranks and continue improving business for all. Next year’s convention will be held April 30 to May 3 in Dallas, Texas
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