The business of supplying rental instruments to school-aged children or entire school districts has long been the bread and butter of many in the MI trade. Constricting music program budgets and changing expectations (and demands) of customers used to the convenience of commerce in the digital age is changing the face of school instrument rentals – though many key factors remain constant.
This month, MMR checked in with three major players in this field to get their take on school rental business in 2014…
MMR: In what ways has school rental business changed in the past decade?
Will Simmonds: I think what continues to surprise me is how consistently unchanged the rental business is when compared to other industries. The instruments have not changed, technology such as bar coding or online rentals has not made much of a dent in the overall market, and the number of kids signing up/renting/exchanging/returning is exactly the same as a decade ago. Given the environment of non-disruption, music stores can focus on customer service and band director relations in order to gain market share or increase profitability.
David Benedetto: Changes over the past decade have included everything from the product, its pricing, and how it is delivered. The flood of inexpensive product has put downward pressure on pricing while the advances of the Internet require faster methods of delivery. Social media provides new ways of communicating with our customers that didn’t exist 10 years ago.
Matt Griffith: Certainly, the increasing number of school music programs that have been cut or reduced has been one of the biggest changes in the past decade. As a result, successful school music dealers have increased their investment in student recruitment and retention. Private and charter schools have flourished in recent years, and the rental business in these schools is following suit. There has also been a noticeable increase in string programs in many areas of the country.
MMR: How do you go about establishing and nurturing relationships with area schools and music instructors?
MG: It takes time to build strong relationships – they do not happen overnight. Music educators and their programs deserve a high level of service. All Music & Arts educational representatives aspire to be a true partner with the programs they serve. During their regularly scheduled school visits, they offer vast product knowledge, they anticipate the program’s needs, are heavily involved in all recruitment events, and are ready to react quickly for any emergencies. Often, they will bring their horn and sit in on a jazz band rehearsal or perform quick repairs on the spot just before a concert. They make the effort to know all the school administrators and front office staff. Simply put, our ed rep’s goal is to not be viewed as merely reliable or dependable, but indispensable in the eyes of the schools and music teachers they serve. As many educators often remark, “We consider our Music & Arts ed rep as a member of our staff!”
WS: When you consider that the average music store owner contacts their local band director once or twice and usually right as the school year begins, it’s not too difficult to improve upon that. We work with the band directors on a full year basis with the idea of “how can we make their lives better? Can we pick up that tuba and drop it off at the other school so they don’t have to do it? Let’s help you recruit next year’s starting band program.” We’ll write a personal note and mail it with an article we saw about music education. Do this 50 times per year and the music store owner that writes a quick email in the middle of September asking to be included in the rental process doesn’t stand a chance. And that’s the same owner that blames the band director, the school, the economy, or the weather for the reason their rental numbers keep declining.
DB: The school music market continues to be driven for the most part at the local level. Strengthening relationships with teachers and schools is done throughout the year. Finding out from the band director “how can we help” or “what can we do to make your job easier” are questions that guide us in being more effective.
MMR: What trends have you been noticing with respect to instrument rentals? What are your expectations for the coming years?
DB: With so many changes to the school day – more class periods, block scheduling, subject requirements, increased testing – music programs need to be flexible to work within this evolving structure. This means rental programs have to adjust accordingly so that they continue to meet expectations from the teachers and students.
The school music market continues to be resilient despite all the economic gyrations. Awareness on the importance and benefit of music education continues to grow and this means that music education will remain in our schools. This doesn’t mean our work is done, but it shows that we are moving in a positive direction. But after all, music education is worth it.
WS: The trend that has my attention is the disparity between instrument costs and their rental rates. Each year the handful of leading instrument manufacturers raise their prices and this compounds on itself. So a clarinet that was $170 a decade ago is now $250 or $300. But the rental rates have not moved up at the same rate. If you sit down and do the math, it’s very difficult to make money if you were to exclusively purchase new instruments from a leading manufacturer each year and rent them out at the local competing rental rate. You quickly realize that you must purchase and mix in either lower tiered instruments (lower quality) or used instruments. Something has to eventually give. Either manufacturers reach a point where they can no longer sell thru at a certain price point (for example, a student model clarinet now costs $800 with a retail price of $2,000) or rental rates must move upwards in order to maintain a business model that works.
MG: Today, consumers want more convenience and more options. Many customers can now execute their rental agreement online, and take advantage of several delivery or pick-up options. Some have looked to sources other than their local school music dealer for instrument rentals and purchases. While teachers remain committed to quality instrument rental brands for their programs, we are seeing an increase in overall brand flexibility. They are more willing to accept multiple brands from their school music dealer, knowing that those brands will be well maintained and serviced. In the coming years, I do expect more consumers to rent their instrument online. Social media will become more prominent in communicating instrument rental details. More will likely consider an online instrument purchase rather than a rental through their local school music dealer. However, I also expect that educators will look to educate more parents about the benefits of renting or purchasing through their school music dealer, as they know that is in the best interests of their program and their students.
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