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Strong School Music Sector Faces New Challenges

Blue water and white beaches provided an inviting backdrop to the recent meeting of the National Association of School Music Dealers. Held April 11-14 at the Margaritaville Resort in Hollywood, Florida, the annual get-together attracted 387 school music retailers, manufacturers, distributors, and family members, including 61 first-timers. The theme for this year’s show, Changes in Lattitude, Changes in Attitude, paraphrases the platinum Jimmy Buffet album that featured his mega-hit “Margaritaville.” In addition to obliquely referencing the host resort, which is decorated with Buffet lyrics everywhere, margarita glass chandeliers, and a giant “blown out” flip-flop in the lobby, this theme also serves as a nod to the forward thinking and open-mindedness that have, over the years, become key to NASMD’s culture and prescription for success in the school band biz. “Sometimes we get in our own way,” said Meyer Music’s Joel Hoekstra. “We may need to change our attitude—refresh, reboot—to see the best way to help our stores. This year’s show presented great sessions all week long, with new ideas and fresh ways to look at our businesses. If you change your attitude, anything is possible.”

One change compared with NASMD shows of just a few years past pertains to funding for school music education. Memories of slashed budgets remain fresh, and a couple of retailers cited band programs that, despite having strong directors and robust booster organizations, probably wouldn’t survive. But these tales were isolated, and the topic of inadequate funding was virtually absent from the convention’s slate of 30+ educational sessions. Paige’s Music President Mark Goff commented, “The reality is, our business is more directly tied to ‘parent dollars’—renting and selling instruments to parents [for their kids]—than to school budgets. When entire programs are eliminated, that’s a problem, but we don’t see that happening much these days.”

In fact, the 2018 show’s vibe and its attendees’ outlook were upbeat, by and large. NAMM CEO Joe Lamond pointed to new opportunities that have emerged to benefit B&O beyond the traditional marching and concert band product categories. “Music and art in school is evolving and expanding, with things like class guitar, music technology, and mariachi programs,” he said. “High school theater programs are thriving right now, and you’ll see schools using Broadway-level sound, lights, and video. Even many middle schools are equipped with sophisticated systems. And there’s an inflationary trend in people’s expectations and perception of quality that’s sort of like what Starbucks did with coffee: It used to be that a 25-cent cup of coffee was okay; now we need a $4 cup of coffee.” Just like expectations for sound quality have been raised in houses of worship, he continued, “people expect excellent sound and lights—and increasingly video—in their fifth-grade choir’s holiday pageant and high school band performances.” Noting the shorter innovation cycle and “built-in obsolescence” in these product categories compared with most traditional band and orchestra instruments, he added, “There will be a new technology and new systems that are a lot better, and the school programs will want to upgrade again.”

But even in more traditional B&O markets, money is flowing. According to Kidder Music founder Jim Kidder, who, though retired, makes it in to the store a couple of times a week, “band boosters are strong, and marching bands are going crazy. A couple of bands in our area are using drones to video their field routines and formations!” It might be hard to justify some expenditures based on their educational value, he admitted, “but as a retailer, [the schools’] appetite for new tools and new toys is good, because they end up spending a lot of money in our store.”

Noting the growth of the school orchestra business over the last five years, Super-Sensitive Strings CEO Jim Cavanaugh said that in addition to traditional orchestral applications, ensembles playing alternative pop music and electric violins are attracting more players. NASMD offered several sessions addressing different aspects of the orchestral string market including a panel discussion that pointed out its retail profit opportunities and offered tips on student recruiting.

So was all idyllic in Margaritaville? Given the stability of the B&O market and steady if modest growth of the “pie,” talk turned to the size and number of the slices. A couple of dealers voiced what is considered to be a growing concern: the consolidation of retail, in particular the assimilation of independents by Music & Arts, the sector’s leading chain. Music & Arts recently announced the opening of several new locations and the acquisition of five music stores in the first quarter of 2018 alone. The chain now comprises more than 160 retail stores and 350 affiliate locations. One independent lamented that her single, small storefront was “getting lost in the shadow” of the chain’s growing profile.

Potential solutions to such concerns were presented in the show’s broad array of business development sessions. In 5 Strategies For Competing When You Are Small, Plum Grove Music’s Rick Thacker urged smaller independents to embrace their size and use superior flexibility and adaptability to their advantage. He recommended that they “do something remarkable” within their market such as: run a 9-12:30 summer music camp; feature students in monthly recitals or a “holiday tour” of malls, grocery stores, etc.; sponsor performance events with a local symphony; and host themed (such as Disney) concerts. With a similar prescription of highlighting the features that make their stores unique, Gayle Beacock of Beacock Music shared more than a dozen specific merchandising tips to create a distinctive, memorable store identity that energizes both customers and employees.

Several sessions promoted effective use of technology, and in particular social media, to market retailers’ products and services, and to create and strengthen bonds with their customers and key influencers: school band and orchestra directors. In one clever example, Plum Grove spotlights its repair service in photos and videos that it posts on social media, and by creating photo books for customers that chronicle their instrument’s repair. For tech-savvy retailers—or those aspiring to be—Randy Johnston of technology education specialist K2 Enterprises presented an overview of the latest apps, online tools, browser plug-ins, productivity platforms, and services designed to enhance a retail operation.

Hal Leonard’s David Jahnke and Alfred Music’s Ron Manus discussed the resilience of printed music in a digital world and touted print’s value to all industry sectors. Several retailers stressed that their major concerns about print pertain not to its format, but to their struggle to compete with giant online suppliers. “When we tell our customers we can have their special [print music] order in the store in four days,” said one, “they say, ‘No, that’s okay,’ knowing they can get it the next day through Amazon.” Manus urged retailers to emphasize the areas where they can beat Amazon, for example with in-store clinics and recitals and guiding their purchases with specific knowledge of their customers’ educational needs.

Recruit & Retain
While the improved economy is clearly benefiting B&O, declining unemployment is creating its own challenges to recruiting and retaining a strong, effective workforce. This reality was reflected in informal conversations as well as the focus of numerous show sessions. “As unemployment drops and minimum wages rise,” said Goff, “there’s pressure on us to keep our employees satisfied, which typically means we have to improve their pay and benefits. Sales and margins aren’t necessarily going up, so we have to be creative, but ultimately the marketplace decides, so we have to compensate our employees accordingly.”

Amro Music’s Nick Averwater, Paige’s Music’s Jeremy McQueary, and Bertrand Music’s Joel Bertrand tag-teamed a session on onboarding and training new hires. Topics included having newbies shadow veteran staff, developing ideal ed rep candidates for different markets, and training salespeople to “create a great customer experience.”

In another session, Johnna Meyer, vice president of human resources at cloud-based cyber security firm Fishtech Group, compared the cost and efficacy of numerous employee recruitment resources, from LinkedIn Recruiter, Indeed, Career Builder, and Monster to Workable, Craigslist, and Facebook. She also offered guidance on networking with colleges and technical and vocational schools, as well as internships and promoting from within. The session also included detailed advice on determining candidate eligibility (Form I-9 versus E-Verify), hiring, and firing.

On the employee retention side, Meyer presented a list of recommendations aimed at maintaining morale with specific tips on employee engagement, professional development, promoting from within, and conflict resolution. Stressing a “team culture” at Plum Grove Music, Thacker makes his music teachers “W2 employees” rather than contractors. He also gives store staff “meaningful work” and responsibility, equips them with needed policies, systems, and procedures, and always refers to them as “team members,” not “employees.”

A different type of retention—student retention—was another hot topic at the show. In a session sponsored by NAMM, Marcia Neel, Yamaha band and orchestral division senior director of education, highlighted the Music Achievement Council’s First Performance National Day of Celebration, or FPNDoC (pronounced “fippen-doc”). The program’s stated objectives are to: reduce the beginner dropout rate, provide short-range incentive goals, encourage communication with parents, strengthen administrative support, and celebrate the musical accomplishments of beginning students. Materials developed by the Music Achievement Council help retailers stage and promote turn-key demonstration concerts in their communities, engaging parents and school music teachers and principals in the process. Said Neel, “We think this will be a great way to engage parents right off the bat and help them to envision the long view of participating in music education.” The inaugural FPNDoC, presented at the Midwest Clinic in December 2017, and a second event held at the American String Teachers Association convention March 9 in Atlanta received rave reviews from parents, teachers, and participating students. The next First Performance National Day of Celebration is scheduled for November 15, 2018.

Every year NASMD’s convention program leavens the mountain of information presented in its many developmental sessions with a variety of recreation and entertainment opportunities. In one session aimed more at inspiration than education, Lamond shared a wide-ranging conversation with saxophonist Mark Rivera on his life in music with Billy Joel, Ringo Starr, Peter Gabriel, and other top stars. Along with their chat, Rivera brilliantly played and sang along with tracks of a number of signature hits. In another session, Simply Three, a string trio that has attracted more than 100 million YouTube views, performed and discussed how pushing the boundaries of orchestral string instruments could help expand the market. And in another, former H&R Block President and current Hallmark Cards Senior Vice President Sabrina Wiewel related how music, and in particular participation in school band, shaped her life for the better.

Activities just for fun—plus a little more bonding and networking—included: the Faulhaber/Winkler Golf Scramble; “The Great Race,” a scavenger hunt for clues around Hollywood (one team “cheated” by renting bikes!); and a poolside performance by the Sandy Feldstein Big Band, which is made up of NASMD retailer and supplier member musicians. The perennial favorite Road Rep Olympics featured three separate competitive events: Van Loading/Schlepping; an Obstacle Course requiring competing retailers to carry as many instruments as possible through the course and accurately recall the complex order the director provided; and new for 2018, Damn Auto Correct, challenging contestants to decipher band directors’ text messages corrupted by autocorrect.

Some of NASMD’s most educational moments come in the least formal settings, namely the numerous cocktail receptions hosted throughout the show. In one casual conversation, Howren Music’s Julie Howren explained how parents who sign up for a rental instrument are invited to a free “Flute Night” on Mondays, “Clarinet Night” on Tuesdays, etc. where they can learn about the instrument’s assembly, care, private lesson options, and other basics of getting started. “It gives them a personal touch that they might not get in a chain store,” she said.

Quinlan & Fabish’s George Quinlan Jr. noted, “At NAMM, because everyone is pressed for time, the conversations are two inches deep. At NASMD, the conversations are one or two feet deep, maybe with a manufacturer’s CEO or national sales manager. The Board has created so many networking opportunities especially for the newer retailers so they can meet key people at the manufacturing level, and vice versa. Some of them are up-and-coming stores that [Conn-Selmer President] John Stoner or [Yamaha B&O Division General Manager] Garth Gilman should be aware of. Ten years from now, the relationships that started tonight are going to be very important. This show is the best opportunity in the industry for the school band business.”

“Sometimes for independents, it feels a little lonely out there,” Howren added. “It’s so reassuring, confidence-building, and inspiring to get together with your peers.”
And returning to the theme of “changes in attitude” and remaining open to change, Bertrand Music Enterprises’ Jeff Bertrand concluded, “A lot of the people who attend NASMD are running successful businesses. When you’re successful, it’s easy to get stuck in a routine. But coming here, going to the sessions, and just talking to your peers at a party, you sometimes find that someone else has a much better way of doing something you thought you were already doing great. There’s so much to learn here. Any school music dealer who doesn’t attend this convention is losing out.”

The date and location of next year’s convention were yet to be confirmed at press time. Check the NASMD website for details.


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