Andy Barrett analyses the market that is so often a retailer's 'bread and butter'
When the going gets tough, the tough stock sheet music – and let’s face it, things don’t get much tougher than they are at the moment. Andy Barrett digs deeply into the print market and sees that it has a lot more to offer than just good margins…
You know when the economic situation is worse than usual when the sheet music publishers say that things are tough out there – and that is exactly what they are saying. Over the past ten years, through the usual peaks and troughs that the macro and micro-economic climates throw at us, we have said on many occasions that the best way to maintain a steady turnover is to keep a close eye on accessories and sheet music – the staples of the MI business.
Of course, this remains true, but while keeping a very positive spin on things, the publishers are saying that it is taking extra effort to keep on top of targets.
“The usual metaphors are appropriate – running to stay still and so on,” admits Faber Music’s Phillip Littlemore. “I think I’m not alone among sales people to say we’ve been a bit beaten up this past 12 months, but we have to remain positive and creative to sell our way out. That said, most retailers realise that print is a profitable part of their business. You may need ten people spending £20 to equal the revenue from an instrument sale, but a lot more people are happy to spend £20 than £200 at the moment.”
Confirming that flat is the new up, Mel Bay’s Chris Statham is still very aware that this is not boom time. “While it does feel quiet in the sales office – the phones are not buzzing – we are still getting steady business from the UK and Europe,” he says. “I would safely say we are pretty much doing the same turnover and sales as last year – and last year was a ten per cent increase on the previous year.”
“Undoubtedly, the recession has hit all the MI industry not only in the UK but around the globe,” adds Hal Leonard Europe’s Mark Mumford. “But we have still seen some sectors of catalogue grow and the start of this year for Hal Leonard Europe has been really positive across the board – particularly in popular music. This is probably due to our representation of the EMI catalogue from the start of 2010.”
It is this sort of indefatigable positivism that defines the sheet music business. Whether it is because of the sheer speed of new product releases, with dozens of new titles hitting the market each month, that the publishers simply don’t have the time to dwell on any bad news, or the result of some more deeply seated gene that knows good times are just around the corner is not known. But these are companies that seem capable of thinking on their feet, keeping their ears to the ground and with a good nose for business potential.
It is the sort of contortionism that is necessary when one is involved in a business so influenced by fads and fashions. 2010 saw yet another branch grown on the more traditional instrument market through the likes of Mumford & Sons and other folk-pop ensembles. This has seen the ukulele phenomenon continue for yet another year.
“The kids want to play and sound like them,” explains Statham. “So we are lucky to have so many beginner and tuition books covering the ‘folk’ instruments, such as ukulele, mandolin, banjo and fiddle.”
“The popularity of the ukulele continues to amaze us and sales for this instrument continue to grow,” confirms Mumford (that’s Mark, not the band). “Our Ukulele Method book with CD is now one of our best-selling publications in the UK and our new series of Ukulele Playalongs is proving as popular.”
This ties in with the meteoric growth of instrument sales for the uke over the past fve years or so, but one has to ask how long this can go on.
“2010 could be said to have been the 'Year of the Ukulele', and the craze is still lingering, but for how much longer we can't be sure,” muses Alfred’s Andrew Higgins. “Certainly if the rumblings from some education departments are to be believed, namely the uke rather the recorder might become the instrument of choice for introducing children to music, then we may see sales continue over the longer term.” Which translates very directly as ‘keep stocking ukuleles (and ukulele music books)’.
Alfred has also picked up on a cool, one might say left-field, little catalogue to get involved with as it brings to market a series of books containing the music from the World of Warcraft games.
“Tying in with the gaming community seemed an obvious step from matching stage and screen folios,” says Higgins. “The music is improving all the time and there is no reason to believe that game players are not musicians too.
“We did a web promotion recently and scored huge hits. Although the percentage of purchase to hit ratio is small, the numbers begin to add up and at the same time we are promoting Alfred Publishing to a wider community.”
Moving seamlessly from computer games to new technology and another trend sees sheet music publishers getting firmly to grips with modern technology. This sector has been able to learn quite directly from the mistakes of the record industry, which has famously dragged its heels to the point it has been playing catch-up for the past 15-odd years.
“Print music is not immune from the catastrophic effect technology had on the record industry, especially with popular and movie folios,” points out Higgins.
“Fortunately, business-wise I would say we are closer to the book industry, which tends to move at a slower, albeit, inexorable, pace, but we can never be complacent. We need to be ready to embrace the latest technology, such as downloads, i-musicbooks, e-marketing and so on. This means working with online suppliers, protecting our copyrights and finding ways to assimilate it into a new model. At the same time, we mustn’t forget the value of what we already dol.”
To this end, Mel Bay is offering dealers video downloads and eBooks for their websites, as well as its New Issue programme, which means retailers can be the first to receive new titles and publications before they are officially released. Dealers taking advantage of this receive a 55 per cent discount off of these new products – and the deal is sweetly topped off with a 100 per cent return guarantee.
With its advanced voice-controlled warehouse and picking system, Faber is ahead of much of the MI trade when it comes to technology-driven service to its retail customers – and has, notably, been awarded for bringing the small to medium enterprise sector closer to this semi-automated system. As it turns out, this is the latest step in Faber Music’s supply efforts, as the company has maintained a 95-per-cent-plus, next-day delivery service in the UK for 12 years now.
Furthermore, Musikmesse has seen Faber launch a dealers’ trade website for its entire distribution and wholesale business which will speed things up even more.
“Literally seconds after submitting an online order, our warehouse staff will be picking it,” promises Littlemore. “In a future development to this site, dealers will be able to ‘bespoke’ their own marketing literature and print it off themselves for in-store promotions.”
As well as the ‘i-accessories’ in the featured products of this article, Hal Leonard has also teamed up with Boss to produce the eband guitar playalong titles that come with a USB stick.
The publisher has produced these to be compatible with the Boss JS-8 eband guitar playalong audio player that combines playback of full songs, backing tracks, or rhythm loops with Boss guitar effects and a built-in stereo speaker system. This is another innovative way for dealers to cross-sell content with hardware – and could even make sense for these to be promoted outside of the print department.
Beyond – or perhaps behind – the technology, however, good old fashioned promotions and dealer activities still hold considerable clout – evidenced by the fact that the publishers keep on taking these on. If they didn’t work, you can be sure they wouldn’t bother.
Hal Leonard, with its distribution partner, Music Sales, continues to offer a number of trade promotions, including piano teacher workshops through May and June. This is a great opportunity for a retailer to host an event in their store. There is no fee for the workshop and the publishers provide all of the marketing resources. The package also includes increased discount, right-to-return stock and an extended billing period.
As well as making sure dealers are aware of its best sellers and making them aware of their own sales history so they don't overlook books that have previously been valuable product lines for them, Alfred also has in-store promotions and workshops to bring teachers and customers into stores.
These are advertised by Alfred on the dealers behalf to end-user teachers locally and nationally through magazines and mailings. “These events take a bit of work to organise,” says Higgins, “but long-term they are hugely effective for all involved.”
Trinity Guildhall sees its dealers as a fundamental link to its teachers, parents and learners, and as an integral part of all its campaigns. At the moment, dealers are heavily involved in the Discover Trinity Guildhall Music Exams campaign, working with the educator/publisher to communicate the features and benefits of the Trinity exams and publications, and the level of support we provide through additional teaching resources.
Trinity also provides regular information sessions for retailers about examinations and publications, enabling them to answer questions from customers more fully. Coming soon will be a retail partner scheme, which will allow the retailer to benefit from Trinity’s activity and growing business.
Alfred has a Trinity College tie in with Keyed-Up, a series of books for keyboard linked to their exam syllabus and Faber, which has distributed Trinity for the past ten years, is producing a series of musical theatre books to support Trinity’s syllabus.
Hal Leonard – Media accessories (Hal Leonard)
Hal Leonard has a new range of accessories for musicians using iPads, iPhones, iTab, Kindle and other digital media, creating another opportunity for retailers to be part of the digital music and video download environment. Already shipping is the Guitar Sidekick, with the Bass Sidekick, Tab Station, Smart Station and Amp Station all coming soon.
Muse, Radiohead and others – Pop repertoire (Faber)
Faber will be publishing new editions of the back catalogue from Muse as well as new artist-approved album-matching songbooks from Elbow, Radiohead and The Strokes. The publisher is also extending its successful Authentic Playalong series of guitar, bass and drums with books for Muse and Radiohead.
David Barrett – Rock Harmonica book/CD set (Mel Bay)
The term 'rock' is used to describe a musical genre that covers over six decades of popular music. The premise for this book is: What does rock mean to harmonica players? This book is for harmonica players looking to study rock styles in greater detail. Among the exercises are controlling bends, speed licks, high-end licks, bluesy notes and textures, creating hooks, and a lot more. Concepts are presented through original tunes and staples of the rock harmonica repertoire.
Blizzard Entertainment – World of Warcraft (Alfred)
Many longstanding players have loved the music in World of Warcraft and now the opportunity to obtain the sheet music is possible, thanks to Alfred. Play the Game? Now play the Music. The powerful soundtrack to World of Warcraft comes to life with official songbooks and arrangements from the World of Warcraft universe in PVG and chord versions.
Music Theory for Young Musicians – AB Theory Syllabus (Alfred)
The Music Theory for Young Musicians series covers all aspects of the AB theory syllabus for grades 1 to 5 with a colourful and imaginative set of books. With one book per grade, assigning theory lessons for students couldn’t be easier. These are excellent theory titles, which have received five-star reviews and the publisher is excited about their arrival in the UK, as dealers are anxious to get their hands on them.
Trinity Guildhall – Performer Series (Trinity)
Trinity launched several new publications at Musikmesse, including the new Trinity Performer’s series repertoire books for woodwind. Since the show the educator/publisher has been focusing on promoting the new piano and woodwind syllabuses, which will be published in the summer. Trinity will be inviting the trade to become a key part of the promotional campaigns for this new set of exciting publications.
Chris Haigh – Exploring Jazz Violin (Schott)
Jazz is one of the biggest challenges a violinist can face, with the idea of improvisation likely to strike fear into even the best classical players. This book from the Schott Pop Styles series, de-mystifies the process, taking the player step by step through everything he or she needs to know about playing jazz. Chris Haigh’s style has been described as humorous, entertaining and addictive.
Various artists – Easy Uke Library (Faber)
Faber Music’s Easy Uke Library provides four excellent collections of songs specially arranged for beginner ukulele players. All books include melody line, full lyrics and easy to read chord diagrams. The four books are: Bare Necessities and Other Favourite Songs for Kids, Over the Rainbow and Other Classic Songs, Memory and Other Great Songs from the Biggest Musicals, and White Christmas and Other Festive Classics. At Musikmesse, Faber developed the series further with the introduction of the Easy Guitar Library and Easy Piano Library.
Michael Nyman – The Piano (Music Sales)
Six original compositions for solo piano, by Michael Nyman, from the award winning film by Jane Campion. Nyman has developed into one of the most popular, if not important, composers of film music, and his film score for the 1992 film The Piano is without doubt the most famous and familiar of his compositions. This book is still listed by Music Sales as one of its current bestsellers.
Various artists – Concert DVDs from MVD (Hal Leonard)
These DVDs feature both well known and rare performances from the likes of Bob Dylan, Oscar Peterson, Yes, and many more, this series has proved very popular in the US, being perfect for educational use as well as for pure entertainment. The publisher launched some 50 volumes at Frankfurt, offering them for the first time to UK music stores. Great to promote in-store – and prices start as low as £9.99.
Aquiles Priester – Inside my Psychobook book/CD set (Mel Bay)
Double bass drum technique has transcended the realm of heavy metal drumming and is now a mainstay in many drumkit practices. Here, Priester has compiled 100 different exercises and patterns to both strengthen the fundamentals of double bass drum playing and expand the creativity of drummers who already employ some of the techniques. The CD includes audio of each example.